Climate Spotlight: Vaquita

Feature photo from:  https://wildfor.life/mexico-in-last-ditch-effort-to-save-the-vaquita-porpoise

The world’s smallest and rarest porpoise, the vaquita, is now the most critically endangered marine mammal on the planet. Weighing up to 120 pounds (55 kg), the vaquita is only found in the shallow murky waters of the northern Gulf of California. This grey-colored porpoise grows to approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length, with distinguishing  dark grey coloration around its eyes, lips, and on its fins. Vaquitas reach sexual maturity at 3 to 6 years of age and can live for more than 21 years. The vaquita’s diet consists of crustaceans, squid, octopi, and small fish, all of which may be affected by climate change. Overall, the greatest threat to vaquitas in the wild currently is accidental entanglement in gillnets meant for shark, ray, and skate fishing. As of July, 2017, the Mexican Federal Government enforced a permanent ban on gillnet fishing within the vaquita habitat. Despite the enforcement from the Mexican Government and Navy, illegal gillnet fishing continues in some regions.

Over the past 2 decades the vaquita population (Figure 1) has declined from 600 to an estimated 30 individuals, inciting efforts to save and restore the vaquita. A marine refuge has been created in the central portion of the vaquita range, and the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita is attempting to move as many individuals as possible to marine sanctuaries. The Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery sent a team of 65 scientists to monitor, identify, and capture vaquitas in the Gulf, but due to the vaquitas negative reaction to human care, the team had to cease the capture portion of the operation. This mission resulted in 32 sightings of vaquitas and the death of a mature female.

Vaquita population decline since 1997.
Vaquita population decline since 1997. Figure from https://www.aza.org/SAFE-vaquita

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Check out these links to learn more about the vaquita!

Vaquita CPR

IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group: Vaquita

Script Authors: Rachel Housley and Victoria Scriven

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Climate Change 101

Earth’s climate is changing, but what does that mean? And why should we care? Climate describes the long-term average weather conditions of a region over decades or centuries. While it is true that Earth’s climate has oscillated between cool and warm periods in the past, climatic shifts typically occur over thousands of years. The current climate shift is occurring over decades.

Recent climate change is primarily caused by the release of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants into the atmosphere by humans. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses absorb and trap heat energy in Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet. For hundreds of thousands of years, atmospheric CO2 levels have not risen above 280 ppm, but human activity has raised atmospheric co2 concentrations to over 400 ppm since the 1800s. As CO2 levels continue to rise, more heat will be trapped in Earth’s atmosphere, and Earth’s average temperature will continue to increase.

Warming and increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will have considerable impacts on marine ecosystems. Ocean currents and weather patterns, which are driven by heat energy, may be altered as Earth’s climate warms. Additionally, the world’s oceans are becoming more acidic as carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater and reacts with water molecules. The future of marine ecosystems and organisms is unknown; with many environmental changes happening rapidly, animals will need to adapt quickly, migrate, or face possible extinction

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

A layer of greenhouse gases – primarily water vapor, and including much smaller amountsof carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – acts as a thermal blanket for the Earth, absorbing heat and warming the surface to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).
Greenhouse gasses act like a blanket around planet Earth, trapping heat and warming the planet. Image from: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

Script Author: James M. Fiorendino

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Ocean Acidification -4 Palau

Palau

I’m McKensie Daugherty, your host for On the Ocean. Scientists want to understand the impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs today and in the future. A good place to learn about the effects of future acidification caused by humans are areas in the ocean where high levels of acidification occur naturally today. The Palau Rock Islands are an excellent location to study the effects of natural ocean acidification on coral reefs. The Rock Islands are a group of small islands that form a maze like system of bays and inlets, with beautiful coral reefs. It takes a long time for seawater to flush out of the Rock Island bays and carbon dioxide accumulates in the water as coral reef organisms breathe and grow, increasing acidification levels. Scientists at Texas A&M University in collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Palau International Coral Reef Center, measured the biological diversity of coral reefs in Palau at different acidity levels. They found that Palau is the only area of natural acidification with healthy, highly diverse coral reefs.  However, like other naturally acidified coral reefs, Palau’s Rock Island reefs are much more susceptible to bioerosion by organisms like clams and tube worms that bore into and break down the reef. Researchers are also measuring the temperature, salinity, currents, nutrients, densities, depth, and the amount of oxygen in the water to look for any answers to why Palau’s coral reefs are surviving so well under acidification. This study is ongoing, and scientists hope they can discover answers about ocean acidification and coral reef resilience. It seems likely that as ocean acidification continues, we will see more and more bioerosion breaking down coral reefs. This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Contributing Professor: Dr. Katie Shamberger

week 4_Shamberger et al 2014_Fig 1

Satellite image of the main islands of Palau showing sampling locations (yellow circles). Inset shows aragonite saturation state (Omega ar) with high Omega ar, high pH, and low CO2 in blue and vice versa in red. Low pH Rock Island Bay sites can be seen in red.  From Shamberger et al. 2014.

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A healthy coral reef community at a low CO2, high pH barrier reef site in Palau.  From Shamberger et al. 2014.

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A healthy coral reef community at a high CO2, low pH Rock Island Bay site in Palau. From Shamberger et al. 2014.

Ocean Acidification -3 Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

I’m McKensie Daugherty, your host for On the Ocean. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the largest coral reef system in the entire world. Scientists who study the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs have used this system to understand the direct impacts the increase in acidity of seawater has on these fragile ecosystems. One such study was performed on One Tree Reef on the Great Barrier Reef by Texas A&M researchers in collaboration with the Carnegie institution for science in Stanford and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In this study, scientists measured how fast One Tree reef calcifies, or grows, at current pH levels, and at less acidic pH levels that mimic what the ocean was like before we began burning fossil fuels for energy. To measure calcification and acidification, scientists measured seawater chemistry on the reef by putting oceanographic sensors on the reef and by taking water samples and analyzing them chemically in the lab. What they found was that when they added a basic compound to the reef water to make it less acidic than it is now, the reef grew faster than it normally does at today’s ocean pH levels. This is the first direct evidence that ocean acidification impacts are happening now, and have likely already slowed the growth of real coral reefs. This is bad news for coral reefs around the world that are also in danger from global warming, pollution, and overfishing. To help coral reefs survive we need to stop ocean pollution, including carbon dioxide pollution. Anything you can do to use less energy and to use energy sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide will help coral reefs all over the world. This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Contributing Professor: Dr. Katie Shamberger

 week 3_Albright et al. 2016_Fig 1(2)week 3_Albright et al. 2016_Fig 1(1)

a) Map of Australia and an aerial photograph of One Tree Reef with the study area shown in the orange box. b) and c) Cross-sections of the reef along the yellow line in a) showing high tide (b) and low tide (c) and how water flows in one direction across the study area at low tide. d) Schematic of the study area showing sampling sites (blue circles) and the plume of low CO2, high pH water flowing across the reef at low tide. From Albright et al. 2016.

 

week 3_Katie_One Tree Reef

Dr. Katie Shamberger securing a conductivity (measures salinity), temperature, and depth (CTD) sensor to the reef at the study site on One Tree Reef. Photo credit: Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution for Science.