Does haze from burning forests affect marine life?

Does haze from burning forests affect marine life?

10 March 2014

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Indonesia — Two scientists are calling on researchers, NGOs, and governments to begin studying the impact of burning forests and peatlands in Indonesia on the already-threatened marine ecosystems of Southeast Asia. Every year, Indonesian farmers set forests, vegetation, and peatlands alight to clear them for agriculture, often palm oil, and pulp and paper plantations. Not only do these practices destroy hugely-diverse tropical forests, but the resulting haze spreads to many parts of Southeast Asia, threatening regional health and impacting economies. Now, a new paper argues that the sinister impacts of Indonesia’s burning may extend as far as the oceans.

“Biomass burning in Indonesia has intensified in frequency and severity since the 1970s…In June 2013, regional air pollution indices reached record highs, with values deemed hazardous in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, prompting some affected areas to declare states of emergency,” the researchers, Zeehan Jaafar with the National University of Singapore and Tse-Lynn Loh with the John G. Shedd Aquarium, write in a new opinion paper in Global Change Biology.

Last year’s crisis lead to global press coverage, finger-pointing, and high level meetings between numerous governments in the region. But the problem remains: just last month NASA satellite recorded hundreds of hotspots, i.e. fires, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. While the health, economic, and land-based environmental issues of this burning has been well-documented, the impact on marine ecosystems has been almost wholly ignored.

“We postulate that effects on marine systems are more critical than currently appreciated. There is an urgent need to fill these gaps in knowledge,” Jaafar and Loh write.

The region houses the global epicenter of marine biodiversity: the Coral Triangle. Covering warm waters around Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and a few Pacific islands, the Coral Triangle is arguably the most biodiverse marine region on the planet. According to WWF, the region is home to over 600 species of reef-building corals and 2,000 reef fish.

But the two researchers warn that the haze from the land-based fires could decrease sunlight to these precious marine ecosystems, perhaps undercutting photosynthesis in coral reefs as well as mangroves and sea grass.

Meanwhile, runoff and topsoil loss due to fires may lead to eutrophication in marine environments. Eutrophication is caused when incoming nutrients, such as nitrogen, result in a sudden boom of phytoplankton, which eventually die and suck up all the oxygen out of the water. This eutrophication, or dead zone, causes a massive loss in species abundance and diversity. Furthermore, land runoff could also lead to sediment loading in marine ecosystems, which can cause coral bleaching.

The scientists also warn that crisis is depositing manifold particulates of various compounds—such as carbon, ammonia, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen—into the ocean with little knowledge of how this will impact various ecosystems.

“Land, air and sea are highly interconnected. Being aware of both direct and indirect impacts to marine habitats help us safeguard these natural resources,” Loh said in a press release.

Worse still, many of the marine ecosystems in Southeast Asia are already suffering from considerable human pressure.

“Over 85 percent of coral reefs in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are threatened. Similarly, at least 80 percent of all mangrove forests in Southeast Asia have been lost in the past 60 years while terrestrial run-off, pollution, dredging and bottom trawling are some of the persistent threats facing seagrass ecosystems,” the authors write.

Moving forward, the scientists urge new research on the impact of burning-haze on the region’s marine ecosystems, especially focusing on the influx of particulates.

“To date, the impacts of only a small fraction of organic compounds have been investigated,” the researchers write. “We thus recommend studies into the sublethal effects of these particulates.”

The researchers also call on nations to share data and information while establishing robust baseline information and setting up a longterm monitoring system for the region.

“Agencies such as Seagrass Watch and the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) have been monitoring habitats of interest on a global scale,” the write. “The cooperation of such agencies with scientific and government bodies in Southeast Asia can aid in the rapid sharing and dissemination of information.”

In the end, the experts say nations should be ready to respond by taking action during another haze crisis, such as closing down fisheries temporarily, shuttering marine parks, and instigating programs to enhance biodiversity and kickstart ecological recovery.

“It is time to recognize biomass burning and haze as one of the major stressors of marine ecosystems in addition to overfishing, coastal development, climate change, and ocean acidification,” Jaafar and Loh conclude.

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