Category Archives: Islands

So Excellent a Fishe ~ Sea Turtle Conservation History

Last week I received a publisher’s copy of the newly released 2011 edition of Archie Carr’s book, So Excellent a Fishe, A Natural History of Sea Turtles (University of Florida Press) with a new forward by Karen A. Bjorndal. She is the current Director of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida. Bjorndal muses on her mentor’s good humor and the invaluable legacy that world-renowned ecologist Dr. Archie Carr left to the field of sea turtle research and conservation. She outlines the progress that scientists have made since Dr. Carr’s book was originally published in 1967, when sea turtle populations were very low.  Sea turtles continue on the endangered species list, but in the case of green turtles, the populations have somewhat recovered since Carr’s field work in the Caribbean in the 1950s and ‘60s. Carr cites the work of his predecessors, offering insights on the improvements and changes over decades of marine and coastal conservation. But what does it have to do with wetlands?

Sea turtle conservation work used to be done solely on shore. This required slogging through creeks and swamps to observe turtle nesting sites. This meant studying the behavior of wetland-dependent predators, including swamp pigs, lizards, wild dogs and jaguars in the coastal scrub, as researchers observed the success rates of the female green turtle and her nesting rituals. It included studies of sea grasses.  It also meant that sea turtle scientists worked in remote, challenging coastal landscapes, self-marooned in the jungles of islets and islands of the Caribbean and off of South America forever waiting for a locally-operated plane to pick them up, transport hundreds of baby turtles, or bring supplies. At least, that was before the U.S. Navy got involved in the mid-1960s, when a naval officer took interest in the unparalleled navigation abilities of sea turtles. Then Carr and his colleagues had assistance—including more dependable planes, provided by the Navy. The adventures and challenges presented by sea turtle conservation work may be partly why Carr uses the word “swamped” on nearly every other page to emphasize the obstacles that both the researchers endured on the landscape and sea turtles faced in their steadfast quest for survival, e.g. “swamped by predators,” which happened to descend from “swamp forests.”

What’s remarkable in reading about Carr’s field work certainly pivots on his ability to postulate and pose theories—many of which were proven true with corroborating data decades later—but notably his sense of humor. Readers learn of all sorts of fascinating experiments. For example, one scientist puts a pair of glasses with colored lenses on a sea turtle to test her preference for colors in the journey between shore and sea. Further, Carr describes the rarely-witnessed violent, near-impossible feat of the male green turtle courting with the female and maneuvering onto her smooth, wet carapace in the waves, surrounded by competing males. These observations led to changes in monitoring programs, in which researchers had previously tagged the carapace, not fully understanding the violent nature of courtship and the likelihood of the male sea turtle removing the metal tags from his mate. In other observations, female green turtles drag logs and marine equipment to shore. Anything that happened to a turtle offshore remained a mystery for the time being. This brought about a new tagging program to help sea turtle conservation researchers gather clues.

In a chapter entitled, Señor Reward Premio, it’s a delight to read the letters Dr. Carr received by fishermen who found tagged sea turtles that were part of a monitoring program. The sea turtles had metal tags with return instructions (in Spanish and English) with the promise of a $5 reward—paid by the U.S. government. The $5 reward program for collecting the tags was very successful, returning far more tags to Carr and his colleagues than prior tagging programs that did not offer a reward. Because of the language barrier, fishermen misinterpreted the directions on the tags and directed letters to Señor Reward Premio, and the University of Florida’s mail system had to get used to Carr’s new alias.  What’s neat about the letters and the eager response of the fishermen is that the value of a sea turtle, especially when poached, at the time exceeded the $5 reward, and yet the fishermen who returned tags wrote of their great interest in the project. They seemed rather proud in participating. The $5 reward program, in essence, swayed the behaviors of some fishermen and sea turtle poaching activities decreased as a result. In general, the presence of sea turtle researchers on Caribbean islands and off the coast of South America (especially Columbia) in the 1950s and ‘60s made poaching less popular, or more readily observed and therefore, less convenient for poachers.  In fact, the title of Carr’s book, So Excellent a Fishe, is a phrase borrowed from a sea turtleconservation law passed by the Bermuda Assembly in 1620.  Considering that sea turtle conservation had been ongoing for over 300 years by the time Dr. Archie Carr and his colleagues began researching green turtles and hawksbills, among other species, it’s fair to say that Carr’s work was groundbreaking.

But he would have put it differently.  He admits that sea turtle conservation researchers are an insecure bunch, especially when asked about the number of sub-species of sea turtles.  Sure, there are seven species of sea turtles: the Loggerhead, the Green Turtle, the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, Olive ridley and the Flatback.  But the jury is still out on the number of sub-species.  The reader will enjoy Carr’s sense of humor and humility, even when he makes remarkable discoveries. In one discussion on the magic number of eggs that a female green turtle lays—100 eggs, not more, not less, Carr says this number is “packed with ecology and evolution.” He further ponders why natural selection did not build “child care” into the ancient sea turtle, as the adult neither cares nor knows the fate of her offspring, to the single-mindedness degree that wild dogs will stand around a nest and eat the eggs as the female is laying them. Perhaps among the most fascinating descriptions in the book is an experiment in which Carr and his colleague set up a glass pane on one side of a sea turtle nest and observed baby green turtles erupt from their shells and climb to the surface in a synchronized phenomenon that Carr calls a “brotherhood” acting as a survival group. They proved that a sea turtle nesting by itself had a dismal fate—and would not make it to the surface. But a hundred eggs in a nest meant dozens of sea turtles used each other instinctually to guide each other out of the nest and to the surf.

Carr credits many of his colleagues with their contributions to sea turtle conservation. Fused with the natural history of sea turtles is the evolution of certain conservation groups, such as the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle, which later became known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (founded in part by Dr. Carr), and is now called the Sea Turtle Conservancy. This group and several others work to protect sea turtles, including protection of nesting sites on shore. In particular the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a 20-mile stretch of beach on Florida’s east central coast, was established in 1989. For more information about the book, visit the Wetland Bookshelfor the University of Florida Press.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries just announced new populations of sea turtles (namely the Loggerhead) under the Endangered Species Act:http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/turtles/loggerhead.htm

Mating sea turtles in the Pilbara (Australia Dept. of Conservation)http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-02/mating-turtles-in-the-pilbara/2868086

Fact sheet on the Green Turtle:http://www.fws.gov/northflorida/SeaTurtles/Turtle%20Factsheets/green-sea-turtle.htm

Update: NOAA Designates Critical Leatherback Habitat Along West Coast

On January 23rd, NOAA announced the designation of additional critical habitat to provide protection for endangered leatherback sea turtles along the U.S. West Coast.  NOAA is designating 41,914 square miles of marine habitat in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. The regulation, formally published in theFederal Register on January 26th, will become effective on February 25, 2012.

Tortuguero:Epicenter for Sea Turtle Conservation

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Fringe Corals – Wetlands at the Outer Edge

Fringe. It’s the outer edge. Peripheral. Fringe, or fringing, reefs are connected to land and point toward sea; they occur in shallow water along coasts all over the world. Some wetlands are the boundary between land and deep water habitat; fringing corals fall into this group. Corals form in shallow, warm salt water habitats, usually tropical waters. Thousands of hard coral polyps grow together in masses and create a reef, whereas soft corals, like sea fans, do not form reefs. Fringe corals are similar to fringe mangrove ecosystems in that they grow at the edges of the land; sometimes the fringe coral and mangroves are neighbors in a closely-entwined habitat that provides a nursery for many marine animals. What lives in a fringe coral reef? Brittle stars, horseshoe crabs, sea anemone, sea urchins, snails and mollusks inhabit this strange ecosystem.

Darwin asserted that fringe reefs were the first kind of coral reef to form around a landmass in a long-term reef growth process. Until 1753, people did not know that corals were living organisms. Darwin’s Subsidence Theory, which focused on fringing reefs as an explanation for atolls and barrier reefs in the deep ocean, (aka the“coral reef theory”) is still the basis for the understanding of coral reefs today.http://www.darwin-literature.com/Coral_Reefs/1.html

Fringe coral communities are unusual. For instance, finger coral (Porites furcata) and coralline algae grow interspersed with sea grasses in less than one foot of water. The two types of coral reefs that are most commonly known—atolls and barrier reefs—live in deep ocean water. Sponges, echinoderms, crustaceans and mollusks may also be found living in the fragile habitat of fringe corals, which are easily damaged by boats that drop anchor or people who walk on them.

Right now marine scientists are calling a “code blue” on coral reefs worldwide. Fringe reefs are threatened by coastal development, dredging and run-off, while all types of corals are stressed by warming sea temperatures as a result of climate change, a phenomenon called “coral bleaching.” The warming sea temperatures kill the algae that give the corals their color. http://coralreefwatch.noaa.gov/satellite/index.html Another problem is acidification of sea water, caused by run-off, certain algae and pollution from dredging or other human activities. Sediment discharge from coastal development can have a very negative impact on coastal wetlands including fringe reefs and mangroves.

In southwest Florida, the Department of Environmental Protection is currently dealing with enforcement issues on a boat lift in a canal, which city developers dredged to build Cape Coral the 1970s. The city developers dredged the canal through fringe mangroves. The original design of the canal allowed the fresh waters to be trapped and prevented that water from flowing into the saltwater estuaries of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve. The preserve is home to four species of sea grasses, three species of mangroves, over 100 species of invertebrates, 200 species of fish and 150 species of shore and wading birds.http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/matlacha/ The barrier lift protected the saltwater mangrove habitat and preserve. In the 2000s, the city developers removed the lift, initially with the intention of replacing it—but several years after-the-fact, there is still no barrier lift protecting the estuary. http://www.pineisland-eagle.com/page/content.detail/id/511072/Stakeholders–votes-being-tallied-on-Cape-spreader-barrier.html?nav=5048

Hawaii’s Conservation Resource Enhancement Program’s strategy involves converting marginal pastureland into native grasses and wetlands. The state seeks to improve water quality and near-shore coral reef (fringe coral) communities by filtering agricultural run-off. http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/
dofaw/forestry/crep/crep/?searchterm
=coral%20reef
 Additionally the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources has identified a way to use sea urchins to manage invasive algae in coral reefs. State aquatic biologists vacuumed the invasive seaweed off the coral with a “Super Sucker,” and have planted sea urchins to take on the job of eating the seaweed. http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/chair/pio/nr/2010/NR10-105.pdf/view?searchterm=coral%20reef For pictures, go here: http://hear.smugmug.com/Press-releases/DLNR-20100817/13368297_NJS3z#972086826_sRNE7 Besides invasive algae, two other threats to coral reefs are hurricanes and overfishing, which have an impact on all types of reefs.

Other interesting links on coral reefs can be found below:

EPA Office of Wetlands & Oceans:http://water.epa.gov/type/oceb/habitat/coral_links.cfm
http://www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/Library/nationalassessment/overviewcoastal.htm

A Return to the Reefs: Smithsonian article by Gordon Chaplin (2006) on the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/ecocenter/oceans/reefs.html

Coastal Living Habitats:http://www.heinzctr.org/ecosystems/2002report/coastal/habitats.shtml

Wetlands International – Coastal Wetlands (Coral reefs, mangroves, sand dunes, beaches)http://www.wetlands.org/Whatwedo/Adaptingtoclimatechange/Workonadaptationto
climatechange/Coastalmanagement/Aboutcoastalwetlandsandreefs/tabid/1204/Default.aspx

Florida DEP coral reefs http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/habitats/coral.htm

Florida’s Coupon Bright Aquatic Preservehttp://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/coupon/

Reef Check (a nonprofit organization)
http://www.reefcheck.org/

Code Blue: A possible new coral reef in the Sargasso Sea? – Sylvia Earle’s research (2010)http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2020806_2020805_2020
796,00.html

NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program http://coralreef.noaa.gov/

Coral reefs in a climate change context – Climate Change Impacts on the United States
The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (2000)http://www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/Library/nationalassessment/overviewcoastal.htm

Living with Less and an Island Love Story

Lately there have been a lot of stories about the “new” minimalist movement. American homes are getting smaller. Couples are downsizing and getting rid of 80% of their stuff and adopting a minimalist lifestyle http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2010/
08/portland_couples_extreme_downs.html
 The Small Home Movement has replaced the desire for “McMansions” and come at a time when many people can’t afford a big home. Jay Shafer founded his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company on the notion that people really only need 89 square feet to accommodate a two-person household. By downsizing this dramatically, he eliminated his debt and now lives more simply. His house designs range in plans from 65-835 square feet, a lot smaller than the average American home.http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/ He’s not alone. Others are promoting the same idea. Tiny House Blog http://tinyhouseblog.com/ Not So Big Househttp://www.notsobighouse.com/

The trendy minimalist movement reminds me of the back-to-landers of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. City dwellers, driven by a desire to lead a better, simpler life, migrated to rural areas, including islands off the coast of Maine. But this wasn’t a new thing in the 1960s. It’s been a recurring phenomenon over the centuries, according to the poet Gary Snyder. Homesteading is another name for it. Urban problems such as the energy crisis, water pollution, lack of environmental protection for the natural landscape—these were the issues that prompted the “back-to-landers” of the 1960s and ‘70s to leave the city in search of a pure lifestyle and to work the land. Often this required fetching water from a stream or pond, or digging a well, and growing food.

Helen and Scott Nearing are two of the most recognized “back-to-landers.” They lived on a rural farm in Vermont until 1952, when they settled their “Forest Farm” in Maine. The couple authored a number of books on what they called, “the good life.” The Good Life Center in Harborside, Maine carries on their mission. http://www.goodlife.org/

My favorite love story played out on a beautiful Maine island called Placentia. Arthur and Nan Kellam, an aviation engineer (who worked in Wisconsin http://www.allbusiness.com/environment-natural-resources/ecology/14528751-1.html) and his wife, moved from California in 1949 and settled on the 500 acre island. They built a house in a little clearing and left love notes for one another every time they separated for the day—to explore different parts of their beloved island. Placentia Island has a number of ephemeral streams, seeps and forested wetlands, mainly Spruce fir and sphagnum moss, with wild chanterelle mushrooms and cherry trees.

Art built a great bandstand overlooking the sea, for his wife, a romantic spot. He also had another little building he called his “retreat,” which had ingenious Murphy-style furniture, when folded out one way, became a table; when adjusted, became a bookshelf or storage. The Kellams had two wells, one near the house and one near the bandstand.  They didn’t have running water, electricity or any convenience that the mainlanders enjoyed. They grew vegetables in their garden. They rowed their dory to the nearby Great Gott Island for supplies like kerosene.  Sometimes friends, including the Rockefellers, brought fresh milk and oranges, but the Kellams sustained their private life together on very little from the outside world. Fog encircled the island on most days, preventing casual visits from neighboring islanders.http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/13/garden/living-to-the-power-of-two.html?pagewanted=all

This past spring author Peter Blanchard III published a book about the Kellams entitled,We Were an Island http://www.bangordailynews.com/detail/143608.html partly based on Nan’s writings and unfinished book that she started with her husband. She described in her journal that they had searched for a place, an island that would fulfill their “dream of peace.”

I visited the house in 1999, just a few years before Nan passed away. Inside the house, it is easy to picture how everything had its place; they each had their spot for sitting, a single desk, stacks of TIME magazine (so they kept up on current events!) It inspired the poem, “If I Were an Island,” which was published on the New Maine Times.  The Nature Conservancy manages the uninhabited Placentia Island. The only way to visit the island is to sign up to volunteer to work in one of TNC’s nature preserves—with Placentia Island, a nesting site for bald eagles, being on the list for September 2010: http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/maine/volunteer/art24384.html

Move over, Mangroves!

Oh, wait, if the mangrove swamps get developed, the beaches go out to sea! Hmmm. I got the email version of a postcard from my family, who are spending a week in the Caribbean, and everyone is upset at the lack of fish and destruction of mangrove forests. My mother studied reefs and seaweeds while a college student in the Virgin Islands more than thirty years ago. She told me stories of snorkeling in creepy eel-filled mangrove swamps, marvelous for a marine biology student to observe: mangroves are nurseries for many marine species, e.g. several species of sharks and fish. Mangroves are unique habitats because the plants live in saltwater, brackish water and freshwater; they are on the fringe between the land and sea.  Those in the Caribbean have declined by 42% over the last 25 years, according to the Mangrove Action Project. http://mangroveactionproject.org/mangroves For a fact sheet on the importance of mangroves (published by Fish & Wildlife, USVI) seehttp://bcrc.bio.umass.edu/vifishandwildlife/Education/FactSheet/PDF_Docs/
28Mangroves.pdf

Negril’s beaches (Jamaica) have undergone severe damages due to mangrove destruction, according to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Division of Early Warning and Assessment. See:  Final Throes for Jamaica’s ‘Hippie Paradise’?(April 2010) http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=50980

In addition to development pressure, mangrove charcoal, highly prized for its long-lasting heat, provides income for several communities in the Caribbean. Caribbean charcoal comes from two sources—mangrove swamps and dry forests. For a video on mangroves, see: http://www.channelg.tv/video.php?project_id=8

According to a recent Coastal Living article, “9 coastal wonders to see now,” mangrove forests are on the list of places to visit sooner rather than later due to the environmental pressures they currently face and their looming fate.http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/04/06/coastal.wonders/ (Incidentally, Casco Bay, Maine is also on the list but because of nitrogen run-off problems on beaches. USM’s Muskie School of Public Service also presented a recent study on the warming of Casco Bay with another set of warnings and their potential impact on the bay area. http://blogs.usm.maine.edu/muskie/2010/02/01/report-reveals-the-warming-of-casco-bay/) Mangroves are also affected by climate change impacts: Caribbean mangroves adjust to rising sea level through biotic controls on change in soil elevation by Karen L. McKee et. al. (2007)http://www.serc.si.edu/labs/animal_plant_interaction/pubs/McKee%20et%20al%202007.pdf

Update: Vital Mangroves On The Edge Of Extinction Thanks to All-You-Can-Eat Shrimp (Book Review) – Treehugger.com August 2011

Follow the Maine Birding Trail

Growing up in Maine, I took for granted that I lived in the “vacation” state. My brother and I were lucky to get to go hiking, camping, fishing, exploring and swimming each summer—the sorts of things that some kids from other parts of the country only got to do in Maine during their all-too short summer vacations. The Maine Birding Trail brochure highlights many of my favorite places from childhood. My mother pushed me in a stroller at Kettle Cove and Pine Point,where I fought the gulls for my steamed clams. On some kind of leash built for toddlers, I climbed Bradbury Mountain with my parents and looked through binoculars at osprey nests. As a little girl, I watched sparrows and egrets with my elementary school classmates in canoes at Scarborough Marsh. I lost my raincoat. I ran with the sandpipers along Popham Beach. Our family ventured out on boats a lot, too, to islands, where I liked to spot bald eagles. But my favorite—my token bird—was always the Great Blue Heron, who appeared wherever I waded into saltwater: the Great Salt Bay Farm in Damariscotta is still a favorite spot for my family to walk today. For a link to the draft Maine Birding Trail brochure, go to:http://www.mainebirdingtrail.com/Draft_Brochure.pdf  For other information about Maine birding and the areas mentioned in this blog post, visit: http://www.mainebirdingtrail.com/Brochure.html

What is a Fairy House?

A fairy house, or gnome home, is a small structure built in the woods, usually found at the base of a tree, or in lower branches, alongside a mossy tree stump, or driftwood on a beach. Building materials include natural and found things from the woods, but sometimes people add common household items, such as a button, a bottle cork, a piece of string. It is a 100+ year tradition in Maine, especially along the coast and on the islands. But fairy houses can be found throughout the country, and in other countries. In Maine the tradition dates back to the early 1900s, when many island communities had working farms. Traveling schoolteachers from Massachusetts brought folk tales involving fairies that inspired islanders—children and adults alike—to build gnome homes to attract fairies in order to watch over the livestock and children during Maine winters. A fairy house traditionally included a tiny altar with a small offering, such as a coin, to pay the fairies to help the farmers; if there was a particularly harsh winter, and children or livestock died, the more superstitious islanders blamed the fairies.

Over the decades, fairy houses—whether to allow them, for instance, has been a controversy on some Maine islands, including Monhegan. (Wall Street Journal covered this story in 1999, along with several Maine newspapers). I have found fairy houses on over 60 of Maine’s islands, and have built them over the years in many “secret” locations throughout Maine. Every mother I met on the islands I visited believed that her children originated the fairy house idea but this is actually a centuries old tradition in some parts of the world. I have also witnessed as competitive parents stabilized their kids’ gnome homes with hot glue guns, duct tape and staples. In this case, the structure was really built in a workshop at home, then transplanted to the base of a tree. Generally, fairy houses are not permanent structures; they last until the end of summer or fall, then disintegrate during a typical rainstorm. In places where there are anti-fairy house forces, such as groups of people called, “Stompers,” sometimes the gnome home lasts only until it is discovered, which is why it is important to build anonymously, minimally and somewhere hidden. In other communities, fairy houses are enjoyed and even maintained by people—or gnomes—who can say for sure—and can last decades.

This week I helped teach local fourth-graders how to build “eco-friendly” fairy houses in Black Brook Preserve here in Windham, Maine. I’ve developed worksheets and taught elementary school kids how to think about fairy houses, or gnome homes, in an eco-friendly way. In fact, I became a sort of expert in the topic after completing a year-long project at College of the Atlantic. I visited over 25 Maine islands and researched the fairy house tradition on the Maine coast, and then wrote my college senior thesis on the ecological, political and historical aspects of the long-held tradition.