Category Archives: natural history

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.

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Visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden for the National Wetlands Awards Ceremony

Last week I started my new job as Editor of the National Wetlands Newsletter, a bi-monthly publication of the Environmental Law Institute, based in Washington, D.C. It was the first time I visited Washington as an adult (not counting changing planes at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA). My grandfather, Rufus Stetson, brought me to Washington when I was 13 and we stayed at his “club” and visited the Washington Zoo. Bebop, as I called him, was a U.S. tax attorney for the federal government (Justice Department, U.S. Treasury, etc.) in the 1950s and ’60s, and so it seemed fitting to me that I would begin this new role at the Environmental Law Institute while walking in his old stomping grounds in the NW quarter.

I stayed on E Street, a few blocks from the Smithsonian museums–although I worked until after 6pm most evenings, and the museums closed at 5:30pm (except for Fridays and weekends) so I didn’t get a chance to see any of the Smithsonian museums during this trip. On May 9th, I attended the National Wetlands Awards ceremony at the U.S. Botanic Garden, which I loved exploring. Severe allergies gripped me as soon as I arrived in D.C. on Sunday evening, and I couldn’t breathe well most of the week. As I walked around the exhibits of various ecosystems in the Botanic Garden, I breathed easiest in the “Hawaii” exhibit.  I confess that I went to “Hawaii” every chance I got (a few times) throughout the evening’s activities en route to the ladies’ room or just to catch my breath. The ceremony recognized seven leaders in wetland categories, e.g. State/Tribal Program Management, Community Leadership, Education/Outreach. ELI’s President John Cruden gave the keynote address and all of the speakers, including the presenters and the award winners, inspired us with stories about protecting and restoring wetlands. Starting in a couple of weeks, I will become the Manager of the National Wetlands Awards program.  I’ll be responsible for planning the ceremony for May 2014, the program’s 25th anniversary.

If I don’t write much in this blog for the next few weeks, it’s only because I’ve taken the helm at the National Wetlands Newsletter, and I’m focused on setting up my new office. I will also be working on the two new websites for the National Wetlands Newsletter and the National Wetlands Awards in the coming weeks. If you’re an avid reader of the NWN, please reach out to me with feedback or suggestions as I work on the new website and summer issue.

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.

Wetland Ferns Webinar

February is one of my favorite months. Some may dislike “dreary February” but I am biased; it’s my birthday month. As a special treat, I participated in an afternoon “Swamp Seminar” to learn how to identify northeastern wetland ferns. The webinar is part of an online training series offered by Swamp School. After the training, I earned a certificate.  Since I’ve written about ferns a few times for this blog, I thought I better brush up on fern morphology, before I made a fern faux pas. And as it happens, I was wrong about one plant: sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is a member of the heath family, not a true fern.

The “Swamp Seminar” on wetland ferns started with the parts of a fern. Prior to this class, I knew to refer to the frond, which is the whole fern leaf, and I understood that rhizomes are the roots, but the rest of a fern’s morphology was new information. It was fascinating to learn that a fern might be identified based on whether it is once, twice or thrice pinnate–meaning, the number of cuts on the pinna, or leaflet. Lady Fern, a common fern that grows throughout the northeast, is three-times pinnate with a rough-edged leaflet, making it look lacy. Several ferns have similarly feminine names like Venus Hair Fern (Adiantum capillus‐veneris) and Northern Maiden-Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), or Maiden-Hair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), which grows near waterfalls and is said to be “good for the spleen.”

For wetland professionals, the training addressed whether each fern is an Obligate Wetland species, meaning that it always occurs in a wetland, also known as a hydrophyte (loves water); a Facultative Wetland species, which means that the fern usually shows up in a wetland, but can also be found in upland areas; or, thirdly, it may be a Facultative species, commonly occurring in both wetland and upland areas. Ferns that fit this last category–facultative, are still important to know because they may help someone identify the edge of a wetland.

Identifying wetland plants is fairly complex. See this USDA page on wetland indicator information, for a more specific explanation. Last fall, the National Wetland Plant List was updated and published by the Army Corps of Engineers. ASWM offered a training session on how to use the NWP List website (see this recorded presentation).  Several publications are also available that aid in using this plant list, including A Field Guide to the National Wetland Plant List: Wetland Ratings for Plants of the United States by Steve Chadde, 2012.

Among the many types of ferns covered in the Swamp Seminar, participants learned how to identify Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Fragile fern (Cystopteris fragilis) and Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), which has a distinctive shape. The Swamp School webinar included access to an online tool kit, which allows participants to reference handouts. The website and webinar training are well-organized and condensed to relay a great deal of knowledge. It’s suitable for intermediate and advanced levels—and ideal for wetlandkeepers. Swamp School also offers classes on wetland delineation–in both classroom, field and webinar formats with live, interactive training.  For more information, visit SwampSchool.org.

Update: Hydric Soil Indicators Webinar March 20, 2013. For more information, visitSwampSchool.org

Dating Season for Toads

I am glad I don’t suffer bufonophobia, a fear of toads, because a gang of American toads (Bufo americanus) live under my deck. They come out at night and sit, fat as golfballs, one of them the size of a baseball, in the moonlight. Their posturing reminds me of the T-birds and the Pink Ladies in “Grease” at the drive-in.

Careful not to step on them when I stand in the yard, I let my dog enjoy a few minutes of midnight sounds, smells and shadows, with caution. The toads barely budge if she sniffs their bumpy bodies. She doesn’t like toads, luckily. I’m nervous about taking a step, worried I might squish one, anticipating the inevitable movement—but a toad’s test of wills (or staying power) beats mine every time.

Some toads, including the American toad, have paratoid glands that can secrete a white poison to would-be predators (if bitten or handled, for instance). The poison is toxic inside a mouth—or if after a human handles a toad, touches the eye or mouth.  It can cause nausea, inflamed mouth or throat, irregular heart beat and in very severe cases—death. They can be a danger to pets for this reason. When you think about it, batrachophobes, who fear any reptiles or amphibians, have probably had an incident that caused a symptom, or knew of someone who did. I never believed one could get “warts” from a toad, but perhaps this myth originated from the handling of toads causing undesirable symptoms. National Geographic busted that myth for kids, here.

Toads are nocturnal. During the day the amphibians hide under the deck. I’ve wondered what they do all day—eat insects, sleep, burrow underground, intimidate baby garter snakes? The child in me imagines Toad and Frog riding around in their small motorcar. The ecologist in me wants to set up candid cameras under the deck and film the toads’ daytime activities.  This is their breeding time (March-July), when they emerge from their burrows to eat at night and mate. It is more likely that the underside of my short deck is dull by day and hoppin’ at night. Along patches of my seep, nicknamed “Fern Gully,” I’ve observed toadlets, baby toads, crawling along the muddy wooded floor. They are small, about an inch long in body, not counting legs. What’s amazing to me is that toad eggs can hatch in a matter of days (3-13 days) and the toadlets grow to adulthood in about a month. In Pennsylvania, there is an organization looking for volunteers to help with a program called “Toad Detour,” that seeks to help toadlets cross roads and get to safe habitats. Their website has some great photos and a recording of toad sounds. More about their work with toads is posted on the Philly Herping Blog.

My poem, “Romancing the Toad,” was published in a summer issue of the international literary magazine, Off the Coast. 

The American toad’s large range extends as south as Georgia, as west as Wisconsin and as north as Canada. There are other toads of concern throughout the U.S. For example, the endangered Arroyo toad in California depends on adiminishing wetland habitat. The Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance for Spring Amphibians kicked off its programs in Maine earlier in May, teaching people about the 9 species of frogs and toads in the state.

In other blogs, spadefoot toads have received some attention lately. Volunteers in different areas gather to help toads and frogs cross busy roads during their breeding season. A headstart program in Massachusetts visited the Cape Cod National Seashore this month to learn about vernal pools and amphibian habitat, includingspadefoot toads. According to Mass Audubon, the spadefoot is neither true toad or frog—it’s a primitive amphibian. A segment of a Hands-On Wetland Creation Workshop for Professionals, led in part by Tom Biebighauser, with the U.S. Forest Service, addressed the topic of spadefoots at the Long Pasture Sanctuary on Cape Cod. ASWM’s Executive Director, Jeanne Christie, attended.

From Bog to Bough: Reflecting on Wetland Trees in Winter

Scrub

If I grow bitterly,
Like a gnarled and stunted tree,
Bearing harshly of my youth
Puckered fruit that sears the mouth;
If I make of my drawn boughs
An Inhospitable House,
Out of which I never pry
Towards the water and the sky,
Under which I stand and hide
And hear the day go by outside;
It is that a wind too strong
Bent my back when I was young,
It is that I fear the rain
Lest it blister me again.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay


Today’s my birthday, so I am feeling nostalgic. I turned 18 on Kaua’i, where I drew this illustration of Norfolk pine.  Lately I’ve been thinking about trees…especially those that grow in my black ash swamp, lean over my clothesline and sway in winter storms. Sometimes they remind me of the trees of my youth, both of us growing stronger along the riverbank. I’m not the only one reflecting on old trees.  In the latest issue of Orion Magazine, Dan Shepherd shows (and tells) a story about how people’s memories of trees connect them to their lives in Draw Me a Tree. In thinking about that exercise, I pictured the trees I have drawn in pastel, Norfolk pine trees of Hawai’i—so exotic, so different from the pine trees I knew in Maine; the Norfolk pine stood out to me as symbolic of a personal milestone, the week I turned 18 (in February) on Kaua’i. Since I turn 35 today, another milestone, I thought it was a good time to reflect on trees and their impact on us as environmental professionals and as human beings.

In my high school biology class at Gould Academy, the biology teacher assigned our class to go climb a tree, then to remain sitting in its branches for an hour, recording our observations—up close. I had learned an appreciation for this kind of “close-up” observation with trees from reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which eloquently balanced a trilogy of poetry, science and spirituality. There is something fascinating about trees, the kind of power that compelled conquistadors to search for the mythological Tree of Life in the Amazon during Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth, and many others before and since. Trees stand as symbols in many religions—such as Celtic Trees, used in divination and the Celtic alphabet, as well as mythology, science, philosophical doctrines, genealogical (family trees) and financial illustrations.

We know that the age of a tree can be counted among its inner rings, or estimated by its diameter.  In a recent blog post on Brainpickings, writer Rachel Sussman tells the story of the Senator, the oldest Cypress tree in the world, which died last month after a fire, at 3,500 years old. Sussman compares it to some other very old trees—though not quite as old as the Senator, throughout the world. Most of the trees in her blog post are not wetland-dependent species, however, the Senator was an example of a very old wetland-dependent tree, and there are slightly younger comparisons throughout the U.S. In certain forested wetlands, where it’s a logistically-challenged area, whether inaccessible because of water and dense vegetation,  it is harder for people to access some trees—and in some cases, the trees have a chance to grow larger, causing the forest to grow even more inaccessible. I suppose it’s a kind of self-preservation tactic that protects the trees. The Pinelands, also known as the Pine Barrens, a heavily forested coastal plain in New Jersey is an example of such a forested wetland. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission serves to protect the wetlands and forest of the Pinelands.  Heavily forested wetlands among the Great Lakes are another example.Forested wetlands are the most common type of wetland in North America. For an in-depth explanation of forested wetland types in the Northeast, see ASWM’s report on restoration and mitigation practices in forested wetlands of the Northeast. (Developing Performance Standards for the Mitigation and Restoration of Northern Forested Wetlands)

In winter, I find my 1970 edition of a Winter Tree Finder handbook (Nature Study Guild) useful to identify trees and shrubs. It covers most of North America and includes all deciduous trees. The guide begins by outlining possible habitats, for example streambanks, lowlands/wetlands, high altitudes, bogs, sandy soils, edge of the forest, disturbed areas.  Then it breaks it down by climate—where winters are cold or mild, and whether there are houses, parks or cities nearby. It depicts the scars found on a twig, which offers clues as to the kind of tree.  Reading through the small guide feels like a “choose your own adventure” storybook, in which the naturalist may advance to this or that section depending on the traits of a tree, based on what’s visible in winter. There are a number of good guides available (online and in print) on identifying winter trees, but many of them are specific to a region. All you need to identify winter trees is a nose, hands, brain, seasonally-appropriate clothing, a camera or a sketch/note pad. Have fun!

A Beginning Guide to Winter Tree Identification

Michigan: Winter Tree Identification

Army Corps of Engineers Guide to Winter Tree Identification in Wetlands

Winter Tree Identification Exercise (Includes assignment to sketch a winter tree)

How to Identify Trees in Winter (wiki)

USGS: Island Trees:
http://sofia.usgs.gov/sfrsf/rooms/wild_wet_eco/tree_islands/

Gone Ice Fishin’ – Ice, Ice Maybe?

It’s been 25 years since I last went ice fishing. I remember that the ice was so thick that Mainiacs drove their brand new Buicks across the ice, and even raced cars across frozen lakes in northern Maine.  But conditions are different nowadays, the ice isn’t as thick this year and people are more fearful of driving a car onto the ice. This has been called the ‘strangest Maine winter’ in 25 years. There have been several deaths this past month due to people falling through the ice in New England. Ice conditions change from year to year. My friend’sbrother, Caleb Lane, told me about ice fishing on East Musquash Pond in Maine about 10 years ago, and having to build a bridge using logs with his friends to access their gear, after the temperature unexpectedly rose from the teens to 50°F from one day to the next. This story, in particular, illustrates how a rise in temperature can dramatically alter the day’s events.

Caleb described it best: “The pond was so inundated by the rainwater that the ice had melted around the rim of the pond and there were about 10 feet of open water between the shore and the ice. This posed a major problem on how to get our gear that was left out on the ice. Fortunately we had driven the snowmobiles and 4-wheelers off the ice the night before. But we still had pack baskets and bait buckets and traps out on the ice. We found some lumber under the camps and made a bridge from shore to ice. We then ran around trying to find all our gear. The water on the ice was calf-deep most places and some were up to knee-deep. Each ice hole that we had drilled throughout the weekend was functioning as a large drain for that water. It was quite a sight to look out and see 200 holes with whirlpools going down them. And they were strong. Some that still had traps in them were going round and round very fast, while the holes got bigger and bigger…about a 10 foot radius, about 4 times the original size. And the traps had long since been dragged under the ice. …Fortunately no one went through the ice.”

This month a local ice fishing derby in southern Maine was postponed until February 25th because the ice on Crystal Lake was too thin. Normally in January, it’s about three-feet thick. An ice fishing derby isn’t necessarily a fast race. It might last a day or a weekend or the terms of a tournament might challenge the participants to “catch the most fish between January 1st-March 31st, 2012.” Plus, derbies often include related competitions, including ice shanty decorations.

Saturday I strapped ice cleats over my sheepskin-lined boots, and regretted my choice in footwear, as a slush of puddles coated Crystal Lake. There was no way I was going to “blend in” among the ice fishermen, since I wore a hot pink vest and not camouflage hunting clothes. I joined a group of a dozen excavators, and quickly learned a few things about their traditions. The first two things I learned about ice fishing—“you can never have enough beer” and trout was “the prized fish.” I asked about togus and pike, invasive fish that show up in Sebago Lake. The ice fishermen told me that Crystal Lake is a small pond with coldwater and warmwater fish, only about 59 feet deep and no known invasive species. But if they were ice fishing on Sebago Lake, then they would have a different strategy. On Crystal Lake, the guys baited their gear with shiners to attract trout, weighing the line so that the hook reached the bottom. They taught me how to set the gear, sometimes using homemade equipment, other times using hi-tech ice fishing tackle.  A spring-like action, similar to a mouse-trap, triggered a wire with an orange flag if a fish nibbled the hook. In the few hours I was on the ice, none of the 10 or so flags moved. At night, the men planned to sleep inside the shacks, and used a trap-door in the floor with gear set for overnight fishing. The fish are more active at night, I learned. (Of course, I was not spending the night out there! So I had to take their word for it.)

Barely a foot of ice held up their four-wheeled ATVs and shacks, fully decked with woodstoves, camping gear, coolers full of beer and food, and extra boots. A barbecue grill sat directly on the ice between two shacks (“the heat rises,” they assured me). Few people walked across the pond, like I did, except for one man, who accidentally stepped right down into a hole, which had been left unmarked, and he waddled back with his leg wet up to the knee. He held up his beer and said, “It’s okay, I’ve got heat in a can!” They all laughed. These guys seemed a hardy bunch. They were disappointed that the local derby had been postponed until late February, but remarked that it had to do with the slushy conditions and safety issues. In other parts of the country, ice conditions are a concern as well.

MI: Fish report: Ice iffy because of temperature changes, DNR says

WI: Greater Emphasis on safety at Weekend Fishing Tournaments

MI: With video: Weathering the warmer winter

NH/CT: For plenty of reliable ice, go north to CT lakes

MN: Lake Elmo Lions Ice Fishing Contest Cancelled Due to Thin-Ice Conditions

MI: Ice anglers in southern MI need to be careful because of fluctuating temperatures

MA: Accidents stir warnings over dangers of thin ice

CAN: Fishing season thin ice (Ontario)