Teeming with Life

My family recently returned from an amazing beach vacation, and at first, I was hesitant to write about it; the place is so special, I don’t want it overrun by tourists.  It was a beach where we went as children with my parents.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether my memory served me correctly, or if the place was the same.  To my surprise and happiness, it was exactly the same, but not in a cheesy, outdated way.  Quite the contrary, the island and the natural habitats had been conserved by a local conservancy that prevented the place from being overdeveloped with hotels and high-rises.

The place is Kiawah Island in South Carolina, and it was teeming with life, both on the island and in the ocean.  We saw deer around every corner while biking on the 30 miles of walking and biking trails, and alligators sunning themselves around dispersed lagoons. There is 10 miles of packed beach where we biked and saw jelly fish, conch, horseshoe crabs, snails, crabs, and of course, the highlight for me, dolphins.  The dolphins were about 15 feet off the beach.  They were tail-slapping and clearly foraging for fish.  Dolphins off South Carolina are also known for something called strand-feeding, where they chase fish off a shallow beach or sandbar and then strand themselves on the land to feed on the herded fish before falling back into the water.  We didn’t see this behavior, even though we did sail by some of the areas where they are known to do it.  Hopefully, we will see it someday as I hope to visit Kiawah annually with my family. This special place reminded me why I wanted to be a marine biologist and encouraged me to start this blog again.

Belugas!

Beluga whales?  Off of Rhode Island?  Sounds like wishful thinking to us whale lovers, but it is true!  I would love to see beluga whales in the wild and despite a vacation to Quebec City last summer, we didn’t make it far enough north to actually see these amazing animals in the St. Lawrence River.  Days ago, however, scientists from the Mystic Aquarium along with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management confirmed reports of sightings of three beluga whales off the coast of Rhode Island.

Researchers from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries obtained biopsy samples to assess the health and genetic origins of the whales. The coordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network also identified one of the beluga whales as being from the threatened St. Lawrence population through photo-identification.  The whale was last seen in 2013.  The other whales are believed to be from the same population which has been in decline in the past decade.  Once numbering more than 10,000 animals in the late 1800s, the population was estimated in 2012 to be around 900 animals.

It is unknown why the beluga whales are in US waters, though they have been spotted in Rhode Island waters before and have occasionally been spotted off in Maine and Massachusetts.  This is the first time, however, that a group of three whales has been spotted in the area.  Since the water temperatures in the Northeast are still cool, they are believed to be favorable for the whales and their prey.  They may have followed the cold waters of the Labrador Current down the coast.

While the whales are not regular residents in the US Northeast, they are protected like all other marine mammals in the US by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. Boaters are prohibited from interacting with the whales and are required to stay at least 100 feet away from the animals; to not chase them, feed them, or impede their movements; and to slow to no-wake speeds if near the whales.  And, if you are lucky enough to see the whales, take a picture (from a distance) and send it to me so I can live vicariously through you.

A lionfish crisis

I have recently learned about a new crisis that is brewing in deep coral reefs in the Caribbean.  Is it a shark?  No.  Coral bleaching?  No.  Dynamite fishing?  No.  It’s a lionfish.  For those of you who know what a lionfish is, you may be thinking how could a fish that is usually found in an aquarium create a “crisis.”  Well, lionfish are actually native to tropical reef waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Yet, in 1992, an aquarium that broke during Hurricane Andrew is believed to have released a few lionfish into the Atlantic Ocean.  Since then, reports have begun to come in regularly from divers in Florida.  Lionfish have branched out and are now found along the U.S. East Coast from Florida north to Massachusetts.  Luckily for the northern states, the species’ intolerance of cold winter temperatures means it is unlikely to survive in these areas.  However, in the warm waters south of Florida, it’s quite another story.

LionfishThe distribution of lionfish has spread from Florida south into the Caribbean.  Since the early 2000’s, lionfish have been documented in Bermuda and the Bahamas.  Since the second half of 2007, they have spread rapidly throughout the Caribbean.  Sightings have occurred in the Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, St. Croix (USVI), Haiti, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Dry Tortugas, Aruba, and Netherlands Antilles.  They are now heading further southward into Mexican, Central, and South American waters.

So why does this matter?  Lionfish are voracious predators that quickly adapt to eating new types of food, and they have no native predators in Atlantic or Caribbean waters.  They are believed to be as abundant now as some native grouper species in the Atlantic Ocean.  Lionfish have venomous dorsal, ventral, and anal spines that can deter predators and injure humans.  They can reproduce year-round and are relatively resistant to parasites, giving them an advantage over native species.  They are also fast growing and can outgrow and out-compete native species for food and space.

Lionfish are eating fish and invertebrates in large quantities.  Even juvenile spiny lobsters have been found in their stomachs!  They can have a huge impact on coral reef communities, particularly given no natural predators exist where they are an invasive species.  Research in the Bahamas has suggested that lionfish likely have already had substantial impacts on Atlantic coral reefs where they have become established.  They can eat parrotfish and other herbivorous reef fishes at alarming rates; yet, reefs depend on these species to prevent seaweed and macroalgae from overgrowing the corals.

Since lionfish are spreading so fast, eradication is unlikely.  The only thing we can do now is to try to protect valuable and vulnerable reefs from these voracious predators and to slow their expansion into new areas.  Education and involvement of divers and snorkelers are the best bet to slowing the expansion of lionfish.  It will also be important to maintain or rebuild healthy populations of potential native predator species, such as sharks and grouper, which may feed on lionfish.  It is important we act now before it’s too late to protect these reefs which are so important to the ecology and tourism economy of many Caribbean nations.

World Oceans Day

Happy world oceans day! From generating oxygen to regulating our climate, we have a lot to thank the oceans for. But sadly, they’re in peril…

Nestled comfortably between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is World Oceans Day. Although originally proposed in 1992, this year was the first year that World Oceans Day has been officially declared by the United Nations. It is now June 8th every year!

Sadly, the world’s oceans really need this recognition. We are up against quite a few challenges in keeping them healthy, clean, and beautiful. The recently lost Air France airplane has highlighted the problem of trash in the ocean as recovery crews found it difficult to decipher between floating trash and airplane pieces. One of the biggest trash problems we have to contend with is a big garbage heap in the Pacific Ocean. While it is commonly called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” there are actually two patches. The way the ocean currents come together and create giant vortexes of water—think water going down the drain of your bath tub, but at a much larger scale—the trash in the ocean gets stuck in the middle and forms giant patches. These patches have actually been estimated to be twice the size of the continental United States. So, what’s the problem? Well, one is plastic. It makes up most of the trash heap. Floating plastic bags can look a lot like jellyfish to hungry sea turtles and other animals. Those plastic rings that hold together your six-pack of soda can also spell trouble as they can strangle or deform entangled animals.

The garbage heap isn’t the only problem. We have dead zones in the oceans, with the most notorious being in the Gulf of Mexico. Dead zones are exactly what they sound like, places in the ocean where animals cannot survive because there simply isn’t enough oxygen. The Mississippi River, which runs right through the heartland of America, collects nutrients from excess fertilizers of farms and dumps these nutrients into the Gulf. They create a chain of events that depletes of the water of oxygen.

So, we’ve got trash and we’ve got dead zones. They are just a few of the problems. We also have ice bergs melting and sea levels rising due to climate change. Some marine animals are scrambling to find cooler waters. Coral reefs are bleaching due to increased temperatures and sun light. We have problems from pollution in addition to dead zones. Mercury and other toxins in the oceans are working their way up the food chain and polluting some types of fish. Sounds, such as from active sonars, are also polluting the waters and wreaking havoc on marine mammal species that need sound to find food, mates, and possibly even up from down. Fishing is changing the composition of eco-systems. Fish are being over-fished. Marine mammals, sea turtles, sea birds, sharks, and many other animals are getting accidentally caught in fishing gear. It sure makes you wonder what else had to die so you could have cod for dinner.

Overwhelmed yet? I am. I think the world’s oceans are certainly overdue for their day of recognition! Considering the oceans help generate oxygen to breathe, control our climate and prevent us from entering another ice age, give us food to eat, and provide beaches for soaking in the sun, I think we have a lot to thank them for. Oceans, you may only get one day a year, but thanks for the 364 others. Happy World Oceans Day.

It’s Earth Day!

It’s Earth Day! What can you do today to celebrate the earth? Here are some ideas…

It’s Earth Day! What can you do today to celebrate the earth? Here are just a few ideas:

  • Walk or bike ride to class or work instead of driving your car. Or at least, take public transportation!
  • Join a CSA. That’s community support agriculture for those of you new to the sustainable or local food movements. Find a farm near you at: Local Harvest.
  • Recycle. Or better yet, fill up a reusable water bottle from the tap before heading outside.
  • Offset your emissions. There are a number of places you can do this. Check out Carbon Fund or Terra Pass.

Power off and get outside and enjoy the day—rain or shine! And, when you power back up tomorrow, share with us how you celebrated Earth Day today so that we can take your advice tomorrow. Every day should be Earth Day!

Go Green by Choosing the Greens in Seafood Guides

There is a cheat sheet you won’t get in trouble for using, and it has to do with which fish is the best choice at your fishmonger or seafood restaurant…

Did you know there is actually a cheat sheet you won’t get in trouble for using? Yep, it’s a cheat sheet that will help you choose seafood that is sustainable. Several organizations make these cheat sheets, or seafood guides, that take into account many different factors including the level of bycatch, impact of the fishing gear on habitat, and the status of the fish populations. Using color codes, the seafood guides indicate which seafood you should pick. Green means go for it! To no surprise, red means stop or think twice before buying this seafood.

Check out the regional pocket guides, available from Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There’s even a guide for sushi! Print one out or download it to your iphone and take it with you to restaurants and grocery stores. How does your favorite seafood rate?

ADDENDUM: Check out the new Seafood Watch Guide as an iPhone App! It’s even better than the pocket guides because it hooks into the latest data. So just by checking your phone, you’ll know immediately if something’s gone fishy with your favorite seafood.