The northern Gulf of Mexico has been an important source for crude oil and natural gas extraction since the 1930s. Thousands of fixed platforms and associated equipment have been installed on the Gulf of Mexico continental shelf, leading to a pervasive ‘ocean sprawl.’ After decommissioning, 100s of these structures have been converted to artificial reefs under the federal ‘Rigs-to-Reefs’ program, in addition to artificial reefs specifically designed to enhance fisheries and/or benefit the recreational diving industry. Apart from a few natural banks, which reach to approximately 55 ft below the surface, artificial reefs provide the only shallow-water hard substrate for benthic organisms in the deeper waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico. This vast expansion in available habitat has almost exclusively occurred over a relatively short span of time (∼50 years). The ecological interactions of artificial and natural reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico are complex. Artificial reefs in general, and oil and gas structures in particular, have often been invoked as stepping stones for non-native and invasive species (e.g., Tubastrea cup corals, lionfish). The pilings are covered with fouling communities which remain largely unstudied. While the risks of these fouling organisms for invading natural reefs are being broadly discussed, other impacts on the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico, such as the potential to facilitate jellyfish blooms or increase the incidence of ciguatera fish poisoning, have received less attention. Artificial reefs also provide ecosystem services, particularly as habitat for economically important fish species like red snapper. Here we revisit the potential role of artificial reefs as ‘stepping stones’ for species invasions and for fisheries enhancement. Beyond concerns about ecological effects, some of these topics also raise public health concerns. We point out gaps in current knowledge and propose future research directions.
Human Impacts on the Environment
Globally, the exploitation of marine mammals has shifted from hunting to viewing over the last few decades. While refraining from actively killing animals may have a positive effect on marine mammal populations, whale and dolphin watching can induce changes such as displacement from preferred habitat and disruption of foraging that may also have severe fitness costs. Under some circumstances, this non-lethal disturbance may affect populations in a manner similar to directed mortality. Here, we focus on inshore dolphin populations that are known to show short-term behavioral responses to boat approaches. Long-term fitness effects have only been clearly identified in a small number of these populations, and all share certain characteristics, i.e., closed, small and food-limited. This raises the question of importance of context when considering the long-term effects of disturbance, since many dolphin populations may be open, large, and/or free from resource restriction. We explored the effect of disturbance based on the characteristics of populations using the population consequences of disturbance (PCoD) framework. PCoD was developed to link short-term changes in individual behavior and physiology to presumed long-term effects on population dynamics. To ensure our scenarios were biologically plausible, they reflected the ecological context of four well-studied populations of dolphins, Doubtful Sound, New Zealand, Sarasota Bay, United States, Durban Bay, South Africa, and Jervis Bay, Australia, in terms of their size, closure, and food resources. We found that the characteristics of the populations being disturbed are important with regards to the level of disturbance that could be tolerated. Closed populations were most sensitive, while large, open populations with no food limitation appeared to be able to withstand a higher probability of disturbance. This implies that population characteristics should be accounted for when determining the suitability of whale and dolphin watching operations in a given area.
Artificial light at night (ALAN) has been recently recognized as a globally widespread anthropogenic disturbance, characterized by different intensities and spectra, as well as spatial and temporal variability. Among marine organisms, those living on coastal areas are particularly exposed to artificial light. Some recent studies anticipated a potential for influences of ALAN on microphytobenthos (MPB) on rocky shores, either direct or indirectly mediated by trophic relationships. Here we emphasize the need for further investigations in different habitats, as well as on synergistic interferences with other stressors already impinging on coastal areas. The study of effects of ALAN poses new challenges in MPB research, including those related to the use of instruments for measuring both the light environment and the functioning of microbial photoautotrophs at night, and to the development of common monitoring approaches and manipulative experiments.
An array of anthropogenic pressures is affecting tropical ecosystems, posing major conservation challenges for scientists, stakeholders and populations. Illegal cyanide fishing is one of the major threats to Indo-Pacific coral reefs, targeting a multitude of colorful species for the marine aquarium trade as well as large-sized groupers and wrasses for the food fish trade. Ultimately, the continued use of this destructive practice as oceans warm may overload tropical ecosystems and result in irreversible ecological damage. Here we show that the impact of cyanide poisoning in an ornamental tropical marine fish is magnified under increased temperatures. A sole pulse exposure of 60 s to 50 mg L–1 of cyanide under current temperature (26°C) caused substantial mortality (50–100%) in eight species of Pomacentridae. The clownfish Amphiprion ocellaris was the most resistant, especially medium-sized fish [average total length and weight of 38 mm and 1.12 g; LC50 (95% CI) = 50.00 (46.76 − 53.24) mg L–1] that showed shorter recovery times and higher survival rates (%) when compared to small-sized ones [average total length and weight of 25 mm and 0.30 g; LC50 (95% CI) = 28.45 (20.17 − 36.72) mg L–1]. However, when the most resistant size-class was concomitantly exposed to a sub-lethal dosage of cyanide (25 mg L–1 instead of 50 mg L–1) and ocean warming scenarios for 2100 (+3°C and heat wave +6°C), survival rates (%) decreased to 60 and 20%, respectively, and recovery times increased in the worst case scenario. Mortality outbreaks, as well as vulnerability to predation, will likely expand in fish inhabiting coral reefs exposed to cyanide fishing unless stronger conservation measures are taken in tropical reefs to limit this destructive practice now and in the oceans of tomorrow.
In the first decades of 2000s, several Italian sites affected by strong anthropogenic impact were recognized as Sites of National Interest (SINs) for a successive reclamation project, some of which also including marine sectors. These coastal areas are characterized by high complexity and diversity as regards the natural setting as well as for extent, history, type, and degree of contamination. For this, the Italian Ministry of Environment charged its scientific research Institute (earlier ICRAM, now ISPRA) with planning a flexible, adaptable, and large-scale environmental characterization. In this context, the investigation of marine sediments was identified as the primary target to assess the environmental status, because of their conservative capacity with respect to contaminants and their role in the exchange processes with other environmental matrices, such as water column and aquatic organisms. A multidisciplinary, chemical–physical, and ecotoxicological survey was identified as the most appropriate and objective criterion for assessing the sediment quality associated, when necessary, with integrative studies. The results derived from this multidisciplinary approach highlighted the main sources of contamination, together with size and extent of the environmental impact on the coastal marine areas, strictly correlated with the kind of anthropogenic activities and coastal morphology. In order to underline how the different environmental setting influences the degree of anthropogenic impact, four different case studies, selected among the more complex by geochemical and geomorphological viewpoints and more extensively studied, were considered. A comprehensive evaluation of these case studies allowed to deduce some general principles concerning the effects of anthropogenic impact, which can be applicable to other transitional and marine coastal areas.
Rapid urbanization leads to an accelerating decline of seagrass beds. The status of seagrass beds along the entire coastline of a rapidly urbanizing area, Guangdong Province, was examined to document the change in seagrass beds and to explore the determinants of seagrasses characteristics and their plasticity. Thirteen seagrass beds were newly discovered with a total area as 679.04 ha, whereas eleven known seagrass beds have decreased from 972.55 ha to 858.67 ha with seven of them having disappeared in recent decade primarily due to exacerbated construction of artificial shorelines and beach dams, increased nutrient inputs from fish caging and shrimp pond culture, oyster culture, mangrove planting and shellfish collection. The leaf nitrogen content of Halophila ovalis, which dominated the largest beds, increased from (2.09 ± 0.24)% in 2011 to (3.39 ± 0.18)% in 2017, indicating enhanced eutrophication. The optimum seawater dissolved inorganic nitrogen and dissolved inorganic phosphorus levels for Halophila beccarii were 40 μmol/L and 2.5 μmol/L, respectively. The standing stock and plant dimensions of H. beccarii were positively correlated with sediment mud content. Longer, wider leaves, and greater aboveground and belowground biomass were observed at lower salinities, indicating that H. beccarii prefers hyposaline habitats. High shoot density could induce intraspecific competition followed by self-thinning in H. beccarii, leading to reduced leaf area, aboveground and belowground biomass, and root length. Thus, long-term monitoring of seagrass beds along the rapidly urbanizing coastline of Guangdong Province is needed to unravel the mechanisms of decline and to develop effective management strategies.
Anthropogenic noise is a known threat to marine mammals. Decades of research have shown that harbor porpoises are particularly sensitive to anthropogenic noise, and geographic displacement is a common impact from noise exposure. Small, localized populations may be particularly vulnerable to impacts associated with displacement, as animals that are excluded from their primary habitat may have reduced foraging success and survival, or be exposed to increased threats of predation or bycatch. Seal bombs are underwater explosives used in purse seine fisheries to deter marine mammals during fishery operations. Pinnipeds are believed to be the primary target for seal bomb use, however there may be indirect impacts on harbor porpoises. Active purse seine fishing using seal bombs in the greater Monterey Bay area may, at times, span the entire range of the Monterey Bay harbor porpoise stock, which may lead to negative impacts for this population. In this contribution, we review anthropogenic noise as a threat to harbor porpoises, with a focus on the potential for impacts from seal bomb noise exposure in the Monterey Bay region.
A natural experiment was conducted to determine effects of a fossil-fueled power plant on home ranges of east Pacific green turtles Chelonia mydas in an urban foraging ground. The power plant, located in south San Diego Bay, California, USA, co-existed with a resident foraging aggregation of ~60 green turtles for ~50 yr. It was decommissioned during a long-term green turtle monitoring study, thus providing a rare opportunity to evaluate how the cessation of warm-water effluent affected turtle movements and habitat use in the area. During pre- and post-decommissioning of the power plant, 7 and 23 green turtles, respectively, were equipped with GPS-enabled satellite transmitters. Useful data were obtained from 17 turtles (4 for pre- and 13 for post-decommissioning). Core use areas (50% utilization distribution [UD]) increased from 0.71 to 1.37 km2 after the power plant decommissioning. Increase in post-power plant 50% UD was greater during nighttime (0.52 to 1.44 km2) than daytime (1.32 to 1.43 km2). Furthermore, UDs moved from the effluent channel to an area closer to seagrass pastures, a presumed foraging habitat of the turtles. The observed expansion of green turtle home ranges may increase turtle-human interactions, such as boat strikes, within the foraging ground; this underscores how seemingly innocuous human actions contribute to inadvertent consequences to wildlife. Possible management and conservation actions include increasing awareness of the public regarding turtle presence in the area through signage and education as well as legislating for a reduction in boat speeds in select areas of the bay.
Collisions with ships (ship strikes) are a pressing conservation concern for fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) along western North America. Fin whales exhibit strong diel patterns in dive behavior, remaining near the surface for most of the night, but how this behavior affects ship-strike risk is unknown. We combined diel patterns of surface use, habitat suitability predictions, and ship traffic data to evaluate spatial and temporal trends in ship-strike risk to fin whales of the California Current System (CCS). We tested a range of surface-use scenarios and found that both increased use of the upper water column and increased ship traffic contribute to elevated ship-strike risk at night. Lengthening nights elevate risk during winter throughout the CCS, though the Southern California Bight experienced consistently high risk both day and night year-round. Within designated shipping lanes, total annual nighttime strike risk was twice daytime risk. Avoidance probability models based on ship speed were used to compare the potential efficacy of speed restrictions at various scales. Speed reductions within lanes may be an efficient remediation, but they would address only a small fraction (13%) of overall ship-strike risk. Additional speed restrictions in the approaches to lanes would more effectively reduce overall risk.
The whale-watching industry in Juneau, Alaska relies primarily on the presence of North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). To meet demands from the rapidly growing tourism industry, the number of whale-watching vessels in this region has tripled over the last 18 years. As a result, increased vessel presence could have negative effects on humpback whales, ranging from short-term behavioral disturbance to long-term impacts. The current humpback whale viewing regulations are outdated and may not be as effective as they were 18 years ago, when both the whale-watching industry and humpback whale population were smaller. The present study assessed how humpback whale movement and behavioral patterns were affected by (1) vessel presence and number of vessels present, and (2) time spent in the presence of vessels. The study also determined how humpback whale behavioral state transitions were affected by vessel presence. A total of 201 humpback whale focal follows were conducted during summer 2016 and 2017. Based on linear mixed effects models, whales in the presence (vs. absence) of vessels exhibited 38.9% higher deviation in linear movement (p = 0.001), 6.2% increase in swimming speed (p = 0.047) and a 6.7% decrease in inter-breath intervals (IBI) (p = 0.025). For each additional vessel present, deviation increased by 6.2% (p = 0.022) and IBI decreased by 3.4% (p = 0.001). As time spent in the presence of vessels increased, respiration rate increased (p = 0.011). Feeding and traveling humpback whales were likely to maintain their behavioral state regardless of vessel presence, while surface active humpback whales were likely to transition to traveling in the presence of vessels. These short-term changes in movement and behavior in response to whale-watching vessels could lead to cumulative, long-term consequences, negatively impacting the health and predictability of the resource on which the industry relies. Current formal vessel approach regulations and voluntary guidelines should be revisited to reduce vessel pressure and mitigate potential negative effects of this growing whale-watching industry.