As someone whose been involved in conservation in many different corners of the world, its easy to see how people might feel removed from the important work that’s happening, particularly in the arctic and equatorial regions where the scenery feels unfamiliar. However, the most important piece of land that you can help protect is your own. This blog seeks to show what conservation looks like in a local setting
To some people it’s a small, fluid compound composed of two hydrogen molecules and an oxygen molecule. To most people it’s life. Fisherman rely on it for fish, farmers rely on it for crops, coastal communities rely on it for tourism, and we all rely on it to provide food, clothes, and –of course– water for our families.
Photo by Bob Arkow. Visit his gallery here: http://www.bobarkowphotography.com/ A curious Humpback comes in for a closer look at a surfer just off of Long Beach.
There are many different ecosystems on Long Island, each of them diverse and unique in their own ways. The most important one, in my humble opinion, are the southern bays that stretch all the way from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn out to Montauk. Not only are these bays home to a unique collection of human communities, these bays are also home to a complex system of marshes which act as nurseries for all types of fish and also as a home to an incredibly diverse amount of sea birds. These marshes also act as a first line of defense in storms, slowing down the punishing tide from destroying our homes. In the winter, you’ll be able to spot our seasonal residents the seals, and during the summer if you look out just offshore you’ll be able to spot whales jumping and pods of dolphins cruising the shoreline. All these species rely on the marshes to spawn the bait fish they feed on.
Full disclosure- I grew up exploring the southern bays. I’ve been fishing for years, unintentionally monitoring the species that live here and have watched fish species disappear over time. When I was a kid going after snappers on mid-August afternoons I used to catch puffer fish, needlefish, and young weakfish, too. These days it seems even the snapper’s numbers are low. This isn’t to discount the work that many groups on Long Island are doing, and in fact there are many who are improving them every day. In the past few years we’ve had a major increase in the number of whales and dolphins in our offshore waters, and that’s a direct result of the improvements being made in the southern bays. But with all the work being done, there’s still a lot of work to do.
Photo by Bob Arkow. Visit his gallery here: http://www.bobarkowphotography.com/. A Humpback whale takes a go at a school of bunker, a local baitfish.
I recently spoke to Helen Roussel, the enthusiastic Conservation Chair for the Long Island chapter of the Sierra Club. She points to over development of coastlines and marsh lands as their main issue out in the eastern bays. “See, there’s no rule saying that when you develop land, you need to install hedgerows to give birds a place to nest,” Mrs. Roussel explained. “Now, since they’re also destroying the marshes, which in turn destroys the dragonfly’s habitat, water puddles up and that’s the perfect breeding place for mosquitos. Since there’s no hedgerows and there’s no marshes, birds and dragonflies aren’t there to keep the mosquitos in check.”
The knock-on effects of this are mind blowing. Since there’s a mosquito problem, the local government has taken to using pesticides, specifically the larvicide methoprene, in the waterways to control the mosquito problem. According to the National Pesticide Information Center out of Oregon State University, methoprene “…can prevent normal molting, egg-laying, egg-hatching, and development from the immature phase (i.e. caterpillar) to the adult phase (i.e. moth). This prevents the insects from reproducing.” In the environment, methoprene is moderately toxic to some fish and low in toxicity to others and can accumulate in fish tissues. Due to the biomagnification, where pollutants become more and more concentrated in animals as they go up the food chain, small trace amounts of methoprene in bait fish can become extremely high in predatory animals. Its slightly toxic to crustaceans such as shrimp and crayfish, and highly toxic to freshwater invertebrates. When these predatory animals die their remains sink to the ocean floor, where scavengers like crabs, shrimp and crayfish will eat them. The highly concentrated pesticide is then reintroduced to the food chain at a lower level, gradually accumulating more as it heads back up. Studies done on dogs show that when given 10g of methoprene per kilogram of animal, the dogs showed signs like vomiting, dilated pupils, changes in behavior, breathing, and body movements.
To help deal with the mosquito problem, and to help bring back our first line of defense, the marshes need to be brought back to their original state. This, however, is not so simple.
A red path lines the edge of the shoreline and serves as the sidewalk for Bay Drive, a beautiful road that’s flanked on one side by homes and the other by Reynolds Channel. While Long Beach is known to most for its amazing beaches on the south side, the north side is bordered by the bay, separating the barrier island from an intense maze of marshes unique to the southern bays of Long Island. This beautiful scene is broken up, if so slightly, by an inconspicuous cement block just off the other side of the channel. That cement block has been a point of frustration for many Long Beach residents.
After watching this video taken by local resident and highly visible environmental activist Scott Bochner, it becomes clear why the cement block is so controversial. That block contains a pipe, and that pipe is connected to Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.
Opened in the 1940’s with the population boom on Long Island, the plant has been subject to years of neglect and failed maintenance. This has lead to the plant spitting out 55 million gallons a day of water that should be treated, but due to the status of the plant, is not. This water is brown and is made up of biosolids, or “sludge.” What sludge really is, is whatever has been sent down a drain. This could be shower water and dirty dish water but is also urine and fecal matter.
Besides the fact that it’s just gross, this constant pumping of untreated sewage inundates the water with undissolved nutrients. This includes nitrogen, which in low levels is vital for the success of ecosystems, but in elevated levels is very toxic.
Scott Bochner owns a house on Bay Drive, where the video was taken. Since 2010 he’s been actively involved in cleaning up the local waterways, co-creating an environmental group called the Sludge Stoppers and working with groups like the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Operation SPLASH, and The Nature Conservancy. Bochner and the rest of the groups have made major progress in cleaning up Reynolds Channel and thanks to these groups and their advocacy they’ve been able to bring the Bay Park plant back to code and raise enough money to re-route the pipes out to the deep ocean.
One of the advances they’ve made has been getting scientists in to do studies on the water. One of them involved a study by Stony Brook University. “The nitrogen levels, it’s like right here,” explained Bochner, pointing at a graph. “This is like the dead zone of dead zones. So, what happened was they put nano robots in the water for 30 days, and then they would follow the stream. They would send out 100 of these things a day and maybe 13 would make it out of the inlet, and the rest would come back in and shoot up all into the back bays, so nothings flushing.”
Graphs comparing nitrite, nitrate, ammonia, and ulva (seaweed) coverage. Notice how its all centered around the area where the pipe spills into the bay.Pathways of the nano robots, or water parcels, released by Stony Brook University researchers.
The effects of this on the channel and the greater bay ecosystems could not be more obvious during low tide. During
low tide you can see a unique phenomenon where the mud underneath the marsh grasses should be solid but is actually falling out like a cliff, and the roots from the grasses are poking out the side.
These roots should be growing straight down, anchoring the mud to the earth, and keeping the land in place. However, these roots are growing sideways into the water reaching for the nitrogen because it’s a fertilizer, and this change in direction means that it doesn’t hold onto the earth as well. When a massive storm comes, it easily rips the marshes from their place and makes it easier for the storm to tear into our communities.
Fisherman at the Magnolia Pier, only a few hundred yards from the cement block.
A study done in 2017 and published in the journal Scientific Reports, the open-access part of Nature, has come up with the final conclusion that “…these results show that coastal wetlands provide significant risk reduction services even where their distribution has been heavily impacted by human activity. Furthermore, these ecosystems provide additional benefits such as fish production, nutrient cycling, and carbon sequestration which will increase the economic value of these habitats. However, across the northeastern USA, development over wetlands together with rising sea-levels place critical facilities and infrastructure at great risk. Rising sea-levels will further influence, and in many cases threaten, the future of these natural defenses.”
If concentrated levels of pesticides and human waste in the water we swim in and the fish we eat makes you feel sick to your stomach, there are things to do.
Back out east, Helen Roussel from the Sierra Club says to get involved. There’s plenty of citizen science projects and clean ups to join on with the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club. If you live or own property on the water you can plant phragmites, a common reed that anchors really well to the ground and is great at sucking up nitrogen. “Although it’s not native and can dominate natural species,” says Roussel, “the benefits outweigh the consequences. If my house is in front of the ocean I want this plant there, because this will help stop the surge and help stop erosion.”
For Bochner the answer lies in everyday choices. “Start carrying your own bags, stop using straws, stop using plastic, start washing wash cloths again. Everyone has to take responsibility for themselves in order to help keep Long Beach clean. Everyone has to take care of themselves.”
So, there it is. When these ecosystems hurt, we hurt.
All graphs retrieved from https://www.citizenscampaign.org/PDFs/WesternBays%20Presentation%20FINAL%2012-7-11.pdf
North Atlantic right whales are facing a breeding and survival crisis, due in large part to entanglements in fishing gear. Humpback whales are dying in unprecedented numbers off the Northeastern U.S., some are also casualties of entanglements while others have fatally collided with ships, and the causes of death of others are unknown. Vaquitas face an almost certain extinction thanks to the use of gillnets used for fishing, which indiscriminately trap and kill these small porpoises.
North Atlantic right whales. Photo: Lauren Packard / Flickr
When President Trump had the opportunity this year to make a difference in the lives of these imperiled marine mammals, he didn’t. He wanted to cut funding in the Federal 2018 Budget for the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act 46 years ago, which is responsible for advising U.S. policy decisions affecting marine mammals and establishing a conservation ethic through sound science. Over the years, the Commission has helped prevent the deaths of millions of marine mammals from human activities such as oil drilling, mining, transportation, seismic blasting and fishing bycatch. Since the Marine Mammal Act has been in existence, no marine mammals have gone extinct in U.S. waters.
While the activities the Marine Mammal Commission performs are critically important to protecting millions of animals, they are not expensive to carry out. In fact, its 2017 budget of $3.4 million cost American taxpayers just one cent that year. But Trump thinks Americans’ pennies could be better spent elsewhere, on the U.S. military or building his wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Two weeks ago it looked like the Marine Mammal Commission would be slashed. But thanks to thousands of concerned people criticizing Trump’s plan in letters to the U.S. government and a few decisive budget compromises, the Marine Mammal Commission will be funded through another year. It will maintain the same budget as last year, $3.4 million, which advocates for the Commission say should be sufficient to fund its essential activities.
Pacific white-sided dolphin. Photo: Erica Cirino
“Of course, additional funds are desirable to match the increasing costs and competing interests,” said Sheri Pais, a paralegal at Perkins Coie LLP who was involved in helping the public prepare and send letters about the importance of funding the Marine Mammal Commission to the Federal government. “But, the Commission has demonstrated in the past that it has been effective at this level of funding.”
While the Marine Mammal Commission has survived another year, Trump is still working to dismantle protections for the oceans and the life they contain—putting big business interests before the health of the environment. He’s working to open coastal waters to oil drilling, overhaul rules on seismic oil exploration in the oceans and fast-track other exploitative activities associated with the petrochemical industry that imperil marine life.
Trump has quietly managed to push two bills through the committee to a vote: the Streamlining Environmental Approvals, or SEA, Act and Strengthening the Economy with Critical Untapped Resources to Expand American Energy, or SECURE, Act. These bills target important aspects of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which regulates exploratory seismic blasts used to find oil and gas. Seismic blasts are known to harm and disrupt the natural activities of whales, dolphins and other cetaceans to the extent that it impairs their survival.
Risso’s dolphins. Photo: Erica Cirino
Ocean advocates urge the public to place steady, strong pressure on the Trump administration when it comes to safeguarding the health and safety of the sea. Keep tabs on Trump’s latest efforts to slash funding and support for groups and activities that protect the oceans by checking the Safina Center’s Ocean Issues webpage frequently for news, and actions you can take to make a difference.
[Note: This is the third blog in a series about the WCS-led marine megafauna survey, which is gathering data on whales, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine species inhabiting the coastal waters of Bangladesh. Data from the effort will identify biologically important locations for future consideration as marine protected areas.]
The WCS marine megafauna survey currently underway along the coast of Bangladesh involves two vessels. The larger vessel follows a transect line surveying for whales, dolphins, and porpoises (collectively known as cetaceans). Researchers on the smaller vessel focus on active fishing vessels by collecting data related to their catches and learning from fishers about the nature and scale of their fishing effort.
Recording various gear specifications contributes to our understanding of coastal artisanal fishing practices. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
The team aboard the second, smaller survey boat, F. B. Jobeda, has the task of assessing the catches and bycatches of several different types of fishing gear operating in the coastal waters of Bangladesh. While the targeted finfish are of considerable interest, we are especially keen to investigate other species such as dolphins, porpoises, turtles, sharks and rays, as well as sea snakes—some of which are accidentally taken as bycatch.
On day two our team was preparing for the day’s work when we spotted a long liner—locally known as the Boiral—a fishing vessel that uses lines with thousands of baited hooks. By the time we reached the boat and established contact, the fishermen were already pulling in their lines.
A bigeye houndshark was identfied for the first time in our waters. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
As a researcher, investigating this haul was fascinating, but on a personal level it was deeply disturbing. Among the 1150 hooks we examined there was a shark caught on almost every one. We managed to identify four different species, including an immature tiger shark.
The catch also included several individuals of a relatively small shark species that the local fishermen call “Gule Kamot” and which we didn’t immediately recognize. These beautiful fish have large sparkling eyes and a stout snout. Upon looking at them more, we identified them as big-eye hound sharks, a new species we had yet to record in Bangladesh.
The baited hook and line fisheries target large finfish but catch large numbers of sharks. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
One of the females had 19 pups in her belly, and several others were clearly immature. We learned that these sharks have a very low market value and are used only as bait or simply discarded. Also, we discovered that some of the longliners are targeting endangered hammerhead sharks, due to their high market value.
This experience has strengthened my resolve to help find a balance between protecting of our country’s large and diverse marine megafauna and ensuring that fisheries are sustainable. Fortunately, WCS is partnering with the Government of Bangladesh to establish a network of marine protected areas that will promote sustainable fisheries while conserving threatened species such as hammerhead sharks.
This beautiful honeycomb whipray was caught in a drifting gillnet along the southern coast of Bangladesh. Photo credit: WCS Bangladesh.
The information collected by survey participants, as well as other data collected by a WCS-led citizen science network at fish landing sites throughout coastal Bangladesh, will also help inform future management actions and international shark and ray conservation efforts.
——————————————— Shanta Shamsunnaharis the Marine Protected Area Program Coordinator for WCS’s Bangladesh Program and a research participant in the survey.
It’s been nearly 9 years since The Cove brought the story of dolphin massacres in Taiji, Japan, and the issue of captive cetaceans before the eyes of millions of people around the world. The film shows viewers the images of fishers corralling dozens of thrashing and squealing dolphins into nets set up in Japan’s sheltered Taiji Cove with their boats. Once the dolphins are trapped in the nets, the fishers stab most of the dolphins with long gaffs, turning the water red with dolphin blood. A few of the youngest, healthiest dolphins are spared—instead of being killed, the fishers tie them up in nets and bring them to shore, to be sold into captivity at marine parks across Asia. When the film was released, scientists said up to 22,000 small cetaceans—small whales, porpoises and dolphins—were killed in these Japanese hunting expeditions annually.
While The Cove has inspired many to oppose Japan’s treatment of cetaceans, the Taiji hunts have persisted—with Japan defending the hunts as a “cultural tradition.” However, significant progress has been made worldwide in challenging humans’ perceptions around cetacean captivity and cruelty. Across the world, some countries and states have banned keeping cetaceans in captivity, obtaining cetaceans from the wild for captivity and/or captive cetacean performances; activities marine mammal experts say are cruel. Responding to pressure from scientists, activists and the public, in 2016 SeaWorld announced it would no longer breed killer whales.
The most recent country to enact its own legislation affecting captive cetaceans is South Korea, which had been importing an estimated 70 percent of its captive dolphins from Taiji, according to Hotpinkdolphins, an organization that promotes cetacean rights in the country. Thanks to the work of Hotpinkdolphins and several other South Korean nonprofits, last month, South Korea’s Ministry of Environment prohibited the importation of Taiji dolphins to the country, and also the importation of threatened dolphin populations—such as around Jeju Island. While South Korea’s ban will help a small number of dolphins, and does not go so far as to prohibit dolphin captivity, it’s an event that animal rights activists are celebrating as a win that brings the Taiji hunts back into the spotlight for the world to discuss and react to.
Short-beaked common dolphin, Great south channel off montauk, NY. Photo: Carl Safina
The effort to ban Taiji dolphins from being imported into South Korea began with Hotpinkdolphins’ efforts to free captive Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins captured off South Korea’s Jeju Island in 2011. Over the years, the organization has sent 7 native dolphins back into South Korean waters. But in 2012 the organization realized most of the country’s captive dolphins were from Taiji, and that because they were from Japan—where people support hunting dolphins—it would need to prevent Taiji’s dolphins from being exported to South Korea in the first place.
“Dolphin shows in South Korea have many problems like elsewhere,” said Joyakgol, co-founder of Hotpinkdolphins. “It’s imperative to stop the trade from the beginning. This is our way of saving Taiji dolphins.”
Hotpinkdolphins pushed a dolphin-park boycott campaign during many street demonstrations and on social media, as well as in government meetings, press conferences, statements, symposiums and more. Joyakgol said that played a huge role in the lead-up to the new ban, but that it was its successful return of captive wild-caught dolphins into nature that made the biggest splash.
Pacific white-sided dolphins in Monterey Bay, California. Photo: Erica Cirino
“Most importantly, sending seven captive dolphins back to the wild was the greatest achievement, and it convinced many Korea people including government officials that dolphins do not belong to the tank,” said Joyakgol.
Forty-four Taiji dolphins were imported to South Korea from 2010 to 2017. Since January 2018, that number has been zero, and if the ban holds, will remain that way indefinitely.
Pacific white-sided dolphin in Monterey Bay. Photo: Erica Cirino
“It’s time to bring an end to the entire enterprise of keeping dolphins and whales confined to concrete tanks and performing for their keep,” said Marino. “And I hope the South Korean government ensures that any captive dolphins who are imported from other captive facilities were not originally taken in the Taiji drives. The chain of exploitation and marketing of dolphins and whales for entertainment has to be broken once and for all.”