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Coral-saving crabs, biodegradable plastic surge, iceberg collision: 3 stories you may have missed

© Richard Sidey/GALAXIID

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. More crabs!: Scientists discover a way to help dying coral reefs

A voracious crustacean helps restore seaweed-choked coral, research shows.

The story: A new study in the Florida Keys found that boosting the number of native Caribbean king crabs on coral reefs could save them from being smothered by seaweed. The crabs have an impressive appetite for algae and, over the course of a year, munched more than half the seaweed covering the test reefs, reported Ailsa Chang and Ari Shapiro for NPR. Warmer seas create abundant seaweed that can block sunlight from coral reefs and produce harmful chemicals that shut down their reproduction. The reefs with more crabs saw four times as many juvenile corals and the return of fish populations. Within its native range, the large herbivorous crab could become an important ally in coral reef restoration, scientists say.

The big picture: Coral reefs support a quarter of all marine life. Yet around 20 percent of the world’s coral is already gone, and most of the rest is threatened by climate change, overfishing and pollution. While saving coral reefs will require broad efforts, the Caribbean king crab provides a ray of hope. “The results really were transformative,” Mark Butler, one of the study’s authors, told NPR. “I can honestly say in the 40 or so years that I've been working in coastal, tropical marine environments that this is really one of the most astounding results that we have got.”

Read more here.

2. China biodegradable plastics 'failing to solve pollution crisis'

A surge in biodegradable plastic could further pollute oceans and rivers.

The story: A demand for biodegradable plastic in China could outpace the country’s ability to process and degrade it, Joel Gunter wrote for the BBC. Earlier this year, China — the world’s largest producer of plastic — banned some types of non-degradable single-use plastic. In the wake of this legislation, 36 companies have planned or built new biodegradable plastic projects, adding production capacity of more than 4.4 million metric tons, a sevenfold increase since 2019, according to a new report. However, most biodegradable plastic requires high heat in industrial treatment to decompose, and China may not have enough facilities to process it.

The big picture: Nearly 8 million metric tons of plastic and waste are dumped into the ocean every year, along with massive amounts of pollution from other sources such as oil and gas. Based on current trends, plastic is expected to triple within the next 20 years, adding up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of plastic waste along every meter of the world’s coastlines. While recycling is crucial, reducing plastic is the most effective way to prevent new plastic from entering the ocean, Edgardo Ochoa, Conservation International’s marine and diving safety officer, wrote earlier this year.

Read more here.

3. Scientists plan mission to biggest iceberg as it drifts towards island

A massive melt could impact species in one of the world’s richest ecosystems.

The story: The world’s largest iceberg — known as A-68A — is drifting perilously close to the island of South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, where it could wreak havoc on sensitive wildlife and marine species, Ian Sample reported for The Guardian. A team of researchers led by the British Antarctic Survey will embark on an expedition next month to study the impact of the iceberg, which is larger than Luxembourg. If it gets stuck on the continental shelf and releases billions of metric tons of freshwater into the ocean, it could destroy feeding grounds for large colonies of penguins, seals and whales. A-68A could also scrape across the sea floor, harming mollusks, crustaceans, sponges and other marine life in its path.

The big picture: “The iceberg is going to cause devastation to the sea floor by scouring the seabed communities of sponges, brittle stars, worms and sea-urchins, so decreasing biodiversity,” said Geraint Tarling, an ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey. “These communities help store large amounts of carbon in their body tissue and surrounding sediment. Destruction by the iceberg will release this stored carbon back into the water and, potentially, the atmosphere, which would be a further negative impact.”

Read more here.

Vanessa Bauza is Conservation International's Editorial Director. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: An iceberg near Antartica (© Richard Sidey/GALAXIID)

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