A Conservation Success Story: Honu, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle

By Neva Knott

I saw more honu, Hawaiian Green Sea Turtlesthis trip to Maui than I did during the whole year I lived there. Maybe because I snorkeled more. One day, I swam about 10 feet above a small specimen, following him on his morning tour of the coral reef in Ahihi Bay. The next day, while snorkeling at Five Graves, I saw two turtles napping in small caves along the reef. Later that day, while body-boarding and swimming at Kamaole Beach Park, a sand-covered turtle swam right past, making his way down the shoreline. He came from a black lava outcropping where two more bobbed in and out of the waves. There were a few little boys playing in the waves, local boys, who kept yelling “shark” with nine-year-old boy abandon each time they’d see the turtle. When he swam past, one boy said to another, “Ride him.” I looked at him, knowing he knew better, and said, “No ride ’em” in my best pidgin, my way of letting him know I knew he knew better.

The last full day of vacation, my friends and I ventured to the North Shore, to Baldwin Beach. While the beaches along the south shore where I’d seen the other turtles are along the protected side of the island, Baldwin runs along the open ocean. As I walked down that mile-long stretch, I came across a large turtle out of the water. A young woman was standing, watching. She explained to me that this same turtle had been basking in this same spot for a week or more, a spot just out of a little calm pool created by lava rock. People were concerned, and someone had called the wildlife agency. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the turtle; she seemed to need time out of the water, possibly in anticipation of laying eggs, I thought, having seen a turtle lay her eggs once, in Mexico.

I sat and watched her bask for awhile. The combination of the trade winds, the lapping of the blue water on the black rocks, the sand on my feet, and the expression of life given by the turtle seemed to be all that existed. As I watched, another turtle swam ashore and nuzzled the one basking. He’d nudge her and she’d move closer to the water. Then the second turtle put his head upon that of the first. I don’t know if this was a sexual act or one of comfort, but it was universal in depth of emotion.

The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to literature published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), honu populations were in severe decline in the 1960s and 1970s, due to over-harvest. Since protection was granted for the species, it has made an incredible recovery, increasing over 53 percent in the last 25 years. Not only are honu part of island lore and culture, an emblem of the islands, this recovery makes them an icon of successful conservation efforts. All it took was a change in human behavior. Now that harvesting turtles and turtle eggs is illegal, honu surround the islands.

Even though the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle populations are increasing, both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA recently published a report on the Federal Register stating, ” we do not find delisting warranted.”

Honu are part of the beauty of the islands, and their presence is a reminder that the natural world and the human world only work in balance.

Western Governors’ Alliance on Ocean Health

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Driftwood on a Washington beach. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

By Neva Knott

It’s still World Oceans Month, and to celebrate, I’ve continued my investigation into ocean health in my home state, Washington, on the US West Coast. I began by looking at agency websites–Department of Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, and Washington Sea Grant, most specifically. I also took a closer look at the Marine Resource Committees and Marine Spatial Planning programs I found via Surfrider and wrote about last week. While reading these sites, I was impressed and enthused by the thought, concern, research, expertise, and collaboration drawn upon to create the protection programs for Washington’s oceans and coastal ecosystems.

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Marine Spatial Planning map. Image courtesy of NOAA.

When I read all the policy stuff, I keep my eye open for the action piece–I want to know what’s happening on the ground, after policy is set and administrative groups have been formed. On the agency websites, I noticed a gap in action between 2007/2008 and now, presumably due to recession-driven budget cuts, but I pushed on. Finally, I found the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health, an organization committed to collaborative efforts between California, Oregon, and Washington. Such collaboration is an effective strategy for agencies when individual budgets are slashed. This alliance was formed in September 2006, to promote:

  • Clean coastal waters and beaches
  • Healthy ocean and coastal habitats
  • Effective ecosystem-based management
  • Reduced impacts of offshore development
  • Increased ocean awareness and literacy among the region’s citizens
  • Expanded ocean and coastal scientific information, research, and monitoring
  • Sustainable economic development of coastal communities

What I find encouraging about this list of goals is the ecosystems approach in combination with the realities of ocean/coastal usage and problems. When an ecosystems approach is truly implemented, people, other species, place, culture, natural resources, and economics dependent thereupon are sustained. Simply put, taking the ecosystems approach promotes the triple bottom line and supports people, profits, and the planet.

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Triple Bottom Line. Image courtesy of wiki media.

Here in Washington, our culture of place and many livelihoods are dependent upon the sustainability of natural resources. We boast one of the healthiest salmon fisheries in the world, and are one of the best shellfish growing regions. Crab fishing is a viable industry, and clam-digging a regional pastime, one I’ve enjoyed since I was old enough to walk.

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Digging for razor clams. Photograph courtesy of WDFW.

While California, Oregon, and Washington each relate to the Alliance’s goals in a regionally-specific and ecosystems-specific manner, there are common factors that affect all three states. These include sea level rise, algal blooms, marine debris (tons of stuff floats our way from the Fukushima disaster), oil spill prevention and response, marine vessel emissions, marine invasive species, offshore drilling, ocean energy as renewable energy source, working waterfronts and sustainable coastal communities, and habitat for marine species.

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Cannon Beach, Oregon. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

As a way to keep the public informed about our oceans, the WCGA has created the West Coast Ocean Data Portal. The Portal is quite user-friendly and the information found there discernible. It is research-based data, categorized as biological–habitats, species, and taxa; human–boundaries, economy, infrastructure, and management; and physical–atmosphere, earth, and water. The Portal is kept current and elucidates the interconnectedness of the systems that create the triple bottom line.

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California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

 

World Oceans Month in Washington State with the Surfrider Foundation

By Neva Knott

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Puget Sound. Image Courtesy of USGS.

I have lived near water my whole life.

I was born in Olympia, Washington, a city in the south sound area of Puget Sound. The Sound ambles inland, flowing in from the north. It’s insertion into the land mass splits Washington into the Olympic Peninsula and the rest of the state. It is a magical body of water that always smells of fresh salt and seaweed, a pleasant smell, one that is quite possibly part of my DNA. Even my undergraduate alma mater, The Evergreen State College, has a three-mile strip of beach along the Sound. There is something indescribably magical and primal about the place where the forest meets the water, along a rocky shore.

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At the Evergreen Beach along Puget Sound. Photograph by Neva Knott.

I’ve also lived on Saipan, an incredibly small island in Micronesia, in Bangkok, Thailand along the dirty Chao Phraya River, in Oregon at the convergence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, and along the Deschutes River, and on Maui, another Pacific island. I return to Maui often, and as I look out at the water, I think of how the oceans connect us all–all beings across the globe.

Here in Washington, we have two marine ecosystems–the Pacific coastal shoreline and the Puget Sound. Both provide the connection of people to place, place to livelihood, lifestyle to culture. I have only recently moved back to Washington, after three decades in Oregon. As a tribute to World Oceans Month, I’ve taken on the challenge of learning more about environmental efforts toward the improvement of Washington’s unique marine ecosystems. This is the first of a series of posts to that end.

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The Olympic Mountain Range from across Puget Sound. Photograph by Neva Knott.

I first turned my attention to Surfrider Foundation. This organization began in Malibu, California 25 years ago, and is now active in 18 countries. The Washington Chapter currently has six active advocacy campaigns, each focused on drawing together people, environmental/governmental agencies, and northwest Native American tribes to improve ocean conditions or to stop proposed harmful actions against our oceans. Here is a list of their current efforts:

Ban the Bag Tacoma, “The South Sound Chapter is working to ban single-use plastic bags in Tacoma. The chapter is planning to pass an ordinance similar to those passed in Seattle, Bellingham, and other Washington cities.” A similar ban has passed legislation in Olympia; as of July 1, 2014, no more single-use plastic bags at stores. The issue–plastics are the biggest pollution threat to oceans. According to Take Part, another ocean advocacy group, plastics comprise 90 percent of the trash found in oceans. Plastic does not biodegrade quickly; it is ingested by marine wildlife, causing an array of problems.

Larrabee State Park Water Quality, “The Northwest Straits Chapter in Bellingham has been testing Larrabee State Park’s Wild Cat Cove in partnership with Department of Ecology’s WA BEACH Program. This site is consistently high in enterococus levels and it has been getting progressively worse over the years. The goal is to find the source and clean it up.” The issue–enterococus is an infectious bacterium that lives in the human bowel. It does not belong in marine ecosystems.

Pass A City Council Resolution In Opposition to Coal Exports, “In an effort to provide a diverse set of opponents against the proposed coal terminals in Cherry Point and elsewhere in the Northwest the South Sound Chapter is working with the Tacoma City Council to pass a resolution in opposition. This campaign involves significant outreach to local citizens by the chapter in order to tell the City Council how coal is a product of the past and will hurt the progress the city has made over the years. This campaign began in July 2012 and will culminate when the Council decides whether or not to pass the resolution.” The issue–coal is a dirty business, and if you’ve been reading the news, the long-haul transport of it is unsafe. Ecosystems are irreparable damaged when coal dust flies off during transport and when coal carriers spill their loads.

Prevent Crude Oil Export in Gray’s Harbor, “There are three proposed crude oil export terminals for Gray’s Harbor. Surfrider is part of a group of stakeholders working on this issue and have been successful getting two permits delayed. We would like to see all three permits not only delayed but removed from consideration.” The issue–as we learned with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, oil and ocean water don’t mix.

Save Cherry Point, “At Cherry Point in Bellingham Bay a company is looking to build a coal export terminal to ship coal to Asia. The issue: this project threatens local wetlands, water quality, air quality, and approximately eleven endangered species.”

Protect the Washington Coast, “Our goal is to enhance the conservation and restoration of marine habitats, biodiversity, and special places along Washington’s Pacific coast by: 1) Participating on county based Marine Resources Committees (local science-based groups promote marine resources stewardship and restoration). 2) Supporting the coordination of coastal MRCs and the development of a coastal partnership between stakeholders, agencies, and tribes. 3) Serving on the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. 4) Advocating for the implementation of Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning. 5) Building relationships with decision makers, managers, stakeholders, and other community members on the coast to develop and advance a shared vision for healthy coastal and marine ecosystems.” The issue–our way of life here in the Pacific Northwest is tied to the quality of our marine ecosystems. Degradation of these ecosystems will cause degradation of the lifestyle we cherish.

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 The Washington Coast. Photograph Courtesy of Department of Natural Resources.

I’m impressed by the pervasiveness of these campaigns. Surfrider has certainly identified the key issues here in the PNW, and is acting on them. What I really like about Surfrider is that their mission is a blend of environmental protection and recreation. Too often, in our region, these two user groups, or stakeholder groups, are at odds. Surfrider exemplifies that human use of natural spaces can coincide with protection of, and advocacy for, the environmental quality of them.

I’m most impressed by the Marine Spatial Planning program. It’s a State-run program in which Surfrider participates. MSP is steeped in citizen power. This matters greatly to me; one of the biggest take-aways of my graduate study in environmental science was that public comment does hold sway–all public comments must be documented and considered–in public land use planning. Here in Washington, the MSP gives the people the power over how our marine ecosystems are managed, used, and cared for. That’s democracy, for real.

So, no coal export, no crude oil export, no more plastic floating around. And no poop in the water. Instead, as citizens, we’ll honor the next generations by keeping our shorelines healthy. In so doing, we honor ourselves by keeping our shellfish beds and fisheries intact, by keeping our water clean and open for scuba diving and surfing, and our beaches clean for long walks on blustery or sunny days, because in the Pacific Northwest, that’s how we roll.

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My Dog, Ted, along the Shoreline of Puget Sound. Photograph by Neva Knott.

And, if you’ve never seen the Pacific Northwest’s Pacific shores, or even if you have, watch this video from Surfrider about the Washington coast lifestyle and how Marine Spatial Planning works to save it–beautiful and informative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWn1nNaj3Qo.

Here at The Ecotone Exchange, we publish positive stories about the environment. What’s so positive here? Global, Communal, Local efforts:  World Oceans Month–it’s not just an environmental action holiday; it is, in fact, a Presidential Proclamation, one made by President Obama in 2013. The work of Surfrider Foundation, which is pretty kick-ass and demonstrates that people who play hard in nature also have reverence for those places and work as hard as they play to protect ecosystems. And, Washington State’s Marine Spatial Planning program, a citizen-based plan to keep natural places intact as working ecosystems and places for human enjoyment and livelihood.

While research for this post, I signed up for the Surfrider Newsletter, will be attending their upcoming meetings, and am going to get myself on a Marine Resources Committee and take part in Marine Spatial Planning. I also learned that June 21st is International Surfing Day, a day of raising awareness for oceans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Getting Below the Surface

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By Shauna Potocky

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the marine wonders of the world; it is a biological hotspot—featuring an array of remarkable habitats and teeming with biodiversity. The sanctuary includes sandy beaches, rocky intertidal zones and a near-shore deep-sea canyon—all of which contribute to the unmatched concentration of marine life, world class natural resources and endless opportunities for recreation, tourism and appreciation. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is nothing short of a national treasure.

In fact, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBMNS) is just one of thirteen National Marine Sanctuaries—each of which features world class attributes, making them eligible for federal protections. Examples include Olympic Coast, Thunder Bay, Gray’s Reef, Florida Keys and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaries. Many people are not familiar with the National Marine Sanctuary system, their various locations and the innovative programs that set them apart as learning institutions. Equally important is helping people understand the valuable work sanctuary staff conduct in order to manage and protect these remarkable places.

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The National Marine Sanctuaries mission as stated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), who manages them, indicates that their role is to “conserve, protect and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy of these underwater places.” The authority for establishing and protecting the sanctuaries comes from the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and NOAA reflects on this as, “one of the strongest pieces of ocean protection.”

Paul Michel, Superintendent of the MBNMS, has a deep passion for connecting people to the ocean and our national marine sanctuaries. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him about the features that make the MBNMS so unique:

“The MBNMS is unique because of its land-sea connection; it includes 275 miles of California coast—this land-sea connection allows it to be directly adjacent to communities and accessible to user groups. The sanctuary also features an abundance of wildlife—it supports great migrations, charismatic mega fauna such as killer whales, blue whales and more. It is home to the California sea otter, and many of these animals and their unique habitats can be accessed or even seen from shore. For example, the deep–sea canyon is close to shore, it provides easy and accessible wildlife viewing.” He also added, “Because of the concentration of marine science institutions around the MBNMS, it serves as the West Coast’s equivalent of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (a world class facility focused on oceanographic and marine research). The MBNMS itself benefits from equally focused science monitoring and research.”

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It is true, the sanctuary is home to remarkable institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and Long Marine Laboratory, the marine science campus for the University of California Santa Cruz.

Regarding the greatest successes of the MBNMS, Michel reflected on a few recent achievements, including the newly built state of the art visitor center located in Santa Cruz, California, as well as the development of a model water quality protection program. In addition, the sanctuary has developed SIMoN, the Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring System , a website that focuses on long term monitoring of adjoining sanctuaries focused on tracking shifts within these protected ecosystems.

Along with these highlights, the sanctuary also features some of the best subject matter experts in kelp forest ecology and deep-water benthic characterization. Field science isn’t the only area of expertise though, as one of the most recent additions to the sanctuary’s programming demonstrates— new to the suite of programs is Your Sanctuary, a television production that helps visitors to the area connect to the value and resources of the bay.

As stunning as the sanctuary is, it also faces significant challenges. When considering some of the issues facing the MBNMS currently, Michel stressed that there is a need for increased funding for operations and programming. An increase in funding could then help with addressing some of the critical issues such as the pressures and impacts from land-based pollutants, such as chemicals, plastics and other waste that end up in the water, as well as tackling the issue of marine debris, such as lost fishing gear and nets that can continue to capture marine life, damage resources or run the risk of entangling marine mammals such as seals and whales. Of course, as climate continues to shift, the sanctuary is also facing issues associated with ocean acidification and sea level rise—these challenges are significant and need to be addressed and managed.

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When considering if the sanctuary is ready to tackle these challenges, it is reassuring to know that it is in expert hands and ready to address emerging issues. When asked how Michel would face these challenges, he replied, “Boldly! And with the best possible science and partnerships.”

Michel’s track record proves that he is skilled at working in partnerships and one tangible example is the completed MBNMS Exploration Center in Santa Cruz, “Partners are what made the Exploration Center in Santa Cruz happen,” he stated, “Without the donated land and fundraising that covered the cost of the exhibits—it couldn’t have happened.”

Partnerships and engagement take several forms, so if you are wondering if there is a place for citizens in the management of the sanctuary, it is exciting to note that there is a substantial role for both youth and citizens to engage in protecting their sanctuary.

Citizens have the opportunity to participate as a member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, a working group that consists of representatives from various stakeholder viewpoints including business, tourism, education, and citizens-at-large, all seated along side government and agency representatives. Together the working group provides guidance, recommendations and advises the Superintendent on sanctuary issues or management decisions such as on the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program, Oil and Gas Exploration and much more. Participation on the council is an empowering and insightful opportunity—it is one not to be missed if you are inspired to make a difference.

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Today, there are thirteen NMS and one monument—but why stop there? Perhaps you know of a special marine area that is worthy of sanctuary status. If so, Michel shared this exciting opportunity to get involved—currently there is a program inviting coastal communities to submit nominations for establishing new sanctuaries. With only 1 percent of marine habitats protected worldwide, and only thirteen sanctuaries set aside in the United States—it is clear that together we can do more than just be awed by our nation’s marine wonders— we can actually protect them as national treasures and legacies for the future—perhaps the one you nominate will be number fourteen.

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Photo Credits: Kirk Keeler Photography

 

Saving Jaws

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Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharius). Photo courtesy of kqedquest on Flickr.

By Christine Harris

It’s easy to get behind an effort to save pandas or elephants.  These cute, cuddly, charismatic creatures can easily open up the wallets of even the most frugal conservationists, but when was the last time you considered supporting an effort to save a cold-blooded carnivore?  Sharks across the world are experiencing severe population declines as a result of hunting and fishing practices that leave millions of these animals dead annually.

The mainstream media has filled our heads with visions of sharks as evil, man-hungry beasts.  Films like Jaws, Shark Night, and Deep Blue Sea all feature great white sharks on killing sprees.  In actuality, a shark attack on a human is extremely rare.  According to the University of Florida’s Shark Attack Files, worldwide there were an average of only two fatal shark attacks annually between 1999 and 2009.

Large, carnivorous sharks like the great white prefer to feed on marine mammals like seals and sea lions.  Most sharks that “attack” humans have confused them with one of these prey species and will recognize their error when they take a “test bite” of the human and discover that there is little fat when compared to a blubbery seal.

Often surfers, particularly those in the great-white-rich waters off of Australia, are the unfortunate victims of shark attacks.  When one considers the amount of time that surfers spend in the water and the large, dark, shape they take on from below with their boards and wetsuits, it is feasible to imagine how they could be mistaken for a marine mammal.   Though a case of mistaken identity is little consolation to a person who is bitten by a shark, it does dispel the man-hungry myth we have heard so often in popular culture.

Though sharks have traditionally been thought of as a threat to humans, the opposite is more likely to be true.  In one year it is estimated that 79 million sharks are killed by humans.  Of those 79 million, approximately 73 million are killed for use in shark fin soup.  The main conservation issue facing sharks today is the popularity of shark fin soup, particularly in Asia.  As a larger middle class emerges in China, more people are able to afford this delicacy that runs about one hundred dollars a bowl.  The fins are acquired by catching sharks, slicing off the fins and discarding them back into the water where many of them die slowly.

Fortunately, a public billboard and commercial campaign in China featuring basketball star Yao Ming has helped to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of shark fin soup.  Of those who saw the ads, the vast majority said they would stop eating the dish.  Other efforts to protect sharks include those of the Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Initiatives which have worked with countries around the world to designate 926,645 square miles of ocean as shark sanctuaries which are off limits to shark fishing of any kind.

In China, where shark fin soup is most popular, the government, in June 2013, banned the soup from all official government functions, helping to bring the issue into the national spotlight.  Though the reliability of the statistic is questionable, the Chinese ministry of commerce reported a 70 percent drop in the consumption of shark fins in China in 2012-2013.  As of January 2014, the price of shark fins had fallen 20-30 percent in major Chinese fishing markets, including Hong Kong and Macau, as the demand for fins decreased. Who would have thought that so many people would care about protecting the most feared predators in the ocean?

How likely are you go be attacked by a shark?  Check out this page from the Shark Attack Files.

Saving the Scallop

Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus). (Photo courtesy of NOAA)
Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus). (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

By Christine Harris

It was once believed that the resources of our vast oceans were inexhaustible, yet after centuries of pressure from a fishing industry looking to satisfy increasing demand with the aid of increasingly more advanced fishing technologies, many fish stocks are now seriously depleted.  While so many fisheries are experiencing a downward trend, off the Eastern coast of the United States, from Maine to North Carolina, the Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) has experienced a remarkable comeback thanks to the collaborative efforts of fishermen, scientists, fishery managers and environmental activists.

By the early 1990s the future of the Atlantic sea scallop fishery looked bleak. It had reached unsustainable levels as a result of years of heavy harvesting.  In fact, sea scallops were in such high demand that it was rumored that some restaurants would fry up circles of dogfish, a small shark, as a substitute because using the real thing was cost prohibitive.

For scallopers fishing off the coast of New England, George’s Bank, a large elevated area of the seafloor stretching from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia provides rich fishing grounds for Atlantic sea scallops and several other species.  Following the steep decline in sea scallop stocks, managers closed three large areas of George’s Bank in 1994 to any type of fishing gear that would target Atlantic sea scallops and groundfish such as cod and flounder.  Both sea scallop and groundfish fisheries rely heavily on a fishing technique called dredging.  Dredging involves using fishing gear to drag along the bottom of the ocean floor and collect a targeted bottom-dwelling species.  The issue with dredging is that it is difficult to target just one species living on the ocean floor and there is often a large bycatch, or catch of other, unintended species.  Thus fishermen seeking out scallops may end up catching a large number of groundfish, and fishermen seeking out groundfish may end up catching a large number of scallops.

Another rule implemented in 1994 was an increase in the size of the rings in the dredges used for scallop fishing from three inches to four inches in order to allow smaller scallops to escape.  Also at this time a “crop rotation” system was implemented for the Atlantic sea scallop fishery in which certain areas of the Mid and North Atlantic were temporarily closed to fishing to allow the scallops to grow and mature.  The combination of these regulations have allowed the Atlantic sea scallop population to grow ten-fold since 1993 and the fishery has been operating at a sustainable level since 2001.  These developments have helped to make the Atlantic sea scallop fishery the most valuable wild scallop fishery in the world.

The Atlantic sea scallop population has been surveyed annually from North Carolina to Massachusetts since 1979 by scientists working for NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center. These surveys involve dividing the survey area into zones of varying depth and habitat and towing a dredge to document the marine life and conditions in these zones.  Researchers then analyze their catch to determine the average density of animals.  In recent years a new undersea camera known as HabCam has been used to supplement dredging data.  HabCam was developed by scientists as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute working with Cape Cod scallop fishermen and can supply information on scallop densities in a less labor-intensive way.

The Atlantic sea scallop fishery also participates in a research set-aside program.  These programs are unique to federal fisheries in the Northeast and involve fishermen setting aside an amount of their catch to be sold in order to fund research.  The research set-aside program for the Atlantic sea scallop fishery has funded industry-based surveys of access areas, research into bycatch reduction and bycatch avoidance, and research on loggerhead sea turtle populations.

Through detailed annual population surveys and the research set-aside program the future of the Atlantic sea scallop fishery looks promising.  Unfortunately much of the seafood we get at restaurants and markets is not part of a sustainable fishery.  To learn more about how to support sustainable fisheries visit seafoodwatch.org.

North Carolina Aquariums: Partnering with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Local Community to Save Sea Turtles

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchlings. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchlings. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Maymie Higgins

The moonlight reflected off the North Carolina shoreline, illuminating the way she used her strongly developed forelimbs to drag herself several yards towards the dunes, just as her mother had done.  This Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) is truly a miracle.  She survived to the age of ten to thirty years, becoming a young adult, which is an age only 1 in 1000 sea turtles reach.  Her ability to migrate thousands of miles and find the same beach upon which she had hatched, known as natal philopatry, is a miracle as well.  In the waters just offshore, she will continue to mate several times in the seasonal nesting grounds, and come ashore up to seven times to deposit and bury her eggs in a nest made by excavating and then covering a hole 18 inches deep in the sand. Each clutch might contain 100-126 eggs; even under the best-case scenario, the odds are against any of her offspring surviving until adulthood.  And while this sea turtle is fortunate to return to a birthplace that has not been destroyed by development or climate change, as so many nesting sites have, she cannot stay to protect the nests.  She has no physical capabilities to protect her eggs or to even to survive on land for very long. The eggs and hatchlings are on their own.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle nests make up the vast majority of nests on North Carolina’s beaches. Four other of the seven species of sea turtles, Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and rarely, the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) will also nest there. A fifth sea turtle species, the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), visits North Carolina waters, but does not nest.

All sea turtles are listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  There are a number of factors, in addition to development and climate change, that adversely affect the survival rate in sea turtles.  Before eggs have hatched, many of them are preyed upon by beach residents including raccoons, foxes, birds and humans. Hatchlings that successfully emerge must follow the moonlight to guide them to the ocean, but artificial light often leads hatchlings in the wrong direction, leading to car strikes in the roadways that run parallel to the shore.  Other predators for hatchlings include crabs, more species of birds and, for those sea turtles making it safely into the water, carnivorous fish.  Sea turtles cannot retract their heads into their carapace like other turtles and the skin of hatchlings is not yet tough, therefore providing no protection from predators.

Sea turtle hatchlings are also very tiny.  When I was an aquarist intern at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, we affectionately called our four publicly exhibited hatchlings “chicken nuggets” because they are about that size and weight at hatching.  With all these initial threats, the greatest threat still is at sea in the form of incidental capture in gill nets, shrimp trawls and other fishing gear.

In 1983, the N.C. Sea Turtle Protection Program was created by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and now coordinates the efforts of more than 1000 volunteers annually who monitor sea turtle nests along 330 miles of beaches from May to October during the 50-60 day incubation period.  An elaborate network that includes state and federal natural resource agencies, private organizations, veterinarians, wildlife rehabbers, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and all three North Carolina Aquariums combine their skills and resources to protect nests. These efforts include nighttime nest sitting, rescue and rehabilitation of injured sea turtles and release of those healthy enough to survive in the wild again.

The North Carolina Aquariums play a key role in providing temporary housing for hatchlings that are too weak to get to the ocean on their own or are found far from the ocean when artificial light has led them in the wrong direction.  Once the hatchlings show the ability to eat and dive effectively, they are released into the Gulf Stream offshore.  Some of the hatchlings remain at the aquariums until reaching one to four years of age and during that time serve as ambassadors for educating aquarium visitors about sea turtle conservation.  These turtles are released as well.

All three North Carolina Aquariums respond to help sea turtles that have been stranded by causes such as propeller strike, hypothermia and entanglement in fishing gear.  The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is home to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) Rehabilitation Facility. The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island provides medical care for turtles rescued in the central and southern parts of the North Carolina coast. The North Carolina Aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher also take in turtles in need of rehabilitation.

On a broader scale, it is not unusual for the North Carolina Aquariums to take in cold-stunned sea turtles rescued in other states and give them care and housing until fully recovered and healthy enough for release. Sea turtles are cold-blooded and therefore cannot regulate their own body temperature internally. They are vulnerable to the temperature of their environment and must move to warmer or cooler environments to thermoregulate. Cold-stunning occurs when sea turtles are suddenly exposed to cold water, causing them to become lethargic and unable to swim to warmer waters.  More often this happens to juveniles who have not left feeding grounds prior to the first cold front, usually in late November or early December.  There can be as many as 100 cold-stunned sea turtles being held over winter in the aquariums, sea turtle hospital and in other wildlife rehabilitation locations approved by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Sea turtles are of ecological importance for many reasons.  Unhatched eggs and hatchlings that do not survive provide nutrients for sea dune vegetation. Sea turtle eggs also serve as food source for predators in the ecosystem and as a food source for humans in some parts of the world.  On the ocean floor, sea turtles graze on seagrass, which stimulates productivity and nutritional content of seagrass blades.  Hawksbill Sea Turtles forage on marine sponges from coral reefs, allowing the coral to colonize and grow and preventing sponges from dominating the reefs, which are important to other sea life as well. Leatherback Sea Turtles have been known to eat up to 440 pounds of jellyfish in a day, providing some control over the increase in jellyfish due to commercial overfishing of finfish populations. Sea turtles have on their carapaces barnacles, algae and other organisms known as epibionts. Fish species such as sheepshead, wrasse, and angelfish as well as shrimp create “cleaning stations” which sea turtles visit to have these organisms eaten off. Birds often consume these epibionts too, while also taking advantage of a floating turtle oasis that provides refuge from sharks or just for a roosting rest in the sun during migration.

The sea turtle story is one of many examples of biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world working hard with other governmental organizations, NGOs, volunteers and sometimes even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.