The household condiment being used to save the Great Barrier Reef.

The household condiment being used to save the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef. The only living organism that can be seen from space, and my favourite place on this blue planet of ours. Sadly, just like the rest of the ocean, the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by the pressures of issues such as climate change and marine debris. Unlike the rest of the ocean though, there is one issue more pertinent here than on any other reef, in the form of a nasty looking starfish that is responsible for 42% of the Great Barrier Reefs coral loss. Fortunately though, scientists have recently discovered the food item you probably have in your kitchen cupboard that can stop it.

During 2011, I was part of a program run by the Queensland Government that was designed to eradicate crown-of-thorns from the outer Great Barrier Reef. When I explained to people I was killing starfish for a living, the look I received in response was like I’d just told them I personally killed Bambi’s mother. These starfish are about as far as you can get from the cute and colourful sea stars you see diving on coral reefs. Besides cyclones, crown-of-thorn starfish are one of the leading causes of coral loss in the Great Barrier Reef.   About the same size as a dinner plate, crown-of-thorns feed on a diet of coral and look pretty much exactly like their name suggests. Their spikes can deliver a painful sting (just ask my old man) and if you reach two or three strikes then you’re out. The poison inside a crown-of-thorns builds up in our bodies if we get stung, and if you end up getting spiked more than twice your body can go in to anaphylactic shock.

These starfish aren’t actually pests. In fact,  they are an integral part of a healthy functioning reef ecosystem. They eat faster-growing coral, such as staghorn and plate corals, keeping it in check so slower growing corals have a chance to catch up. It’s when populations of crown-of-thorns (COTS) rise too high and too quickly that they present a big problem.

The Great Barrier Reef has faced outbreaks of COTS since the 1960s. Scientists are still trying to pin-point the reason why, but it’s thought to be linked to agricultural run-off resulting in more phytoplankton in the water (the diet of COTS larvae) and a decline in population of the few predators this starfish has. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, crown-of-thorns starfish populations are under control if you only see a lone starfish on a 20 minute swim, or about 15 per hectare. On a single COTS eradication dive I undertook whilst I was working on a dive live aboard in the Great Barrier Reef, I killed a total of 45. On another trip organised specifically to cull crown-of-thorns in Bait Reef, one of the most pristine and untouched sections of the Great Barrier Reef, we killed 269. So, a few more than one on a 20 minute dive.

The thing about COTS though, is that they are hardy little predators. Until recently, divers thought they were lending the reef a hand by spotting one on a dive, whipping out their dive knife and cutting off each of their 20 arms so they could never feast on the reef’s precious coral again. How very misconceived they were.

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Culling the invasive crown of thorns starfish in the Great Barrier Reef.

Starfish possess the ability to regrown their limbs. Like something out of a sci-fi movie, every one of their amputated limbs can grow into a whole new separate starfish. Until recently,  crown-of-thorns could be culled using multiple shots of sodium bisulphate solution or a single shot of bile salts. These methods worked, and didn’t harm any of the surrounding marine life. However, the latter method comes with a hefty price tag attached, and for an organisation to purchase half a kilo of the salts alone will set them back around one hundred and twenty dollars.

Researchers from the James Cook University have recently discovered a solution that will cost quite a bit less than this, is safe for all the other creatures that call the ocean home and readily available. Within 48 hours of a lab based crown-of-thorn starfish being injected with a 20ml dose of vinegar it was dead. Yep, the exact same vinegar you have with your hot chips. Lead scientist of the project,Lisa Boström-Einarsson, said that within 24 hours of administering the vinegar all that was left of the spiky echinoderm was a smear of slime. The researchers will soon be testing their new method out in the ocean.

Last year 2 full-time COTS control crews managed to cull 350 000 starfish. This sounds like a pretty big figure, but there are approximately 12 million crown-of-thorns starfish currently on the Great Barrier Reef, and females can lay up to 65 million eggs over a single spawning season. This research could potentially be the saviour of one of the world’s most iconic underwater landmarks. The cheap, easy access and safe nature of vinegar means potentially anyone can be a reef hero. Who knows, maybe by the time you head to Australia for a dive live aboard adventure you’ll be able to cull these pests yourself!

How the choices on your dinner plate affect the health of the ocean.

How the choices on your dinner plate affect the health of the ocean.

It can be overwhelming to hear about the sheer magnitude of the threats that our oceans are facing. Overfishing, climate change and pollution are all huge problems that individually could cause irreversible damage to ocean ecosystems, and together could mean a total chaotic change in oceans worldwide. When you read facts stating that over 100 000 animals die every year after ingesting plastic, or that 90 percent of large pelagic species have disappeared from the ocean thanks to overfishing, it can be easy to sigh resignedly and think “I’m just one person, what can I do?” One person can make a difference, and it’s easier than you think. Small behavioural changes can have a huge amount of positive impact, especially when it comes to preserving ocean life. We’ve listed some easy things you can do at breakfast, lunch and dinner to benefit the ocean.

Fish are being removed from the oceans faster than stocks can replenish. The sea was once thought of as a never-ending source of food but research has shown that this is not the case. According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society over 85% of the world’s fisheries are now over-fished or fished to full capacity. Seafood provides over one billion people with protein, but there are methods of catching fish that are more sustainable than others, and as consumers there are choices we can make to support the fisheries doing the right thing.

It can be hard to know where your fish has come from, and how it has been caught. Thankfully a few marine organisations have done all the hard work for you, and have come up with some simple ways to ensure you’re only dining on sustainable seafood.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the biggest sustainable seafood eco-certification program in the world. They have a completely transparent process, which means when a product or fishery is certified it’s actually doing what it says it is, no fishy business (I went there, I used a fish pun).

MSC tick all the boxes that a marine not-for-profit should. They raise awareness for these issues, and they create change based on scientific evidence.  Rather than ruling out consumption of entire species, MSC focuses on an individual fisheries practices. Fisheries must have sustainable fish stocks, and manage their environmental impacts effectively.  As long as a fishery isn’t practicing destructive fishing methods (such as dynamite fishing) or shark finning, they are eligible to apply.

Marine Stewardship Council does not actually certify the fisheries but sets the high standards that need to be met in order to receive certification, and then third parties step in to assess. The enormous amount of work and individual steps that are all part of  a fishery gaining certification results in a tiny little blue eco-label being slapped on a product, so all you have to do when you head to the supermarket is look for this label to know you’re choosing sustainable seafood. The certification program is global, and their products are available in retail outlets throughout the world. Find your next sustainable seafood meal by clicking here.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has created a comprehensive guide that lists seafood in three different categories, ‘Best Choices’, ‘Good Alternatives and ones you should ‘Avoid’. It can be confusing, as some listed in the ‘Avoid’ section may be species that MSC certified fisheries offer, however this does not mean MSC’s program is any less credible. For a fishery to receive MSC certification, they must have met the very high standards set and prove they are maintaining healthy fish stocks. While marine organisations may use different methods of providing sustainable seafood information, these methods are just different ways of reaching the same goal. A goal of maintaining a healthy ocean, full of life.

Climate change is a very real threat, and we are seeing effects of it in oceans globally. Greenhouse gases are trapping more and more energy from the sun, and this is contributing to rising sea levels and temperatures in the ocean. Our oceans are becoming more acidic due to an increase in levels of dissolved carbon. You can help reduce the affects of a changing climate from your dining room. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than transport. So, what better excuse to have sustainable seafood for dinner tonight rather than a steak. One day a week, go meat free. When you make small changes, like ditching meat one day a week, you’re reducing your carbon footprint and in turn caring for the future of a divers favourite place – the ocean.

In 1950, we were  producing 1.7 million tonnes of plastic annually. Today, that figure has increased to a whopping 300 million tonnes of plastic. And none of it ever. Breaks. Down. Instead, it ends up in the bellies of seabirds and then on your Facebook feed, after a marine organisation you follow uploads a graphic photo of a dead bird that ingested plastic pieces. A huge portion of plastic ends up in the sea, and is responsible for the deaths of thousands of animals worldwide.

The biggest thing you can do to help reduce the amount of plastic making its way into the ocean, is to prevent it yourself and stop using the stuff. Single-use plastic is by far the worst of all the plastic kinds. It’s used once, tossed away ready to wreck havoc on the ocean ecosystem for the next few hundred years. Buy a re-usable coffee cup and take it to your local cafe rather than using a take-away cup, some coffee shops even offer discounts to people who are making more eco-friendly choices. Ditch straws completely and ask for no straw at the bar, or bring your own glass straw to whip out at Friday night drinks.

Small changes, big impacts. When you learn about the issues affecting the ocean, don’t feel overwhelmed. Feel empowered. As cliche as it sounds, you can create the change you want to see simply by taking a few small steps, starting with what you choose to snack on.

Do you have any great tips for helping to care for the sea? Leave them in the comments below.

Why shark nets are the most indiscriminate killer of endangered marine life.

Why shark nets are the most indiscriminate killer of endangered marine life.

The first day of spring. Birds are tweeting, blossoms are blooming and it’s getting easier and easier to jump out of your cosy bed when your alarm rudely interrupts your dreams. But for marine life, there is a dark side to this season. In Australia, the first day of Spring marks the day that shark nets are placed back in coastal waters. Spring is the season normally associated with new life. For sharks, turtles, whales, sea lions and the myriad of creatures that are regularly entangled in these nets it can mean the exact opposite.

‘Shark nets’ are part of the Shark Meshing Program, an initiative first implemented in the early 1930s to make Australian oceans safer for beach-goers, but these nets are an ineffective and outdated method of protecting surfers and swimmers from possible shark attacks. We’ve listed the top reasons why below.

A hammerhead shark entangled in a shark net
A hammerhead shark entangled in a shark net

Nets don’t form a barrier from one end of a beach to the other.

How do you think shark nets work? In a recent survey done by the SEA LIFE Trust, the majority of respondents thought that a shark net formed a complete barrier from headland to headland. This is definitely not the case! Shark nets are only 150 metres long and are similar to the nets you’d find on a tennis court.  Iconic Bondi beach in Sydney is 1000 metres long– its shark net therefore covers a tiny 11% of its width.

Shark can swim above, over and around the nets

Shark nets are placed in water that is between ten and twelve metres deep. The shark net itself is only six metres high, allowing sharks and other marine animals to swim both over and underneath. In fact, most sharks and other marine animals are caught in nets when they are headed back OUT towards the open ocean!

We need sharks in our oceans

If you’re a diver, chances are you might already have a soft spot for sharks and know how important they are. Sharks are an apex predator, and removing such an important element of the food chain would be irretrievably detrimental to the oceanic ecosystem, with the potential to result in its total collapse. Humans are responsible for the death of one hundred million sharks globally every year. Sharks are responsible for five deaths annually – worldwide. Ninety percent of shark populations around the globe have been completely killed off. For a healthy ocean, an ocean rich in biodiversity, sharks are essential.

There is no conclusive evidence that proves shark nets actually work

People are afraid of the unknown, and the ocean and everything that calls it home continues to be a big unknown. More is known about space than the deepest depths of the ocean. What we do know however is that there is absolutely zero conclusive evidence that proves the shark nets are beneficial to swimmers. Sixty eight percent of shark attacks since 1930 have occurred on beaches with shark nets in place. In 2009, the Australian Department of Primary Industries stated that “the rate of shark attack has remained the same both before and after meshing commenced”. So, why do we keep doing it?

There is no way to ensure nets are only catching sharks.

For every one potentially dangerous species of shark caught in the nets, the number of non-target species such as sea turtles, dolphins, seals and rays is approximately twenty! Humpback whales migrate in Australian waters from September to November, and come close to shore to rest and protect their calves. The shark nets are in place during this time, and whales often become entangled in them.

There are other methods of protecting beaches, that don’t harm marine life

As technology advances, so too does the way we can protect people from potential shark attacks. Initiatives such as helicopter patrols, tagging and tracking sharks, and even shark-deterring wetsuits are being trialled to replace shark nets.The eco shark barrier is a solid barrier that marine life can’t get entangled in. Shark Spotters keep a watchful eye over surfers and swimmers, using flags and alarms to alert people of sharks in the area. At the end of the day, sharks call the ocean home and every time we enter the water we accept the risk that goes along with it.

For most people the word ‘shark’ instantly sends a shiver down their spine, and conjures up images of  bus-sized monstrous creatures with mouths full of razor sharp teeth, just waiting to gobble up an innocent beach goer. The role media has played in demonising one of the oceans most important animals has been pivotal to how people perceive sharks.

Until I started working as a scuba dive instructor a few years ago, I too shared this view on sharks. Now I virtually spend more time under the water than above it, and I know first hand that sharks are most definitely not the mindless killing machines that most people believe them to be. Sharks do not attack for the fun of it, and you are much more likely to be injured by a coconut or drink vending machine, even using a toaster is statistically more dangerous.

Diving with sharks is an incredible experience, and they are not an animal to be feared, but to be respected and protected. There are some amazing places to jump in the water with sharks.  Some of the best places to dive with these animals include Fiji or the Bahamas, where you can spot whale sharks, tiger sharks and reef sharks. The waters surrounding Costa Rica are renowned for seeing schools of hammerheads.

What do you think of shark culling and shark nets? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.

The innovative technology that’s saving sea turtles.

The innovative technology that’s saving sea turtles.

Drones are the craze that’s sweeping the photography world, and now they are not only being used to capture stills of wildlife, but to protect it.

Controversially used by the military and  increasingly so by professional photographers snapping awe-inspiring aerial footage of landscapes from above, they are now being deployed as an innovative method of conserving wildfire.

If you haven’t seen the kind of footage a well-piloted drone camera is capable of producing, check out this clip from underwater photographer and dive instructor, Tristan Gale. Tristan spent three and a half years diving on the Great Barrier Reef and during that time captured some incredible footage of the reef from a birds eye view.

Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich, founders of ConservationDrones.org, originally started making drones to use to photograph Orangutangs while studying them in the dense rain forests of Sumatra.  Since then they have been used as an easy and relatively inexpensive way of tracking poachers in Africa, and researching whale movements from the sky. Not for profit marine organisation Sea Shepherd has even used them to monitor whaling vessels from afar.  Drones are well suited to aiding biologists and conservation groups as they can cover more ground than rangers on foot, simultaneously recording data and taking high quality images. As the technology behind this equipment continues to improve and the cost continues to go down, drones will become more regularly and widely used by environmental groups.

Scuba diving in Mexico is high up on any scuba divers bucket list, and has crystal clear water and is home to an abundance of marine life. Off the coast of Mexico drones will be deployed in the hopes of protecting nesting sea turtles and their eggs. Olive Ridley sea turtles return year after year to the beaches of Oaxaca to nest, and whilst the sale of meat and turtle products has been banned for the past twenty years, this illegal activity still goes on.

According to the the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection, poachers who ransack around 20 nests will come back with a haul of 2, 000 or so eggs, and these have hefty price tags attached, going for between $600 and $1000 pesos (up to $60 US per nest) on the black market.

Of every 1000 eggs that are laid by these critically endangered turtles, only one will actually make it to the open ocean and reach adulthood. The drones will be utilised to ensure illegal poaching of this sea turtle population doesn’t continue, and that this species can continue to survive.

The oceans’ most unexpected deadly killer.

The oceans’ most unexpected deadly killer.

Our beloved underwater wonderlands are home to a host of unexpected killers. You’re probably wondering if I’m referring to the notoriously misunderstood Great White Shark. Nope.

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Or possibly the pesky Box jellyfish? Guess again.

boxjellyfish

What about the master of disguise, the Stone Fish? Nice try.

stonefish

These killers are far more damaging than any of these ocean inhabitants could ever be. They are silent, unexpected and congregating by the thousands, and it’s something we make use of almost every day.

Most commonly used for slurping up milkshakes and juices or to suck up a margarita on a Friday night, plastic straws are ending up in our oceans and are having devastating effects on precious marine life.

So why are these household items so bad for the ocean?

For one, straws are usually made from plastic. Plastic never breaks down. As time goes by plastic will separate into smaller and smaller pieces, but never completely biodegrades. These pieces can get so tiny that they are then ingested by marine life. Bigger marine life comes along and gobbles up the prey that has just swallowed a chunk of plastic, and so it makes its way up the food chain. When it comes to plastic, there is no such thing as throwing it ‘away’ and it’s estimated that there are over 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean every year.

We use plastic straws a lot. In the USA alone, 500 million straws are used every single day. That’s enough to wrap the entire circumference of the Earth a whopping two and half times! So imagine if we multiplied that for every country in the world. It’s a lot of straws. On top of that, straws are a product we use and dispose of pretty quickly. On average, the time we spend sipping on a drink through a straw is a mere 20 minutes, which is an incredibly quick life cycle for an item that is never going to disappear off the planet.

Along with never biodegrading and filling oceans globally, plastic straws are having direct detrimental effects on endangered wildlife. Recently in Costa Rica, a team of scientists researching sea turtle mating habits discovered a male Olive Ridley sea turtle with a 10 cm long plastic straw wedged up its nostril.

At first the group thought the turtle had a parasitic worm blocking its airway, but then realized it was in fact a plastic straw. Hours away from veterinary help, the skilled scientists removed it themselves and successfully released the turtle back into the ocean. They filmed the whole ten minute long ordeal, and uploaded it on Youtube, where it went viral, reaching more than 5 million views and showing the world first hand exactly what the simple straw can do to fragile ecosystems and wildlife. Whilst incredibly graphic, the video served to act as a reminder of the impact simple plastic items can have on the sea. You can see the full video here, but be warned that it’s not pretty.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. By making a few small changes in everyday life, you can help reduce the amount of plastic straws that are ending up in the ocean. If you’re not too fazed about having a straw in your smoothie simply ask your barista or waiter to hold the straw. Easy peasy! If you’re a sucker for straws don’t despair, there are waste-free ways to sip on your beverages. There are plenty of re-usable straw options and many retailers today sell glass, stainless steel and bamboo straws.

A diver holds the stash of over 100 plastic straws found underwater
A diver holds the stash of over 100 plastic straws found underwater

Ultimately all roads, rivers and hills lead to the sea, so when you see a straw on the ground grab it and chuck it in the bin. A few days after the clip of the sea turtle went viral one scuba diver on the other side of the world, in the coastal city of Manly, Australia did an underwater dive clean up in the local area and found 319 straws on a 20-minute dive. 24 hours later she did another and found 294 in the exact same place! Small actions have big impact when it comes to protecting our underwater playground, and it’s easy for everyone to play their part.

The unfortunate turtle with a straw in its nose was found off Costa Rica. Costa Rica is home to one of the most diverse and spectacular arrays of marine life, and is an absolutely incredible destination to visit. Click the link to find out more about diving with turtles, dolphins and schools of manta rays in Costa Rica.