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Executive Summary for January 26th

In this week’s roundup, we report on a hidden new virus found in seawater, controversy over the Australia government’s plan to address threats to the Great Barrier Reef and United States protections for two charismatic sea species.

Published on Jan. 26, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

New, Abundant Virus Detected in World’s Oceans

Millions of viruses are contained in every drop of seawater. But one dominant type has completely escaped detection, until now at least.

In a study published in Nature, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Albert Einstein College of Medicine described the virus, which, because it lacked a tail and had other unusual properties, was previously overlooked. The study said the virus may be ecologically relevant because it can attack many kinds of marine bacteria – not just one or two varieties, as most viruses do. Other research has previously found that marine viruses may even have a role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations as they prey on photosynthetic bacteria.

Scientists, Environmentalists Criticize Great Barrier Reef Rescue Funding

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government announced what it called a ground-breaking $60 million program to protect the struggling Great Barrier Reef ecosystem this week, but critics called it window dressing.

More than half the money will be spent paying farmers to reduce pollution entering coastal waters, and other funding will go to an “all-out assault” on the invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and to pay for more officers to monitor the reef. In 2016 and 2017, bleaching events cause mass mortality of coral on the reef, in addition to a recent outbreak of the destructive starfish that has not been contained.

Jon Brodie, a scientist at James Cook University, told the Sydney Morning Herald the government “is not prepared to put enough money in to make a difference.” He also said some of the measures – the efforts to cull the starfish – have already been proven ineffective. Meanwhile, environmental group WWF said that $475 million is needed in coming years to improve water quality in the Great Barrier Reef alone.

According to the Guardian, the Labor Party opposition said the resources were “good as far as they go” but that, without more action on climate change, “it’s clear this government has given up on the reef.”

Bearded Seals and Giant Manta Rays Keep, Win U.S. Protections

Two charismatic sea species – the bearded seal and giant manta ray – are now officially “threatened” under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In the case of the bearded seal, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed protections declared in 2012 to remain in place, rejecting a legal challenge from the oil and gas industry and state of Alaska. The bearded seal is threatened by melting sea ice, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which originally petitioned to have the seals listed in 2008. The industry argued the listing could slow oil and gas development and claimed there wasn’t enough scientific evidence that sea ice habitat was critical to their survival, according to Alaska Public Radio. With the listing in place, the U.S. government will have to declare “critical habitat” under the law that is crucial to the seals’ survival.

Separately, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service gave the giant manta ray new protected status this week, in response to a petition from environmental groups. Their populations are, in some places, in steep decline as they are threatened as bycatch in commercial fishing and are also targeted for their gills, which are used in Chinese traditional medicine.

The listing is flimsy, though, according to Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, because the U.S. itself doesn’t have much of a role in the manta trade, and the agency said protective regulations won’t be needed. “We are… very disappointed that the federal government chose not to extend any real legal protections to the species under the ESA,” she said in a statement.

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