Thursday, December 13, 2018

Wildlife Recovery… Not So Simple

Stepping Stones


When we last corresponded, topics of deep concern were red tide, brown tide and blue-green algae and their effects on land, waterways and tourism. It was noted that 2.7 tons of dead fish were removed from Lee County beaches alone, at least 170 manatee deaths occurred, 49 dolphins washed ashore and hundreds of sea turtles lost their lives, all attributed to toxins in our waters.

The red tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon worldwide and the bloom in our area has been around since last October. It is still here but hopes are that it will subside as cooler weather, and cooler water, arrives.

We are all saddened by the loss of wildlife and we understand that it is a fact of life and we cannot bring that back. But a looming question is now at the forefront of conversations… How do we replenish species that have been devastated over the last year? Can they all successfully recover?

Manatees: This mammal species in the U.S. was removed from the endangered list and placed on the threatened list not too long ago. The reason: “Significant improvements in its population and habitat conditions, and reduction in direct threats.” These sea cows, as they are known, have been on the endangered list since 1972, but removed from that classification about 18 months ago. In the late 1900s there were only 1,250 manatees in Florida and their population is now approximately 6,000. They have no known predators but their main threats are man (fishing line entanglements that don’t allow them to surface and breathe and boaters striking this docile creature) and naturally occurring toxins in their environment. Say again… “reduction in direct threats”? Aren’t there more boaters than ever before on our waters and isn’t there still red tide around? Hmmmm.

Sea Turtles: As of August 4th, one report states that more than 400 sea turtles have washed ashore in Florida with deaths attributed to red tide and the blue-green algae. Another report indicates that when these species die, they can simply move to the bottom of their terrain and stay there. It seems that 400 is a low number and just based on carcasses that have been counted. Two species that have been devastated are the loggerhead and the Kemp’s ridley turtles. Both of these are federally protected. Thousands of babies hatch each year, so what’s the problem? Most of the deceased are mature adults. Only about one in 1,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood, and it takes a turtle like the loggerhead 25 to 30 years to reach maturity. This would definitely have a negative impact on this species’ recovery. The Kemp’s ridley turtle could be more critical. They are already the most endangered sea turtle on the planet.

Photos by Bob McConville

Bottlenose Dolphins: These mammals are neither endangered nor on a threatened list. In fact, they are a species of “Least Concern.” There are more than a half-million bottlenose dolphins swimming our waterways worldwide.

Ten species, however, are protected, but not our local dolphins. Still it is sad to hear of one not surviving a toxic epidemic. There are only a few survey teams monitoring dolphin populations along our coast and one of them is right here in Marco Island (The Dolphin Explorer). If a dolphin does not survive in this area the markings on its dorsal fin can determine which one it is, and in the case of a catastrophic event, the percent of a population decrease would be known.

Birds: Disoriented cormorants and brown pelicans have been a common sight this summer. Many have died. These birds are fish eaters and any meal infested with the area toxins could be lethal. Ospreys may suffer the same fate. Sightings of egrets and herons are much lower than recent years. Are they smart enough to move to an area where meals are healthier? Let’s hope so!

Fish: Fish kills, by the tons, have been reported along the shoreline. Some fishing pros heading offshore tell me that it is a “fish graveyard” in certain areas. “You can’t go ten feet without bumping into a carcass” some of these guys tell me. How do you recover from that many fish perishing? In 2010 a severe cold snap affected the snook population so much that a moratorium was placed on that fish for three years. FWC is already adjusting regulations on snook, redfish and sea trout. This could help these species to rebound with a “catch and release” program. Remember I mentioned several tons of fish washed ashore in Lee County? In Pinellas County that number was more than fifteen tons!

Can we recover? Time is our ally in this matter, as well as a use of common sense by everyone on the water. For some animals, it may just be a few years to return to an acceptable population level. For others, it may take decades.

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two local books and a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Bob loves his wife very much!

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