Category Archives: Fish

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.

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.

Restoring Lost Ecological Connections: Fish Ladders and Dam Removal

Growing up in midcoast Maine I was accustomed to celebrating the return of the alewives, an anadromous, or sea-run fish, each spring. Recently a project to restore the fish ladder for the alewives has neared completion in a stream at Damariscotta Mills. The Maine state legislature called for a fish passage in 1741, which led to the town finally building the fish ladder in 1807 to allow the alewives to return to Maine’s streams, ponds and lakes to spawn. The project to rebuild the old fish ladder began 200 years later in 2007 and has entered a final phase in 2012. One challenge for the restoration crew has been to make sure that the fish ladder was functional for the alewives each season. The running of the alewives just occurred in late May/early June.

Meanwhile, another river in Maine supports the run of alewives, salmon, sturgeon and other sea-run fish: the Penobscot, Maine’s largest river. A major component of a restoration project to restore critical habitat in Maine’s largest watershed is underway this week along the Penobscot River. The Great Works Dam on the lower part of the river is being removed this week. See a video of this dam removal (June 11, 2012). This is the culmination of a lot of planning over the past eight years on the part of federal, state and tribal governments, along with nonprofit and for-profit parties.  These have included the State of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Penobscot Nation, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation and other partners. Together they form the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. This project began in 1999, but an essential agreement formed in 2004 laid the groundwork for the collaborative restoration efforts. This unprecedented agreement set out to accomplish these things:

  1. Restore self-sustaining populations of native sea-run fish, such as the endangered Atlantic salmon;
  2. Renew opportunities for the Penobscot Nation to exercise sustenance fishing rights;
  3. Create new opportunities for tourism, businesses and communities;
  4. Resolve long-standing disputes and avoid future uncertainties over the regulation of the river.

The agreement further laid out a plan to remove two dams on the lower part of the river, including the Great Works Dam removed this week, and to construct fish bypasses by a third dam and to improve fish passage at four other dams. In 2007, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the project, and added that it would have far-ranging benefits on the Gulf of Maine, protecting endangered species, migratory birds, as well as riverine and estuarine wetlands. It would also enhance recreational activities, such as paddling and fishing and watching wildlife.  The riverine habitat is home to osprey, kingfishers, otters and bald eagles. The project has been widely known as one of the most innovative river restoration projects in the nation.

Some members of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust have made comparisons to the 1999 dam removal on the Kennebec, which was among notable dam removal projects that set a trend throughout the country. The two rivers share some of the same ecological communities. Those involved with monitoring the Kennebec since 1999, have noted a return of more birds, namely osprey and bald eagles, due to the increased number of alewives present, a food source for the birds of prey. “It’s restoring some of the lost ecological connections in the river. First, we’ve seen the rebuilding of the herring run. And now we’ve seen the building of the eagle and osprey populations,” according toAndrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

The Penobscot River and its tributaries flow through the Maine North Woods to Penobscot Bay, in midcoast Maine. Scientists began collecting baseline data for monitoring wetlands, rare plants, invasive species, geomorphology, water quality, smolt telemetry (tagging and monitoring the actively migrating young salmon), tracking fish movements and fish communities, including sturgeon, salmon and other species, in 2009. See monitoring poster. For more information about the monitoring work with sturgeon,click here.

Dam removal, fish passage and river restoration projects are happening in other parts of the country, too. Trout Unlimited has recently blogged about the legacy of “Making rivers whole again” and what’s considered the largest dam removal project in the country is underway in the Olympic wilderness of Washington state. The Elwha Dam removal project began last fall to restore the Elwha River and ecosystem. It’s managed by theNational Park Service. A recent look at case-studies on dam removal and legislation in the U.S. from an energy perspective was provided in “Exploring the Reasons behind Dam Removal.” In addition, the Connecticut River has become the first National Blueway thanks to the efforts of over 40 local, state and federal government agency and nonprofit and for-profit coalition members. The designation will improve recreational opportunities for boating, canoeing, trail-building and conservation along the river in four states: CT, NH, MA and VT. The idea originated out of President Obama’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative. For a snapshot of other ideas in the Great Outdoors initiative, click here.

Updated: April 4, 2013: Blocked Migration: Fish Ladders On U.S. Dams Are Not Effective

Save the Eels – New Book by Trout Illustrator, James Prosek

Growing up on a lake in Maine, my brother and I liked to lean over the end of the dock, shine a flashlight into the water on summer nights and lure the eels. They’d swim over to the beam, poke their heads out of the water and kiss the flashlight. I used to feel them slip passed my legs when I swam at night. They felt slippery because eels cover their bodies with a layer of mucous. But over the years, I’ve encountered fewer eels in the lake. Their population has decreased. In lakes and streams and rivers all over the world, eels are disappearing.

In the 1880s, the New York Times claimed that the eels in the St. Lawrence River were abundant; the population could never be diminished. Freshwater eels are the only fish that spends its adult life in freshwater and then returns to oceans—namely the dark Sargasso Sea, to spawn and then die. Juvenile (elver) eels travel up streams and tributaries of the Mississippi River and migrate into other freshwaters—lakes, wetlands, ponds—where they live until they reach maturity. For some eels, this can take many years, even 100 years. Once they reach reproductive maturity, they migrate back down the streams and rivers to the ocean, back to the Sargasso Sea, to spawn. They don’t come back. This is because eels go into their silver stage of development and their whole system degenerates. Their reproduction cycle has a “will self-destruct” button after they spawn. Unfortunately, nowadays eels are increasingly threatened by destruction of habitat caused by coastal development and construction of dams as well as overfishing. In the last 20 years, the population has been diminished by possibly as much as 99%. (FWS)

FWS released a status review of the American eel in 2007 which showed that while the eel population has decreased in some areas, the overall world population was not endangered. The eel was not added to the Endangered Species list. “Overfishing and hydropower turbines continue to impact eels in some regions, such as Lake Ontario and Chesapeake Bay, although these factors do not fully explain the reduced number of eels migrating up the Saint Lawrence Seaway and into Lake Ontario,” explained FWS biologist Heather Bell on the 2007 report.http://www.greenenvironmentnews.com/Environment/Wildlife/Endangered+Species+
Act+Protection+for+American+Eel+Not+Needed
 For more information on the American eel and the FWS research on considering it for protection, go to:http://www.fws.gov/northeast/newsroom/eels.html FWS mapped a model of eel habitat in 2001:http://www.fws.gov/r5gomp/gom/habitatstudy/metadata/American_eel_model.htm

Meanwhile, one man is calling for eel conservation. Check out this article by James Prosek, on Yale’s Environment 360 blog: “A Steady, Steep Decline for the Lowly, Uncharismatic Eel”http://e360.yale.edu/feature/a_steady_steep_decline_for_the_lowly_uncharismatic_
eel/2316/


Prosek’s new book is titled, Eels – An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish. According to a New York Times review, Eels is more than a “fish book.” It is an “impassioned defense of nature itself, rescued from the tired rhetoric of 1970s-style environmentalism by good, honest shoe-leather reporting.” Prosek takes the reader to eel haunts around the world: a river in the Catskills of New York; the traditional Maori eeling grounds of New Zealand; and an odd little volcanic island…http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/books/review/Greenberg-t.html Prosek previously won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the 17th-century author of The Compleat Angler. Prosek’s watercolor paintings of fish first appeared in his book, Trout: an Illustrated History http://www.amazon.com/Trout-Illustrated-History-James-Prosek/dp/067944453X

In the U.S., most people have a general dislike for eels. But in other parts of the world, eels are treated with respect, having a place in ancient myths and sacred beliefs, for example, in New Zealand.   Scotland just published its first eel conservation management plan in 2010. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/marine/Salmon-Trout-Coarse/eelsNorway passed new laws that assign fishing quotas, lowering the allowable number of eels caught starting in 2010. http://marinesciencetoday.com/2009/07/03/norway-helps-endangered-european-eels-conservation/ Scientists in England are also calling attention to the problem of eels vanishing from the Thames River.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/conservation/7046249/Eels-vanishing-from-River-Thames-scientists-warn.html

Also check out a related article in the Orion Magazine:http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5610

Related video: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/audio-video/item/orion_original_video_eel_water_rock_man/

Related link: New York Department of Environmental Conservation led an eel conservation project this year (2010): http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/49580.html

Additionally, check out the photos of “tame eels” eating crackers in this album:http://www.thewildernesslodge.org/biche_images.htm

Trout in the Classroom

When I was a kid, my grandparents used to take me to the state’s fish hatchery in New Gloucester, Maine to look at the fish. Even though they took me several times, I never tired of watching the brown trout swim in schools from pool to pool.   Later when I was a teen-ager, I belonged to the Water Quality Monitoring Team in high school. My teammates and I sampled water from area lakes and ponds, including Damariscotta Lake, where I had fished for brown trout with my brother and grandfather years before. I loved to cast and once caught two fish on the same hook! This made my younger brother envious. I should take up fly-fishing again.

Trouts Unlimited started a program for school kids called Trout in the Classroom over 20 years ago. Students in grades K-12 get to raise trout from eggs to fry in a classroom tank; monitor the tank water quality; engage in a stream habitat study; learn to appreciate water resources; begin to foster a conservation ethic; and grow to understand ecosystems. Each program is unique depending on the school’s curriculum. At the end of the year, students release the trout into a nearby stream that has been approved by the state.http://www.troutintheclassroom.org/home  This program is run in 20 states so far. For state-specific resources, visit:http://www.troutintheclassroom.org/teachers/
state-specific-resources
 There are many opportunities for local residents outside the school to volunteer with the Trout in the Classroom program:http://www.troutintheclassroom.org/volunteers