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How a west Cork lough is offering a window to the changing ocean

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James Bell and Valerio Micaroni from Victoria University of Wellington and Rob McAllen of UCC dive deep into the world of Lough Hyne.

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A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Deeper than most scuba divers can safely work and above where most underwater robots are designed to descend lie some of the most poorly studied ecosystems in the world.

Between 30 and 150 metres down is the ocean’s mesophotic zone, meaning middle-light. Communities of life exist here at the limit of where photosynthesis can occur. On rocky surfaces in the cold water, seaweeds slowly give way to sponges, anemones and sea squirts – small tube-like creatures that filter plankton from the water.

Sandwiched between shallow and deeper environments, these twilight ecosystems offer food and habitat to the fish and other species we catch. The lower light levels mean they can forage with less risk of being seen and eaten by predators.

But the distance of these ecosystems from the surface doesn’t spare them from human influences. Sediment and nutrients from farms and mines obscure the light reaching the seafloor, while fishing pots and nets can damage the fragile animals living in mesophotic ecosystems. Rising sea surface temperatures are likely to be affecting these areas in ways we still don’t understand, as their remoteness makes it very difficult to study.

Remarkably, one of our best guides to what’s happening down there can be found much closer to the surface, in a saltwater lake tucked away on Ireland’s southern coast.

Lough Hyne marine reserve

Lough Hyne is the Republic of Ireland’s only marine reserve – a protected area of the ocean – and it supports more than 1,850 species in just half a square kilometre. The lough is more than 50 metres deep, but even in its shallows, animals and plants grow that would more typically be found in the mesophotic zone.

Sponges and anemones that are usually found 30 to 40 metres down occur in the lough as shallow as five metres. In research published 20 years ago, we described the wide range of animals living beneath the surface on the rocky cliffs, including cup corals, wandering lobsters and spider crabs. Most conspicuous are the sponges, which form dense gardens of more than 100 species.

The lough is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow, shallow channel. The rocky sill that runs across it restricts the water flowing in and out, with currents only detectable inside the lough during the incoming tide. This relative calm lets sediment in the water settle and reduces how much light can penetrate.

These conditions, combined with the lough’s sheltered nature, create ecosystems at shallow depths that would normally emerge in much deeper water. Lough Hyne lets scientists study the mesophotic without the logistical challenges of working there.

A dramatic shift

The mesophotic communities of the lough were thought to have changed very little for decades. That was until a 2016 visit, when we noticed a dramatic shift.

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In recently published research, we reported how the abundance of sponges in the lough shrank by half between 2000 and 2018. Slow-growing sponges, particularly those species which form branches, were worst affected. In some places, sponges had disappeared completely. In their place, faster-growing sea squirts and dense tufts of seaweed had proliferated.

These changes were most dramatic where water currents were at their weakest in the lough, to the west. There has been no consistent monitoring of the lough’s underwater cliffs, so it’s impossible to say exactly when the change occurred. But based on older surveys and conversations with regular visitors, we think it happened sometime between 2010 and 2015.

It’s difficult to be certain what caused the change, whether it was a natural event or the result of human activities. There could have been a sudden increase in the amount of sediment reaching the lough from the surrounding land, or an unusual quirk in the lough’s chemistry, or a sudden change in temperature.

Sponges living just outside the lough in shallow water don’t appear to have been affected. But we have no idea if mesophotic habitats around the coasts of Ireland and Britain, similar in species make-up to those in Lough Hyne, have changed too.

Thanks to support from Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, we’ve established new long-term monitoring stations – areas of the seabed we’ve marked out to return to year after year – on the underwater cliffs, to assess any further changes. Happily, we are already starting to see new sponges starting to settle and grow.

At this stage, it’s not clear if all the sponge species will return, or how long it might take for the larger sponges to grow back. To our knowledge, the sudden disappearance of sponge gardens on this scale has never happened in the lough before.

Our new surveys will help reveal how fast these unique communities recover from disturbances though, and allow us to track any future changes, as well as their causes. Not only will this help us better manage Lough Hyne, but also other mesophotic ecosystems across the world.

The Conversation

By James Bell, Rob McAllen and Valerio Micaroni

James Bell is a professor of marine biology at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Valerio Micaroni is a PhD candidate in coastal and marine biology and ecology, also at the Victoria University of Wellington. 

Rob McAllen is professor of marine conservation at University College Cork. He is also research coordinator for the university’s labs at Lough Hyne.



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London is the best European city for founders, Startup Genome report

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The UK capital was the only European city to make the top ten in Startup Genome’s ranking, tying with New York in second place for the second year in a row.

London is Europe’s number one start-up city, according to a recent report by Startup Genome. The research and advisory body which specialises in start-ups released its ‘Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021’ report today (22 September).

The report identified London and New York as joint second-best cities in the world for start-ups. London was the only European location to make it into the top ten. The city is attractive to founders thanks to its educated workforce and tax incentives, the report found.

Silicon Valley in California took the top spot, unsurprisingly. This year’s global rankings were dominated by the US, with half of the top 30 ecosystems coming from this region, followed by Asia with 27pc and Europe with 17pc of the top performing ecosystems globally.

Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles alone contributed more than 70pc to the US’s total ecosystem value.

Paris made the top 20, coming in at number 12. The Amsterdam-Delta region followed in thirteenth place. Dublin improved its rank from the previous year’s report, coming in at number 36 this time.

Beijing, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Seattle and Stockholm also made the top ten best start-up cities.

The global start-up economy is currently worth more than $3.8trn in ecosystem value. There are 79 ecosystems generating over $4bn in value, which is more than double the number identified in 2017. This time last year, 91 ecosystems had achieved unicorn status.

Also in 2020, Startup Genome published a report indicating its concerns over the future of the start-ups ecosystem during Covid-19. The report suggested that 42pc of start-ups were in what it called ‘the red zone,’ meaning they had three months or fewer runway ahead of them.

Several countries  including the UK, France and Germany introduced special support packages for start-ups. Irish non-profit Scale Ireland also introduced a similar start-up scheme for Irish companies.

“Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community leaders in Europe have been working hard to build inclusive innovation ecosystems that are engines of economic growth and job creation for all,” commented JF Gauthier, founder and CEO of Startup Genome on the report’s release.

“The Global Startup Ecosystem Report is the foundation of knowledge where we, as a global network, come together to identify what policies actually produce economic impact and in what context,” Gauthier added.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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Facebook oversight board to review system that exempts elite users | Facebook

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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.

The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.

Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.

Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.

The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.

The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.

The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.

Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.

A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.

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Philippines imposes 12 per cent digital services tax • The Register

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The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.

Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.

The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.

“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.

Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.

“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.

However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.

Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.

The Philippines is not alone in introducing a digital services tax to raise more revenue after the COVID-19 pandemic hurt government revenue – Indonesia used the same logic in 2020 .

But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.

The USA has backed that view of digital services taxes, by announcing it will impose tariffson nations that introduce them – but is yet to enact that plan.

Meanwhile, the process of creating a global approach to multinational tax shenanigans is taking years to agree and implement.

But The Philippines wants more cash in its coffers – and to demonstrate that local businesses aren’t being disadvantaged – ASAP. ®

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