Cold-stunned Turtles Find Friends Across the East

By Christine Harris

Most people think of sea turtles as exotic creatures you encounter while snorkeling off the shores of tropical islands, but many sea turtles will journey as far north as the Gulf of Maine. In fact, leatherback sea turtles will travel as far north as the Arctic Sea in pursuit of jellyfish. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded and abrupt decreases in water temperature can leave them stunned. This is what happens to dozens of sea turtles that wash ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay each fall in Massachusetts.

An adult Kemp's ridley sea turtle.  Photo courtesy of USFWS.

An adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

This fall has seen the most stranded turtles of any fall on record. The turtles are juveniles that rode the jet stream northward and have been foraging in the area during the warmer summer months. As the temperatures cool the turtles begin to head south but many of them become trapped in Cape Cod Bay. A cold snap in early November quickly cooled water temperatures cold-stunning many turtles. When they become stunned the turtles can no longer swim and are carried along by wind and currents. Fortunately, coordinated efforts from volunteers, non-profit and government organizations, and numerous facilities in Florida, North Carolina and beyond have saved hundreds of these doomed turtles.

Between November 3 and November 26 the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary with the help of countless volunteers and the Cape Cod National Seashore recovered over 1,000 sea turtles, both alive and dead. Of those turtles, around 600 were found alive. About eighty percent of the turtles recovered were Kemp’s ridleys, the world’s most critically-endangered sea turtle species, while the remainder were green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, also endangered species. Even a couple of unusual hybrid sea turtles have been found. Scientists are hopeful that the fact that such large numbers of juvenile Kemp’s ridleys have washed up could be an indicator that the species is being protected on its nesting grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

With such a large number of turtles, the small Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was soon teeming with chilled turtles. Typically stranded turtles found by the Sanctuary are brought to the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility in Quincy, Massachusetts to continue their recovery. With the unprecedented influx of cold-stunned turtles this fall, the New England Aquarium facility quickly filled and other rehab options were needed. Fortunately for hundreds of turtles, aquariums and rehab facilities across the East stepped up to take them in.

In the early morning hours of November 26, 193 Kemp’s ridleys that were at the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility were loaded into padded boxes and driven to Joint Base Cape Cod. There the turtles were loaded onto a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft that flew them to Orlando, Florida. After arriving in Orlando the turtles were distributed to seven marine animal rehab facilities in Northern and Central Florida. The same morning another fifty Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles were brought to Norwood, Massachusetts where a private pilot met them and flew them to North Carolina to be distributed to aquariums.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Though the influx has slowed, turtles are continuing to be found on Cape Cod Bay beaches regularly though at this point most that are washing up are dead. A dedicated group of people continue to survey the beaches daily in search of any survivors.

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A Greener Thanksgiving

By Christine Harris

For most Americans Thanksgiving is a day of overindulgence. We eat and drink too much. We travel long distances by car or plane. From an environmental perspective, Thanksgiving is not typically a green holiday. However there are many easy ways that you can decrease your emissions and use of resources and still have a meaningful holiday. Here are a few tips to make your Thanksgiving a bit greener.

American turkeys. Photo by Christine Harris.

American turkeys. Photo by Christine Harris.

Grow your own: In most parts of the country fruits and vegetables can be grown well into the fall. With a little planning many of your Thanksgiving favorites can come right from your own backyard or a plot in a community garden. If it’s too cold to keep the garden going into November, harvest earlier and freeze or can.

Check out your local farmer’s market: If you can’t grow it yourself, buy it from someone else who has grown it locally. You may even be able to find a locally raised free-range turkey at a farmer’s market or local farm.

Public market, Seattle. Photo by Christine Harris.

Public market, Seattle. Photo by Christine Harris.

Limit travel: Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Millions of us get on the road or in the air to celebrate the holiday with friends and relatives. Consider keeping your Thanksgiving celebration close to home. Technology has given us wonderful ways to connect with loved ones without having to burn tons of fossil fuels. Use face time or Skype to say hi to Grandma instead of making the 300-mile drive. If you are obliged to get on the road, make sure that your tires are well inflated to improve gas mileage. If your family has more than one vehicle take the more fuel-efficient option and carpool with friends and family if possible. Air travel uses far more fossil fuel than driving so if you are flying consider researching options for carbon offsets.

Plan the meal: If you are hosting, have a plan for what you will prepare and what your guests will bring. This will eliminate the possibility of having several of same dish and being left with too many leftovers.

Use what you have: Disposable plates and silverware are convenient, but using dishes you already have saves you money and lessens that amount of waste you produce.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Use natural decorations: If you like to decorate opt for natural decorations you can make on your own instead of elaborate store-bought centerpieces. Collect brightly colored leaves or cut some of that bothersome bittersweet in the backyard to use for homemade decorations.

Rethink Black Friday: One day of indulgence is often followed by another for those who partake in the retail “holiday” Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. If you plan to shop on Black Friday go into it with a plan. Figure out what you need and where you need to go to get it and stick to only those purchases and places. Don’t buy things you don’t need just because they are a good deal. If you can resist the urge to shop on Black Friday you can celebrate the counter-culture holiday of Buy Nothing Day instead. Avoid the crowds and spend a relaxing day with family and friends.

What ideas do you have to make this Thanksgiving a little greener?

Restoring the Herring River

The Herring River Estuary. Photo by Christine Harris.

The Herring River Estuary. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

In 1908 the Herring River Estuary in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, a system supporting 1100 acres of salt marsh, was diked off, restricting normal tidal flow and eliminating all but 10 acres of the marsh. The reasoning behind the construction of the dike seems ludicrous in light of modern ecological understanding. Today an effort is being made to restore salt marshes throughout the country, including those of the Herring River Estuary.

At the turn of the twentieth century the quaint coastal town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts was becoming a popular resort area to which many wealthy city-dwellers flocked. One popular hotel, the Chequesset Inn, located near the mouth of the Herring River, attracted an elite clientele. Guests at the Chequesset, and other area establishments, enjoyed spending time relaxing by Wellfleet Harbor, but complained about the mosquitoes. At the time it was believed that the source of the mosquitoes was the Herring River, and it was thought that if the salt marshes of the estuary were eliminated, the mosquito population in the area would decrease significantly. Thus the Chequesset Neck Dike was constructed by the state in 1908, reducing the mouth of the river from a width of several hundred feet to six feet, and effectively cutting off tidal flow beyond the dike.

Cutting off tidal flow to the Herring River significantly affected the health of the ecosystem it supported. In place of native salt marsh plants the Herring River now hosts a number of invasive plant species, including a large amount of the invasive reed phragmites. Furthermore, without the flushing of the tides and the presence of saltwater minnows such as the mummichog, a type of killifish that feed on mosquito larva, the Herring River likely provides breeding grounds for more mosquitoes now than it did before it was diked off.

Once considered to provide little more than foul smells and insects, salt marshes are now recognized as biologically significant ecosystems on which many species, including humans, depend. Peat, the spongy layer of decomposing plant material which is the base of a salt marsh, has been recognized to provide a buffer from storm damage. When storm surges threaten coastlines, peat absorbs flood waters and reduces the height of these surges, protecting coastal communities from the impacts of severe flooding.

Salt marsh peat. Photo by Christine Harris.

Salt marsh peat. Photo by Christine Harris.

Another beneficial feature of salt marshes is their role as the nurseries of the ocean. Over two thirds of all commercially harvested seafood species, including shellfish, finfish, crabs, and lobsters, depend on the salt marsh for part of their life cycles. Salt marshes provide cover and camouflage for many of these harvestable species when they are young and most susceptible to predation, and provide a safe place for breeding and foraging. Salt marshes also have recreational value as popular places to fish, kayak, and contemplate the natural world.

With knowledge of the benefits which marshes provide, local communities, the state, the county and the Cape Cod National Seashore have taken on the task of restoring several previously degraded salt marsh systems on Cape Cod, including that of the Herring River. Most of these restoration projects focus on the use of gradual tidal restoration to reintroduce saltwater, along with the species of plants and animals it supports, over the course of many years.  The Herring River restoration project centers around the reconstruction of the Chequesset Neck Dike. The proposed structure would provide access to the public for fishing and boating and have a series of sluice gates that could allow for incremental tidal restoration across a width of 100 feet. Construction of the new dike is set to begin in 2016.

Cultch is Clutch in Wellfleet Harbor

Wellfleet Harbor.  Photo by Christine Harris.

Wellfleet Harbor. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

For seafood aficionados the town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts is synonymous with one thing: oysters. These briny morsels have been a staple of the town’s economy since the 1700s and are known far and wide for their unique flavor. The decline, recovery, and cultivation of oysters in Wellfleet follows the ecological understanding of these animals and has led to an innovative recycling project in the town.

First called Oyster Bay by Samuel de Champlain when he explored the area in 1605, Wellfleet Harbor has been a hotbed of oyster harvest and cultivation for over 300 years and was likely harvested by the native Wampanoag people for centuries beforehand. However, by the beginning of the 1800s the oysters in Wellfleet Harbor were gone. The disappearance is likely due to a combination of overfishing and a lack of cultch in the harbor. Cultch is a term used to describe broken shells used by baby oysters or “spat” as a substrate on which to grow. The spat attach to cultch and grow and live affixed to that substrate.

Oyster. Photo by David Monniaux courtesy of Wikicommons.

Oyster. Photo by David Monniaux courtesy of Wikicommons.

During the 1700s the shells of oysters and clams that were harvested from the harbor were used to make shell lime for mortar for construction and thus not returned to the water. Without the return of shells to the harbor spat had no cultch on which to grow and over time the oysters disappeared. With little understanding of the life cycle of the oyster, many of the people of Wellfleet believed that God was punishing them for their sins by taking away their most valuable food and economic source.

With the loss of its native oysters, the people of Wellfleet began to bring in oysters from the Chesapeake Bay to grow in the waters of Wellfleet Harbor and later be sold in markets in Boston. Though the oysters may have originated elsewhere, the flavor of an oyster comes from the waters in which it lives, so these imported oysters still tasted like Wellfleet oysters. Today the cultivation of oysters in the harbor continues to thrive.

In celebration of the importance of the oyster to Wellfleet, an annual Oysterfest is held in October each year. The event has grown in recent years and in 2013 an estimated 25,000 people descended on the small town to indulge in a variety of oyster dishes, listen to live music, browse products from local artists, and have a good time. With so many people consuming oysters many shells are left behind. At the event in 2012 an estimated 100,000 oysters and 10,000 clams were consumed. Five tons of oyster shells were collected and recycled, amounting to 43 percent of the waste stream from the event. These shells, and others collected since, are now being used as cultch in Wellfleet Harbor and are providing habitat for future generations of shellfish.

It is estimated that in the three years since the shell-recycling program began enough habitat has been added to Wellfleet Harbor for 60 million new oysters which is 15 times the annual harvest rate. The oysters also improve the water quality in the harbor by filtering 3 billion gallons of water a day. In 2012 Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT), the organization behind Oysterfest, and the Town of Wellfleet won the Municipal Innovation Award at the annual Mass Recycle Awards.  This innovative program holds promise for the future of oysters in Wellfleet Harbor and beyond.

Wood Storks No Longer Listed as Endangered

Wood_Stork

Wood Stork. Photograph courtesy of the USFWS.

By Christine Harris

We often hear stories of species teetering on the brink of extinction. Rarely do we hear positive news about the fate of a threatened or endangered species, but the continuing recovery of the wood stork (Mycteria americana) is one of those rare stories.

A large, bald, wading bird standing approximately four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the American wood stork population was drastically reduced by habitat loss and fragmentation as many of the Florida wetlands in which it bred and lived were destroyed.  This habitat loss led to a drastic population decrease from 40,000 breeding adults in the 1930s to around 10,000 in the 1970s. Today the population of breeding adults is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.

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Wood Stork Florida habitat. Image courtesy of University of Florida.

The wood stork’s population increase over the past thirty years is partially due to the fact that the species has expanded its range and established breeding colonies in new areas in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.  These new breeding colonies have helped the species to compensate for the loss of some of its historic nesting grounds in Florida. The wood stork has also expanded its wintering grounds to include parts of Mississippi and Alabama.

On June 26, 2014 Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO Sally Jewell announced that the wood stork is being downgraded from an endangered to a threatened species.  Jewell made the announcement at the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the coast of Georgia where an artificial wetland created in the 1980s now harbors 800 breeding adult wood storks.  Restored and artificial wetlands throughout the wood stork’s breeding range have helped contribute to its recovery.

Mycteria_americana_-Harris_Neck_National_Wildlife_Refuge,_Georgia,_USA_-nests-8

 

Wood Storks in their habitat. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

Although the population has made a significant recovery, not everyone is happy about the decision to change the bird’s status from endangered to threatened.  Florida’s chapter of the National Audubon Society has publicly decried the decision citing the decline of the species in its historic range as cause for concern.  Though the species is now breeding in areas where it didn’t when it was listed thirty years ago, many of the wetlands in which it bred historically have been further destroyed or damaged since it was listed leading to a population decline in some areas of Florida.

Although some consider the status change to be premature, the protection awarded to the species under the Endangered Species Act will be virtually the same as it was when the wood stork was listed as endangered.  The downgrade to “threatened” indicates that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal agency that oversees the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, no longer considers the species to be at risk for extinction.  Thirty years ago many believed the wood stork would never see a status downgrade.  When the species was first listed in 1984 wildlife biologists feared the bird would be extinct by 2000.

 

 

Bunny-free Beauty: A Look at Cruelty-Free Cosmetics

By Christine Harris

Image

Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Is our vanity worth the suffering of other living creatures? Though there is no doubt that safety should be ensured before a new product enters the market, modern science has provided effective testing methods that do not require the use of live animals for cosmetics tests. Many of the most widely-used cosmetics in the United States are tested on animals and it can be difficult to find products that are cruelty-free.

Fortunately PETA has amassed a searchable database of over 1300 cruelty-free cosmetics companies. You can also use the database to find companies that do test on animals.  Unfortunately many well-known cosmetics brands test on animals including Maybelline, Revlon, Johnson & Johnson and Proctor and Gamble, owners of Covergirl.  At first glance finding mainstream, drugstore brands that are cruelty-free may seem like a difficult task, but many well-known brands like Aveda, Paul Mitchell, e.l.f., wet n wild, the Body Shop and Physician’s Formula have all jumped on the cruelty-free bandwagon.

When compared to recent progress made by other countries in limiting and banning cosmetic testing on animals, the United States is lagging behind. In 2013 Israel banned the sale of all animal-tested cosmetics. In South Korea the government invested more than $150 million to establish a non-animal testing center for medicated cosmetics such as sunscreens and anti-wrinkle creams.

A new policy to take effect in China in June of 2014 will no longer require that cosmetics and other personal care products be tested on animals before they can be sold to the public.  Now the sale of non-animal-tested “non-specialized cosmetics” produced in China, including soap, shampoo, and some skin-care products, will be permitted as long as the ingredients in those products have already been deemed safe through past testing or are tested using European Union (EU) methods of non-animal testing.  The EU, which currently has 27 member nations, is at the forefront of cruelty-free cosmetics, banning the import and sale of cosmetics that include ingredients tested on animals in 2013. Also in 2013, India became the first Asian country to ban animal testing of cosmetics within its borders.

There is hope that similar strides will soon be made in the United States through the Humane Cosmetics Act. Introduced on March 4, 2014 by Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Virgina, the Humane Cosmetics Act would make it illegal for anyone to conduct or commission cosmetic animal testing in the US. It would also prohibit the sale or transport of any cosmetics tested on animals or cosmetics containing ingredients tested on animals in interstate commerce.

Modern science has contributed a number of well-developed, non-animal tests for cosmetic products.  With these new methods available the use of animals as test subjects is becoming unnecessary and obsolete.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Rethinking Invasive Species

Invasive Asian carp jumping out of a river in Missouri. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

Invasive Asian carp jumping out of a river in Missouri. Photo courtesy of the USFWS.

By Christine Harris

Throughout North America new thinking about old enemies has led to innovative, and sometimes profitable, uses for some of the most noxious invasive species.

Those who spend time on the beaches or in the salt marshes along the northeast coast of the United States have likely encountered one of the most prolific and destructive marine invasive species: the European green crab (Carcinus maenas). Arriving in the Cape Cod area in the mid-1800s, it can now be found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Virginia. The European green crab is a fierce predator and has contributed to declines of marketable species such as softshell clams, blue crabs, and lobsters and to a decrease in eel grass beds, an important marine habitat for many species.

Traditionally there has been little commercial value for green crabs due to the fact that they don’t have much appeal as an edible species for human consumption. Fortunately fishermen have recognized that a commercially valuable species, the American lobster (Homarus americanus), enjoys dining on green crab. A new commercial fishery has developed in Nova Scotia to capture green crabs for use as lobster bait. Currently 53 commercial green crab fishermen are registered with Nova Scotia’s Department of Fish and Oceans and a special trap has been developed for the fishery. With current market values, a fisherman needs to catch about 600 green crabs to make $100.  This may sound like a lot of work for a small return, but take into account that one trap can catch over 1,000 green crabs in one night and you get a sense of how profitable the industry could be and of the abundance of these invasive crabs.

Deliberately brought to the Midwest in the 1970’s to clean up fish farms, invasive Asian carp species have become so prolific that the biomass in some stretches of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois Rivers consists of 95 percent invasive carp. Carp eat low on the food chain which means that they disrupt the food supply of most other species where they are found. They have also proven to be a serious safety hazard to boaters. One of the introduced carp species, the silver carp, reacts to the sound of boat motors by leaping into the air. With some individuals weighing over 50 pounds these fish can do serious damage to a person or their boat.

Though flying fish may seem scary to some, they provide excitement for others, and thus the Redneck Fishing Tournament was born. This annual competition awards cash prizes to the fishermen who can net the most of these fish and works to lower their population at the same time. Though the tournament takes only a tiny dent out of the overall population, some are hopeful that marketing invasive carp species as an edible fish will help to decrease their abundance.

For those who are willing to give it a try, Asian carp are a palatable fish similar to cod in taste and texture. Recently a Parisian chef working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has gotten federal approval to market the fish under the name “silver fin” to eliminate the stigma traditionally associated with the name carp. Currently no large scale fish processing plant can accommodate Asian carp, a species that is anatomically different from the fish those plants process now. If a processing plant were developed to process them, Asian carp could become a valuable commercial fishery, aiding in keeping the population in check.

There is no doubt that invasive species are one of the greatest threats to the integrity of ecosystems and the health of our environment. Though most will never be eradicated, with some ingenuity more invasive species could be put to good use and their populations reduced at the same time.