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Saving Sea Turtles by Improving Shrimp Boat Nets

Faithful readers of The Weedpatch Gazette will recall that I’ve veered away from plants and land conservation several times to write about how to save endangered sea turtles. I get especially passionate about this issue when we visit the Florida Keys. A stop in Marathon to see (maimed) turtles at The Turtle Hospital will make you realize that there can be a big downside to a day on a motorboat or eating a big plate of shrimp.

Boats, pollution from sewage (yes, it’s true, the Florida Keys are JUST NOW stopping their sewage from going into the ocean), and plastic bottles and grocery bags kill and maim these incredible creatures. The Atlantic Ocean is home to five out of the seven of the world’s species of sea turtles. All five are endangered–in danger of no longer breeding or living in the ocean. Can you imagine our lives without sea turtles?

Enter the National Marine Fisheries Service–which is part of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which is part of the U.S. Dept of Commerce. Commerce will likely soon be headed by Wilbur Ross, billionaire steel- and shipping investor who will preside over, ahem, trade deals. This not only means issues like the TPP, but also Japan, Iceland, and Norway’s fishing of whales and our research on weather, climate science, melting ice, rising seas, and yes, sea turtles.

Last week the National Marine Fisheries Service at long last issued a proposed rule updating a proposed rule issued in 2012 (!) which was developed as a result of settling a lawsuit filed by several groups: the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Sea Turtle Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife. The lawsuit was filed after 3,500 turtles turned up injured or dead in the Gulf of Mexico in the year after the BP Oil Spill (April, 2010). [See below]

By law all but one group of American ocean-fishing shrimp boats must use TED nets. (Imported shrimp must also prove that their boats use TEDs.) The new proposal would include those boats currently exempted: shrimp boats that fish in bays and estuaries. Instead of using TED nets, these boats limited the amount of time they fished, but that time restriction on them appears not to have helped the turtles enough. The turtles died en masse.

While I think most fishermen want to do right by animals even at some cost to themselves, I hope that the shrimp boat owners in shallower waters don’t put up a big stink and derail the rule. It’s possible though. Here’s the backstory as described in a 2010 article in the NYTimes describing the massive deaths of sea turtles not long after the BP Oil Spill:

Shrimpers emerged as a prime suspect in the NOAA investigation when, after a round of turtle necropsies in early May, Dr. Stacy announced that more than half the carcasses had sediment in the airways or lungs — evidence of drowning. The only plausible explanation for such a high number of drowning deaths, he said, was, as he put it, “fisheries interaction.”

Environmentalists saw the findings as confirmation of their suspicions that shrimpers, taking advantage of the fact that the Coast Guard and other inspectors were busy with the oil spill, had disabled their turtle excluder devices.

The devices are so contentious that Louisiana law has long forbidden its wildlife and fisheries agents to enforce federal regulations on the devices. Last month, Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed legislation that would have finally lifted the ban, citing the “challenges and issues currently facing our fishermen.” By contrast, Mississippi officials strengthened turtle protections by decreasing the allowable tow time for skimmers, posting observers on boats, and sending out pamphlets on turtle resuscitation.

Officials in both states say that turtles die in shrimp season even when shrimpers follow the law, from boat strikes and other accidents. They also say there have been far fewer shrimpers working since the spill, in part because many have hired out their boats to BP. That should mean fewer, not more, turtle deaths.

But there has also been illegal activity. In Louisiana, agents have seized more than 20,000 pounds of shrimp and issued more than 350 citations to commercial fishermen working in waters closed because of the oil spill. In Mississippi in June, three skimmer boats were caught exceeding legal tow times — one just hours after the shrimper had been given a handout explaining that the maximum time had been reduced, Lieutenant Armes said.

As for the piece of shrimp that Dr. Stacy found lodged in the turtle’s throat during the necropsy, it, too, pointed to shrimpers. A turtle is normally not quick enough to catch shrimp, Dr. Stacy said. Unless, of course, it is caught in a net with them.”

Please let NOAA Fisheries know by Feb 14 what you think of the rule (even if all you do is send them a link to this article). Please also do all you can to encourage conservative businessman Wilbur Ross to approve it. Maybe send him your message in a plastic water bottle?

A sea turtle will thank you…##

Here’s how the new net that releases turtles, sharks and other large animals works:

Coral Restorations (And You Thought Restoring Oak Savannas Was Tricky)

Good morning from sunny, 80 degree Islamorada, Florida, which I first learned means “purple island” but later learned means the “little drinking village in the Florida Keys with a fishing problem”.

I had the great good fortune of going fishing (no, I didn’t catch anything except an oversized minnow, aka extremely undersized fish) and also snorkeling (the closest I come to “sport”). The snorkeling is wonderful in the Keys, which is because all the individual reefs here are part of the Great Florida Reef, the third largest coral barrier reef in the world, after Australia and Belize. The reefs are vigorously protected by the State of Florida (1960) and the Federal government (1990).

The fish are the big draw off the Keys, but the real story is the coral that live in these waters. First, gardeners gotta love the names of the corals–flower, knobby brain, star, fat fungus, Gorgonian, elkhorn, staghorn, leaf, cactus, purple fan and golf ball. And then there’s their biology…

For those of you who, like moi, “forgot”, coral is not a plant, despite the names given to them. Coral is an animal that feeds on algae and plankton, but maybe on little fishes or urchins also, mostly at night. Yes, coral is a NOCTURNAL ANIMAL. Another surprise is that a coral may look like one large organism, but it is actually a large colony of identical attached polyps, each one of which are usually only a few centimeters tall. Each polyp has a mouth, surrounded by tentacles. In between the polyps is calcium carbonate (limestone rock) secreted by the polyps themselves.

Amazingly, the polyps reproduce by spawning (yes, sperm fertilizing eggs) during a full moon. In August. (Once in a while, July). This phenomenon bears repeating: their reproduction is HIGHLY SYNCHRONIZED TO A FULL MOON IN AUGUST. This makes me reconsider what I thought was mythology; in other words, I should buy a copy of The Farmer’s Almanac and start planting my vegetables in tune with the moon. If coral knows to do this to assure success, we should too, n’est-ce pas?

After fertilization, corals’ larva spread by the ocean’s currents throughout a reef. They settle, replicate asexually (!) during the year, grow into fantastic shapes, and create protected homes for the world’s fish. (By the way, the “full moon spawn thang” has become a big event for America’s best research aquariums, who come to the Keys to capture the gametes, take them back to the lab, and hope like hell a coral grows. To this I say, “good luck” but it makes for a great party in the Keys, I’m sure.)

Plants are often raised in nurseries, and so are animals, including corals. Beginning in 2003, the Coral Restoration Foundation [CRF] began to take “cuttings” of live elkhorn and staghorn coral, created ocean-floor nurseries of these “mother” segments, and are now raising thousands of new corals. When large enough, volunteer scuba divers “transplant” the corals back onto reefs. So far, the experiment is working. The corals are growing in their new homes. Nonetheless, the restoration hopes of the CRF are big: 98% of the elkhorn and staghorn coral have died in the Keys in just the past 20 years.

Coral-Nursery
A coral nursery created by the Coral Restoration Foundation
(photo courtesy of Coral Restoration Foundation)

One reason for this death is that coral appears to have, ahem, an eating disorder, cause unknown but culprits include warmer seawater or yes, even sporadic very cold water temperatures. When this happens, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all the corals expel a particular microscopic algae that live in their system. This event removes the green/brown chlorophyll color contributed by the algae and turns the coral a dark white. While the coral may not die from one event, the animal becomes stressed and vulnerable. This “bleaching” phenomenon is a natural occurrence, but was seen for the first time on a massive scale in 1973, when it snowed in the Keys.

Oceanographers may be spending time worrying about the effect of warmer/colder water and climate change, but I’m even more cynical about human interference with ecology. As a former regional planner, I wondered about a different culprit, especially after a CRF scientist mentioned to me that the degraded reefs are usually covered in too much algae. What have humans created that would cause too much nitrogen? Either fertilizer run-off or sewage, right? One Google search, and it was easy to find articles about Keys’ beaches closing in 1999 because of e.coli outbreaks. Soon thereafter, a Comprehensive Plan was written that decreed that by 2010 all Keys’ towns had to eliminate septic systems. From the look of the sewer pipes being placed along Route 1, it appears that  the project is taking longer. Nonetheless, the captain of my snorkeling boat yesterday told me that he can already notice how much more clear the water is than 10 years ago when he moved here.

But is it too late for the coral despite the very best efforts of restorationists? Which will recover faster–degraded oak woods or degraded coral reefs? Don’t know, but kudos to all the people who are working hard to save both.##

Coral-planting-in-the-keys
“Transplanting” coral. Thank You to the Coral Restoration Foundation

 

 

 

Coldest Day on Record–Not So. Maybe. Go Figure.

This morning I heard a TV weatherman say this is the coldest day (-16) on record in Chicago. Of course, I had to Google that assertion, especially because I wondered if, in my lifetime, I had now lived through the hottest and the coldest days on record in Chicago. Not surprisingly, I found out that the Cable TV was mistaken (large gasp!) or at least, misleading. Turns out, the coldest recorded temperature day in Chicago occurred on January 20, 1985 when it was -27 with a -60 wind chill. In the city (note: CITY) of Chicago.

The Tribune is no better than Cable TV at creating confusion: “The Chicago area hit a new record low for today. At 8 a.m., it was minus 16 at O’Hare International Airport, according to the official recording station for the city. The old record was minus 14, set in 1988 and 1884”. Interesting, since there was no O’Hare Airport in 1884 so there was no official recording station at O’Hare to know it was -14 in 1884. (Note: Chicago AREA hit a new record.)

And, of course, the coldest day (-36) in Illinois (note: STATE of Illinois not CITY of Chicago or Chicago AREA) occurred in 1954, but that was in Congerville, Illinois, which may have disappeared into vapor that day because no one has ever heard of it since.

Here’s the best source of historic high/low temperature information for you weather geeks: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/lot/?n=chi_temperature_records

And for those gardeners who miss summer, the hottest summer was in 2012, when we had four days over 100 degrees, but the hottest day ever was on July 24, 1934, when it reached a truly sweltering 105 in Chicago (but in 1954 East St. Louis climbed to 117!).

BIRD WATCH UPDATE: Despite the cold, it’s sunny outside today with little wind. At 10 am, our bird feeders were in full frenzy, with all kinds (even cardinals and a red-bellied woodpecker) in a hungry mob. At 10:30, virtually every one flew away but into the same evergreen: a large Western Red Cedar [Thuja plicata] and only a few Dark eyed junco’s returned until 2:30 pm when they all appeared again. What’s that about? Do they take a noontime siesta together?##

2014-jan-bluejay

Photo:  Courtesy of Carolina Bird Club