Monday, August 21, 2017

Tangled up and blue

            Nearly every week, the media reports on another whale becoming entangled in fishing gear. Many of those animals drag the ropes and buoys and other equipment for months or years before they die from exhaustion or starvation or from the resulting injuries. Entanglement is the leading cause of death for one of the rarest whales on earth, the North Atlantic right whale, which travels from Florida and Georgia to New England to feed every winter and spring.
            But whales aren’t the only animals that become entangled and suffer and die. It happens many times every day to birds, mammals, turtles and other creatures as well. And most of these entanglements are entirely unnecessary.
            A birdwatching friend posted a picture on Facebook last month of a gull-like bird called a common tern she saw at a beach in Charlestown that had the string from a balloon wrapped
around its neck. While the bird was still able to fly, it was obviously uncomfortable as it struggled to free itself, and it had great difficulty catching food. It was an incredibly sad sight, and the bird wasn’t likely to last long in that condition.
            No one who releases helium balloons – whether in celebration or by mistake – intends to harm wildlife, but that is often the result. Every one of those balloons is going to come down somewhere and, at best, become entangled in trees or land somewhere to eventually be collected and thrown out with the garbage. More likely, balloons released from Rhode Island will fall into the ocean where they will be mistaken for jellyfish and eaten by sea turtles or other marine life. Or their strings will entangle any number of other creatures, as happened to a young owl last spring in Narragansett.
            But balloons are only one entanglement hazard that wildlife face. There are plenty more. The Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island in North Kingstown, which treats injured animals, cares for numerous entangled creatures every year, most caused by monofilament fishing line disposed of improperly.
Clinic volunteers, for instance, rescued a crow in Portsmouth that was tethered to a tree by a snarl of fishing line and an eider duck they described as so completely entangled that the animal was “essentially a big ball of fishing line.” They also recently cared for three painted turtles, an osprey, three ducks – including one hanging from a tree – and several gulls and cormorants, all ensnared in monofilament line. Last year, a Canada goose had fishing line wrapped around its legs so tightly that it required weeks of care and treatment before it recovered enough to be released back into the wild.
“The sheer number of animals that are killed or injured as a result of human garbage is astronomical,” said Arianna Mouradjian, director of the clinic. “It’s a problem that, while quite large, is absolutely fixable.”
Discarded fishing line is doubly dangerous to animals because of the hooks that are often still attached. Most of the wildlife the clinic disentangles from fishing line must also have fish hooks removed from their flesh.
So the next time you want to celebrate an occasion by releasing balloons into the air – or you carelessly discard fishing line – remember that your seemingly innocuous act is likely to cause unnecessary suffering to wildlife near and far. They are behaviors worth reconsidering. 

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on August 19, 2017.

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 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 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.