World Honeybee Day

Honeybees have been a prominent topic in conservation news in recent years and with good cause. Bee populations globally are under threat and without them to pollinate flowers and crops we may not be able to eat the food we love in the future. For instance, crops like blueberries and cherries are 90% dependent on pollination by bees. If honeybees were to disappear completely we could lose the equivalent of one in every three bites of food (www.beesmatter.ca). There is no single cause for the disappearance of honeybees but general scientific opinion is that there are a number of causes for the decline including insecticides and a loss of countryside and green spaces to urban development (www.fastcoexist/honeybees).

For this reason today, the 20th August, is World Honeybee Day, established to raise awareness of the importance of bees. Here in Madagascar bees are also important to sustainable development and even play their part in recycling. Wild honey hunters have, for centuries throughout Madagascar, hunted wild beehives and collected wild honey. There are many ways that this is done. Possibly the most macabre method is that used by tribes in the high plateau. Traditionally these people put the coffins of their dead in trees. Over time bees use the coffins as hives and produce honey in them. The people of the high plateau cannot eat the honey as it is fady (taboo) to do so. Instead they collect the honey and trade it with other groups for essentials (www.prezi.com).

Usually honey is collected by wild honey hunters by finding a wild hive in a hole in a tree, smoking out the bees and placing the queen in a bamboo cage. The hunter can then take the honeycomb and honey. Unfortunately, the bees are not always left alive and therefore the practice is not sustainable. But there are currently a number of NGOs in Madagascar who have looked to the traditional place of honey in Malagasy life and gotten involved in beekeeping projects that are sustainable and are helping to alleviate poverty for beekeeping families. Our sister NGO Honko Mangrove Conservation and Education is one of the NGOs that is teaching and practicing apiculture or beekeeping. In the village of Ambondrolava, where Honko is based, there are currently two households involved in apiculture. Each hive produces approximately 10 litres of honey a year. Honey is sold for 10,000 Ariary per litre and therefore the potential income to the household is 100,000 Ariary per year (approximately £23). This is not a vast amount of money by anyone’s standards but it is a helpful supplement to the income of these households.

 

Honko also have their own hive on site. They are currently populating the hive and it should be producing honey within a year. Hives are populated by using honeycomb created elsewhere and placing it in the new hive. The hive currently in use at Honko is of quite a complicated design and Honko has plans to begin using Kenyan beehives that are of a much simpler design and easier to extract honey from. The honey is extracted using a machine called an extractor in which the combs are spun, allowing the honey to be collected in a drum.

Honey and beekeeping also helps to deal with the thousands of plastic bottles used in Madagascar every day. Used bottles are refilled with honey and sold in markets and villages throughout the country. Of course, it’s not ideal to reuse plastic bottles containing PEP but it is an awful lot better than the alternative, which is burning all the plastic bottles that have only been used once or throwing them on the ground or in the sea. There is no refuse collection and no recycling points in most of Madagascar and so reusing something is the best way to prevent it becoming waste and very often pollution. Furthermore most people who sell honey probably cannot afford to buy the bottles they need. You often see children asking tourists for their empty bottles and most people touring the country or visiting national parks keep their empty bottles until they come across a group of children who want to recycle them. Please remember to do so if you visit or save them during your trip and drop them off at an NGO before you leave.

Closer to home there are a number of things you can do to help honeybee populations including planting bee-friendly wildflower seeds and allowing dandelions and clover to grow in your garden. Your garden, you and your family will also benefit if you stop using commercial pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that are loaded with harmful chemicals that are very damaging to bees. Support local honeybee keepers by buying your honey locally. This not only supports your local economy but supports local beekeepers who tend to be more concerned with the health of their bees than large companies are. And please remember to recycle the container your honey comes in.

 

Article by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

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Mass Bleaching in the Bay of Ranobe

Mass coral bleaching is fast becoming one of the most important determinants of the future of coral reefs. The frequency and severity of coral bleaching events is increasing due to global warming, placing already stressed and fragile coral reefs under immense threat. Temperature-induced coral mortality has now been predicted to occur every year by 2020, resulting in dire predictions for the future of coral reefs. The realities of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent; 2015 was officially the warmest year on record, and the first half of 2016 has been the warmest half-year in recorded history. Elevated ocean temperatures due to climate change combined with the warming effects of a particularly strong El Niño has recently resulted in a global coral bleaching event, the third of its kind in less than 20 years. Here we report on the impact of this in the Bay of Ranobe, SW Madagascar.

First, a bit of background on the coral bleaching phenomenon. This is the process in which symbiotic zooxanthellae (pigmented photosynthetic microorganisms living in coral tissues that provide energy to the coral) are expelled by the coral due to stress, causing the coral to turn ghostly white. Since corals live close to the upper limits of their thermal tolerance, a rise in ocean temperature of just 1–2°C higher than the average summer maximum for 5–10 weeks can stress coral and result in bleaching. If the stress causing the bleaching is not too severe and decreases in time, affected corals usually regain their zooxanthellae within several weeks or a few months. If zooxanthellae loss is prolonged under continued stress and the depleted zooxanthellae populations do not recover, the coral will eventually die.

To understand this process further, check out this great short video on coral bleaching by HHMI BioInteractive:


In mass or global bleaching events, entire reef systems are affected, not just a few individual corals. Mass bleaching can turn a coral dominated reef to an algae dominated one in just a few months, a process that can take decades or longer to reverse. Over the last few years, coral reefs around the word experienced mass bleaching in what is being termed the third global coral bleaching event (the first and second events occurred in 1998 and 2010, respectively). This bleaching coincided with the development of an extreme El Niño event (a Pacific Ocean climate cycle that has a global impact on weather patterns) thought to be possibly the worst and longest ever recorded. Bleaching first began in the north Pacific in summer 2014 and expanded to the South Pacific and Indian Ocean in 2015. This global bleaching event is now officially the longest in recorded history and has been predicted to last until the end of 2016. You may have already read about the devastating impacts of this event on the Great Barrier Reef earlier in the year; almost 93% of the largest reef system in the word bleached and an estimated 35% of all the corals in the northern and central sections have since died. It has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in Australian history. Similar mass bleaching has also been reported across the Indian, Indo-Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; and unfortunately Madagascar was no exception.

Reef Doctor’s coral reef surveying team first noticed a slight paling of some corals in February 2016; this was the result of elevated summer sea surface temperatures that, worryingly, had begun to increase earlier than usual. Temperatures between January and March remained consistently elevated between 29–30°C so, like the rest of the tropics, we were braced for a large bleaching event, which did eventually hit our region towards the end of March. During the months of March, April and May the extent of bleaching was monitored by our science team and volunteers on a number of survey dives, including dives with the Young reSearchers Organisation (YSO) who carried out bleaching survey dives in the Bay of Toliara, the Bay of Ranobe and a reef complex in Sarandro. The YSO team surveyed four sites in the Bay of Ranobe including our MPA Rose Garden. This data is being submitted to the CORDIO (Coastal Oceans Research and Development – Indian Ocean) regional bleaching database to support larger scale monitoring efforts of coral bleaching in the Indian Ocean. Sadly, these surveys revealed widespread bleaching at every site, although some species fared better than others. The most affected coral genera were Porites, Montipora, Acropora and Fungia. The overall impact was rated moderate to high, approximately 50–75% of corals bleached across the bay. We also observed the complete whitening of anemones (they also contain symbiotic zooxanthellae).

Juvenile coral fragments in our nursery and transplanted nursery grown corals were heavily impacted by the sustained elevated temperatures; unfortunately, 50% of these have since succumbed to bleaching-induced mortality. However, while many corals have been lost throughout the bay, we are pleased to report that bleaching is now starting to recede and corals are showing signs of recovery.

Despite global warming induced coral bleaching representing a very real and serious threat, it is not necessarily a death sentence for all coral reefs. Resilient and healthy reefs are capable of recovering. At Reef Doctor, we focus on improving the resilience of coral reefs in the bay to increase the likelihood that they can recover when faced with major disturbances such as bleaching. Over our 15 years of operation in this region, we have taken relevant action to improve reef health and resilience through the implementation of marine protected areas, fisheries management initiatives, development of more sustainable marine livelihoods, and participation in reforestation projects to reduce reef sedimentation. Our more recent reef restoration project aims to directly stimulate reef recovery following major disturbance events. While we can’t directly prevent future bleaching events, we can help give these reefs a better chance of recovery and survival through coral cultivation and active reef restoration. We are effectively giving corals a helping hand to grow, re-establish and persist in an increasingly stressful and competitive environment.

So what can you do to help this global situation? There are many small changes you can make that will collectively help to reduce the bleaching threat to coral reefs. We urge people to try to reduce their carbon footprint to help combat climate change and reduce the speed of global warming. You could contact local legislators to tell them you support climate legislation and sign/share climate change-related petitions. Recycle and reuse items wherever possible to reduce your carbon footprint further. Furthermore, when swimming, diving or snorkelling in areas where there are coral reefs please take care to avoid direct physical contact (adopt best practices through the Green Fins Code of Conduct) and use reef safe sunscreen to minimize the number of threats corals face.

Report by Vivienne Stein-Rostaing, photography by RD vols/interns Izzy Sweating, Christopher Berven and Marco Magri

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Exploring the magical world of underwater caverns

The Madagascar Cave Diving Association (MCDA) founded in 2014 is an association of cave divers who are, perhaps, the closest thing to real life explorers you can find in this day and age. The association consists of Ryan Dart, Phillip Lehman, Patrick Widmann and Hans Kasperetz, who are currently undertaking the mammoth task of exploring, surveying and mapping the underwater cave systems of Madagascar for the first time. To dive in caves you must have a cave diving certification, and it is not for the feint hearted. The training is intensive and divers have to learn to use side mount tanks as well as learning all of the other diving and safety procedures associated with cave diving. It is a dangerous yet thrilling activity.

But you can dive in a cavern without special training. A cavern dive is defined as one where there is natural light and maximum penetration is 60 meters. And this is how Andre, one of our recent volunteers and I got to have a little taste of the amazing underwater world contained inside the limestone passages of the Aven cave system near Tsimanampetsotse National Park in south west Madagascar. Aven was the first cave discovered and explored by Ryan Dart and the former team of Atlantis Madagascar. Word spread about the cave system and MCDA was born. The association gets to explore amazing sites and carry out very technical, often dangerous dives. They also get called on when anyone wants to access the system. On this occasion MCDA was contacted by a Japanese documentary film crew who needed some footage of water flow in the cavern at the entrance to the cave system and some divers to film it, and Andre and I got to help out with filming. Both of us had dived in caverns before but that didn’t make the prospect of this dive any less exciting as we were diving a cavern that very few other people have seen, and with one of the people who discovered and explored it for the first time.

Last Thursday we made our way to Anakao where we were met by Ryan of MCDA and the film crew. We set off on Friday in 4 x 4s to load up the tanks and make the 50 km journey to the cavern, stopping off to pick up some porters at the entrance to the park to help with the gear. The opening of the cavern is a huge sinkhole surrounded by trees, the roots of which stretch from the edge 10 meters down and into the water. Tanks and gear were lowered down and we started kitting up on the small mound in the middle of the sinkhole. We lowered ourselves slowly into the water so as to disturb the silt as little as possible and finned our way into a beautiful scene that was out of this world.

Smooth limestone walls loomed above us and stretched out from the opening creating a massive circular cavern with the mound we had been standing on a few minutes earlier rising up in the middle and creating a gentle slope to follow into deeper water. Without any wind or current to affect the visibility in the fresh water cavern, the water was crystal clear. It felt like there was no water at all and at about 27 degrees it was the warmest water either of us had dived in in a while. I looked behind me as we swam away from the center and was blown away by the view. The tree roots dipped into the water like something from a fantasy novel. Shafts of light cut through the water and danced on rock formations like the opening scene of a science fiction film, like we were on another planet. One wrong move and silt would be finned up plunging our newly discovered planet into a silt storm. We gaped open mouthed at stalactites (I’m glad I have a good mouthpiece that stays in even when I’m in awe), gawked intently at blindfish navigating without sight, looked at fossils of lemurs and crocodiles, and explored as much of the cavern as we had time to. I could have stared at the trees through the water for days and spent ages admiring the beautiful rainbow reflections made by the sun on the silt. We couldn’t enter the cave properly as neither of us is a certified cave diver but diving the cavern was spectacular and there was so much to see that once we had finished the filming we were very happy to keep swimming until we had used up all our air. My request for five more minutes at the end of the second dive turned into 11 minutes and I still left reluctantly. I’ve been lucky enough to do some really amazing dives and this one is definitely in my top 10. I don’t think I’m going to become a world famous videographer or lighting technician anytime soon but this dive and experience will stay with me for the rest of my days. And I think it will take a long time to shake the desire to get cave certified.

The cavern is closed to the public for the foreseeable future. It seems a little unfair that MCDA get to keep this amazing wonderland to themselves for now but this is to allow MCDA to map and survey the area, log anything of archeological and geological interest and to preserve the caves. As MCDA states ‘Flooded caves are fragile geological time capsules holding clues that could one day help solve the many mysteries of earth’s ancient past’. Therefore their conservation is very important. The closure is also to ensure that untrained divers are not brought to the area and put at risk by diving in unknown conditions for which they have not been certified. Just accessing the sinkhole is tricky work and passing down gear and tanks is time consuming and not without risk. I’d like to say that it was not worth it but it really really was. Thank you MCDA for the awesome opportunity!

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

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Green School is Cool!

Remember how much fun bunk beds were when you were a child? Ok, now imagine how much fun a triple-decker bunk bed is when you’re a child living in a place where concrete houses are a rarity, not to mention bunk beds to put in them. Can you imagine? Yes! Well, that’s almost as much fun as the Junior Reef Doctors and about twenty other school children from Ifaty had at Green School, or Class Vert as it’s known here, last week. Green School is a three-day summer camp held in the grounds of Solidaire Hotel that teaches children about the environment and socially and environmentally responsible living to work towards sustainable development and a sustainable future. The workshop is run by Bel Avenir, an NGO based in Toliara and Mangily where the children stayed from Wednesday to Saturday. But the children didn’t just enjoy the bunk beds, they also loved the trip to the Spiny Forest, the trip to the beach to watch a video and learn about whales, the swings, the slide, the football pitch, the games, the songs, the trip away from home and the energetic fun people from Bel Avenir who run the summer camp.

I spent the second afternoon with the children at Green School and wished I could stay for the rest of the trip. I arrived at about noon when everyone was having lunch on traditional Vezo floor mats in the main meeting area in the grounds.  There were lots of smiling happy faces and it was obvious that even lunch was fun for everyone. Once the children had finished eating and helped to clean up it was time for a nap. This really meant that it was time to play in their bunk beds for a while before going outside and playing on the swings and slide or having a kick about with a football. After ‘nap time’ everyone lined up in the main meeting area again. The children had already been taught some really great raps and marches by Christian, one of the staff, and when he gave the signal to move out the children marched in pairs listening out for instructions or a funny rap.

Our big group walked through Mangily and down the beach where a local dive center, Atimo Plongee, had a TV set up waiting to show the children a film about whales. The teacher arrived shortly after us and none of the children seemed fazed by the fact that he was a very large imposing figure with a deep voice and a stick in his hand, but I was! But I soon found out I didn’t need to be. The stick was for pointing at the whales on the screen and his deep booming voice carried very nicely over the waves and wind. The children loved him and loved the film and class. They had a great time answering quiz questions at the end of the film about what they had learned. Afterwards everyone formed a huge circle on the beach and played games. A little while later it was time for me to head back to Ifaty and I left the group playing on the beach. I could still hear the squeals and giggles all the way down the beach.

Learning should be fun. Learning about socially responsible living and a sustainable future is great fun at Green School.  Sustainable development is essential for a sustainable future and Green School and its amazing team is doing a great job preparing these children for their future as socially aware and responsible adults.

Reported by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

 

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Not just a drop in the ocean….

Sunscreen is an essential part of almost everyone’s holiday preparations. We choose a sunscreen that we can afford, that offers the right level of SPF protection and that comes in a spray, cream or oil depending on our preferences. But do we look at or even care about what’s actually in our sunscreen? Is your sunscreen giving you and your environment the best protection it can? When it comes to the sea your sunscreen could be letting you down. Any diver who learned to dive with a reputable organization knows that caring for our oceans and everything that lives in them is an essential part of learning to dive and continuing to dive. New divers learn that it’s vital to protect the underwater environment for future generations to visit. But even the most careful diver could be damaging coral reefs systems without even knowing it.  Corals are vulnerable to many threats created by our modern world such as over fishing, rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and run off from industry and agriculture. But corals are also being damaged by something much less obvious.  Something each and every one of us can do our part to address. Sunscreen!

Traditional sunscreens are loaded with preservatives, chemicals and nano particles that have now been proven to damage coral reefs by contributing significantly to coral bleaching, and cause damage to our bodies through absorption of toxins from the chemicals through our skin. The majority of these sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a chemically active ingredient that has been identified as one of the most damaging chemicals for corals. The active ingredient in sunscreen is the component that does most of all of the work to protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays, which is great as long as the active ingredient is not oxybenzone or other damaging ingredients such as avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and octinoxate or a combination of these chemicals.

A report published in 2015 in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology reveals that oxybenzone is a major contributing factor in widespread coral bleaching. Furthermore the chemical does not just kill the coral. It damages DNA in adult coral and deforms DNA in coral in the larval stage making it unlikely to form properly.  Sadly this means that anytime you wear a sunscreen that contains oxybenzone or other harmful active ingredients and swim in waters that contain corals you are actively allowing the damaging chemical to come in contact with fragile corals. The Washington Post (2015) notes that ‘the equivalent of a drop of water in a half dozen Olympic sized swimming pools’ is enough to damage fragile coral reef systems. Just think how much sunscreen it takes to cover every tourist that visits a beach that has coral reefs nearby! A lot, right? Well, it is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in coral reefs worldwide annually (Huffington Post). 14,000 TONS!!!!

Sunscreen does not spread or dissipate easily in water. Therefore tourist hotspots tend to have much higher concentrations of the chemical in the water. Unfortunately, a lot of tourist hotspots also have coral reef systems. It is estimated that 90% of dive and snorkeling tourism is concentrated in 10% of the world’s coral reefs (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA).  But you don’t have to be a diver or snorkeler to contribute to the damage. Even if you haven’t been in the sea on holiday the sunscreen you apply every day gets washed away in the shower and ends up in the wastewater system thereby ending up in the sea anyway in most cases.

This is all very compelling evidence to suggest that we all need to be far more responsible when it comes to what products we take into the water with us. However this may not be compelling enough for those of us who don’t feel a responsibility to our environment (and sadly, yes there are people who don’t). Is there any other reason to switch to a reef safe sunscreen? Well, yes. There is also evidence to suggest that the toxins in oxybenzone are absorbed through the skin every time sunscreen is applied. Based on a representative sampling of children and adults it is estimated that 96% of Americans have oxybenzone in their bodies (Centre for Disease Control, Calafat 2008).  Laboratory tests have shown that oxybenzone upsets hormone levels and acts like estrogen in the system, altering sperm counts in many animals and causing endometriosis in women. It has also been found in mothers’ breast milk and been found to cause skin allergies. So whatever way you look at it and no matter what you are seeking to protect oxybenzone is bad news.

But do you have to decide between protecting your skin and protecting corals? Thankfully, no you don’t. First of all hats, long sleeve shirts and sarongs provide good shade from the sun’s harmful rays. There are also many different options now available for people who love spending time in the sea and who care about protecting our oceans.  No sunscreen is completely ‘reef safe’ but the term is being used to refer to sunscreens that cause much less damage to corals than traditional sunscreens. Reef safe sunscreens are oxybenzone free and are very often free of parabens, nano particles and other nasty chemicals, of which we are increasingly becoming aware and do not want in our skincare products. Mineral active ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, which have not been found to harm corals, or a combination of both provide the sun protection in reef safe sunscreens.

One of the main criticisms leveled at sunscreens containing mineral active ingredient is that they are hard to apply and have a ‘paint like’ quality. However this is something that manufacturers are aware of and new more user-friendly versions are coming out all the time. Another draw back critics site is cost. Reef safe sunscreens tend to be all-natural and unfortunately they are often a little more expensive than the cheaper common chemical based sunscreens. However they are similar in price to sunscreens from some of the bigger manufacturers so this argument does not hold a lot of water.  But personal experience confirms that reef safe sunscreens last a very long time and do provide excellent protection from the sun making them very good value for money. They are best applied on well moisturized skin that is dry to the touch So it might take you a little longer to rub the cream in before you hit the water but is it really worth contributing to coral reef damage just to save two minutes and a tiny bit of elbow grease?

When it comes to being responsible for our environment people often say that anything one individual can do will make no difference. Despite the fact that this logic is flawed (but that’s another article for another time) wearing reef safe sunscreen is actually something that individuals can do that can make a very big difference. In fact, everyday average people are those best placed to address this problem. By making one simple change to your holiday preparations you are not only ensuring that you and your family are protected, you are also making sure that one of the most important ecosystems in the world is being protected. It is within your capabilities. Make a difference and go reef safe today!!

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

 

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