Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Dead tree brings life to forest

            I knew it was going to happen one day soon.  I just never knew when.  And then finally, sometime during one of last year’s storms, my favorite tree – a massive dead oak in the swampy forested section of my property – went toppling to the ground.
            The tree must have been dead long before I came on the scene.  It was the largest tree on my lot, yet the loggers that came through about 35 years ago didn't want it.  Its enormous trunk was completely stripped of bark, and the last leaves to grow on it became compost decades ago. And yet it still played a significant role in the cycle of life in the forest.
            Woodpeckers visited the naked oak regularly in search of insects boring into its rotted
core.  Hawks occasionally perched on its limbs to scan the area for a meal.  And I sometimes found fur around the lower part of the trunk from where a deer had nuzzled against it, perhaps in an effort to relieve an irritating itch.
            Big dead trees are often cause for alarm among the human population, and many dying trees are quickly dispatched with a chain saw.  Sadly, that was one of the chief reasons for the decline of bluebirds, purple martins and other birds that nest in tree cavities but can’t drill their own holes as woodpeckers do.  Thankfully, we have replaced natural tree cavities with artificial ones – bird houses – so these and other birds can more easily flourish.
            But birds aren't the only creatures that love dead trees.
            The crumbled branches piled around the now-horizontal tree trunk provide protection and nesting sites for small mammals like chipmunks, squirrels, voles and mice.  The entangled branches also make for excellent elevated pathways for these tiny creatures, like a miniature version of a highway on-ramp.
            The increased population of small mammals in and around the fallen oak has attracted predators of a sort I seldom see. 
            I spotted my first least weasel emerging from a tiny crevice beneath the tree last spring.  These fierce relatives of mink are just six or seven inches long – half of it tail – and look cute and cuddly. But they attack and kill prey twice their size with a tremendous bite to the base of the skull.  Despite their ferocious nature, I was pleased that the dead tree had lured such an unusual creature to my yard.
            Foxes and coyotes have nosed around the site, too, now that it harbors so many potential prey species.  And on most spring and summer evenings I can usually hear the back-and-forth hooting of a pair of barred owls that I’m sure are attracted to the feast around the tree.
            Last fall I noticed a bit of moss growing on the fallen trunk, the first step in the long process of decay and decomposition.  But that won't be the end of the tree's contribution to the forest.  Eventually, the rotted wood will deposit its nutrients into the soil and the cycle of growth will begin again.  The nutrient-rich soil will contribute to healthy new vegetation, which in turn will feed other wildlife.  Perhaps a new oak tree will even grow up to take the place of the old one and oversee my back woods.
            For me, though, I'm happy to climb upon the trunk to survey the forest and think back on the many creatures nourished by that old tree over the last century.  I bet it was a satisfying life.  

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on January 25, 2020.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Mako shark populations to take half century to recover from overfishing

            An essay in this month’s newsletter of the Rhode Island Saltwater Angler’s Association claims that populations of shortfin mako sharks – a popular sportfish and a tasty offering on local menus – are “in crisis,” with fewer and smaller mako sharks being caught compared to 25 years ago. Written by Long Island attorney Charles Witek, a recreational fisherman who identifies himself as a consultant on fisheries management issues, the essay also criticizes the measures adopted to reduce shark mortality and the long timeline for rebuilding the population.
            “Even if such reductions could be achieved, it will take about 50 years to return the shortfin mako stock to something resembling a healthy level of abundance,” Witek wrote. “Which, in turn, means that I and probably most of the people reading this article, will never see a healthy mako population in our lifetimes.”
            Although shark biologists in southern New England disagree that makos are in crisis,
Short-fin mako shark (Stock)
those surveyed agree that the species is being overfished and that, even if targeted fishing for the species around the world was eliminated entirely, it would likely take at least several decades for the species to recover to healthy levels.
            “In the world of fish, mako sharks are like a Lamborghini or a Corvette or a Ferrari,” said Greg Skomal, a shark researcher and senior scientist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “It’s a high-performance fish from a physiological point of view. Its body is built for speed, it’s really well adapted to its environment, and it’s a very efficient predator.
            “Those same attributes make it fun to catch for recreational fishermen because they leap out of the water and they’re strong fighters,” he added.
            Last year, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the agency that manages mako sharks in the North Atlantic, concluded that the sharks are being overfished – too many are being killed by commercial and recreational fishermen to sustain the population. The commission recommended two management strategies designed to rebuild the population: Commercial long-line fisheries, few of which target mako sharks, should release any mako that is still alive; and the minimum size limit of sharks captured by recreational fishermen should be increased to 83 inches, which is about the size when they become sexually mature.
            “That translates into fewer dead mako sharks, higher survivorship, and rebuilding of the population,” said Brad Wetherbee, a University of Rhode Island professor who studies mako sharks. “But they realized that it could take until 2070 for mako sharks to rebuild and reach sustainable levels. It’s a slow process.”
It’s a slow process because mako sharks grow slowly, they take a long time to become sexually mature, and they give birth to relatively few young.
            According to Skomal, the United States accounts for only about 10 percent of the landings of mako sharks in the North Atlantic. Most are caught as bycatch by commercial longline fishermen targeting tuna and swordfish. Spain and Portugal have large longline fleets that target mako sharks in the mid-Atlantic, and many other nations primarily catch them as bycatch.
            “We’re small players in the mako market,” he said. “The argument I hear from recreational and commercial fishermen in the U.S. is that we’ve already done a lot for the conservation of makos, and other countries need to step up. But the conservation community says, no, everyone has to pull their weight, which means the U.S. has to reduce its landings further. Some conservation groups are calling for a complete moratorium on mako fishing.”
            That’s not likely to happen, since more than 50 nations fish for mako sharks. And even if targeted fishing for the species is eliminated, mako sharks are still going to be killed unintentionally.
            “If the Portuguese landline fleet targeted only blue sharks, they’re still going to keep catching makos and bring them in if they’re dead,” he said. “There is never hypothetically zero mortality, unless you pull the fleets off the water and reduce fishing effort, and that’s not going to happen. There will always be bycatch mortality, release mortality and illegal mortality.”
            So how did the mako shark population get in such a dire situation in the first place? Skomal said it started with poor historical recordkeeping about shark landings from shark fishing nations, including the United States.
            “We can’t identify a problem if we don’t have good data on which to build a good assessment,” he said. “In the case of sharks, most historical data sets don’t differentiate by species, so it’s difficult to look at historic trends. We also don’t have good reporting from all nations, which means we end up with flawed data. If big fishing nations don’t fully report, then you don’t fully account for all of the mortality.
            “Now that we finally have good data, we suddenly see that we’ve been hitting this species too hard,” Skomal said.
            Wetherbee has been tracking the movements of mako sharks since 2004, and more than 25 percent of the sharks he has affixed with satellite transmitters have been caught and killed by commercial or recreational fishermen. His data, which showed that the mortality rate of mako sharks is more than 10 times higher than the rate previously estimated, contributed to the assessment that the sharks are being overfished.
            “They grow over 10 feet long and over 1,000 pounds, but people hardly ever see makos that big now because there aren’t that many big ones out there anymore,” he said.
            After more than 15 years of studying mako shark movement and migration patterns, their habitat use, fishing mortality and other topics, Wetherbee is pleased that his data is being used to inform policymaking. But he’s not sure the recent policy recommendations go far enough.
            “I have a more radical opinion than most people,” he said. “I don’t think they should catch and kill them at all. But most people aren’t going to subscribe to that. If they were being fished sustainably, I’d say go ahead and catch and eat them.
            “We’ll see if the actions they’ve taken to rebuild the stocks are going to be effective,” Wetherbee added. “It’s a step in the right direction. They could have done more, but they didn’t.”

This article first appeared on on January 26, 2020.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The fight to ban plastic bags, straws, balloon releases

            The issue of plastics polluting the environment and harming wildlife can seem so overwhelming that it may, at first, appear that there is little that can be done about it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Audubon is working with numerous partners to reduce the use of plastics, starting with efforts to ban single-use plastic bags and straws and banning the intentional release of balloons. These are important first steps to illustrate how the use of plastics can be reduced and are key to educating the public about the impacts of plastics pollution.
            “The volume of plastic bags, straws and balloons on our beaches and in our trash is not insignificant,” said Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director of policy, who is leading the
organization’s efforts to pass effective legislation to reduce the use of plastics. “Plastic bags, especially, are everywhere – blown into trees, caught up in underbrush, blown off the landfill. One reason to focus on them is that there is national momentum on reducing their use. Other states are also dealing with the issue.”
            In Rhode Island, more than half of the population lives in communities where ordinances banning single-use plastic bags have been enacted in recent years, including Providence, Cranston, East Providence and Newport. Each ordinance contains key language requiring that bags must have “stitched handles” to be classified as reusable. That language was inserted in the state’s first municipal ordinance in Barrington after retailers attempted to get around the ban by using thick plastic bags and calling them reusable.
            Barrington is continuing to lead the way in this effort. It passed a related ordinance this year that bans even more plastic items, including cups, utensils, straws and polystyrene.
            But legislation at the state level has run into roadblocks.
            In 2018, Governor Gina Raimondo established a task force to reduce reliance on single-use plastics that often end up in the state’s waters and shorelines. Its members included representatives of the business community, environmentalists, municipalities and others, including Kerr.
One result of the task force was a bill introduced into the General Assembly to ban single-use plastic bags statewide. The business representatives on the task force were especially keen to pass a bill that enabled them to address the plastic bag issue consistently in every community rather than with different ordinances in each municipality. However, the bill used a broad definition of reusable bags, which would have allowed thick plastic bags to replace thin bags, exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. Worse, the bill would have pre-empted all of the municipal ordinances that had addressed the issue more effectively. The bill did not pass.
            “It’s always a good idea to bring a wide range of interests to the table and have conversations, so the task force was a good thing, and I commend the governor for doing it,” said Kerr. “But it was done so quickly and with such a short time frame that some of the important details got missed. If the task force had a little more time to be thoughtful, I think the conversation around the definition of reusable bags would have happened.”        Another bill to ban single-use plastic bags, which included a ban on disposable polystyrene food containers, was introduced in the 2019 legislative session, but it was held for further study, as was a separate bill banning polystyrene food containers.
            In addition, Representative Susan Donovan of Bristol submitted a bill that would have prohibited the intentional release of helium-filled balloons, a bill she described as both an anti-litter bill and “a hazardous waste issue for birds and other wildlife.”
            Balloons are especially dangerous in the marine environment because they are often mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles, seabirds and other creatures that feed on jellyfish. And the strings attached to balloons are a dangerous entanglement threat.
Citing the potential harm to marine life, the town of New Shoreham banned the sale of balloons earlier this year, and many other communities around the country are taking steps to reduce the release of balloons into the air due to their deadly impact on wildlife. Clemson University in Georgia, for instance, ended its tradition of releasing 10,000 balloons before every home football game. And even the Balloon Council, which represents the balloon industry, recommends that balloons should never be released into the air.
            Although Donovan received negative attention when her balloon bill was first submitted, she is confident it will pass in the next legislative session as people learn more about the issue.
            “I’m not trying to take balloons away from children,” she said. “I just want them disposed of properly. The release of large numbers of balloons for celebrations like weddings and memorials is needless litter that harms the environment. When local fishermen heard about the bill, I got pictures and messages from fishermen up and down the East Coast who pick up balloons a hundred miles out to sea. It’s an entanglement threat to their equipment.”
            In response to claims that Rhode Island already has anti-littering laws in place, Donovan said that having a targeted balloon law on the books would acknowledge the seriousness of the issue and help to publicize it.
            “People don’t necessarily realize that what goes up comes down,” she said. “You wouldn’t approve of releasing thousands of pieces of trash and expect someone to clean it up for you. All those balloons end up in the water and on our beaches.”
            “It’s a good bill, and we supported it,” said Audubon’s Kerr. “And we’ll support it again if it’s introduced next year.”
            Although none of these plastics-related bills were enacted this year, Kerr is optimistic that plastics reduction will be on the legislative docket again next year.
            “We will support a stronger plastic bag bill that defines reusable bags consistent with local ordinances, and we would support a broader bill that included other plastic items like straws, too,” she said. “That makes sense and would be good public policy.”

This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Audubon Report.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Wonderful World of Connecticut's Bats

            Bats have a bad reputation. They’ve been described as “rats with wings” and are thought to get caught in peoples’ hair and have poor eyesight, none of which is true.
            “Their reputation hasn’t been helped by the media and horror movies,” said Jenny Dickson, a wildlife biologist and bat researcher who serves as director of the Wildlife Division at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Making bats out to be scary is a Western culture thing. In the Far East, they’re symbols of good luck and are good to have around.”
            Bats are actually good to have around in every part of the globe. According to Dickson, they eat huge quantities of pest insects and are especially important to farmers, who rely on
Eastern red bat
bats as a form of natural insect control for their crops. In some parts of the world, they also pollinate trees and flowers and disperse seeds.
            While monitoring the populations of the nine species of bats found in Connecticut, Dickson also works to educate the public about the value of bats and to dispel myths about them.
            “I’ve seen a perception change in the last 30 years,” she said. “The more people learn about them and the more we separate myth from fact, the more people realize that they’re not something to be frightened of after all.”
            Dickson divides Connecticut’s native bats into two groups: tree-roosting bats that typically migrate south for the winter, and cave bats that hibernate in caves and mines.
            Hoary bats, silver-haired bats and red bats are the state’s three tree-roosting species, which don’t usually gather in large numbers and are seldom seen flying over backyards or urban areas. Because they migrate to the South, they remain active all winter, feeding on insects and roosting in tree cavities or behind peeling bark.
            Six species of cave bats are found in Connecticut – big brown, little brown, northern long-eared, Eastern small-footed, Indiana and tri-colored.
            “They like to fit into tight places, so they’re much more likely to be associated with manmade structures – hiding under eaves, under shutters or in barns,” said Dickson. “They use natural places as well, like tree cavities if they can find one, but they’re mostly around suburban and urban environments. And they travel long distances to find a good place to hibernate for the winter, sometimes 100 miles or more.” Some hibernate in caves in western Connecticut, while others go north to caves in New York and Vermont.
            In the mid-1900s, Indiana bats and small-footed bats disappeared from Connecticut when many bat caves – called hibernacula – were sealed up and the bats killed because they were thought to be major carriers of rabies. Because bats typically give birth to just one pup each year, they reproduce very slowly and can take decades to recover from population declines. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Indiana bats returned to the state, and small-footed bats didn’t reappear until 2010. Both species – along with northern long-eared bats and the three species of tree-roosting bats – are on the state’s list of rare species. The Indiana bat is also on the federal endangered species list.
            The biggest threat to populations of cave bats is white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus native to Europe that has spread to hibernacula in North America and is responsible for killing many millions of bats.
            “The long-eared, little brown and tricolored bats have been devastated by white-nose syndrome,” said Dickson. “Those were our most common species, next to big browns, until the fungus arrived. Now the long-eared has declined by 99 percent and little browns and tri-colors have declined by 95 percent. Big browns have declined, too, but only by 30 to 40 percent.”
            The disease causes the bats to awaken in the middle of winter and use up their stores of energy at a time when insects are not available to feed on.
            White-nose syndrome isn’t the only threat facing local bat populations, however. Habitat loss is also a major concern, and it is unknown how the changing climate will affect them.
            To monitor and protect Connecticut’s bat populations, Dickson and her colleagues spend a great deal of time surveying hibernacula to detect changes in populations, finding and monitoring maternity colonies, and conducting what she calls acoustic sampling.
            “We drive a 20-mile route in different parts of the state with a big microphone on the roof of a car that digitally records all the bat calls, and then we analyze those calls to determine what bats are actively foraging in those areas,” Dickson explained. “It helps us identify hotspots and identifies places to do more investigation. It’s enabled us to get a lot more information on species that are hard to detect.”
            Despite gaining so many new insights on local bat populations, Dickson said there is still a great deal that is unknown. And that’s what she likes about studying bats.
            “I’m always learning something new about our bats because they always do things that are unexpected. They’re absolutely fascinating animals,” she said. “Once you have a chance to see them up close and work with them, you realize they’re not at all like the hype that surrounds them. They’re inquisitive, curious and a lot of fun.”

This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Connecticut Family.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Sea urchins could be Rhode Island’s next climate-resilient crop

             Atlantic purple sea urchins are common in coastal waters along the East Coast, and University of Rhode Island scientist Coleen Suckling thinks the Ocean State could become the home of a new industry to raise the spiny marine creatures for consumption in Japan and elsewhere around the world.
                She has teamed with a company called Urchinomics, which is pioneering urchin ranching around the world. Suckling is testing a sea urchin feed the company developed in Norway to see if Rhode Island’s urchins will eat the product and, in turn, become commercially appealing.
                “Sea urchins are generally good at coping with climate change; they appear to be resilient to warming and ocean acidification,” said Suckling, URI assistant professor of sustainable
aquaculture. “So they’re a good species to turn to for commercial harvest. And you can get a good return on your investment from them.”
             The global sea urchin market is valued at about $175 million per year, with about 65 to 70 percent of the harvest being sold to Japan. Urchins are primarily used for sushi, though they are also an ingredient in a variety of other recipes as well.
                Red urchins and Pacific purple urchins are harvested in California, Alaska and British Columbia, while green urchins are captured in Maine and Atlantic Canada. Little is known about how successfully Atlantic purple urchins would compete in the marketplace, but Suckling is taking the first steps to find out.
                The edible part of the sea urchin is its gonad tissue – which chefs refer to as roe or uni and Suckling describes as tasting “like what you imagine a clean ocean smells like” – but the tissue must be firm and bright yellow or orange to get the best prices.
                “Wild urchins typically have small gonads and the color isn’t great, so commercial harvesters are collecting wild-caught urchins and feeding them an enriched finishing diet in cages in the open water for a few months to allow them to grow larger gonads and develop good color,” Suckling said.
                At the Narragansett Bay Campus, URI undergraduates Max Zavell, Anna Byczynski and Alli McKenna are undertaking a three-month food trial on purple urchins caught in Rhode Island waters. The animals are being fed a variety of foods to see how well they grow and if they become marketable. The students monitor water quality and regularly weigh and measure the urchins, and by February they should have preliminary results.
            “If they become marketable, then it opens up a whole interesting range of potential options,” Suckling said. “Under future climate conditions, there may be a need to diversify what we produce in the seafood sector. And since urchins are good at coping with acidification, this could be a good opportunity here in Rhode Island to exploit sea urchins.”
             Even if the formulated diet works as expected, many additional questions remain to be answered before urchins could be raised commercially in the state.
             “It’s a local species, so we can potentially grow them here, but is it something the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Department of Environmental Management would be interested in?” Suckling asked. “Are there aquaculture farmers interested in growing them? Can we ranch them reliably? We’re just taking the first step to see if it’s worth the effort to answer these other questions.
             “Part of my role is to try to understand what seafood we may need to turn to in a sustainable manner so we can maintain food security and economic security in the future,” she added.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A tangled knot: Plastics and wildlife

           Almost every day, Geoff Dennis walks the beaches of Little Compton with his dog Koda and picks up the trash he sees along the way. Most of it he discards in a proper trash receptacle, but some of the plastic he finds – bottles, balloons and straws, for instance – is saved and recorded with a photograph at the end of the year to document its annual accumulation.
            In the summer of 2018 alone, he picked up 2,946 plastic bottles, 129 cigarette lighters, and 529 straws on just one beach. And that’s just the trash he counted and photographed. He picked up many many more plastic cups and plates, Styrofoam take-out containers, plastic bags, and an untold number of other plastic items. One day last May he collected 282 balloons on the beaches he frequents, and two weeks later he picked up another 89. This year he noted
Koda and balloons collected on RI beaches (Geoff Dennis)
the growing number of plastic pods from Keurig coffee makers, and blue rubber gloves are on the rise as well – 70 one day in September and 30 more three weeks later.
            “They’re small, as some people say in defending the use of plastic straws, but still part of the plastic problem,” said Dennis. “Smalls add up.”
            He estimates that about half of what he picks up is generated by local beachgoers and the other half from people and industries many miles away, since it shows evidence of having drifted on ocean currents for some time.
The growing problem of plastics pollution is due in part to our throw-away society and because plastic degrades very slowly in the environment. It persists for hundreds of years, at least. And unless we change our consumer behaviors and the plastics and packaging industries reform themselves, the problem won’t go away anytime soon. The recycling rate of plastics is floundering at dreadfully low levels while plastics production is expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2025.
“Plastic pollution has been an issue for Audubon for a long time, largely because of its impacts on wildlife,” said Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director for policy. “The global focus on plastics in the oceans and the attention it has received through social media has made it an issue of top concern to us. And in the context of climate change, plastics are made by fossil fuels, which we are trying to transition away from.
“Our throw-away society wasn’t created by accident,” she added. “It’s a very intentional industry push to create a throw-away world so the industry has a use for its products. They greenwash the ability to recycle and reuse, knowing full well that only a small portion actually gets recycled or reused.”
Jamie Rhodes agrees. A Providence-based attorney who has been working on plastics reduction initiatives around the country for the last decade, he said that consumer product manufacturers and those who use plastic for packaging and shipping have no incentive to reduce their use of plastics because it costs so little and its creation is subsidized by the oil industry.
The plastics industry emerged after World War II as the oil industry sought uses for the byproducts of the process of refining crude oil into gasoline and other fuels.
“They realized that the chemicals that came from the fossil fuel refinement process could be turned into plastics, which are among the most flexible chemical compounds out there,” Rhodes said. “The growth of plastics was a way for the fossil fuel industry to find value in what had been an industrial byproduct. They were drilling for oil, and plastics became a byproduct.
“Now we’re at the point where the tail is wagging the dog,” he continued. “Our use of oil for transportation and heating is declining, and a lot of the large fossil fuel companies have realized that the future of oil extraction is in plastics. There has been a significant shift in oil extraction efforts to cater to the needs of the plastics industry. We’re now seeing a growth in the construction of cracking plants in the U.S., which crack the chemical chain into component parts for specialized plastic resins.”
The results of all of that plastic production can be seen everywhere you look.
Approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, and only about 9 percent has been recycled. Drink companies alone use about 500 billion single-use plastic bottles each year. Much of it finds its way into the oceans and across the landscape where it affects wildlife of every sort.
According to a 2016 report by the United Nations, more than 800 species have been harmed by marine debris, mostly through ingesting or becoming entangled in plastics, which causes suffocation, starvation and drowning. As many as 40 percent of cetaceans and 44 percent of seabird species have been documented to have ingested marine debris.
Because plastic floats, small pieces are often accidentally consumed by seabirds, which may be the most likely wildlife to be harmed by plastic. University of Rhode Island Professor Peter Paton said the “classic example” is the laysan and black-footed albatrosses on Midway Island in the Pacific, which soar for thousands of miles around the ocean in search of food and often bring pieces of plastic back to their nests to feed their chicks, sometimes pieces as large as toothbrushes.
“If you go to Midway, you see dead chicks everywhere with their crops and gizzards completely full of plastic,” said Paton, a member of the Audubon board of directors.
Closer to home, an ongoing study of chemical contaminants in the tissues of great shearwaters off the New England coast by a URI doctoral student turned into a study of plastics after she found plastic inside every one of the 350 dead birds on which she conducted a necropsy (an animal autopsy).
“It’s been quite jarring,” said Anna Robuck, who examined birds that were found dead between 2007 and 2019. “There hasn’t been a bird I’ve cut open that hasn’t had plastic in it. I’ve analyzed about 400 pieces of the plastics I found in the birds, and most are recyclable polyethylene.”
Among the plastics Robuck has found in great shearwaters are fragments of bottle caps, food wrappers and tangled up balls of microfibers. Most are smaller than 5 millimeters in size, which are considered microplastics, though many are considerably larger, large enough to pose a choking hazard. Some birds were found to have more than 100 pieces of plastic in their bodies, but they averaged 7 to 10.
“Great shearwaters are opportunistic foragers at the water’s surface, which means they’re probably ingesting the plastic directly,” she explained. “Most pieces are large enough that their prey – primarily small fish called sand lance – didn’t consume it first.”
While it is uncertain if the ingestion of plastic was the primary cause of death of the birds, it is likely to have been a contributing factor. And because chemical contaminants easily adhere to plastics, the plastics may also serve to deliver toxic chemicals to the birds and other animals that ingest them.
Not all plastics are equally hazardous when consumed by wildlife, however. Balloons are especially deadly.
A study published last summer by researchers in Australia found that balloons are more likely to kill seabirds than any other kind of plastic debris. In an evaluation of 1,733 dead seabirds, the researchers noted that 32 percent had ingested plastic debris. And while soft plastics like balloons accounted for only 5 percent of the items ingested, they were responsible for 42 percent of the seabird deaths. In addition, although just 2 percent of all ingested plastic were pieces of balloons, the birds that ingested balloon pieces were 32 times more likely to die than if the bird had ingested a hard plastic. According to the research team, balloons are especially lethal because they are easily swallowed and can squeeze into a bird’s stomach cavity, where they reduce the space available for food.
But pelagic seabirds aren’t the only birds negatively affected by plastic pollution.
Paton said that gulls often include a wide variety of plastic debris in the construction of their nests, some of which pose an entanglement threat to the birds and their chicks.
“Leg injuries in gulls and shorebirds are common due to entanglements,” he said. “One of the first piping plovers I caught for my research had fishing line entangled around one foot and the leg was swollen. It causes them to have a hard time foraging, and they often lose their leg because of it.”
It’s not just coastal birds that are at risk, however. Paton received a call in September about a great blue heron in Burrillville whose neck and wing were entangled in plastic debris, making the bird unable to fly.
Examples abound of marine mammals and sea turtles being similarly affected by plastic pollution in the marine environment. A Cuvier’s beaked whale died on the coast of the Philippines last spring with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. A month later, a pregnant sperm whale in the Mediterranean Sea was found dead after having swallowed 48 pounds of plastic. Then there’s the harp seal found dead in Scotland with plastic wrappers in its intestines and the viral photo of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril.
“When baleen whales feed, they aren’t selectively nibbling on their very tiny prey. They swim across the water with their mouths open, and they take in a lot of water and whatever else happens to be in the water,” said Janelle Shuh, the stranding coordinator at Mystic Aquarium. “When they filter the water out with their baleen, any plastics in the water get stuck inside their mouths.”
Shuh calls ocean plastics a significant problem for all species living in the ocean environment, and it’s a problem she sees regularly in the animals she rescues from beaches throughout the region. She regularly responds to calls about seals entangled in monofilament fishing line and other plastic debris, which often causes wounds and infections. She once conducted a necropsy on a dead harp seal and found several plastic bags in its stomach.
“I’ve also done plenty of sea turtle necropsies where we’ve seen plastics in their stomach and esophagus,” she said. “Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish, and a floating plastic bag can have the appearance of a jellyfish and they’ll eat it assuming it’s prey. Loggerheads also tend to have had plastics in their system. They munch on crabs on the sea bottom, and if there’s a plastic bottle cap down there, they might accidentally ingest it along with the crab.”
While it’s often difficult to determine whether the plastic items were the primary cause of death of the animals, Shuh believes the plastic is usually a contributing factor.
“Our narrative needs to shift,” she concluded. “I grew up in the 70s with the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ But we’ve only really focused on recycling, and that’s becoming more challenging. We need to shift our mindset to ‘reduce and reuse’ so the materials aren’t getting into the environment in the first place. That’s the direction we need to go in now.”

This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Audubon Report.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Scientists work to save world's smallest sea turtle

            The combination of the curving shape of Cape Cod, the region’s strong winds and currents, and the rapid cooling of the ocean in October and November make for a deadly threat to the rarest and smallest sea turtle on Earth.
            That’s the problem being addressed by a series of research projects conducted by an oceanographer at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., and a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island. The scientists used satellite-tracked oceanographic instruments called drifters to determine where Kemp’s ridley turtles that are late to return south in the fall are most likely to float ashore near death.
            The critically endangered turtles lay their eggs on beaches on the Gulf Coast of Mexico
Kemp's ridley turtle release on Cape Cod. (Todd McLeish)

in a mass nesting event called an arribada. After spending their first couple years far offshore in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, many of the young turtles visit the waters of the Gulf of Maine to feed on crabs and other small marine creatures that live on the seafloor.
            “There are little warm water bridges from the Gulf Stream that come up here, and we think some of the turtles are riding those into the area,” said URI student Felicia Page. “The problem comes when those little bridges close off and the water in Cape Cod Bay and the Gulf of Maine stay warm, which keeps the turtles here longer than they should instead of heading south in September.”
            Not realizing that they must swim north to escape Cape Cod Bay before migrating south, the turtles “hit a wall of cold water” and become hypothermic or cold-stunned as the water temperature rapidly cools, slowing their heart rate, respiration and metabolism, according to Page. Unable to swim, the animals drift on the currents and eventually land on the shores of Cape Cod Bay.
            It’s a problem the turtles have faced for many years, but because the climate crisis has caused the Gulf of Maine to warm faster than almost any other body of water, the turtles are increasingly finding themselves trapped in New England waters.
            “It can kill them if they can’t recover, and they can only recover if the water warms up,” Page said. “They have to be rescued in order to survive.”
            In the 1970s and 80s, fewer than 100 Kemp’s ridley turtles were found stranded on Cape Cod beaches each year, but by 2014 the number reached 1,100. Volunteers with Massachusetts Audubon wander the coastline each fall to rescue as many as they can. Many are brought to New England Aquarium and other agencies to be rehabilitated before being released the following summer.
            To help the volunteers identify the most likely beaches to search from day to day, Page and oceanographer James Manning deployed drifters built by local students to see if they could forecast where the turtles would land based on winds and currents. They also deployed sensors on commercial fishing gear to identify how the water temperature changes at different depths.
            “What physical processes are causing the turtles to suddenly come ashore at certain days and places?” asked Manning. “It’s a combination of currents and water temperature, we think.”
            The challenge is that the speed and direction of the current at the surface is often different from that on the seafloor, he said, and no one knows at what depth the turtles spend most of their time. The scientists have used surface drifters, underwater drifters, and even drifters shaped like sea turtles, and they all travel a different route.
            “We’ve shown how complicated it is,” Manning added. “We can’t yet make predictions about stranding locations yet.”
            So far, they have confirmed that the turtles do not begin to strand on Cape Cod beaches until the water drops below 52 degrees. In most years, that means the stranding season begins in late October and continues through the end of December, when most turtles have either escaped south, washed ashore alive or died.
            Page is continuing her research this winter to examine how underwater currents affect the stranding locations of Kemp’s ridley turtles.
            “A lot of the turtles don’t float at the surface; they’ll swim to deeper waters trying to escape the cold or they’ll sink to the bottom if they get cold-stunned at the surface,” she said. “So we’re looking at different levels of the water column to see how the current at different levels affects stranding locations.”
            By next fall, when the stranding season begins again, Page expects to have an app or software program developed so volunteers can plug in data about wind direction, wind speed and water temperature and know the best area to search for cold-stunned turtles.

This article first appeared on on January 8, 2020.