Category Archives: Conservation & Restoration

Rarity and Ocean Conservation: Endangered Sawfish, Final Listing on ESA

On 8th Grade “Career Day,” my classmates and I were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember looking at a giant phonebook-sized directory of “careers” with code-keys for filling out a handout in class. I chose “marine biologist,” “oceanographer,” and asked my teacher, “where’s the code for “Ichthyologist?” Admittedly, I also wanted to write down on my sheet that I

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

considered “mime” and “poet” to be future, possible careers, but only one of those was true. Poetry remains a constant passion for me, and so does ocean conservation. I grew up reading poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and essays by Rachel Carson, including her book, A Sense of Wonder and later in high school, The Edge of the Sea, which remains one of my favorite books of all time. In 9th grade, I bought a text book on marine biology with babysitting money and studied it outside of school, over the summer, while I studied biology at Gould Academy. Years later, at College of the Atlantic (COA), I studied conservation biology, island ecology and environmental sciences as an undergraduate student. During a summer field course, my COA classmates and I explored over 30 Maine islands and visited Gran Manan, where we saw a 30-foot basking shark in the Bay of Fundy. Studying at COA, usually in a salt-sprayed hammock overlooking the ocean, definitely helped to shape my early passion for islands, oceans and wetlands into a career in conservation.

Sharks, rays and sawfish have always been fascinating to me. (Ocean conservation nerd alert: I even have a notepad from the American Elasmobranch Society on my desk.) I’ve spent some significant time on wetlands in my career, but I’ve also followed ocean conservation with great interest, never leaning too far away from my coastal roots. One area of ocean conservation that has kept my interest over the last two decades has been rare and endangered marine species, such as sawfish, which is the first sea fish to be listed on the U.S. Endangered Species list.  In recent years, there’s been some hope for sawfish populations in South Florida (see this video). Yet, rules published by the National Marine Fisheries Service listed five species of sawfish as endangered this past month in its final ruling.

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

“The final rule contains the Service’s determination that the narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidate), dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata), largetooth sawfish (collectively, Pristis pristis), green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) and the non-U.S. distinct population segment (DPS) of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) are endangered species under the ESA.” (Miller, December 2014)  (See info on the rule in the Federal Register here.)

What makes a thing like the sawfish rare?

Rarity is driven by scale—how many, how much, how big an area. Rarity means that something occurs infrequently, either in the form of endemism, being restricted to a certain place, or by the smallness of a population. In conservation biology the proportion or percentage of habitable sites or areas in which a particular species is present determines the rarity of a species.[1] In addition to the areas in which a particular species is present, the number of individuals found in that area also determines its rarity. There are different types of rarity which can be based on three factors: 1) geographical range – the species may occur in sufficient numbers but only live in a particular place, for example, an island; 2) the habitat specificity – if the species is a “specialist,” meaning it might be confined to a certain type of habitat, it could be found all over the world but only in that specific habitat, for example, tropical rainforests; 3) the population size – a small or declining population might cause rarity. [2] Generally a species can be locally very common but globally very uncommon, thereby making it rare and furthermore, valuable. A species can also be the opposite, globally common but spread out few and far between so that individuals have a hard time sustaining their populations through reproduction and dispersal.

But usually when a person thinks of rarity, they are probably thinking about a species that occurs in very low numbers and lives in only one place, as in many of the endemic creatures on the Galapagos Islands. It is this latter-most perception of rarity that plays a critical role in conservation work. People value rarity because it makes a living thing special—even if it had intrinsic value before it became rare, if it ever lived in greater numbers or more widespread populations.

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish are a rare, unique—and critically endangered group of elasmobranches—sharks, skates and rays, that are most known for their toothed rostrum. Once common inhabitants of coastal, estuarine areas and rivers throughout the tropics, sawfish populations have been decimated by decades of fishing and survive—barely—in isolated habitats, according to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. Seven recognized species of sawfish, including the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), are listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. In addition to the extensive gillnetting and trawling, sawfish are threatened by habitat degradation from coastal development. Sawfish prefer mangroves and other estuarine wetlands. Currently the sawfish population is believed to be restricted to remote areas of southwest Florida, particularly in the Everglades and the Keys. Sawfish are primarily a freshwater-loving creature but they occasionally go out to sea. Lobbyists proposed to add sawfish to Appendix 1 of CITES in 1994 (as part of the first Shark Resolution) to stop the trade in saws but the proposal was defeated in 1997 because it could not demonstrate that stopping trade would provide the necessary protection in wild populations. [See Petition to List North American Populations of Sawfish, 1999, here.] Subsequent proposals in 2007 and 2013 were successful, according to Shark Advocates International. According to the Mote Marine Laboratory conservation biologists, “even if effective conservation plans can be implemented it will take sawfish populations decades, or possibly even centuries, to recover to post-decline levels.” This is the fundamental crux of rarity in conservation biology: even if we do perfect conservation work, once a species is rare and critically endangered, it can take much longer for a species to recover than the time it took to reach the brink of extinction.  In November 2014, all sawfish species were listed on Appendix I & II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates explains to me:  The listing of smalltooth sawfish is therefore the most relevant; it has resulted in critical habitat designation, a comprehensive recovery plan, cutting edge research, and encouraging signs of population stabilization and growth.

See this NOAA Fisheries video on smalltooth sawfish conservation.

Several different organizations, in addition to federal and state agencies, are working to protect and conserve sawfish habitat and the endangered species. Here are some links to a few of these organizations and their fact sheets on sawfish:

Save the Sawfish

Sawfish Conservation Society

Shark Advocates, Fact Sheet on Smalltooth Sawfish

Florida Museum of Natural History, Sawfish Conservation

Save our Seas, Conservation of Sawfish Project

Fact sheet for the 11th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP11) to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) on Sawfish (5 species)

IUCN Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy 

[1] Begon, Michael, John L. Harper, Colin Townsend. Ecology: Individuals, Populations, and Communities. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, London, et. al. 1990. Glossary pp. 859..

[2] Pullin, Andrew. Conservation Biology. Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp.199-201.

Healthy Waters Coalition – What’s on Our Minds, In Our Hearts

At my Healthy Waters Coalition meeting tonight, where we discussed the value of accurate, balanced information about oil spill prevention, I accidentally spilled pink lemonade across the agenda.  (From now on, the incident will be remembered as the “pink spill,” and it can be added to a long list of funny things I have done while leading coalition meetings.) I began to think about what’s really motivating our efforts to inform and educate Sebago Lakes Region citizens and local businesses about watershed issues.

We are a water-based economy here in this part of southern Maine. Boat rentals and recreation-based businesses, real estate and restaurants, florists and landscaping contractors, summer camps for children and accommodations (think: Inn by the Pond), not to mention waterfront property in towns–and property taxes paid to Towns–all bring in millions of dollars in annual revenue for the Sebago Lakes Region. The State of Maine tracks the annual revenue for freshwater fishing and accommodations for several Lakes Region towns. Wetlands are valued for their ecological services, too, and that translates to dollars. Real dollars. Wetlands attenuate flooding and aid in filtering waters to provide good water quality in our groundwater, which produces the drinking water for those who have private wells.  All of the headwater streams (94-100% of streams) in the region are located in Source Water Protection Areas (SPAs), meaning that they directly feed into a public drinking water system. In our region, that system is Sebago Lake, which is so clean, it’s exempt from the federal filtration requirement, an expensive option if ever it were to become necessary for the Portland Water District to put in place.

I want to reach out to other groups engaged in an open dialogue about the possible transportation of oil sands through New England and the importance of protecting our local watersheds, local economy–as the two are interconnected.  While the HWC already has members in 8 Lakes Region towns, representatives from local government boards and committees, watershed organizations, local businesses and other interests, such as Saint Joseph’s College, and we have partnered with some fantastic environmental and conservation-oriented nonprofit organizations already, I’d like to connect the Healthy Waters Coalition with a broader network.  I’m interested in connecting with folks at ConservAmerica, town and city revitalization committees, regional Chambers of Commerce, and the business community. We have so much invested in our waters. While pondering this, I scribbled some thoughts and turned it into this info-graphic (below). I like how it came out. Let me know what you think.

HWC_wordle3

The State(s) of Sea Level Rise Science

Peaks Island, Maine

Peaks Island, Maine

In early April, I read an issue of a Peaks Island, Maine newspaper. On the front page, a story’s headline caught my eye:  “Sea level rise not caused by climate change, scientists confirm.” At first I assumed it was an April Fool’s joke, but the date was not April 1st. Then I got upset. I read. It seems that the journalist had (mis)interpreted a report on sea levels in Casco Bay that affirmed the sea level has risen for much longer than most people have known about global climate change. In fact, the State of Maine has over 100 years worth of sea level rise data because the City of Portland has tracked sea level in Portland harbor since 1901. That’s valuable data. The University of Southern Maine has conducted a series of studies on sea level rise, sustainability and the economics involved with planning for adaptation. According to the Environmental Finance Center at the Muskie School (USM), “at least 100 coastal New England towns will be impacted by sea level rise and increased storm surge from climate change.” Read about their COAST and Climate Ready Estuary projects here.

The State of Maine published its climate change action plan in 2004. It identified sea level rise adaptation planning as a necessity. In particular, the Maine Geological Survey conducted several pilot projects that assessed coastal wetland migration. The state’s coastal zoning laws and management practices changed several years ago to reflect sea level rise. Read the 2010 report, “People and Nature: Adapting to a Changing Climate, Charting Maine’s Course.” A great list of collaborators contributed to the development of “People and Nature,” including Natural Resources Council of Maine, several state agencies, several cities and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. It’s hard to find on the state’s website because the State Planning Office’s website was moved and merged with those of other departments.

Meanwhile, adaptation planning has moved to the forefront of climate change science in recent years. Sea level rise scientists at NASA, USGS and other agencies engaged in an online chat session about the state of the science for sea level rise and adaptation planning in early April 2013. (You can listen to the discussion after-the-fact.) What I found interesting is that salt marsh ecology and wetlands play such a vital role in our understanding of sea level rise and its implications for coastal systems. Over the past 6 years, I’ve done some research on sea level rise and learned of sea level rise tools and adaptation planning efforts underway all over the country. A hotspot for sea level rise research is the East coast of the United States, where sea level rise is occurring at a faster rate between Cape Cod and the coast of North Carolina—faster than anywhere else in the world.

Leah Stetson photo

Leah Stetson photo

Several other states have begun to plan for sea level rise. Click on the links below to learn more about what states are doing about sea level rise and adapting natural resource management strategies for climate change. In most cases, it’s a collaborative effort.

MA: Mass Fish & Game Adaptation Planning       MA sea level rise planning maps
MA: Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee
NY: New York Sea Level Rise Planning        NY Sea Level Rise Task Force Report 2010
CT: Connecticut Climate Change Adaptation Reports
RI: Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: New Jersey Coastal Management Program Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: Sea Level Rise in New Jersey, New Jersey Geological Survey Report, 1998
NJ, DE, PA, NY: Delaware River Basin Commission Climate Change Hydrology Report, 2013
DE: Delaware Sea Level Rise Planning & Adaptation
MD: Living Shorelines Program (Chesapeake Bay Trust)
MD: A Sea Level Response Strategy for Maryland (2000)
VA: Planning for Sea Level Rise, Virginia Institute for Marine Science
VA Sea Level Rise Maps
VA: Sea Level Rise Planning at Local Government Level in Virginia
VA: Government Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise
GA: University of Georgia, Sea Grant – Sea Level Rise Planning & Research
FL: Florida’s Resilient Coasts: State Policy Framework for Adaptation (PDF)
FL: Multidisciplinary Review of Current Sea Level Rise Research in Florida  (University of Florida)
MS & AL: Mississippi and Alabama Sea Grant Consortium – Resilience in Coastal Communities
Gulf of Mexico States: Climate Community of Practice: Sea Level Rise Planning
LA: Coastal Protection & Restoration – Recommendations for Sea Level Rise Planning (Includes Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan)
CA: California’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water Resources (2012)
CA: State Resources on Sea Level Rise and Adaptation Planning
CA: Adapting to Sea Level Rise Report (2012)
CA, OR, WA: Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon and Washington (2012)
OR: A Strategy for Adapting to Impacts of Climate Change on the Oregon Coast (2009)
OR: LiDAR Sea Level Rise Research (NOAA Digital Services)
WA: Addressing Sea Level Rise in Shoreline Master Programs (Guidance) (2007)
WA: Sea Level Rise Assessment: Impacts of Climate Change on the Coast (2007)
AK: Alaska’s Melting Permafrost and Melting Sea Ice (national research)
AK: Climate change impacts in Alaska (EPA)
NC: North Carolina Coastal Federation – Sea Level Rise

A note about North Carolina: Several state agencies, including the Departments of Environment & Natural Resources, Transportation and Commerce, all identified threats and risks from sea level rise in 2010. At the time, the state’s Governor signed a letter confirming this. Two years later, North Carolina’s State Senate passed a law that banned sea level rise adaptation planning based on the current science. The House of Representatives rejected the bill, but a compromised version of the bill called for a new study on sea level rise for North Carolina and a ban on exponential sea level rise predictions in modeling. Read this Scientific American article on NC and sea level rise, and the 2012 USGS study that found increasing sea level rise impacts on the coast between Cape Cod and the Carolinas. See “More unwanted national attention for North Carolina on sea level rise” (2013).

If you’re interested in a good summary of sea level rise policy in states, see this 2012 legislative report by Kristin Miller, et. al. (Connecticut General Assembly). It includes an analysis of sea level rise related policy in ten states (Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.)

Update: Check out Nickolay Lamm’s Sea Level Rise Images Depict What U.S. Cities Could Look Like In Future (PHOTOS) – click here. 

Convergence: Where Streams & Stories Connect

Eighteen years ago, my brother and I eloped with our mother to Kaua’i. I say “eloped” because the trip was a romantic surprise after my step-dad proposed over the phone. He was already there—on Kaua’i. It was February, 1995, my senior year of high school, and the end of February school vacation. I turned 18 during the 23 hour plane ride to the Big Island of Hawai’i. My parents—my mother and step-dad, married at the point of convergence, where two streams met before emptying into the Pacific. Waterfalls peeled like tropical fruit through the rainforest. Two fed these streams. Neither my brother nor I had ever experienced swimming in the Pacific Ocean, let alone kayaking through a jungle. One day we hiked to a massive 40-foot waterfall, which we learned had been featured in one of the King Kong movies. I slipped behind the falls into a cave, sprayed by its awesome force. Those streams created our new family.

Flash forward to 2013:  A small perennial stream meanders through my black ash seep, past a vernal pool and flows into the pond. It’s not dramatic. It’s barely audible. The nor’easter that took everyone on the East coast by surprise yesterday dropped over a foot of snow. It’s that light fluffy stuff perfect for a snowshoe hike. Everything’s quiet, cold and white. Yet the stream trickles, melting the snow on either side. It persists. This stream is one of many, many streams in Maine that flow either perennially, intermittently or ephemerally—that is, after storms. Streams criss-cross and converge, form major tributaries like Panther Run, feed creeks and rivers, such as the Crooked River, emptying into lakes, picturesque waters such as Panther Pond, and wetlands throughout the Sebago Lakes Region of southern Maine. Most of the residents in this region depend on the groundwater for their drinking water. Those residents in the Portland Water District get their drinking water from Sebago Lake. Either way, the streams that flow and converge throughout the state—even beyond this watershed—play an integral part of life as we know it.

In thinking about the importance of headwater streams, it’s useful to see streams in a larger watershed context. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a great online tool with a headwater stream index for the entire United States. Maps showing stream data are available for 48 states (Alaska and Hawai’i are not available at the time of this post). EPA has published the summaries of findings from a 2009 study on intermittent, ephemeral and headwater streams. There’s information about public drinking water systems in the U.S., too. Local drinking waterinformation is also available by state.

What I found interesting in looking at stream data for the State of Maine is that I live in an area where 94-100% of stream miles are contained in Source Protection Areas (SPAs). An SPA is an area “upstream from a drinking water source or intake that contributes surface water flow to the drinking water intake within a 24-hour period.” (EPA, Office of Water) That means that most of, if not all of, the intermittent, headwater and ephemeral streams in those areas support public drinking water systems.

It makes sense. I live in a town that’s home to the “landlocked salmon” in Sebago Lake. The lake is one of the few lakes in the country that receives a Filtration Avoidance Waiver from the EPA. This waiver saves the communities in the region $125 million in construction and operation costs—since there is no need for a water treatment facility. I recently learned that if the Portland Water District had to invest in such a water treatment system, it would cost over $100 million. Currently, the cost-savings come from the convergence of headwater, intermittent and ephemeral streams throughout the Sebago Lakes Region watershed.  We also know that area wetlands are equally valuable for their ecological services, including flood attenuation and protecting water quality in those very streams. It is my hope as a local conservation official, and through volunteering with small watershed groups, like the Healthy Waters Coalition in the Sebago Lakes Region, we can inform and educate municipal decision-makers on the value of protecting headwater streams.

Meanwhile, the Maine Association of Wetland Scientists is holding its annual meeting on March 25th. This year’s meeting focuses on rivers and streams.

For further reading, check out these related blogs:

Streams Take Me By Surprise, by Travis Loop, EPA blog

Rivanna streams not safe for swimming and boating? Find out more on Thurs, March 21
Rivanna River Basin Commission (Charlottesville, VA)

Managing Municipal Stormwater: Protecting Water Quality, Streams and Communities
Penn State Extension Blog

Rivers, Streams, Water Falls, Food and More, by Bill Trussell, Fishing Through Life

For further information about streams, click here.

The Love Lives of Horseshoe Crabs, Not Cannibals

Amidst the studies on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on coastal communities—which affected the lives of people, most notably—some recent studies have examined the impacts on the lives of a strange ancient creature: horseshoe crabs. Distant relatives of scorpions and spiders, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, or crustaceans. They’ve been around for over 1 billion years and lived alongside dinosaurs. See “The Life and Times of the Earliest Horseshoe Crabs,” (Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum). Unlike a scorpion, crab or spider, horseshoe crabs don’t bite, sting or pinch. And unlike cannibalistic crustaceans, adult horseshoe crabs do not congregate (except to spawn seasonally), which is possibly a way to avoid large crabs attacking smaller horseshoe crabs—thus, avoiding cannibalistic behavior as a species. (Sekiguchi, Shuster, Jr., 1999) Their anatomy is interesting, as illustrated below.

Each spring, horseshoe crabs spawn along creek-mouth beaches and shoals. They like sandy beaches. Naturally, these coastal areas, rich in wetlands, peat bogs and saltwater marsh, were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. What’s more, sea level rise has eroded certain coastal beaches where horseshoe crabs used to spawn, decreasing the habitat suitable for spawning. See Sea Level Rise and the Significance of Marginal Beaches for Horseshoe Crab Spawning (Botton and Loveland, 2011).

In the Delaware Bay, for example, the American Littoral Society, along with the Wetlands Institute, the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection and New Jersey Audubon, have assessed the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on horseshoe crab populations in the Bay. Watch this video of horseshoe crab spawning in Delaware. Read Hurricane Sandy Race To Restore Horseshoe Crab Spawning Grounds (March 2013). Videos depict horseshoe crabs spawning, swimming upside down and righting themselves.

In a joint report by the Wetlands Institute, NJ Audubon Society and NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife (“Damage from Superstorm Sandy to Horseshoe Crab Breeding and Shorebird Stopover Habitat on Delaware Bay,” December 2012), wetlands did well overall, despite some “wash over” during storm surges of Hurricane Sandy, according to Lenore Tedesco, Ph.D. Director of Research at the Wetlands Institute. Yet a major finding was a 70% decrease in suitable breeding habitat for horseshoe crabs. In addition, there was about the same amount of increase in unsuitable habitat for horseshoe crab spawning. Specifically, the scientists classified the types of habitat into five categories:

  1. Optimal: undisturbed sand beach;
  2. Suitable: sand beach with only small areas of peat and/or backed by development
  3. Less Suitable: exposed peat in lower/middle intertidal zone;
    sand present in upper intertidal;
  4. Avoided habitat:  exposed peat or active salt marsh fringing the shoreline;
    no sand present
  5. Disturbed due to beach fill, riprap or bulkheading.
    (Niles, Tedesco, Sellers, et. al. 2012)

In areas where the habitat is less suitable, with exposed peat, there is less sand for the horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs. The full report includes recommendations for habitat restoration. For more information about post-Sandy restoration recommendations, visit the Wetlands Institute’s website here.

Many years ago, I learned that horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) lay at the heart of some medical advances in immunology research. Apparently, horseshoe crab blood and immunology can serve scientists with a model to develop treatments for patients with HIV, AIDS or other immune deficiency disorders. Its “blue blood” contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, which allows medical researchers to detect bacterial toxins. In ecological projects, the spawning and genetic diversity of horseshoe crabs is the focus, or the relationship between horseshoe crabs and fisheries. For an overview of various research projects on horseshoe crabs happening in 18 states and two countries, see these project summaries. There’s some fascinating research underway.

The Wetland Institute has a number of publications on its website related to horseshoe crab research and conservation. There’s also an “Adopt a Horseshoe Crab” program and horseshoe crab census data available from 1999-2009. In May, the Institute holds festival activities, including teaching tank/aquarium talks on saltmarsh ecology, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. For more information about the Horseshoe Crab Festival in May,click here.

More videos:

See horseshoe crab counting (Washington Post video, June 2012)
NATURE program on horseshoe crabs (PBS, 2008)
Horseshoe crab documentary (Nick Baker, Science Channel)

For more on horseshoe crab biology and ecology, see this National Park Service webpage and materials developed by the Mid-Atlantic Sea Grant and NOAA joint programs on horseshoe crab research. Finally, check outhttp://horseshoecrab.org/ which houses an online warehouse of information on the biology, conservation and research of horseshoe crabs.

Afflicted Bats Need Avengers; Bat Counters Needed

Lots of people are talking about “Batman.” Why did the “dark knight” choose bats as a symbol for his vigilantism?  In the comics, Bruce Wayne creates his ‘Batman’ identity when he conquered his childhood fear of bats. He created the illusion of having the speed, agility and nocturnal instincts of the only mammal able to sustain flight: the bat.

Although some people readily see the value of bats—including wetlandkeepers—other people are afraid of bats. Myths about bats, such as that bats carry rabies, are unfounded. Less than 1% of bats carry rabies. An individual is more likely to come across a skunk or domestic dog with rabies, than to encounter a bat with rabies. However, it is likely nowadays to find a bat infected with another disease. That is, if you can find a bat at all. Bats are sending up their own “bat-signal” of distress and need our help.

Currently bats in the U.S. are suffering the plight of white nose syndrome, a deadly fungus infection affecting a growing number of bat populations in North America. It started in New York in a bat colony in 2006. The fungus, Geomyces destructans, is considered an invasive species (Lanwig, Frick, et. al. Ecology Letters, 2012). Five years later, the disease has spread to 19 different states.  The death toll of North American bats succumbing to white nose syndrome was 5.5 million as of January 2012.

Myth: Bats will (not) entangle in your hair. Fact: Bats are natural pest control for crops. Myth: Bats suck blood. Fact: You’d have to leave the United States to find a vampire bat. The most common bats in the United States eat insects. Those of us in mosquito-stricken areas of the country, like Maine, are aware of bats’ ability to consume thousands of mosquitoes in a single night. Bats like to swoop through wetlands and riparian areas, and in turn, bat guano fertilizes vegetation. What most people don’t know is that “bat guano is big business” outside the U.S. as a source of fertilizer.  Also see: Effects of wetland network distribution on bat activity.

The most recent studies show that the more “social” the bats are, the tighter the cluster of bats in a colony, the more likely the disease is to spread. The grim reality is that the fungus has wiped out bat populations by the hundreds of thousands throughout the country. It’s in Delaware. It’s in Missouri. It’s in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.  White nose syndrome has been confirmed in Wyoming and Maine, too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a protocol for treatment and reduction of spreading the white nose syndrome in June 2012. For instance, if you handle a bat with white nose syndrome while wearing gloves, be sure to wash the gloves in hot water afterwards.

What’s strange is that not every bat infected with the fungus is dying. Sometimes a bat infected with white nose syndrome can live for a full year or longer after infection. In other cases, such as the big brown bat, scientists don’t know how the bats are avoiding the white nose syndrome; it might have to do with migrating south as opposed to huddling together in the infected caves, where the fungus is present. The endangered Indiana bat has not been hit as hard as biologists feared (their population is down about 70%).  One of the most common bats in the Northeast, the little brown bat, has taken a nosedive –its population plummeting by 90% due to white nose syndrome. SeeNortheastern Bat Update and Bats on the Brink.  There has been some hope in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire:  some of the little brown bat colonies are surviving and having pups, based on reports from state Fish and Game agencies. State agencies are calling for citizens to count bats and help promote awareness about them. In addition to research in the U.S., this year happens to be ‘Year of the Bat’ for international research and awareness about bats across the globe.

For the FWS’ blog on White Nose Syndrome, visit:http://whitenosebats.wordpress.com/
For information on Vermont’s Bat Program, click here.
For information on New Hampshire’s Bat Program, click here. 
For National Park Service (KY)’s Bat Program, visit:http://www.nps.gov/maca/whitenose.htm
Also see related blog post, White-nose syndrome confirmed in endangered gray bats

Pond Scum: The Good, the Bad, and the Sludgy

Globs of algae the size of human heads floated around like something out of a B-movie on MST3K. It was unnerving to bump into one of them. I can handle swimming with eels…but I find it creepy to swim with severed head-shaped algae clusters. When I arrived at my little local lakeside beach in southern Maine, I thought I was lucky because no one else was there in 90-degree heat. Then I realized the beach was vacant because of the algal bloom. An algal bloom is a concentration of cyanobacteria. Strange Wetlands covered types of algae blooms, including blue green algae, in an earlier post (2010).

In the Great Lakes region this summer, some communities are seeing algal blooms, including the Eastern parts of Lake Erie. Algal blooms turn the water a bright scummy green. Some of the vegetation washes ashore in clumps, deterring beach goers but not always causing beach closings.  However, NOAA has recently issued a prediction that western Lake Erie should see a lesser algal bloom this summer. This is good news.NOAA, partners predict mild harmful algal blooms for western Lake Erie this year. A presentation will be held on algal blooms and the “Lake Erie Dead Zone” by an aquatic biologist in Cleveland Heights on July 25th.  For more information about the Lake Erie Dead Zone, visit EPA’s webpage. But this year’s bloom on Lake Erie is likely to be only one tenth the size of the bloom that occurred last year.

Last year, Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom was visible from space (2011). In fact last year’s algae blooms in the Great Lakes were touted as the ‘worst since the 1960s,’ something akin to the comics of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The Natural Resources Defense Council presented analysis of Ohio beach closings and algal bloomsand on New York beaches for Lake Ontario and Lake Erie with monitoring data collected in 2011. Full report here.

What’s the issue this summer? Not all algae, or “pond scum,” is created equal. Some amount of algae is a normal part of the ecosystem but too much of the wrong types are harmful. A Great Lakes native algae called Spirogyra is thriving on the conditions caused by invasive zebra and quagga mussels. The result is a sludge-like mat of green algae that washes up on beaches along Lake Michigan and other lakes. Another green alga, Cladophora, increased because of the zebra mussels, and both types of algae wash ashore in thick mats, which rot, stink and harbor E. Coli, Salmonella and other pathogens. The stench from the beach muck is comparable to manure. See video, “All Washed Up: Lake Michigan’s Algae Challenge.” For a fact sheet on Harmful Algae Blooms & Muck: What’s the Difference (Michigan Sea Grant), click here. For more about the relationship between algae and zebra mussels, see Changes in the benthic algal community and nutrient limitation in Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron, during the invasion of the zebra mussel (report, 2002).

Another serious factor this summer is drought, which is occurring in a large part of the country. For instance in Wisconsin, the hot weather has caused harmful blue green algae blooms in Lake Winnebago and Tainter/Menomin lakes, where there is a history of blooms, but the harmful algae is also showing up in lakes where it previously did not occur. They are facing a similar problem to that in Lake Michigan with the zebra mussels and Cladophora, warned to be harmful to boaters and swimmers. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has found dead waterfowl, most likely killed by botulism, in Wisconsin lakes this year. For a past FWS report on waterfowl and botulism in the Wisconsin lakes, click here.

Algal blooms are probably not at the top of the list of issues concerning those keeping an eye on the Farm Bill developments—but this is one of the reasons why the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title is so crucial to the protection of wetlands and water resources—including the Great Lakes. See Farm Bill Conservation Programs Are ‘Essential for Great Lakes Restoration’