Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Monarchs are back

            Johanna Vietry visits the dinghy planters installed along the Newport Harbor Walk every day with one thing in mind: monarch butterflies. The president of Friends of the Waterfront and a URI master gardener, she is hoping that the nation’s best-known butterfly will show off its black-and-orange colors and sip nectar from the abundant blooming flowers in the planters.
            “There wasn’t any vegetation to encourage monarchs to visit the waterfront until we planted native plants there,” Vietry said. “Now I’m checking my monarch boats every day, and I keep seeing them.”
            She isn’t the only one. Monarch numbers appear to be on the rise after their global population crashed in 2013 due to what some experts say was a combination of illegal logging
Monarch butterfly on thistle (Dave Hansen)
in the Mexican forests where they overwinter, changing climate patterns, and declines in milkweed plants on which the butterfly caterpillars feed.
            Mark Pagliarini, an environmental educator at the Norman Bird Sanctuary who describes himself as “a bug enthusiast,” conducts regular butterfly surveys of the area and pays attention to national butterfly trends. He said this year has been an especially good one for monarchs.
            “On and off Aquidneck Island, and in the U.S. as a whole, there is a noticeable increase in monarch activity,” he said. “On the island, there are definitely more monarch individuals around, and I’ve seen plenty of eggs and lots of monarch caterpillars.”
            Marty Wencek agrees that monarch numbers are up this year, but he isn’t ready to say that the insects have recovered from their population decline yet. A biologist at the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and an avid butterfly observer for 55 years, he remembers the years when he would see hundreds of monarchs in a day along the coast in the fall. He is worried that pesticide use and continued development of the fields where they feed and breed will keep monarch populations low.
Wencek also said that monarchs are particularly affected by the spreading of black swallow-wort, an invasive vine that kills any monarch caterpillars that eat its leaves.
            What their abundance this year means for the future is uncertain, however, because monarch populations naturally rise and fall with regularity.
            “Populations do fluctuate as a matter of course, but it always makes one get a sincere feeling of concern when such an event occurs, and a feeling of relief when they thankfully rebound,” Wencek said.
            Monarchs in the Northeast engage in a four-generation migration each year. They depart in the fall on a 3,000-mile migration to Mexico to hibernate in oyamel fir trees. In March, they head back north stopping along the way to lay their eggs. When those eggs hatch and the caterpillars become butterflies, the new generation continues the migration, arriving in the Northeast in July, whereupon they lay their eggs and die. One generation later the cycle begins again.
            According to David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, research suggests that many monarchs from the Northeast may get delayed or even stuck in the Southeast during migration and never make it to Mexico.
            “So it may be that Rhode Island and the rest of the Northeast is sort of a monarch population sink,” he said.
            On the other hand, Gregg added, “with climate change, things could change. One possibility is that with slightly milder temperatures in the Southeast, perhaps those dead-end monarchs from the East Coast will develop into a full-blown over-wintering population. That's just speculation at this point, but it shows how much things could change with climate change.”
            Because monarch caterpillars rely on milkweed, many conservation efforts in recent years have focused on encouraging people to plant native milkweed wherever possible. And if the growing numbers of monarchs in the area are any indication, it seems to be working.
But Gregg and Pagliarini said that it may be even more important to plant native flowers from which adult monarchs can feed.
            “The availability of suitable nectar sources towards the end of the season” is especially important, Gregg said. “The implication for us in Rhode Island is that we should be concentrating at least as much energy on planting goldenrods, asters, and joe-pye weeds, especially along the coast, as we do on planting milkweed patches. This would also be among the most important things we could do for pollinators generally, so it really is a great place to put our effort.”
Pagliarini said that those looking to observe and photograph monarchs on Aquidneck Island should consider visiting Norman Bird Sanctuary, where he is helping create a pollinator field to attract butterflies, Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, and Brenton Point.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Dead seabirds washing ashore on New England beaches

            Walking on the beach at the north end of Block Island last month, Matt Schenck stumbled upon two dead and decomposing seabirds, which the avid birdwatcher identified as great shearwaters. While gulls of various species are commonly found dead on local beaches, shearwaters are an extreme rarity.
            Except this year.
            Hundreds of great shearwaters have turned up dead on beaches on Long Island and southern New England this summer, and no one seems to know why. In addition to the birds on
Dead great shearwater on Block Island (Matt Schenck)
Block Island, birders and biologists have reported dead shearwaters on Rhode Island beaches in Tiverton and Charlestown.
            Shearwaters spend most of their lives far out to sea, where they soar just above the waves as they forage on small fish and other marine creatures near the surface of the water. Four species of shearwater – great, sooty, Cory’s and Manx – are typically seen in Rhode Island waters, though they seldom travel within sight of land. Most breed on remote islands in the South Atlantic.
            According to Josh Beuth, a biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, shearwaters have been observed in large numbers from the shore this year, including from Jamestown, Newport and Point Judith. They have also been seen regularly from the Block Island ferry.
            “There has been an abundance of sand eels in our local waters, which are a forage fish for shearwaters,” said Beuth. “As a result of them being closer to shore than usual, it would be more likely that they’d wash up on shore if they died.”
            While prey may be abundant, some biologists – including Linda Welch, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who studies great shearwaters off Cape Cod – have noted that many of the dead birds are juveniles that have been thin or emaciated, suggesting that the birds have starved.
            The dead birds began to show up on beaches in late June, which is about when they should have arrived along the East Coast after their long migration from their breeding grounds in the South Atlantic. By then they were likely stressed and tired and hungry, which may have made them susceptible to any number of potential sources of mortality.
Wildlife pathologist Joe Okoniewski examined some of the dead shearwaters found on Long Island beaches, and he told the New York Times that the birds were not only thin but anemic. “The big mystery is: Why are they thin? On the surface, it looks like you know what happened – they starved,” he said. “But when you ask why, it becomes much more of a mystery.”
It is especially mysterious if prey is seemingly abundant, as it has been this summer in Rhode Island waters.
Robert Kenney, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, speculates that toxic algae from red tides may be playing a role in the bird deaths. He said that a number of northern gannets, another species of seabird, have been found dead on Cape Cod beaches this summer. The only difference, he said, is that they are “in good condition, except for being dead.” He thinks that toxic algae may have also contributed to the deaths of some of the numerous whales that have been found dead along the East Coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this year.
Among those trying to find an answer is Julie Ellis, director of the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network at the Tufts University Veterinary Medical Center, which uses volunteers throughout the Northeast to regularly walk beaches to collect dead birds for study. She is reaching out to a number of animal diagnosticians throughout the region in hopes that together they can come up with a consensus of what is causing the shearwater deaths. She hopes they will have an answer next month.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on August 10, 2017.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Mako sharks killed at far higher rate than officials estimate

Brad Wetherbee and his research team have been capturing and tracking the movements of mako sharks since 2004, and more than 25 percent of those affixed with satellite transmitters have been caught and killed by commercial or recreational fishermen.
            That mortality rate is more than 10 times the rate estimated by the international body responsible for managing the world’s mako shark fishery and far higher than is sustainable.
            Wetherbee, a shark researcher at the University of Rhode Island, along with Mike Byrne
Tagged mako shark (Photo by George Schellenger)
and other colleagues at the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University, published a paper in last week’s edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B documenting the mortality of the sharks they have been monitoring. They hope it will influence the fishery managers to take steps to reduce the catch of mako sharks.
            ““Makos are caught in all kinds of fisheries all around the world – gill netters, long liners, commercial, recreational,” he said. “They’re the shark everyone wants to catch because they’re good to eat – like a shark version of swordfish. But if our results are anything close to the true mortality rate, then they’re in trouble.”
            Wetherbee admits that his results may not be reflective of the mortality the sharks face everywhere, and he said that there are some people who think that makos are being fished sustainably. But he also believes it would be irresponsible not to report the mortality rate of his study specimens.
            “The fishery managers are faced with a lack of data about mako mortality,” Wetherbee said. “But based on our experience, the sharks are being killed at a much higher rate than they’re estimating, which means overfishing is probably occurring.”
            Wetherbee and his colleagues tag as many as 20 mako sharks each year – though some years they catch far fewer – off the coast of the mid-Atlantic states, the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and Rhode Island. Each one is affixed with an electronic tag that provides data for approximately one year about the daily movements of the sharks.
            “So we know where they are in near-real time,” he said. “When they’re caught, we can follow them right to shore to someone’s dock or their house.  We were surprised how often that was happening.”
            His tagged sharks have been caught and killed by fishermen in the waters off Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Portugal, New Zealand and throughout the East Coast of the United States.
            Last summer, Wetherbee made a public plea to fishermen in southern New England when one of his tagged sharks was tracked to local waters just as a number of shark fishing tournaments were scheduled. He asked anyone catching a mako shark with a satellite tag to release the animal unharmed. The shark survived the tournament season but was killed by fishermen off North Carolina a few months later.
            Wetherbee said that those responsible for managing the mako shark fishery are expected to issue an updated stock assessment this fall, and he expects they will take into consideration the results of his research. He also hopes that new policies will be proposed to reduce the number of mako sharks caught in the commercial and recreational fisheries.
            “I’m not sure what they’ll do, but I hope they at least recognize that however they’re currently keeping track of mako shark mortality doesn’t appear to be very accurate,” he said. “Our data should help them get a better idea of what’s going on and give them more information to manage the population.”
            Wetherbee and his colleagues also believe that the use of satellite tracking data for estimating shark mortality is a novel methodology that may be useful in other fisheries.
            “Using electronic tags to learn the fate of individuals in a fishery is a pretty new way of estimating mortality,” said Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute. “But there’s no mistaking when a tag is reporting from shore that the shark is dead. It’s a known fate, as opposed to the estimates currently used. There’s promise for researchers to use the same technology on other species for estimating mortality.”

Friday, August 4, 2017

Commercial trawling damages fragile seafloor habitat

Commercial fishing gear that is dragged along the seafloor to capture species that live on, in or near the ocean bottom has long been criticized for damaging sensitive habitats and catching innumerable non-target species. It disturbs sediments, destroys corals, and removes many of the organisms that commercial species feed upon.
            But a new study of the predominant bottom trawling methods used in the North Atlantic found that some gear is more damaging than others.
Scallop dredges at a pier in The Netherlands (Jeremy Collie)
            Jeremy Collie, an oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island and a member of the international team of scientists that conducted the study, said that trawling is controversial because it can affect entire ecosystems.
            “It’s a serious problem, but we’re finding that it’s a very localized problem,” he said. “The distribution of where bottom fishing takes place is patchy, and the habitat we care about is patchy. Where those two things intersect is where the problem is.”
            The researchers examined 70 previous studies on the effects of bottom trawling to determine which methods were most harmful.
            Otter trawling, which is used to catch cod, haddock, flounder and other fish near the bottom and is the most common fishing method in New England, uses two large metal doors to hold open the net as it drags along the seafloor. It was found to be the least harmful of the methods assessed. Otter trawls killed six percent of the marine organisms in its way each time the net passed, according to the study published July 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
            The researchers also studied beam trawling, a method that uses a metal beam to hold open the net; towed dredges that drag a toothed metal bar along the seafloor, used in New England’s scallop fishery; and hydraulic dredges, which use a jet of water to loosen the seabed to capture surf clams and ocean quahogs living in the sediment.
            Hydraulic dredges caused the most damage, killing 41 percent of animal and plant life on the seabed.
            “The degree of damage caused by each gear type can be characterized by how far the gear penetrates the seafloor,” Collie said. “The further it penetrates, the more damage it causes.”
            While some critics have argued that the most damaging gear should be banned, Collie said that approach could close entire fisheries, since each gear type is designed to harvest a targeted species.
            "Rather than banning a particular type of gear, spatial management can be used to restrict them to particular areas or to prohibit their use in closed areas," Collie said. "The information from our studies should help to inform spatial management."
            In addition to calculating the mortality caused by each bottom trawling method, the study also estimated how long it would take for various habitats to recover from trawling.
The study found that sandy habitats that are typical of large areas of the continental shelf are likely to recover from trawling in just a few months, especially if they are only trawled once or twice each year. But habitats with gravel or cobblestones could take a decade or more to recover.
“And in areas that might have biogenic epifauna, like cold water corals or glass sponges, recovery times could stretch from decades to centuries,” Collie said. “Those species grow slowly, or once you wipe them out, it’s harder for their larvae or juveniles to re-establish themselves.”
This study is part of the Trawling Best Practices Project, which is examining the impact of trawling worldwide and plans to publish trawling guidelines for the fishing industry that focus on preserving the marine ecosystem.
“From my perspective, we want to identify the vulnerable habitats and protect them, recognizing that they are a small fraction of the total area,” Collie said. “For the New England shelf, there are large areas that we don’t need to be concerned about and large areas of sandy sediment where trawling effects are not a concern. Small areas like gravel and complex habitats, and those that are fished by scallop gear, are the areas we need to focus in on.”
The next step in the project is to complete a global analysis of what Collie called “the footprint of fishing” that will identify the areas where trawling effort is greatest. The researchers will also examine the indirect effects of bottom trawling – how trawling affects the ability of certain habitats to produce fish. The project will conclude with the creation of a methodology that fishery agencies around the world can adopt to better manage their fisheries.

This story first appeared on EcoRI.org on August 4, 2017.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Fish haven

            At the public boat ramp to Quonochontaug Pond in Charlestown, a dozen volunteers wearing rubber boots and work gloves loaded thousands of pounds of clam and oyster shells into black plastic fish totes, then rolled them along a 50-foot conveyor and onto a small maroon barge. From there, the empty shells were transported to the eastern and western edges of the pond and carefully dropped over the side.
After a week of work in mid-May to ensure that the proper quantity of shell was placed in the proper locations, construction was complete on nine oyster reefs to provide habitat for juvenile fish. It will take a year or more to determine if the effort is a success, but biologists from The Nature Conservancy and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management are
Oyster shells are delivered to site of new reef. Photo by Mike Derr
confident that the new reefs will soon be home to juvenile striped bass, tautog, black sea bass, scup, and summer and winter flounder.
“Shellfish reefs are an important habitat for juvenile fish, but the amount of shellfish reef in Rhode Island is greatly reduced compared to what we historically had,” said Eric Schneider, DEM’s principal marine fisheries biologist.
“The idea is that there are certain areas in the ponds that don’t have good structure – reefs, rocks, something that gives fish somewhere to hide – but if we build some structure, the fish will come,” added The Nature Conservancy’s Scott Comings.
The biologists said that about 95 percent of the state’s oyster population has disappeared since the mid-1900s, largely due to over-harvesting, poor water quality and diseases. In the mid-Atlantic states, researchers found that juvenile fish move right in to man-made reef habitat in areas where it no longer exists. So the Conservancy and DEM decided to give it a try.
The project got started at Ninigret Pond, where 130 tons of shell were used to construct eight reefs in 2015. Each began with a base layer of clam shells that was then covered with a thick layer of oyster shells piled up to about two feet below the waterline at low tide.
“After it’s spent some time in the water, you start to get a host of species like crabs and snails and starfish colonizing the area,” Comings explained. “It becomes a little hub of life, a mound of shell that moves and changes just as nature would intend.”
Monthly surveys of each reef using fish traps, video cameras and other techniques found that many of the expected marine species have moved in and taken up residence, including several of the targeted fish.
Where do all those empty shells come from? Local restaurants, of course. Most originate with diners at Matunuck Oyster Bar, but other restaurants occasionally participate as well. The 20,000 oysters consumed at last year’s Newport Oyster Festival are also being used in the reefs.
“This project offers me something to do with the byproduct of our oysters without sending it to the landfill,” said Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar. “It’s important that we incorporate sustainability into our business model, and while it might not be easy to see the benefits of going through all this effort, we’re happy to do something that’s good for the environment.”
After the shells are collected from the restaurants, they are stored in massive piles for “seasoning” at the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown, where they are turned over several times during a six-month period, just as one would turn a compost pile for better decomposition. The turning ensures that all of the shells are exposed to the air so any leftover flesh decomposes. The shells are certified by the Coastal Resources Management Council as restoration material before they are deployed in the ponds.
After the reefs are constructed, they are “seeded” with year-old live oysters – wild strains from Green Hill Pond and the Narrow River, as well as the variety used at aquaculture farms – in hopes that the empty shells will eventually be covered with living oysters. The biologists also hope that larval oysters drifting with the currents from nearby oyster farms will settle on the new reefs.
“Oysters need something to set on, so without the reef they have nowhere to go,” Comings said. “But while we hope the oysters thrive, this project is really about benefiting juvenile fish.”
Next year, DEM and the Conservancy will build one more series of reefs in another coastal pond before shifting to sites in Narragansett Bay.

This article first appeared in South County Life magazine on August 1, 2017.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Is it lights out for the firefly?

            Remember the summers when so many insects would splatter on your car’s windshield that you had to scrub them off to get a decent view through the glass? You probably haven’t had to do that nearly as often as you used to. And while you may be happy to avoid that chore, it is an unfortunate sign that insect numbers have declined dramatically in recent decades.
            Researchers have found that the total mass of insects in some areas has declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1980s, and that has dramatic implications for wildlife, especially for bats and insect-eating birds like flycatchers, swifts and swallows.
            One of those insects that is noticeably absent from many fields and forests these days is the popular firefly. I remember fondly the summer days of running through my neighborhood
Cartoon by David Chatowsky in Newport Daily News
fields and forests just after dusk trying to catch lightning bugs in a glass jar, then watching the captured insects blink on and off until bedtime. It’s an experience that few of today’s children have had, since fireflies are harder and harder to find in any numbers.
            An excellent new book called Silent Sparks by a Tufts University professor sheds light on the natural fireworks display put on by native fireflies. Sara Lewis calls the flickering lights a “spectacular bioluminescent courtship display” in which males emit a specific pattern of illuminated pulses. The males of the most common firefly species in New England, Photinus greeni, produce a distinctive pair of pulses separated by 1.2 seconds, followed by a four second pause before repeating the pulses. If he’s lucky, an interested female will reply with a single prolonged flash that rises in brightness before fading.
            “Each time he shines his light, the male pauses for an instant in hopes of spotting a female,” she wrote. “So tonight it’s wink, wink, hover and hope…wink, wink, hover and hope.”
            Sadly, that hope is more and more turning to hopelessness. Even in locations where firefly numbers are relatively high, males often struggle to find a mate, since females are often outnumbered by males 20 to 1. In many areas, males may flash for days without getting a response.
            Repeated flashing by fireflies can be costly, as the illumination not only signals their location to receptive female fireflies but also to predators seeking to eat them.
            The reasons for the disappearance of fireflies – and so many other once-common insects – is unclear. Habitat disturbance is an obvious one. Most firefly species are found around fields and forests and marshes, which in many areas have given way to pavement and houses and shopping centers. Pesticides and other pollutants are likely contributing factors as well.
            Surprisingly, light pollution has also been implicated in the decline of fireflies. Since the insects use their flashing lights to communicate, the abundance of man-made lighting from streetlights, stores and cars is believed to make it difficult for the insects to signal each other. And those species that synchronize their flashes during courtship get out of sync when a car’s headlights pass by.
            So the next time you see the flashing of a firefly in the evening, celebrate the memories these cherished insects provide, and mourn the fact that few in the younger generation will be able to share those memories.

This article first appeared in The Independent on July 20, 2017.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Eelgrass declining in Rhode Island waters

           Michael Bradley calls eelgrass “the canary in the coal mine for estuarine health.” The flowering plant that grows beneath the surface of coastal waters and salt ponds provides nursery habitat for shellfish and finfish while also dampening wave energy, stabilizing sediments and serving as an indicator of clean water.
            But according to a recently issued report by the University of Rhode Island’s Environmental Data Center, eelgrass in Rhode Island is declining in Narragansett Bay and in
Eelgrass photo  courtesy of NOAA
most of the state’s coastal salt ponds.
            The report found 1,144 acres of eelgrass and other submerged vegetation in state waters, an 18 percent decrease from 2012. The largest declines occurred in Quonochontaug Pond (52 percent), Point Judith Pond (48 percent) and Little Narragansett Bay (25 percent).
            More than half of the state’s eelgrass occurs around Jamestown, which experienced a 19 percent decrease in eelgrass acreage. Ninigret Pond was the only coastal pond not to have a decrease, and the Narrow River was the only site that experienced a significant increase (45 percent) since 2012. 
            “It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on,” said Bradley, a URI research associate and lead author of the report. “The reasons can be varied. An increase in water temperature could have something to do with it. Pollution in the water or soil could have something to do with it. And severe storms like Hurricane Sandy could certainly affect it. We need more surveys, more data and more analyses to get a better handle on what is determining eelgrass changes.”
            Eelgrass beds can also be degraded by algal blooms or disease or be physically damaged by human activities like shallow-water boating, dredging, and construction of docks and other structures.
            Data for the report was collected by aerial surveys funded by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
            Bradley said that the decline in eelgrass is worrisome. “If you care about shellfish, if you like to have scallops, if you care about commercial or recreational fishing, then you should care about eelgrass,” he said. “The bottom line is that’s where the little critters go to hide to become big critters that can become commercially or recreationally available.”
            Anecdotal reports suggest that eelgrass was abundant throughout Narragansett Bay a century ago, but most of it was wiped out during the 1930s and 1940s due to a naturally-occurring disease. When the first aerial surveys of eelgrass were conducted in 1996 by Save the Bay and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, they found just 100 acres of eelgrass in the bay.
            “Those results spawned a big restoration effort,” Bradley said.
            When Bradley conducted his first aerial surveys of eelgrass in Narragansett Bay in 2006, he found that eelgrass acreage had tripled to about 300 acres.
            “What we learned, though, was that technology has come a long way,” he said. “The survey methods were very different from 1996, based on new technology, so we have to be very careful when we compare the results.”
            The results of a 2012 survey showed a further increase in eelgrass acreage before declining in 2016.
            This year, Bradley intends to conduct an accuracy assessment of the 2016 mapping using underwater video cameras and global positioning systems to determine how much error is associated with the aerial survey method. He will also test the use of drones for conducting future surveys.
            What can be done to ensure that eelgrass doesn’t continue to decline in the state? That’s another question without an easy answer.
            “Anything we can do to help clean the bay would be useful. But there are not enough pictures and not enough numbers to base confident policy and management decisions on yet,” Bradley said. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Recent right whale deaths have scientists worried

            The deaths of six North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last month have raised alarms among whale biologists who fear for the future of one of the rarest whales on Earth.
            Robert Kenney, a marine mammal expert at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, called the unexpected deaths “a major concern” because the population of right whales totals fewer than 500 animals and their numbers have been declining since 2011. The dead whales represent more than 1 percent of the population.
            While the deaths raise many questions, one of the first, according to Kenney, is what were they doing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the first place?
            “Right whales go to the same places to feed every year – the Great South Channel, the Bay of Fundy, the Nova Scotia shelf – feeding grounds they probably learned from their mothers in
North Atlantic right whale mother and calf (Center for Coastal Studies)
their first year of life,” said Kenney, who manages the sighting database for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. “But recently they seem to be wandering farther afield. If there’s not enough food where they traditionally feed, they go to other places. That’s what we think is going on.”
            What caused the deaths of the six whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – the water body surrounded by Newfoundland, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – is uncertain. Preliminary results of necropsies on three of the animals showed evidence of blunt trauma from ship strikes on two of the whales and fishing gear entanglement on the third. But a news release from Canada’s Marine Animal Response Society said that other problems that "may have predisposed these animals to this trauma cannot be ruled out at this stage."
            Kenney is suspicious that a toxic algae bloom or some sort of disease may have been a factor. In 1987, a dozen humpback whales died from eating mackerel laced with a red tide toxin, he said.
            Right whales were nearly driven to extinction due to commercial whaling. They were slow to recover, though their population increased steadily at about 3 percent per year from the 1980s through 2010, with what Kenney called “a little blip” in the late 1990s.
            “That little blip is exactly the same thing that’s happening right now,” he said. “Survival rate didn’t change; that’s been relatively constant all the way through. What changes is the number of calves being born. At the end of the 90s the number of calves born dropped off for three years. Since 2010, the number of calves has been lower than the number needed to replace the average mortalities in six of eight years, and just barely positive in the other two.”
            Just five right whale calves were born this year, so the death of six whales last month ensures that the population will decline again, regardless of whether any other animals die during the rest of the year. Prior to the six deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, one right whale died from a ship strike in April off Cape Cod, where the animals feed in late winter and early spring.
            “The decline in the birth rate is more concerning now because climate change might have a hand in the changes taking place in the food supply,” Kenney said.
            According to Kenney, the copepod the right whale’s eat, Calanus finmarchicus, may no longer be found in dense and long-lasting patches in the places the whales usually find them, due largely to warming ocean temperatures and the changing currents and circulation patterns.
            Kenney said that one reason he is worried about the health of the right whale population is that “too many are still being killed that don’t have to be.”
            In recent decades, most right whales have died from human causes -- ship strikes or fishing gear entanglement. The ship strike issue has improved, thanks to regulations requiring ships to slow to 10 knots when traveling through areas where whales are known to reside at certain times of year. But the fishing gear entanglement issue seems to be getting worse.
            “The National Marine Fisheries Service has been nibbling at the edges of this issue for a long time because they aren’t willing to impose severe measures on the fishery,” Kenney said. “The agency responsible for promoting the fishery is the same agency responsible for regulating marine protected species. That was a dumb idea when it happened during the Nixon administration and it’s still a dumb idea today.”
            The conservation community has proposed that fishermen be required to use ropes with a breaking strength of 1,700 pounds on their buoy lines in nearshore waters, and that the government support expanded testing of gear without any buoy lines. Research by NewEngland Aquarium and others on rope strength and the muscle power of whales has shown that most whales would be able to disentangle themselves by breaking 1,700-pound ropes. But the fishermen are using stronger and stronger ropes. Some ropes removed from entangled whales had breaking strengths up to 12,000 pounds.
            While Kenney is concerned about the right whale population, he is less concerned about the humpback whale population, despite the 47 humpbacks that have been found dead along the East Coast since 2016, including one that washed ashore on Jamestown and two on Cape Cod last month.
            North Atlantic humpbacks were removed from the federal endangered species list last fall, and Kenney said that as the population increases, higher levels of natural and human-caused mortality are expected.
            “Given the large number of live humpbacks along the mid-Atlantic this winter, I suspect that there are more than the usual number of juveniles chasing food relatively close to shore – like the one that was seen repeatedly just off the Narragansett Pier seawall – and putting themselves in harm’s way,” he said. “Ship strike and entanglement mortality for all species is highest in juveniles.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 7, 2017.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rhode Island osprey numbers continue to soar

            Rhode Island’s osprey population is continuing to grow after a highly productive year in 2016, and while the wet spring of 2017 will likely cause a decrease in nesting success this year, the once-rare fish-eating hawk is a model conservation success story. That’s the message from a new report issued by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which has coordinated the monitoring of osprey nests statewide since 2010.
            “We’ve had an amazing long-term trend of not just active nests but successful nests and the number of young. All are going up,” said Jonathan Scoones, Audubon’s director of volunteer
Osprey by Ed Hughes
services, who coordinates the osprey monitoring program. “Only nine of our nests were not successful this year, so it seems that our ospreys are becoming experienced at raising young.”
            More than 100 Audubon volunteers recorded 159 active osprey nests in the state in 2016, with 150 of them successfully raising chicks, an increase of 28 successful nests over the previous year and 45 more than in 2014. The number of young ospreys that fledged from their nests skyrocketed from 186 in 2014 to 297 in 2016.
            “Last year was the perfect year for ospreys, mostly because of the weather,” Scoones said. “The birds have to be able to see through the water to find the fish to bring them back to their chicks. They have to be able to see down about three feet into the water. If the weather is bad, they can’t see well enough.”
            For the third year in a row, osprey nests in Barrington and South Kingstown produced the most fledglings, with 42 and 41 respectively. The Palmer River area of Barrington and Warren had the densest aggregation of osprey nests in the region, with 22 nests between the East Bay Bike Path bridge in Warren and the Swansea Country Club just over the Massachusetts border.
            Butch Lombardi, who monitors a dozen of the nests on the Palmer River, said that food availability and water conditions make the area an ideal place for osprey to nest.
            “Food is the prime reason they’re there,” he said. “The river is pretty shallow once you get past the Warren bridge, and there is very little boat traffic except for kayaks and canoes. The key is that the river is so shallow that the birds can hunt it pretty easily because the fish can’t go deep on them.
            “If you add Merriman’s Pond at the country club, which is just two feet deep, it’s like McDonald’s take-out for them. It’s an easy place for a meal,” he added.
            Ospreys were driven to near extinction in the 1960s and 1970s due to the effects of the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure in many fish-eating birds, including bald eagles. When the osprey monitoring program began in 1977 – originally coordinated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management – just eight young ospreys fledged from nests in the state.
            Today, ospreys nest in 28 cities and towns in Rhode Island, including every coastal community except Cranston, as well as inland towns like Coventry, Exeter, Scituate and West Greenwich.
            “There are probably more nests out there that we’re not aware of,” Scoones said, “so we’d love to get feedback from people who may know of nests we can’t easily access. The Scituate Reservoir probably has ospreys, but we don’t have access there to look for them.”
            While ospreys appear to be quite common in many parts of the state, Scoones does not believe the area has reached maximum capacity.
            “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said. “Westport, Mass., has 80 nests along a short stretch of the river there, so the birds can live communally rather than just one every mile or so, which is what we have here. So we can still take on more capacity.”
            He said that the Palmer River area may not be able to support many more ospreys, but there are numerous places around Greenwich Bay in the Warwick and Cranston area that are available for additional osprey nests.
            Scoones doesn’t think 2017 will be a banner year for ospreys, however. He expects to see evidence of more new nests being constructed by many of the birds that fledged from nests in the area in the last two years, but the rainy spring will probably mean that successful nests will produce fewer young than in 2016.
            “It’s just harder to find food in the rain; the birds can’t see into the water,” he said. “They don’t like to fly in the rain anyway, and the mother spends her time covering her chicks when it rains, so she can’t help find food.”
            Despite his prediction for this year, Scoones anticipates that the increasing trend in osprey numbers will continue into the future.
            “We have enough population here already that we can probably weather a few years of something going wrong, like bad weather or food not being available,” he said. “I’m excited about the future because more people are aware of the osprey and are willing to protect them. The birds are being accepted and no longer seen as a threat to fish.”
            He remains concerned, however, about continued coastal development that could limit the availability of nesting habitat.
            “They need to be able to live in trees or nests close to the water where they can get to their food,” Scoones said. “Nearshore development is forcing ospreys to leave their natural nests, and now they’re going to cell towers and power line towers.”
            Anyone interested in becoming an osprey monitor or helping to repair osprey nest poles may contact Scoones at 401-245-7500 or jscoones@asri.org. 

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on June 24, 2017. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rhode Island's citizen scientists

            When Betty Law heard that the water quality in the pond behind her house in Warwick was so poor that it was unhealthy to swim in, she attended a public meeting at City Hall to learn more. That’s when Law, now 94, first met neighbor Gisela Meyn, 73, and they decided to do something about it.
            They teamed up with the Watershed Watch program at the University of Rhode Island to conduct tests of the water in Little Pond every week from May to October. It’s a project they have now undertaken for 21 years in a row, with no plans to stop. They have the distinction of being among the longest-active participants in a program that boasts about 350 volunteers
Gisela Meyn collecting water samples (James Jones)
monitoring water quality in more than 220 water bodies in the state each year. Law is the program’s oldest volunteer by far.
            “It was a shame that we lived on the pond and couldn’t go in the water,” said Law. “I’m not a great swimmer, but I like to cool off in it.”
            The Watershed Watch protocol requires that the pond be monitored at its deepest point, so every week the women row a small boat from the shoreline behind Meyn’s house to the middle of the pond to collect water samples and measure various characteristics of the water.
            “Gis treats me like an old lady,” joked Law. “She helps me into the boat and she rows the boat, but we do the rest together. I still drive, tap dance and sing in the choir at St. Kevin’s, too.”
            When they reached the middle of the pond – both barefoot and wearing flowery blouses and colorful shorts – they went to work. To measure water clarity, Law leaned over the edge of the boat precariously to lower a black-and-white patterned device called a secchi disk into the water, then looked through a tube to determine how far below the surface she could still see the disk. At the same time, Meyn measured the water’s temperature and depth, then submerged a complicated instrument to collect water samples at various levels. Law then conducted another secchi disk test to verify her original results.
            Twenty minutes after they started, the women rowed back to Meyn’s house, with Law serving as navigator while Meyn pulled on the oars.
            Watershed Watch is one of an increasing number of citizen science projects in Rhode Island that engage volunteers and non-scientists in collaborative efforts to collect data for scientific research.  Now in its 29th year, the program provides information that is used by water conservation organizations, policy makers, regulators and state and local officials to make decisions that affect the health of the state’s water bodies....

Monday, June 19, 2017

The edge of the world

            I don’t like the heat, so when I make travel plans, it’s usually to the north. Far north. Like to Iceland in winter, Alaska in spring, and way above the Arctic Circle in summer. There’s something about the wide open spaces when you’re above the tree line that has always been appealing to me. It’s the opposite of the sometimes claustrophobic forests of southern New England. The abundant tundra wildflowers, stunning blue-green icebergs, and close-up looks at unusual wildlife helps to complete the picture of a travel destination that appeals to all the senses in unexpected ways.
            The infinite vistas in the Arctic can be deceiving, however. It’s difficult to judge how far away things are or how large certain geographic features may be. Trust me – everything is larger than you imagine and much further away than you would guess. Bylot Island, a migratory bird sanctuary off the north end of Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic, is 16 miles
across Eclipse Sound from the village of Pond Inlet, but it looks like it’s just a mile or two distant. Don’t try to kayak there before breakfast, as I once considered, especially during polar bear season.
            But Pond Inlet, a village of about 1,300 people, mostly native Inuit whose first language is Inuktitut, is an excellent place to start your exploration of the Arctic. It’s the second largest community in the territory of Nunavut and a picturesque place to learn about Inuit culture, begin a kayak trip, or hire a guide to search for wildlife. But be prepared for the slow pace of life and the uncertain weather conditions that often delay flights and expeditions on the water by a day or two. Be certain to build in extra time in your itinerary.
            The accommodations are nothing to boast about – Sauniq Hotel is the only option aside from camping, and the hotel’s cafeteria is the only choice for meals. But no one travels this far from civilization to be pampered. Instead, plan on exploring local ice caves, hiking into the mountains that surround the village, or taking a springtime snowmobile or dogsled tour. Pond Inlet is also conveniently located near Tamaarvik Territorial Park and Sirmilik National Park, both excellent destinations for hiking and wildlife watching.
            My first trip to Pond Inlet was part of a research expedition to observe and study narwhals, the small whale with the spiral tusk that helped spawn the unicorn myth. Our guide
took us four hours west by boat to Koluktoo Bay where we camped for a week and explored the nearby fjords for wildlife. The 24-hours of daylight in early August and spectacular wildlife observations compensated for the mostly overcast and occasionally sodden weather.
            On our third night, we awoke near midnight to the sound of heavy breathing outside our tent, but instead of the feared polar bear we found a pod of narwhals rubbing their tusks against each other just 50 feet from the beach where we camped. The behavior, which looks in still photographs to be an aggressive form of swordplay was instead more akin to a gentle nuzzling, a bonding gesture among friends. Later, as we observed several small pods of narwhals around our boat, we dropped a hydrophone into the water and listened to the cacophony of barnyard sounds they emitted beneath the surface – clucking, clicking, mooing, squeaky doors and other entertaining vocal expressions. We also observed killer and beluga whales, ringed and harp seals, Arctic foxes, gyrfalcons, long-tailed jaegers and an impressive list of other wild denizens.
            Behind our campsite, we discovered an archaeological site – complete with a partially exposed human skull – from the Dorset and Thule people, ancient ancestors of the modern Inuit. The Pond Inlet Library has an excellent exhibit about the 2,500-year cultural history of the region, including displays from the turn of the 20th century when the village was a whaling station and trading post.
            Numerous other Inuit communities dot the islands and bays of the eastern Canadian Arctic, including Grise Fjord, Resolute, Rankin Inlet and Arctic Bay, many of which are worth exploring if time allows. But be prepared – flights are limited and most involve smaller aircraft and even more challenging conditions.
            Across Baffin Bay to the west coast of Greenland, summer visitors can explore several native villages, where Greenlandic is the first language, Danish the second, and English is
spoken by few but those in the tourist trade. But don’t let that stop you. It’s a chance to completely immerse yourself in a slightly different Inuit culture than that in
Canada. Fly as far as you possibly can up the west coast to the northernmost municipality on Earth, Qaanaaq, where the only accommodation is a four-room bunkhouse with home-cooked meals that are an adventure in themselves.
            Qaanaaq is a subsistence hunting village – little is available to eat for most of the year except what residents can capture themselves. They hunt polar bears and walrus in the fall, seals in winter, and narwhals and seabirds in summer, the latter season being the only two ice-free months of the year.
            The entire village can be walked end to end in less than 20 minutes, but take your time – you have no choice, since only one flight a week arrives and departs, and there is little else to do. On another narwhal research trip, I hiked the steep hillside behind the village to the receding glaciers that cover all but a narrow coastal strip of Greenland, then walked the quiet beach lined with sled dogs resting for the summer and gazed out at the innumerable icebergs slowly drifting by, some the size of a city block. I later spent an hour in the tiny Qaanaaq Museum, where an impressive collection of artifacts tells the story of the Dorset and Thule people, and in the village’s only giftshop, which sells beautiful jewelry and trinkets carved from walrus and narwhal tusks.
            The museum is the former home of ethnographer Knud Rasmussen, a Danish missionary who was the first to map northern Greenland and the first person to cross the Northwest Passage by dogsled in 1921. The house was originally 19 miles south in the village of Thule, but it was moved after a forced relocation of the entire village in the 1950s when the U.S. established a secret military base there. The natives were dropped off in what is now Qaanaaq with no housing or supplies and forced to survive a winter of -30 F temperatures in one of the saddest stories in Greenland’s history.
            Mads Ole Christiansen, the leader of the hunting association in Qaanaaq, occasionally invites visitors to his camp a two-hour boat ride away to observe a narwhal hunt and learn about the importance of whales in the Inuit culture. It’s a challenging experience – both physically and emotionally – to watch the impressive animals be killed with harpoons thrown from hand-made kayaks and then to eat their raw blubber, but there’s no better way to learn about the difficult lives of those residing in the far north.
            Traveling to Pond Inlet and Qaanaaq isn’t easy, and it’s quite expensive – especially considering the modest accommodations – but it’s a learning experience like no other and an adventure not to be missed.

This article first appeared in Aspire on June 18, 2017.

Slow down for better wildlife discoveries

            If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself rushing from place to place, and from responsibility to responsibility, seldom lingering long enough to smell the proverbial roses. But I recently found out how much I overlook when I do so.
            It has been 35 years since my childhood interest in nature blossomed into an all-consuming passion to observe as many different kinds of birds as possible. I plan my vacations around bird watching, and between trips I study up on the identifying features, habitat preferences and songs of the birds I hope to see.
Yet I learned more about birds last year – without leaving Rhode Island – than I did in the previous three decades of obsessively seeking out new species all around North America. All it took
was a concerted effort to slow down and spend time getting to know each bird by watching it a bit longer than usual.
Charles Clarkson, who runs the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, calls it “slow birding.” It’s the strategy he recommends that atlas volunteers use to document the breeding behaviors of local birds. And it’s a strategy that has opened my eyes to so many new discoveries.
Like the day last May when I heard a red-bellied woodpecker repeatedly calling from high in a tree. It’s a sound I instantly recognized and have heard hundreds or thousands of times. But this time the bird just kept calling and calling every 10 or 15 seconds.
Rather than mentally check off the species on my daily bird list, I searched for it and eventually saw the bird’s head peeking out of a hole in an oak. Moments later, it’s mate arrived and they traded places – the male flew off to feed while the female entered the tree cavity to brood her eggs. I had never observed that behavior before, and yet days later in a different forest I heard the same repeated calls and saw another pair of woodpeckers trading places.
The woodpecker in the nest was apparently telling its mate that it was ready to escape the duty of keeping the eggs warm. Maybe it was hungry or bored or just wanted a break. And its mate obliged.
Why hadn’t I ever seen this behavior before when it is apparently so common during the breeding season? Probably because I wasn’t paying enough attention. I won’t let that happen again.
Last month I spent 20 minutes watching a group of tree swallows darting over a pond, one of which carried a small white feather in its beak. As it flew higher, the bird dropped the feather and another swallow snatched it from the air and repeated the process. This wonderful game continued for several minutes until one of them eventually deposited the feather in its nest.
I also observed a pair of black-billed cuckoos mating, after which one delivered a meal of a small dragonfly to the other. And I saw a female Baltimore oriole collect long grasses in her beak and use them to weave an intricate basket-like nest beneath a branch overhanging a pond. And three times I saw gray catbirds carrying large leaves to begin construction of their nests.
I had never seen any of these behaviors before, even though I see those species regularly every spring and summer. All I had to do was slow down and pay attention.
It’s a good lesson for all of us. Take your time, keep your eyes open, and there’s no telling what natural wonder you’ll see.

This article first appeared in The Independent on June 16, 2017.