Todd McLeish

Todd McLeish: Improved outlook for endangered coastal bird

Roseate terns

Roseate terns

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

The North American population of an endangered seabird, most of which nest on a few small islands in Buzzards Bay, is higher than at any time since 1987, providing scientists with a feeling of optimism following a period of decline in the 2000s that had them worried about the birds’ future.

Yet the roseate tern — a gull-like bird with a black cap, pointed wings, and a sharp beak — still faces threats from predators and climate change that require constant vigilance so the recent gains aren’t lost.

Ninety percent of the population nests on three islands: Bird Island and Ram Island in Buzzards Bay, each of which are home to about 1,100 nesting pairs; and Great Gull Island off the eastern end of Long Island, where 1,800 pairs nest. The remaining 400 pairs nest on a dozen islands scattered from Nova Scotia to New York.

“We don’t know what caused the decline, just as we don’t know what’s causing the increase,” said Carolyn Mostello, a coastal waterbird biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who has monitored the terns in Buzzards Bay for more than 20 years. “That makes it really hard to have confidence that the gains are going to be permanent. It doesn’t allow us to relax anything we’re doing.”

Mostello and a team of eight biologists and students are spending almost every day of the breeding season — May through mid-July — monitoring the roseate terns on Bird and Ram islands, as well as on Penikese Island, another island in Buzzards Bay that has a small nesting population. They count and monitor every nest, assess the growth rate of every chick, band as many of the birds as possible, and conduct a variety of research studies. This year they are evaluating whether the banding process impacts the health and breeding success of the birds.

Gulls, which eat the eggs and chicks, are the terns’ primary predator, so the research team does its best to keep gulls from nesting on the islands and discourage them from getting close to the tern nests. Peregrine falcons are also an occasional concern, since they will eat the adult birds, as are any mammals such as mink, raccoons, or rats that somehow find their way to the breeding islands.

Climate change is a growing concern, according to Mostello. Because the islands are very low-lying — for example, Bird Island’s maximum elevation is just 10 feet — erosion and sea-level rise could reduce nesting habitat, and major storms could flood active nests.

Offshore wind turbines are also an increasing threat, especially with hundreds of turbines proposed for the waters just south of the breeding islands.

“Those are areas that the roseates fly through, so we’re really concerned about those projects,” Mostello said. “Even if each turbine doesn’t kill a lot of birds per year, they’ll be operational for a lot of years, and when you have a rare species that’s long-lived and produces few young per year, it starts to knock down the survival rate and could have an impact on the population. Hundreds of turbines could be a big risk to the terns.”

Biologist Carolyn Mostello and her team have been monitoring the terns on Buzzards Bay islands for two decades.

In an effort to boost the birds’ population, MassWildlife teamed with the Army Corps of Engineers and a number of other partners to restore habitat at Bird Island. By filling in some low-lying areas, planting native vegetation, and increasing the height of the seawall, the project has doubled the amount of potential nesting habitat on the 2-acre island.

“Before the restoration, the birds were very crowded, and that resulted in a lot of agonistic interactions,” Mostello said. “Their territories were small, so neighboring adults were attacking other adults and chicks, resulting in lower productivity. Now they can spread out a bit, they’re less aggressive towards each other, and the substrate is better for them. We have more habitat and it’s better habitat.”

A similar habitat-restoration project is in the planning stages for Ram Island.

Despite the improved habitat and recent population increase, Mostello isn’t ready to claim victory for the birds.

“If you have a population that fluctuates a lot — we went from 2,900 pairs to 4,400 pairs in six years — you would want to wait a while to make sure the population was actually stable before you considered them recovered,” she said. “They could be headed for a downturn. The rate of increase has slowed. It could be that we’re headed for a leveling off and a decline. Only time will tell.”

In the meantime, Mostello and her team will continue to spend almost every day of the breeding season keeping an eye on the roseate terns in Buzzards Bay, knowing that their progress could easily be reversed without a regular human presence.

“If we didn’t show up, we might get away with it for a year, but by the second year you’d have predators that knew they could feed uninhibited on the terns, you’d see declines in productivity, and partial or full abandonment of the colony,” Mostello said. “Having a human presence is non-negotiable.

“While we need to continue to shepherd them through the world, we’ll do it with the hope that someday they’ll be self-sufficient and won’t need this level of effort. We’ve been committed to this species for a long time; we have a huge responsibility here in Massachusetts with 50 percent of the continental population here, so we’re not about to slack off and lose the gains that we’ve made.”

Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Rare Northeast turtles under threat

Diamondback terrapin

Diamondback terrapin

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Diamondback terrapins are among the rarest turtles in the Northeast, and the only ones that spend most of their lives in salt marshes and other quiet brackish waters. While populations are holding their own in many locations, nest predators are an increasingly serious threat.

Three researchers speaking at last month’s Northeast Natural History Conference in Springfield, Mass., said that in almost every year the eggs in most of the terrapin nests they monitor are consumed by predators.

“Raccoons are the most important predator,” said Russell Burke, a Hofstra University biology professor who has studied diamondback terrapins at the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New York City for 20 years. “Everyone who works on terrapins has had the experience of watching a terrapin put a nest in the ground, and you come back the next day and find a collapsed nest hole and broken eggs.”

Danielle Marston, a volunteer terrapin monitor with the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, said raccoons destroy most of the nests she has observed in Buzzard’s Bay, Mass. George Bancroft, who monitors terrapins in the lower Taunton River watershed, also indicated that nest predation rates are very high.

Burke worried that the tiny survey flags he placed to mark the locations of the nests he monitored could be a roadmap for raccoons to follow to terrapin nests, so he conducted a study to learn what method the raccoons use to find the nests. He placed survey flags of various colors where there were no nests, applied a human scent to other sites, dug artificial nests, and experimented with numerous other factors.

The raccoons ignored most of the sites.

“They seemed to be cued more into a disturbance of the sand than the flags,” he said. “Wherever we dug a hole, the raccoons were interested. If you dig any kind of hole in the nesting area, the raccoons were likely to dig it up.”

Burke believes that microbes in the sand become active and release a detectable odor when the sand becomes aerated by digging a hole. But the smell dissipates within about a day or two.

“We get essentially no predation after the second day after nesting,” he said. “If the nests make it through 48 hours, they make it all the way to hatching, and that’s probably due to olfaction.”

Burke noted that there is often increased nesting activity and decreased nest predation when it rains, perhaps because the rain hides the microbe odor.

“It seems to be one of the strategies that terrapins have evolved to minimize raccoon predation,” he said.

Those who monitor diamondback terrapin nests in Rhode Island have also found high rates of nest predation, but some are succeeding in combatting it.

At Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington, where Charlotte Sornborger has been monitoring the terrapins for nearly 30 years, between 200 and 300 nests were destroyed by predators each year during the first 15 years of her studies. In addition to raccoons, Sornborger confirmed that foxes, skunks, and coyotes also predated the nests. But when she began using wire mesh “excluders,” which prohibit scavengers from digging below the surface to reach the eggs, predation rates declined significantly.

Predation at a recently discovered terrapin nesting site at the mouth of the Hunt River in Warwick was very high during the first year of monitoring in 2015 — just three of 87 nests survived to hatch — with dogs being among the chief culprits. But recent surveys have indicated that predation may not be as high as originally thought, according to University of Rhode Island professor Laura Meyerson.

Two surprising new predators, however, have been added to the list of threats to diamondback terrapins: bald eagles and osprey. Neither disturbs the terrapin nests, but the birds have been found to prey on juvenile terrapins in Buzzard’s Bay and in the Palmer River near the Barrington population. According to Sornborger, a hunter reported empty terrapin shells under an osprey platform used by bald eagles along the Palmer River, and two nearby homeowners also observed empty terrapin shells on their lawns.

Another new threat to diamondback terrapin populations is also emerging: rising sea levels.

“For Rhode Island’s terrapins, sea-level rise is really worrisome,” said Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “They live right at the margins of the coastal zone, and their habitat type is going to experience dramatic alterations and impacts from sea-level rise. We don’t know what that’s going to mean for terrapins.”

“The biggest issue for us in Buzzard’s Bay,” Marston said, “is that we’re losing ground to the big surge in tidal action at our nesting locations. The nesting area is going to disappear with the projected sea-level rise. Already we’re seeing that the nests that don’t fail from predation fail from an intrusion of water into the nests. The terrapins keep trying to nest where they used to, and the nests keep getting flooded.”

With little nesting habitat available inland of their present nesting sites, the combination of predators and rising seas makes the long-term outlook for the species uncertain.

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.


Todd McLeish: The bizarre (to us) ocean sunfish washes up in New England

Ocean sunfish

Ocean sunfish

A tank at the    Monterey Bay Aquarium   , in California, provides a size comparison between an ocean sunfish and humans.

A tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in California, provides a size comparison between an ocean sunfish and humans.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

The ocean sunfish earned its moment in the spotlight in 2015, when a viral video surfaced of a foul-mouthed recreational fisherman who observed a specimen along the Massachusetts coastline and excitedly tried to guess what it was as the fish calmly rested at the surface.

The largest bony fish, the pie-shaped creature is certainly an oddity to those who are unfamiliar with it — they bask on their side on the water’s surface and can grow to nearly 11 feet and weigh up to 5,000 pounds by eating almost exclusively jellyfish.

Like whales, however, they also sometimes become stranded on beaches or in shallow tidal areas, where they are unable to extricate themselves and die. Almost 350 of them have stranded along the New England coast since 2008, according to Michael Rizzo of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, who studies the species.

Rizzo presented the results of his analysis of ocean sunfish strandings April 13 at the Northeast Natural History Conference in Springfield, Mass.

Also called mola mola — a name derived from the Latin for millstone, a reference to the massive animal’s circular shape — ocean sunfish are found in New England waters each summer and are observed wintering off the coast of the southern United States.

“A lot of them wind up stranding in New England every year, starting in August and continuing through early January, but the busiest months are October to December,” Rizzo said. “When they get into shallow areas, they get stuck and can’t get out. Once the tide goes out and they’re in the mud, you can’t move them.”

A record 81 ocean sunfish were reported stranded in New England in 2017, with an additional 60 stranding in 2018. Staff and volunteers from the alliance attempt to rescue those that are still alive, though few survive. In one case, an ocean sunfish that stranded in a shallow tidal area was towed into open water, only to have it strand again and die a short time later less than a mile away.

The alliance also collects sighting data of live ocean sunfish to better understand their abundance and activities while in New England.

Many ocean sunfish are killed or become stranded as a result of fishing gear entanglements and injuries from boat propellers, but the most common cause is cold stunning.

“That’s a physiological condition an animal can experience due to prolonged exposure to cold water,” Rizzo said. “They become hypothermic and can’t move any more. It’s very similar to what happens to sea turtles.”

Most of ocean sunfish strandings occur along the coast of Cape Cod Bay, though some have stranded as far north as Portsmouth, N.H. Others have stranded on Nantucket, but none were reported to have stranded along the Rhode Island or Connecticut coast in the past decade.

“It seems that most of them are going south and get caught up in the fishhook of Cape Cod and they wander around and can’t get out,” Rizzo said. “Once they get around Cape Cod, it seems as if they take a straight shot south and avoid the southern New England coast.”

Little is known about the population or distribution of ocean sunfish in the area.

“From what we can tell and from what we have read, the mola population is robust but decreasing, which is why they are listed as vulnerable,” said Carol “Krill” Carson, a marine biologist and president of the alliance. “With many threats to the marine environment, including climate change and marine debris, we are afraid that this species will see continued loss in population numbers.”

Since so little is known about them, the alliance conducts a necropsy (animal autopsy) on as many of the dead ocean sunfish as it can, and samples of numerous tissues are collected for scientists to study. Research is being conducted on their diet and toxicity, as well as on the more than 40 species of parasites that have been found infesting various parts of their body. Efforts are also underway to learn how to determine their age and how best to rescue them from beaches.

Scientists hope that additional data on ocean sunfish strandings will help to identify why so many are stranding in certain years. Since cold stunning is the primary cause of most strandings, Rizzo and Carson speculate that warming waters due to climate change may be having an effect on the fish by delaying their southbound migration until it’s too late.

If that were true, Rizzo said, then the number of sea turtles found stranded should correlate with ocean sunfish strandings, and that isn’t always the case.

“It was a big year for sea turtle strandings in 2014, for example, but that was a low year for ocean sunfish,” he said. “We’re going to try to do a water temperature analysis to see if that tells us anything.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish is an ecoRI News contributor who also runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Running away from running bamboo

640px-Bamboo_forest_at_Rutgers_University_botanical_gardens.JPG

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Massachusetts and Connecticut keep a list of illegal and regulated invasive plant species and some nature groups want an updated one started in Rhode Island.

Invasives are plants and animals from a different country or region that reproduce quickly and spread on their own in a new habitat, often with harmful consequences.

They arrive in firewood, shipping containers, and ballast water, or on tire treads. They can be spread by birds or introduced unintentionally through scientific and agricultural research. Many invasive plants start as landscape and decorative plantings.

In Rhode Island, common land-based invasive plants, such as bittersweet, knotweed and multiflora rose, are easy to spot on roadsides throughout the state. These plants proliferate rapidly and are a stubborn nuisance to property owners and land trusts, killing trees and crowding out native species.

Legislation in the Rhode Island Senate (S411) would regulate running bamboo, a fast-spreading plant that quickly crosses property lines. It can penetrate asphalt and the siding of buildings. Many homeowners, not knowing the unintended consequence, plant running bamboo as a natural barrier that offers privacy and blocks out animals such as deer. But some invasive bamboo species can grow 40 feet high and their roots can travel 15 feet a year.

The Protection From Invasive Species Act would prohibit planting of running bamboo within 100 feet of a property line. The plants must otherwise be confined to a container or prevented from spreading roots.

Violators would be liable for the cost of removing the plant from a neighbor’s property, plus any damages. Retailers and landscapers would be required to provide customers written notice of the risks of running bamboo.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) would be granted authority to require the removal or destruction of running bamboo. A $100 fine would be imposed to first-time violators and up to $250 for repeat offenders.

Bittersweet vines are choking native plants and trees in southern New England. (Mass Audubon)

To address other invasives, the legislation requires DEM to create a list of invasive-plant species, regulate their sale, and enforce compliance. DEM, however, is opposed to the legislation because the state agency says it already regulates plant pests and can assess fines up $500 for transporting invasive aquatic plants.

DEM noted that it doesn’t allow federally designated noxious weeds to enter the state.

The Rhode Island Farm Bureau fears that the bill would lead to prosecution of farmers for invasive species that they didn’t plant. Bureau President Henry B. Wright III noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave multiflora rose to farmers in the 1950s as a control for erosion.

“The plant is now considered to be an invasive species by the USDA as it forms dense thickets that invade pastures and crowd out native species,” Wright wrote in a letter to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

Wright suggested that the state instead offer money to farmers and property owners for the removal of invasive plants.

In 2001, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey created a priority list of invasive plants through the Rhode Island Invasive Species Council.

“But our thinking on invasives has changed quite a bit,” said David Gregg, executive director of Rhode Island Natural History Survey. “There’s been a lot of change in the landscape and nursery industry in that time. And I think we need a new initiative.”

In 2003, Connecticut created a state list of invasives with enforceable rules. Massachusetts created a list of invasive plants in 2004.

Through the Natural History Survey, Rhode Island has been reducing invasives. Between 2010 and 2012, the state spent $300,000 of federal money to train professionals to remove invasive plants from state land and other natural habitat. Gregg noted that during that time the same invasive plants were being planted near these properties.

“In the survey’s opinion, it would be helpful to have an up-to-date list of noxious invasive plants supported by a public process and consensus,” Gregg said at an April 11 Senate committee hearing.

The bill is supported by the Rhode Island Land Trust Council.

The bill was held until a future hearing.

Todd McLeish is a journalist at ecoRI News.


Todd McLeish: And now, the sea potatoes invasion

Not very inviting sea potatoes.

Not very inviting sea potatoes.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

During a class field trip to Mackerel Cove, in Jamestown, R.I., in 2017, University of Rhode Island student Jacob Reilly picked up an unusual brown seaweed that looked like a hollow ball and asked his professor what it was. The answer was a surprise.

Reilly had stumble Mcd upon the first appearance in Rhode Island of what has come to be called sea potatoes (Colpomenia peregrina), an invasive seaweed native to the coast of Korea and Japan that grows on top of other seaweeds.

“It’s not a parasite; it just settles and grows on top of other algae,” said Lindsay Green-Gavrielidis, a marine ecologist and URI postdoctoral researcher who teaches the class. “We don’t know what impact it’s having on native seaweeds, though we hypothesize that it may be in direct competition for nutrients and light. But nobody has done any research to quantify its impact.”

Green-Gavrielidis has a history with the invader. Sea potatoes had been unintentionally introduced to Europe sometime in the early 1900s, probably in ship ballast, and from there it made its way to Nova Scotia in the 1960s. It took until 2010 for it to be discovered in the Gulf of Maine, when Green-Gavrielidis found it while conducting research for her doctorate at the University of New Hampshire.

In addition to the ball-shaped form it typically takes, the seaweed also forms a crust that grows on rocks that easily goes unnoticed, so Green-Gavrielidis speculated that it may have been “hiding out for a long time like that, and then when the conditions were right the ball form started appearing.”

The appearance of sea potatoes along the Rhode Island coast is significant because it has crossed what Green-Gavrielidis calls a major biogeography boundary: Cape Cod. The waters to the north of Cape Cod are dominated by the Labrador Current from Greenland, which makes for colder, more nutrient-rich waters. South of the Cape is dominated by the warm Gulf Stream.

“What it says about sea potatoes is that it has a really broad tolerance for a variety of conditions, and not many species can do that,” she said. “Most species don’t have the ability to move to such very different places. Species that are successful invaders do. We were hoping it wouldn’t be able to cross into this geographic region because of the different conditions.”

To determine how common sea potatoes are in Rhode Island waters, Green-Gavrielidis conducted a methodical search for it at 13 sites along the state’s coastline last year and conducted several quantitative surveys to compare its abundance to a similar native species called sea cauliflower.

The research was published last month in the journal BioInvasions Records.

In addition to Mackerel Cove, sea potatoes were also found at East Beach and Ninigret Pond in Charlestown and South Ferry Beach in Narragansett. It wasn’t found any further north in Narragansett Bay than South Ferry Beach, perhaps because the native seaweed it is most commonly associated with, rockweed, is not found in abundance in the upper bay. No sea potatoes were found in Westerly or eastern Connecticut, either, so it hasn’t likely found its way into Long Island Sound yet.

“The biomass we found in Rhode Island is much lower than what we found in the Gulf of Maine, so maybe it hasn’t been here as long,” Green-Gavrielidis said. “That might also be because the environmental conditions are such that it’s not doing so well here. We do have some preliminary data that shows that there are herbivores — snails primarily — that eat it, so that’s good.

“Often you think that when a new species comes on the block, there isn’t something that consumes it. But we’ve done studies that show that the common periwinkle will readily and happily pursue it.”

That’s a good sign, since there is little that can be done to stop it.

“We need to continue monitoring it to see if its going to increase in abundance,” she said. “We expect it to continue spreading. Whether it moves up into the bay or west to Long Island Sound is unknown. And whether it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or neither, only continued research can tell us.”

Green-Gavrielidis and URI colleague Niels-Viggo Hobbs will be conducting a new research project this summer and fall that involves sampling rockweed habitats — the native seaweed most closely associated with the sea potato invasion — so they will be keeping an eye out for the newly arrived seaweed. Their students are also conducting laboratory studies to determine whether native seaweed-eating marine life will eat it and if it is preferred over native seaweeds.

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Threats remain to National Monument off the Northeast coast

Northeast_Canyons_and_Seamounts_Marine_National_Monument_map_NOAA.png

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, remains controversial more than two years after it was designated by President Obama in September 2016.

Fishermen brought suit to overturn the designation — the suit was dismissed last October, but it’s being appealed — President Trump has threatened to use his executive authority to revoke the designation, despite uncertainties as to whether he can legally do so, and the Interior Department has recommended that the Trump administration reopen the monument to commercial fishing.

Peter Auster, however, argued in a lecture at Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo on Feb. 28 that the 4,900-square-mile area about 150 miles off Cape Cod is deserving of protection because of its high species diversity, wide variety of habitats, and its numerous creatures that are sensitive to disturbance.

A senior research scientist at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium, Auster was a key player in building the scientific case for why the area should be designated a national monument. He has led multiple research projects to explore the area using submersible vessels, remotely operated vehicles, and autonomous vehicles, all of which have revealed an unusual array of marine life, from “Dr. Seussian species” of fish to dozens of kinds of deep-sea corals.

“A dive into the canyons and seamounts demonstrates the magic of the ocean,” he said. “There’s a whole garden of organisms that live there.”

About the size of Connecticut, the monument includes two distinct areas, one that covers three canyons and one that covers four seamounts. (NOAA)

The monument includes a portion of the edge of the continental shelf, where the seafloor drops sharply from a depth of about 600 feet down to 3,000, and where four extinct underwater volcanoes jut upward from the seafloor. The monument got its name from those underwater volcanoes — called seamounts — and a number of canyons carved into the shelf edge by ancient rivers.

“Those canyons and seamounts create varied ecotones in the deep ocean with wide depth ranges, a range of sediment types, steep gradients, complex topography, and currents that produce upwelling, which creates unique feeding opportunities for animals feeding in the water column,” Auster said.

Using colorful photographs of rarely seen creatures to illustrate his presentation, Auster called the area a “biodiversity hot spot,” noting that at least 73 species of deep-sea corals live in the area, including 24 that were found there for the first time during a research expedition in 2013. Many of those corals serve as hosts to other creatures — crabs, shrimp, and starfish, for instance — that are only found on those particular corals.

New England Aquarium researchers have found that the monument’s surface waters serve as feeding grounds for an abundance of whales, sea turtles, sharks, and seabirds, as well as fish that migrate from the deep water to the surface every day to feed.

In addition, Maine Audubon recently discovered that the monument area is where many of the region’s Atlantic puffins spend the winter. And researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, in Woods Hole, Mass., found that significant numbers of the extremely rare True’s beaked whale, one of the deepest diving marine mammals in the world, spends the summer in monument waters.

Despite these recent discoveries, scientists say there is still a great deal to be learned about the area.

“We don’t yet know everything we need to know to manage the monument,” Auster said.

At least 73 species of deep-sea corals live in the area, including bamboo coral. (NOAA)

On his scientific to-do list is an assessment of the biological diversity of the area and how it’s distributed in the monument; an assessment of ecological change over time; a better understanding of species interactions; and an assessment of how the region has recovered from natural and human-caused disturbances.

While the status of the monument remains in limbo, a number of additional threats may be lurking. So far, commercial fishing has only impacted the shallow areas of the monument on the continental shelf, but Auster said there are increasing efforts to fish in the deeper waters. In addition, the Trump administration is advocating for expanded oil and gas exploration in the waters off the East Coast, and the growing seabed mining industry may see the seamounts as potentially valuable sites for methane hydrate mining or manganese crust mining.

While Auster seems somewhat confident that the monument designation will hold, and he’s already working on making the case for a second marine national monument in the Atlantic — this one at Cashes Ledge in the middle of the Gulf of Maine — he acknowledged that there are influential political forces at work that could derail the monument designation.

“Like every monument, there are people who suggest that it isn’t a good thing to conserve examples of our natural heritage for future generations,” Auster said. “The end of this story remains to be written.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.


Todd McLeish: Hawks feasting on songbirds at your feeders

Cooper’s hawk.

Cooper’s hawk.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org.)

For at least two decades, many people who provide seed to feed the songbirds in their backyard have provided anecdotal evidence of an increase in the number of bird-eating hawks that visit their feeders. Now, an analysis of 21 years of data collected by Cornell University has confirmed those observations by noting that Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, which prey primarily on songbirds, have been colonizing urban and suburban areas during winter because of the availability of prey at bird feeders.

According to Jennifer McCabe, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose study focused on birds in the Chicago area, many hawk species had declined significantly by the middle of the 20th Century because of hunting and pesticide use. Populations of most hawks, including the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, have rebounded since then — largely because of legal protections and the banning of particularly harmful pesticides — enabling the birds to colonize areas that they had previously ignored.

In a research paper published in November in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, McCabe found that the two hawk species, which look similar and are collectively called accipiters for their genus name, occupied about 26 percent of the area in and around Chicago in the 1990s. Two decades later they were found in nearly 67 percent of the area.

Birders in Rhode Island have also reported anecdotal evidence of an increase in accipiter numbers in recent decades, especially Cooper’s hawks. Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, has noted several Cooper’s hawks nesting in Providence in recent years, and she calls their presence at feeders in winter “commonplace, unremarkable, and therefore not generally reported [any more] from suburban areas.”

“In the beginning years of our study, sites were occupied around the fringe of the city, and through time they moved into the inner city,” said McCabe of her study site in Chicago. “The main driver for this colonization is prey abundance. They seem to be cuing in on feeders that have a lot of birds. That’s the driver that keeps the hawks there: prey abundance at feeders.”

Her findings were initially counterintuitive, because accipiters nest in forested habitats. Their narrow wings and long tail enable them to maneuver quickly through densely forested landscapes and chase down small birds, a behavior the larger soaring hawks such as the common red-tailed hawk can’t do. The soaring hawks typically feed on slower-moving rodents.

“We did our study in winter, so the birds weren’t concerned about finding the perfect tree for nesting,” McCabe said. “They were more concerned about survival.”

The relative absence of tree cover in urban areas and the abundance of pavement and other impervious surfaces didn’t seem to discourage the hawks from colonizing cities, she said. In fact, the more tree cover a site had, the less likely it was to attract accipiters in winter. The key factor was prey availability. As long as there were bird feeders attracting an abundance of small songbirds to the area, the hawks moved in.

The data for the study comes from Project FeederWatch, a citizen science project in which participants periodically count the birds and bird species at their feeders. Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the program began in 1987 and now includes more than 20,000 volunteers from across North America.

Since bird feeding is among the most popular pastimes in the United States, with some surveys finding that more than 40 percent of households participate, it’s likely that the accipiters that have colonized urban and suburban areas will not go hungry.

The impact the hawks are having on the population of common feeder birds such as sparrows, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches hasn’t been measured, but it’s unlikely they will be impacted in the long term. They may even receive a boost, since other studies have found that urban accipiters primarily target invasive birds such as pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows, potentially easing competitive pressures on native species.

A study of the recolonization of Britain by sparrowhawks, which also feed on birds, provides additional insights. When sparrowhawks were extirpated from Britain, it became less necessary for their primary prey, house sparrows, to be vigilant for the predators.

“Over 30 years, they lost this anti-predator behavior,” McCabe said, “and when the hawks came back, they ended up decimating the house sparrow population.”

Whether North American feeder birds’ vigilance for predators declined following the eradication of hawk populations half a century ago is uncertain. But even if they did, it’s not likely to last long.

“If the birds lost their anti-predator behavior, they’ll regain it pretty quickly now that the hawks are back,” McCabe said. “People’s backyards won’t be picked clean by hawks.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Efforts to save New England cottontails pick up steam

New England cottontail.    — Photo by M. Poole, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

New England cottontail.

— Photo by M. Poole, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

More rare New England cottontails were raised at Roger Williams Park Zoo, in Providence, and the Queens Zoo, in New York City, and released into the wild than ever before, according to conservation officials. The success is a positive sign , populations of the region’s only native rabbit, which had declined precipitously in recent decades because of habitat loss, hunting, and competition with the introduced eastern cottontail.

Seventy-seven New England cottontails were raised and weaned at the two zoos in 2018, almost double the number weaned in each of the past few years. Including animals taken from a breeding colony on Patience Island in Narragansett Bay, about 100 cottontails were released into the wild in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine last year.

“Our goal is to breed as many rabbits as we can throughout the breeding season, but it’s challenging,” said Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation at the Roger Williams Park Zoo and the coordinator of the zoo’s cottontail breeding program. “They don’t always breed like rabbits.”

The reason for the tremendous breeding success in 2018 is still a mystery, however.

“I wish I knew why it was so successful,” Perrotti said. “We didn’t do anything different.”

“We’re somewhat baffled ourselves,” added Heidi Holman, a wildlife biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and chair of the New England Cottontail Population Management Working Group. “We’ll continue to review our data in more detail to see if we can tease out a variable, but there doesn’t seem to be any particular thing we can put our thumbs on just yet to explain it.”

The breeding program began in 2010 with six cottontails collected from a wild population in Connecticut. Since then, 163 litters have resulted in 301 weaned cottontails, mostly raised at Roger Williams Park Zoo. The Queens Zoo joined the effort in 2015.

Once the rabbits are about 35 days old, they are removed from the zoos and brought to what the biologists call “hardening pens” at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, in Charlestown, R.I., or the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in New Hampshire, to become acclimated to natural conditions. After they spend several weeks or months adjusting to the environment, gaining weight, and learning to hide and forage, they are released into the wild.

Decisions about which animals are released in which location are based largely on their genetics.

“We’re trying to diversity the gene pool and track who’s successfully mating so we’re not over-representing particular genes in any one population,” Holman said.

Representatives from each state in the region submit what Perrotti called “a wish list” of how many cottontails they would like to release in their state annually, and based on the number of animals available and their genetic makeup, the rabbits are divvied up and delivered.

New Hampshire and Maine have experienced the largest decline in their New England cottontail populations, so they receive animals each year for release. Cottontail populations in Massachusetts and Connecticut are more robust, and wildlife officials there believe they may be able to increase the populations by manipulating habitat rather than augmenting the population with captive-bred rabbits.

In Rhode Island, New England cottontails were initially released on Patience Island, which at last count had between 56 and 90 animals, according to T.J. McGreevey, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island who serves as the wildlife geneticist on the cottontail project. A total of 51 rabbits from Patience have been released elsewhere in the past three years, including in the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in West Kingston.

“The Patience Island population is being managed to prevent it from reaching carrying capacity,” Holman said. “It could crash from disease or starvation if it grew too high, so we’re managing it to keep the population healthy. That’s why we remove some animals from there.”

Another sign of the success of the breeding program is documentation that some of the released animals are reproducing in the wild. New England cottontails released at the Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area in New Hampshire have been reproducing since 2013. Reproduction was documented among the cottontails released at the Great Swamp in 2017.

As successful as the program has been during the past eight years, it’s still well below its target of releasing 500 cottontails annually. To increase breeding capacity, the researchers plan to establish a new breeding colony this year on Nomans Land, a 612-acre uninhabited island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Other islands are being considered for similar colonies in the future.

In addition, the Bristol County Agricultural High School, in Dighton, Mass., has offered to provide assistance in rearing cottontails for the project. The school has successfully raised several varieties of rare turtles for release in the wild since 2012. Other partner organizations will likely be added in the future.

“We’ve set the bar at 500 per year, and we’ll see if we can get there,” Holman said. “But we’re just getting started. The conservation strategy we’re following will continue through 2030. We’re still out there actively trying to create more habitat, and some of that habitat is just getting ready to have rabbits. We should have more places to release them very soon. And we’re continuing to collect information on how they survive and make sure we adapt our protocols to improve that success as much as we can.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: An early-warning system for toxic algae

Toxic algae in a “red tide.’’

Toxic algae in a “red tide.’’

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

When a large bloom of harmful algae appeared in lower Narragansett Bay in October 2016, and again in early 2017, Rhode Island’s testing methods weren’t refined enough to detect it before the toxins produced by the algae had contaminated local shellfish.

That scenario isn’t likely to happen in the future, now that the Rhode Island Department of Health’s laboratories have acquired new instrumentation and analytical tests to detect the toxins early and to determine when they have dissipated enough so shellfish harvesting may resume.

“It’s an improved early-warning system so we don’t have to worry about future problems with harmful algae blooms,” said Henry Leibovitz, the chief environmental laboratory scientist at the Department of Health. “We’re trying to safeguard public health, safeguard our shellfish economy, and safeguard the state’s shellfish reputation.”

The new testing system was approved in September by the Food & Drug Administration’s National Shellfish Sanitation Program, which regulates the interstate sale of shellfish.

The 2016 and 2017 blooms, which Leibovitz said were the first harmful algae blooms to occur in Narragansett Bay, forced the closure of parts of the bay to shellfishing and required that some previously harvested shellfish be removed from the market. It was caused by the phytoplankton Pseudo-nitzschia, which, when concentrated in large numbers, can produce enough of the biotoxin domoic acid to contaminate shellfish and cause those who eat the shellfish to contract amnesic shellfish poisoning.

Another kind of plankton, Alexandrium, produces a biotoxin that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. Both Pseudo-nitzschia and Alexandrium occur in Rhode Island waters year-round, but they are only harmful when concentrations are high and the toxins they produce reach 20 parts per million.

According to Leibovitz, the state’s previous testing system was “a primitive screening test” somewhat like a pregnancy test: it could determine whether the toxins had reached the limit, but not how far over or below that threshold they were. And it wasn’t sensitive enough to detect the lower concentrations of the toxins that would signal that the bloom had dissipated and shellfish harvesting could begin again. To reopen shellfish beds to harvest, the state had to send water and shellfish samples to a private laboratory in Maine, the only lab in the country capable of conducting the test at the time.

Now that Rhode Island has an FDA-approved lab, it’s offering its services to nearby states.

The state’s Harmful Algal Bloom and Shellfish Biotoxin Monitoring and Contingency Plan directs the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to collect weekly water samples from areas of the bay where shellfish are harvested. The samples are tested in the Department of Health laboratory. If large numbers of harmful algae species are found, the plankton are tested to determine the concentration of toxins they are producing. If toxin concentrations are high, shellfish are then tested and a decision is made whether to close particular areas to harvesting.

The problem of harmful algae blooms has been an annual concern along the coast of Maine for many years, and scientists speculate that it could be a more frequent problem in southern New England in coming years, too.

“We think the problem is knocking on our door,” Leibovitz said, “and we need to be prepared for it, not only for public health but to protect our strong shellfish economy. Imagine the damage that would occur to our reputation if contaminated shellfish was identified as coming from Rhode Island. People have a long memory for something like that.”

Public awareness of the risk from harmful algae blooms was raised this year as a result of the months-long red tide in Florida, which killed fish and marine mammals and sickened many people. It was the result of a bloom of a plankton species that produces a toxin called brevetoxin, causing neurotoxic shellfish poisoning in people who eat infected shellfish.

What triggers the algae to bloom is what Leibovitz calls “the $60,000 question.”

“A lot of people are studying it, including some at the University of Rhode Island, and there are a lot of theories behind it, but there’s nothing conclusive. There’s speculation that the cleaner bay means that the harmful species don’t have the competition that they used to have, but that hasn’t been proven,” he said.

The bloom of harmful algae in Narragansett Bay in 2016 and 2017 led Rhode Island Sea Grant to fund research to try to answer some of the questions raised by the bloom. Researchers from URI and elsewhere are investigating whether bacteria that accompany the plankton may influence the amount of domoic acid produced; whether nitrogen from the sediments may fuel the blooms; and whether nutrients from outside the bay played a role.

“The fact that we had our first harmful algae bloom doesn’t mean we’ve had our last,” Leibovitz said, “not with it happening every year in Maine. But now we’ll be way ahead of the curve in recognizing when there’s a problem developing.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Warming water may be factor in lobster shell disease in southern New England

lobsters2.JPG

Despite more than 20 years of declining lobster populations in southern New England and extensive studies of the shell disease that is a major factor in their decline, scientists are still struggling to provide definitive answers to help restore hope to those working in the local lobster fishery.

A new study of lobsters along the eastern Connecticut coast has found that the disease is linked to warming water temperatures, while progress is slow in efforts to identify probiotics to counteract the disease and to better understand why so many lobsters are blind.

“Epizootic shell disease first appeared around 1996 and became quite prevalent around 1999, and it continues to be prevalent,” said Maya Groner, who conducted the Connecticut study as a post-doctoral researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “It’s been a challenge to figure out what the pathogen associated with the disease is. The best evidence suggests it may be a suite of bacteria that chews away at the carapace, but that suite of bacteria changes over the course of the disease.”

Her study found that the increased prevalence of the disease stems from warmer water temperatures that induce the lobsters to molt their shells earlier than usual.

Using data on 200,000 lobsters collected over 37 years in Waterford, Conn., as part of biological monitoring near the Millstone Nuclear Power Station, Groner found that about 80 percent of male lobsters have the disease during warm years, with females contracting the disease at a slightly lower rate.

“Molting their shell resets their health,” she said. “If they don’t molt, there’s no way they can recover. But now that they’re molting earlier in the spring, the molt happens before they’re even challenged with the disease.”

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

The earlier molt allows the disease to progress longer than if the lobsters molted in summer, as they typically do.

Groner found that for every 1.8-degree increase in the average temperature of the bottom water in May, lobsters molted about six days earlier. In early-molting years, disease prevalence doubled by September.

“It’s very consistent with trends we’ve seen with other marine diseases,” Groner said. “Organisms at the southern part of their range — like lobsters in Long Island Sound — are limited by temperature. They’re at their thermal tolerance limit. So as temperatures increase, they’re becoming stressed and less able to cope with diseases.”

University of Rhode Island fisheries researcher Kathy Castro has been studying lobsters for more than two decades, and she decided to look for a solution to help lobsters recover from the disease even though the precise cause of the disease is still uncertain. She is collaborating with URI colleagues who are studying probiotics on oysters.

“Why can’t we identify good bacteria that normally occur on lobsters, take the bad bacteria off, and repopulate their shells with good bacteria?” she wondered. “In essence, the idea works, but we don’t know what’s the right bacteria, how do we treat the lobsters, how often, and how to do it in a reasonable time frame.”

In a laboratory setting, Castro’s URI colleagues David Nelson and David Rowley isolated probiotics from healthy lobsters and tested them against what they believe may be the “bad bacteria.” The strategy looked promising. Initial trials on adult lobsters were positive as well. But it may not be practical.

“Our initial idea was that lobstermen could treat the lobsters on their boat,” Castro said. “But it’s hard to do; you have to do it in a lab. Maybe we still haven’t identified the right probiotic. And are we even working with the right pathogens?”

While that work is continuing, Castro is investigating why about half of the lobsters she has tested are functionally blind.

“That’s a more concerning issue to me than shell disease,” she said. “My question is, is it related to shell disease. The lobster’s endocrine control system is located in their eye stalk, so if a lobster is blind, is it molting incorrectly, and is that contributing to the disease.”

Castro said a colleague in Virginia thinks the cause of the blindness may be manganese, a neurotoxin that harms optic nerves and is released from sediments under low-oxygen conditions. But studies are just now under way.

“In my mind, it has to be related to shell disease. That’s my gut feeling,” Castro said.

One of the challenges to finding the answers has been inadequate research funding, Castro said, so much of the research is being done piecemeal.

“I really wish there was something fundamentally easy that we could do to solve all these problems,” she said. “That would be my greatest dream. But I know it takes time. And as much as we know about lobsters, there’s a lot more we don’t know.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Cryptic Beaked whales make supersonic sounds

The operating area for the recent Beaked whale survey in U.S. and Canadian waters is shown in the orange box. The black line from the far eastern coast of Maine out to sea is the U.S.-Canada maritime boundary known as the Hague Line. The lighter curved lines from lower left to top right mark depth    — Map by Danielle Cholewiak/NOAA Fisheries)

The operating area for the recent Beaked whale survey in U.S. and Canadian waters is shown in the orange box. The black line from the far eastern coast of Maine out to sea is the U.S.-Canada maritime boundary known as the Hague Line. The lighter curved lines from lower left to top right mark depth

— Map by Danielle Cholewiak/NOAA Fisheries)

A True’s beaked whale on the surface. These deep-diving marine mammals are difficult to study.    — Photo by Robert Pitman/NOAA Fisheries)

A True’s beaked whale on the surface. These deep-diving marine mammals are difficult to study.

— Photo by Robert Pitman/NOAA Fisheries)

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

A month-long survey of the deep waters from Georges Bank to the continental shelf south of Rhode Island has turned up an unexpectedly large number of a little-known whale, and scientists are excited that they were able to tag one of the animals for the first time.

True’s beaked whales were first identified in 1913 by Frederick W. True and have seldom been observed anywhere in the world since then. But researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., saw and heard several of the elusive animals almost daily during their expedition from July 20 to Aug. 19.

“Deep-diving cetaceans such as beaked whales are difficult to study due to their cryptic nature and their offshore distribution. But they are an important part of the deep-water marine ecosystem,” said Danielle Cholewiak, the chief scientist on the project. “Beaked whales are an extraordinary group of species, adapted for an extreme lifestyle. They dive to incredible depths to forage and spend long periods of time deep underwater.”

Portsmouth native Annamaria Izzi, one of the biologists participating in the expedition, jokingly described True’s beaked whales as looking “like ugly upside-down dolphins” with no teeth inside their mouth but two teeth sticking outside their mouth that males use to fight with each other.

Every day during the research cruise, Izzi and her colleagues deployed an array of hydrophones — underwater microphones — that were dragged behind the ship to listen for whales.

“We went from knowing nothing about them to having interesting clicks on the hydrophone and a couple visual approaches that cued us in to what they look like and sound like,” Izzi said. The clicking sounds were created by the whales using their echolocation abilities to navigate in the darkness of the deep water. “Beaked whales are similar to bats in their use of echolocation,” she added.

This year’s expedition was a follow-up to similar efforts in 2016 and 2017 that resulted in the discovery of what Izzi called “hot spots of acoustic detection of beaked whales,” mostly near the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument south of Cape Cod. (Two years ago this month, this area became the first marine national monument off the Atlantic Coast, but Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is considering opening the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts to commercial fishing.)

“The noise they make is supersonic; you can’t hear it, so you have to see it,” Izzi explained. “A computer program takes in the sounds detected by the hydrophone and gives a visual representation of it.”

One of the main accomplishments of the expedition was the tagging of one True’s beaked whale using what scientists call a digital acoustic recording tag attached to the whale with a suction-cup. The device recorded the movements and acoustic behavior of the whale for about 12 hours before it came off and was recovered.

“The data from this tag gives us the first detailed glimpse into the underwater behavior of True’s baked whales,” Cholewiak said. “We are excited about the new insights we can glean about this species.”

The scientists will soon compare the diving behavior they recorded of the True’s beaked whales to the behavior of other species of beaked whales.

Izzi said the expedition raised a lot of new questions.

“I’m focused on the acoustic aspect of these whales, so I’m really interested in learning more about what we’re recording with the towed array,” she said. “The hydrophones are at the surface while the whales are diving deep, and they’re only clicking when they’re down deep. I know I’m not getting all the clicks they’re emitting, so I wonder what part of the diving sequence I’m picking up. What am I hearing and how is that different from what they’re actually producing?”

The scientists also collected water samples in the immediate vicinity of where the beaked whales swam in an effort to collect bits of whale DNA.

“Environmental DNA, or eDNA, is DNA left in the environment when an animal passes through it,” Cholewiak said. “It’s an exciting tool that may provide a better understanding of species identity and population structure, just from sampling water.”

A dozen eDNA samples were collected by the scientists and paired with biopsy samples and whale photographs to match the DNA samples to specific animals.

Why are True’s beaked whales being found in good numbers in the waters off southern New England? Izzi said it’s because the whales prefer the habitat around small island chains or underwater mountains, and the edge of the continental shelf and the seamounts in the new marine monument provide that unusual habitat.

“A lot of previous studies have been around the Canary Islands, the Bahamas, or around San Clemente Island off Southern California,” she said. “We don’t have any deep-sea islands around here, but we do have deep-sea seamounts, which are a good place for upwelling and primary productivity, where there’s more prey availability that can support large populations of whales.”

Izzi said the next step in studying True’s beaked whales in the region is to place more tags on the marine mammals.

“We have information that gives us a first look at the species, but it’s only based on one tag for 12 hours. Every whale is different,” she said. “We really need to get more tags on more whales. Our chief scientist is interested in looking at group structure and creating a photo ID catalog of individual whales based on their unique scar patterns. And we want to keep working with this eDNA approach to see if it works for beaked whales.”

The research is being conducted as part of the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, an annual survey sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess the populations of marine mammals in area waters. The program focuses on the collection of seasonal data on the abundance, distribution, and behavior of marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds in the Atlantic Exclusive Economic Zone.

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

 

Todd McLeish: The mystery of the shearwater dieoff

Shearwater.

Shearwater.

Via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Aboard the University of Rhode Island research ship Endeavor during the first days of August, seabirds were abundant in the waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. The birds weren’t the focus of the trip — it was about providing local teachers with an opportunity to get hands-on science experience through the Rhode Island Teacher-At-Sea Program — but the birds couldn’t be ignored. They were constantly in view.

Most were shearwaters, long-winged birds that skim the surface of the waves as they search for marine organisms on which to feed. Last year at this time, however, many were unexpectedly dying and washing up on beaches throughout southern New England and Long Island, N.Y.

The population appears to be healthy this year, but scientists haven’t yet figured out the cause of last year’s die-off.

“We’re still trying to piece it together,” said seabird researcher David Wiley, research coordinator at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off  Massachusetts. “We’re studying their livers to look at their toxicology to see if something killed them. And a team at Woods Hole is looking at birds caught as bycatch in gillnets. But we haven’t come up with anything definitive yet.”

Scientists speculate that the birds, which breed on islands in the South Atlantic and migrate to the East Coast in summer, arrived in local waters last year in such poor physical condition that they couldn’t survive. Whether that is because of a lack of food, an accumulation of toxins, or something else entirely is unknown.

“It could be something here [in the North Atlantic] as well,” Wiley said. “It could be a toxic algal bloom that’s caused the problem here. That’s another thing to look into. But right now, it’s all speculative.”

Although few birds have been found dead in the region this year, Wiley and a team of scientists hope to find some answers in a continuing study of great shearwaters, the most common of the shearwaters in the region, that began in 2013. Each year they capture 10 shearwaters and place satellite tracking tags on them to monitor their movements. The researchers hope to learn how and where the birds spend their time in the region.

To capture the birds, they toss bait into the water from a small boat, and then use a hand-held net to catch any birds that get close enough to reach. They weigh and measure the shearwaters, place a band around a leg, take blood and feather samples, and release them back into the wild.

So far their research has confirmed that the most important feeding area for the birds is in the Great South Channel, a deep-water site east of Chatham, Mass. The area is also an important commercial fishing destination, where hundreds of the birds are caught and drown in gillnets annually, mostly in August and September.

“Everybody is eating sand lance — the birds, the whales, the fish — so that’s where the fishermen go, too,” Wiley said. “Sand lance is the key to the southern Gulf of Maine.”

A tiny eel-like fish, sand lance are a favorite food of humpback whales, sharks, cod and other ocean predators. They spend their nights buried in the sand on the seafloor. Their cyclical population abundance drives changes in populations of the species that prey on them. And when sand lance numbers are high, conflicts arise between the whales, birds, fish, and fishermen.

The scientists are trying to figure out how to reduce the fishing bycatch of shearwaters, but they have had little success to date. The fishermen bait their nets to attract dogfish, and the baiting attracts the birds. If they don’t bait their nets, the nets must remain in the water longer as the fishermen wait for the fish to arrive, which increases the likelihood the nets will capture or entangle whales, porpoises, and other marine mammals.

Four years of data from 40 great shearwaters has confirmed that the birds move around a great deal, making it difficult to employ management strategies to protect them.

“Some static management measures like marine protected areas may not be as effective as they used to because the ocean is changing,” Wiley said. “We may be able to use our satellite tagged birds to look at where the hot spots are occurring in almost-real time. Then management can be as dynamic as the oceans themselves. We’re trying to get ahead of the curve to see if there are other ways of managing the ocean.”

University of Rhode Island doctoral student Anna Robuck is examining the birds from a different perspective. She is conducting toxicology tests to determine whether they are contaminated with any of a long list of chemical compounds, from long-banned pollutants such as DDT and PCBs to such industrial compounds as flame retardants and perfluorinated compounds, which are used as water repellents and in non-stick cookware and many other consumer products.

While she expected to find some of the contaminants in the birds’ tissues, including DDT, which is ubiquitous in the ocean, she was surprised to find some of the more than 4,000 perfluorinated compounds in the seabirds at similar concentrations to those found in gulls that live in Narragansett Bay.

“That was totally unexpected,” Robuck said. “The shearwaters live in the remote South Atlantic, so we weren’t sure we were going to be able to detect measurable concentrations, because we were uncertain that the compounds would be found in the oceanic environment. They’re found in surface water in Narragansett Bay at much higher concentrations than offshore, so we’re not sure why they’re in the seabirds.”

Birds in the bay are contaminated with a different set of perfluorinated compounds than those in offshore waters, which suggests to Robuck that the compounds are finding their way to the offshore environment via the atmosphere.

She isn’t convinced, however, that the contaminants have anything to do with the mass mortality of shearwaters last year.

“The contaminants aren’t lethal in the way we saw happening to the birds last year,” she said. “No way was it related to their contaminant burden. There are so many variables at play. I thought we’d test for something and figure it out pretty quick, but it’s turned into something much more complex.

“It’s probably an interplay of a lot of things — oceanographic conditions, food, stress from climate change. It’s a lot of stressors adding up. It’s really sad to see.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

 

Todd McLeish: There's a scarcity of local seafood in New England

600px-Plateau_van_zeevruchten.jpg

 

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Those looking to buy local seafood at grocery stores and fish markets in New England may have a difficult time finding much, especially if you’re searching for something other than shellfish. Just 15 percent of the seafood available at markets in the region originated in New England, according to a pilot study by the Rhode Island-based nonprofit Eating with the Ecosystem.

“Unfortunately, the results weren’t super surprising to me,” said Kate Masury, the program director for Eating with the Ecosystem who coordinated the project with University of Rhode Island professor Hiro Uchida and student Christina Montello. “We’re a seafood-producing region, it’s a big part of our economy, but we’re not making it available to our own consumers.”

Rhode Island’s results were better than the regional average, though still not as high as one might expect. About 24 percent of the seafood in Ocean State markets was captured in New England waters, which compares favorably to Massachusetts and Connecticut, at 12 percent each, and New Hampshire and Vermont, at 5 percent. Only Maine, at 33 percent, had more local seafood available in the markets surveyed than those in Rhode Island.

The findings are the result of a citizen science project called Market Blitz that took place over a two-week period in March. Volunteers visited 45 supermarkets and seafood markets in all six New England states to identify what species were available and where they were captured.

While the percentage of locally caught species available for purchase was low, the total number of species for sale was unexpectedly high. Ninety-one species of fresh or frozen marine life could be bought during the survey period, including 45 species identified as being landed in the New England region and 85 species from outside the region or unidentified. (The overlap is due to some species being caught both locally and beyond the region.)

Again, Rhode Island was above average, with 50 species available at the 12 markets surveyed, far more than the other five states.

Despite the variety of species available, however, Masury said that New Englanders typically don’t eat a diverse diet of local seafood. Oysters, quahogs and lobsters dominate the markets, followed by four other varieties of shellfish. Farmed salmon is the most popular regional finfish, followed by wild flounder and haddock.

“We eat a lot of a few things, and it’s mostly shellfish,” she said. “When people go out to eat at a restaurant or go to a seafood market, they want traditional New England food. Shellfish is what people are demanding.”

Where does the rest of the New England seafood harvest go, if not to New England consumers? All over the globe.

“Two-thirds of the seafood caught in the U.S. is exported elsewhere, some species more so than others,” Masury said. “In Rhode Island, whiting, also called silver hake, is a fairly big fishery, but most people here have never heard of it. It mostly goes to New York and it’s distributed out of the region from there.”

In a report issued by Eating with the Ecosystem in late June, the authors wrote that the low availability of locally caught seafood “may not necessarily imply that the market is dominated by non-regional seafood. Rather, it may be in part because the markets did not bother to indicate — or advertise — that the seafood is from the region.”

The report also noted that many of the study’s results suggest that Maine and Rhode Island are different than the other New England states.

“Seafood is a bigger part of the economy in those states, they depend on fisheries more than other industries, and people who vacation in both areas want local seafood,” Masury said. “So part of the reason why those states had more availability of regional species is because there is more demand for local species.”

And that, she added, is the take home message of the Market Blitz. The region has plenty of room to improve, but consumers will have to demand it.

“For many businesses, it’s an economic decision,” she said. “If they don’t think people are going to buy it, they’re not going to offer it. So the biggest thing we can do is to show there is demand for local species. Buy the local instead of the imported. And if you don’t see local in your market, ask for it.”

The Market Blitz study will be conducted twice a year for the foreseeable future, to build up a database and demonstrate how seafood availability changes over time. In the next phase of the project, interviews will be conducted with fishermen, seafood dealers, processors, chefs, and consumers about the mismatch between what species are available in the ecosystem and what species are available in the marketplace.

“One of the things we talk about all the time with consumers is eating a diversity of local species in proportion to their natural abundance,” Masury said. “Species more abundant in the local area should be a larger part of our diet. We hear that species like dogfish and sea robin are abundant in local waters, for example, but you don’t realize that because that’s not what’s available in the local market. Our goal with the Market Blitz is to quantify what is available.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Endangered sparrow's survival depends on gender equality

Saltmarsh sparrow.

Saltmarsh sparrow.

 

From ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Saltmarsh sparrows continue their struggle to survive. The formerly common bird that lives exclusively in East Coast coastal marshes is predicted to go extinct within the next 50 years, largely because of rising sea levels.

New research by scientists at the University of New Hampshire, however, has found that the birds are advocates of gender equality, a reproductive strategy that may benefit their populations but is probably too little too late to extend their time on Earth.

Female birds of many species, from songbirds and seabirds to parrots and raptors, can control whether they produce male or female offspring, according to UNH assistant professor Adrienne Kovach. It can sometimes be a beneficial strategy from an evolutionary perspective, because environmental circumstances or other factors may favor the success of males over females, or vice versa.

“Evolutionary theory suggests that if the potential benefits of raising one sex over the other vary in relation to environmental or maternal conditions,” Kovach said, “then females should favor the production of that sex. Typically, high-quality sons are more beneficial to mothers because they have the potential to produce far more grandchildren than daughters can, as males can mate many times but females are limited by how many eggs they can produce, incubate and raise to fledging.”

But there is a risk to producing more sons than daughters. Kovach said a male-biased population “may be especially troubling, as females are the ones who produce the eggs and offspring.” In addition, daughters often require fewer resources to reach maturity, and if they survive, they almost always reproduce. Males, on the other hand, can be “competitively inferior” and may not reproduce at all.

“With this in mind, one could logically say that producing daughters represents the safe bet,” said Kovach’s colleague Bri Benvenuti. “You might get a smaller payout in terms of numbers of offspring, but you know you’ll get something.”

The saltmarsh sparrows’ tenuous situation raised interesting questions for the researchers.

“We thought that the saltmarsh sparrow system provided a neat set of circumstances in which females might be expected to manipulate their offspring sex ratios,” Kovach said.

The species’ likely extinction is linked to its preference for nesting in marsh grasses just inches from the ground. The rising sea and increasingly severe storm surge floods their nests and often causes reproductive failure.

Since male offspring are larger and therefore may be more likely to survive a flooding event, Kovach and Benvenuti speculated that female saltmarsh sparrows might intentionally produce more sons. To find out, they collected nesting data from breeding sites in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and analyzed the DNA of chicks to determine the sex of the offspring. They also evaluated whether environmental conditions, maternal health or other factors influence the sex ratio.

The researchers were surprised to find an even sex ratio when averaged across the five years of the study. While they did find a pattern of yearly variation in sex ratio, it always corrected itself the following year.

“Females respond to higher frequencies of one sex by increasing production of the rarer sex, which would have a temporary fitness advantage,” Kovach said. “Our findings overall show support for balanced offspring sex ratios at a population level over time.”

Independent biologists Steve Reinert and Deirdre Robinson study saltmarsh sparrows at Jacob’s Point in Warren, R.I., and even though they captured 32 males and just 20 females last year, they believe the sex ratio of the population is 1-to-1.

“This probably relates to the way the males move in and out of our study site seeking copulations … while the females are nesting and staying put,” Reinert said. “It would be easy to get the wrong idea on sex ratios without intimate knowledge of the population.”

Although the birth of more males may give the species a better chance of survival, given the rising seas, Kovach and Benvenuti think a balanced sex ratio may have even greater benefits. They said that if the sex ratio leans too heavily in one direction or the other, it may not be good for the long-term trajectory of the population.

“If saltmarsh sparrows manipulated their offspring sex ratios in response to environmental conditions, then the consistent environmental changes predicted by rising sea levels could result in skewed population-wide sex ratios, which can be detrimental for declining species and small populations,” Kovach said. “Knowing that saltmarsh sparrow sex ratios will not be biased in response to these future changes is one bit of good news for this species that is already in trouble.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

 

Todd McLeish: Climate change, plastics create rising tide of invasives

Aaron Fabrice found this Rhode Island-based buoy in early October along the Belgian coast.     -- Photo by Diederik D’Hert

Aaron Fabrice found this Rhode Island-based buoy in early October along the Belgian coast. 

-- Photo by Diederik D’Hert

Marine plastic and other debris.

Marine plastic and other debris.

Via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Aaron Fabrice found this Rhode Island-based buoy in early October along the coast of Belgium. 

A large buoy that washed ashore on the coast of Belgium in October — trailing a 10-foot rope that was covered in hundreds of goose barnacles, crabs and shrimp  — has been traced to an offshore lobster boat based in Point Judith, R.I.

The discovery of the buoy and attached marine life illustrates one of many ways that non-native marine life finds its way to distant shores. And one Massachusetts scientist believes it’s a vector for invasive species that will become more and more common as climate change produces increasingly severe storms that will toss sturdy plastic debris into the ocean.

Aaron Fabrice, 20, who describes himself as a beachcomber, citizen scientist, conservationist and nature guide, found the buoy Oct. 8 on a beach in the town of De Panne, on the northwest coast of Belgium. He said the discovery was “like a dream” as he and a friend counted 39 Columbus crabs, native to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, nestled between hundreds of goose barnacles. He claims it is “the largest observed stranding [of Columbus crabs] on the Belgian coast ever.”

Fabrice also found numerous skeleton shrimp on polyps on the barnacles, a species he said is commonly found attached to floating debris.

After collecting samples of the crabs for the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Science, Fabrice posted photos of the buoy to beachcombing and lobstering message boards showing the unique combination of letters and numbers printed on it. Two months later, he learned that it belonged to Rhode Island lobsterman Roy Campanale Jr. of Narragansett, who acknowledged to Fabrice that he lost the buoy off his boat Mister Marco sometime in 2016.

“We did not expect that North American floating objects would wash up on our coast,” wrote Fabrice in an e-mail message. “Normally floating objects from North America wash up in Cornwall, U.K., or Brittany, France. There must have been an Atlantic seawater bubble coming through the channel in the North Sea.”

According to Jim Carlton, an ecologist at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass., who studies marine invasive species, debris from North America shows up on the coast of Europe fairly regularly, and it’s often colonized by a wide variety of marine life. He said that goose barnacles and Columbus crabs are oceanic species that can’t live in the coastal zone, so they are unlikely to become established in Belgium and affect native species.

But, he added, it could be that there were species from North America that were buried within the barnacle-crab community.

Carlton has studied the transoceanic dispersal of marine life in great detail. Last fall he published a paper in the journal Science about the nearly 300 species of Asian marine life he and his colleagues found on debris along the West Coast that they traced to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

He said natural disasters provide a greater opportunity for the dispersal of species across the Pacific than ever before, because of all the plastic objects that make up modern daily life. Before plastic became ubiquitous, most storm-tossed marine debris consisted of wood, vegetation and other biodegradable materials that would disintegrate before they made it across the oceans.

“That got us thinking that the story of ocean rafting has shifted rather remarkably in the last half century,” Carlton said. “The plastic rafts at sea now are very enduring. They’re not degrading and dissolving. Animals can go on a much longer voyage now than they could have historically when they were drifting on a piece of vegetation.”

The implication is quite dramatic. Carlton believes that the tsunami-caused invasion of species from across the Pacific is only a hint of what is to come. As increasingly severe storms — the result of a changing climate — hammer coastlines around the world, more and more marine species will find their way across the oceans on plastic debris, ultimately causing a homogenization of the world’s coastlines.

“Imagine the amount of debris that came off the Caribbean islands during the hurricanes last fall — many hundreds if not thousands of buildings and all of their contents were swept into the ocean,” he said. “The climate models and evidence strongly suggest that we’re going to be entering a world of more of these cyclonic systems, making ocean rafting potentially one of the major new vectors for invasive species.”

Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog. His next book about threatened wildlife, Return of the Sea Otter, will be published March 20.

Todd McLeish: In R.I. monarchs resurging, other butterflies not

"Monarch Butterfly {No. 16} (watercolor,) by Titian Ramsay Peale,    1817, in the show  "Flora/Fauna: The Naturalist Impulse in American Art,'' at  the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Conn.

"Monarch Butterfly {No. 16} (watercolor,) by Titian Ramsay Peale, 1817, in the show "Flora/Fauna: The Naturalist Impulse in American Art,'' at  the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Conn.

Via ecoRI.org

Monarch butterflies have continued their resurgence in Rhode Island this year after a global decline in 2013, but overall populations of butterflies in the state appear to be declining slightly.

“The biggest factor this year was probably the long, wet spring we had,” said Marty Wencek, a biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and an avid butterfly observer for 55 years. “The wet weather can suppress the population when you have a lot of butterflies wintering as pupa and a lot of small caterpillars. Just like the gypsy moths got whacked by the wet weather, it can also affect other species.”

As if to emphasize the point, the first day of a two-day, statewide butterfly survey sponsored by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island was nearly rained out this year, resulting in fewer surveyors spending fewer hours searching for and counting fewer butterflies.

According to Jon Scoones, who coordinated the survey, 1,454 butterflies of 52 species were identified — a similar number of species but half of the individual totals of past years. Yet, there were still several notable highlights. Numbers of the tiny dun skipper, for instance, doubled compared to last year, while the even tinier sachem went from one in 2016 to 105 this year, almost all in Newport County.

Monarchs, which Scoones said “everyone uses as a litmus test,” increased from 29 to 134, mostly in the West Bay  area of Narragansett Bay. Butterfly enthusiasts around the state have posted numerous photos on social media of monarch eggs, caterpillars and adults in recent weeks, many with messages claiming to feel a sense of relief that the butterflies appear to have rebounded.

On the other hand, survey results found the very common cabbage white to have declined from 638 to 243, and the popular pearl crescent dropped from 374 individuals to 78.

Of particular note, Scoones said, is that the number of variegated fritillaries, a southern species found fairly rarely in the state, increased this year, especially in the Big River area.

“I was heartened to see that the variegated fritillaries are coming up here, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or bad,” he said. “It’s nice to know that we’re having more butterflies in our area, but should it even be up here? I’m not sure. It might be here because of climate change.”

That may be the reason for increased sightings of other southern species as well, including zabulon skipper and red-banded hairstreak.

“They don’t really belong here, but everything from the south is trending in our direction,” Wencek said. “Why? Because it’s warmer.”

Some southern species aren’t accustomed to the winter cold of southern New England, however, and they become scarce following severe winters, like occurred in 2013. But others appear able to survive.

“A lot of factors affect butterflies,” Wencek said. “I always point to the wet spring when numbers are down, but I know there’s more to it than that, like habitat loss and pesticide use. Those are major factors, too.”

One thing Wencek and Scoones said that almost anyone can do to boost butterfly populations is to plant native flowers from which the adult insects can sip nectar, and plant the specific host plant that each species requires during its caterpillar stage.

“It definitely works,” Wencek said. “I planted hops, and it brought in question marks. I put in pipevine and we got a pipevine swallowtail laying eggs. You want black swallowtail? Plant parsley.

“These bugs are dependent on the host plant, so if climate change hinders that plant’s ability to thrive, it will hinder the ability of that butterfly to survive.”

While butterfly numbers appear to fluctuate widely from year to year, Wencek has observed a slight decline in overall numbers in recent years. It is especially noticeable with the very common species, which he said are still common but he is noticing fewer of them.

Looking to the future, he said Rhode Islanders should expect to see more and more butterfly species from the South making the Ocean State their summer home.

“Every year starting about now, we start getting exotic southern butterflies that fly north until they die, which is an interesting phenomenon,” he said. “We’ll start seeing more of those in the future. Some years you might not see a ton of them, but expect it to be a more common occurrence.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Gypsy-moth infestation might pollute region's water supplies

A tree's leaves eaten by gypsy-moth caterpillars.

A tree's leaves eaten by gypsy-moth caterpillars.

By TODD McLEISH, for ecoRI News (ecori.org)

Last year’s gypsy-moth  infestation may have  affected water quality in southern New England.

It’s almost gypsy-moth caterpillar season again, a time of tree defoliation, a variety of other environmental impacts, and caterpillar droppings raining down upon us. And now comes the news that last year’s infestation may have also affected water quality in the region and will likely do so again.

Gypsy-moth caterpillars — along with winter moth caterpillars and forest tent caterpillars, but mostly gypsy moths — defoliated about 230,000 acres in tiny Rhode Island last year, according to University of Rhode Island entomologist Heather Faubert, making it the worst defoliation since at least the early 1980s. More than half of the state’s 400,000 forested acres were impacted.

The defoliation also allowed sunlight into areas usually shaded by forest canopy, which local ecologists said allowed sun-loving invasive plants to spread into the forest, denied native birds and small mammals protection from predators, and made it difficult for frogs and salamanders living on the forest floor to remain cool and moist.

Coupled with last year’s drought, it also resulted in what botanist Keith Killingbeck called “a muted display” of fall foliage.

The water-quality implications from the caterpillars, reported last month by URI researcher Kelly Addy at a research conference at Brown University, were a coincidental result of a comparative study of how rainstorms affect stream-water quality in forested, urban and agricultural watersheds. Addy said sensors in Cork Brook, in North Scituate, R.I., picked up a “signature” of gypsy moths that lasted for many months.

“When you lose canopy cover, you have more sunlight hitting the streams, which warms up the water, and warm water cannot hold as much oxygen, so dissolved oxygen levels go down,” she said.

Addy also noted that dissolved-oxygen levels were further suppressed when large quantities of additional carbon — from caterpillar excrement, the caterpillars themselves and leaf fragments — dropped into the water from above.

“All that carbon fuels the organisms living in the water, causing them to flourish,” she said. “Suddenly, you have more biomass of life in the streams, which sounds good, but they are then consuming more oxygen, and dissolved oxygen levels decline even more.”

In Cork Brook, dissolved oxygen was measured at 8 milligrams per liter in summer 2014 and 2015, but just 5 milligrams per liter last summer.

“At that level, you can start getting oxygen distress in sensitive species,” Addy said.

The low levels of dissolved oxygen in Cork Brook remained through at least last fall, when the sensors were removed.

“If gypsy moths are not a big issue this spring, then the water will likely recover,” she said. “But if it happens repeatedly, then the streams won’t bounce back as easily, and each spring it may remain low.”

Unfortunately, gypsy moths are poised for another big year, with one caveat. “How bad it will be will depend somewhat on the weather,” Faubert said.

In years when it’s rainy in May, the moisture abets several fungal diseases that get passed back and forth between gypsy moth caterpillars, causing the population to crash.

“But even if almost all of our gypsy-moth caterpillars die off from the diseases, they don’t die until they’re already large caterpillars, so they will have already eaten a lot of leaves,” she said. “So we’re in for a lot of gypsy-moth damage, regardless of the weather.”

That means the likelihood of many more dead trees, since the botany rule of thumb suggests that three consecutive years of defoliation will usually kill most trees. And even one year of defoliation of spruce or hemlock trees can kill them, Faubert said.

The only good news is that Faubert found fewer winter-moth eggs this spring than in the past two years, so winter moth caterpillars, which typically hatch in early to mid-April and feed on leaves and tree blossoms for about a month, may have a lesser impact on local trees this year than previously expected.

Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: Marine plastic trash imperils beaches and wildlife

By TODD McLEISH, for ecoRI News (ecori.org)

LITTLE COMPTON, R.I.

Geoff Dennis walks the local coastline with his black lab Koda almost daily, and he is disgusted by the quantity of trash that accumulates. So every day he picks up every bit of it he can find, and he records how many of each item he collects. He even saves much of it so he can document the annual accumulation with a photograph. He said the problem seems to be getting worse.

Last year, for instance, he picked up 2,380 plastic bottles, 1,330 mylar balloons and 395 drinking straws.

A quahogger for 30 years, Dennis said he “got a taste for trash” while monitoring piping plovers at Goosewing Beach here for The Nature Conservancy about a decade ago.

“It really bothers me. The first time I walked with the dog, I came back with over 100 mylar balloons,” he said. “If I can start a conversation with people about it, that’s great. But most people just don’t care.”

Dennis estimated that about half of the trash he finds was dropped recently by people using the beaches. The other half drifted in on ocean currents and could have come from anywhere. He sometimes finds items covered in gooseneck barnacles, a species not found locally that Dennis said probably drifted north on the Gulf Stream.

“Over a typical year, the largest volume of stuff I pick up is commercial fishing gear,” he said. “You get huge pieces of netting all over the place, little pieces of green twine, pieces of tires they use on the draggers.”

The problem of marine debris and beach trash is overwhelming. According to the documentary, “A Plastic Ocean,” about 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Much of it is still out there just waiting to be consumed by fish, sea turtles, albatrosses and other marine creatures. The plastic that isn’t consumed by wildlife eventually washes up on a beach.

July Lewis, who coordinates beach cleanups throughout the state for Save The Bay, said there are two aspects to the issue of marine debris: aesthetics and wildlife impacts.

“No one wants to come to a beach that’s covered in trash,” she said. “It makes a difference in how people can enjoy our beaches.”

From a wildlife perspective, however, it can be a life-or-death issue. Sea turtles consume plastic bags and latex balloons that they mistake for jellyfish; whales that feed on large quantities of plankton can’t separate out the microplastics from the edible microorganisms; and bits of plastic get caught in the gills of fish and the stomachs of birds.

“Even if it’s not fatal, it’s a burden on these animals,” Lewis said. “It’s hard to calculate exactly what that burden is and what the mortality may be from it, but it’s increasing because we know that the amount of plastics in our ocean is increasing. Most everything that lives in the ocean has some plastic in them.”

Lewis noted that monofilament fishing line is especially dangerous to marine life, because animals can easily become entangled in it.

“It’s meant to be invisible and unbreakable, so it’s a serious entanglement hazard to marine life,” she said.

Nearly 1,500 pieces of fishing line at least a yard long were picked up on Rhode Island beaches last September as part of the International Coastal Cleanup. In addition, Lewis said the event’s 2,205 volunteers removed about 46,000 cigarette butts, 7,500 plastic bottles, 4,800 glass bottles, 13,000 pieces of plastic, 10,500 food wrappers and 5,700 plastic bags from 65 miles of Ocean State shoreline.

Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, a Middletown-based nonprofit that organizes dozens of beach cleanups on Aquidneck Island annually, said the problem of plastics in the ocean continues to increase.

“By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish,” he said. “That’s a pretty scary statistic.”

In the past 10 years, his group has removed nearly 95,000 pounds of debris from Aquidneck Island beaches.

“We’re still finding debris left on the shoreline from the storm surge of Hurricane Bob and Hurricane Sandy, some of which has been out there for 20 years,” he said.

Clean Ocean Access has adopted a unique technology used at marinas on the West Coast to help address the problem. The group has installed a trash skimmer in Newport Harbor that uses a Dumpster-sized contraption with a motorized pump to suck floating debris — as well as oil and other pollutants — into the container for proper disposal. Between August and December of last year, it collected more than 6,000 pounds of debris. McLaughlin aims to install four more at other marinas around the state next year.

“It’s like watching paint dry,” he said. “It looks like it’s doing nothing, but when you come back eight hours later, it’s collected a lot of stuff.”

With Earth Day approaching, McLaughlin and Lewis encourage Rhode Islanders to join in some of the many local beach cleanups taking place this month. Save The Bay-sponsored cleanups can be found here, or join Clean Ocean Access at a cleanup of the Cliff Walk on April 22 from 10 a.m.-noon.

Clean Ocean Access is also sponsoring a screening of the film “A Plastic Ocean” at the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport on April 26 at 6:30 p.m.

“In the grand scheme of things, picking up someone else’s trash on the beach isn’t changing people’s habits,” Dennis said. “But in my little niche, it’s making a difference."

Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: It's a busy time at the Mystic Aquarium's Seal Rescue Clinic

via ecoRI News (ecori.org)

MYSTIC, Conn.

The Seal Rescue Clinic at Mystic Aquarium is a modest, outdoor, fenced area where seals, sea turtles and other marine animals rescued from nearby beaches are cared for until they are ready to be released back into the wild. And in winter, it’s a busy place.

Last week, swimming in a 12-foot-diameter tank containing 3,200 gallons of water, was a young harbor seal found malnourished on a Long Island beach in December. A few steps away in one of five 700-gallon intensive care tanks was a newly arrived gray seal pup recovered from a beach in Maine, and another gray seal pup — this one stranded on Fisher’s Island, N.Y. — rested in a smaller tank.

Inside an adjacent tent, food and medications were being prepared by staff and interns to ensure that the animals recover as quickly as possible.

“January to April is our busy season for responding to live animals,” said Janelle Schuh, who directs the clinic and the aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. “That’s when we see gray seals pupping off our shoreline and when harp seals and hooded seals are migrating into our area.”

Aquarium staff and about 250 trained volunteers respond to some 150 reports of sick, stranded and dead marine mammals in southern New England and Fisher’s Island, N.Y., annually — about 70 percent of which come from Rhode Island.

When it’s deemed necessary to rescue an animal, it’s herded into a mobile kennel and delivered to the Seal Rescue Clinic for round-the-clock care. When necessary, veterinarians may conduct surgeries and other procedures in the aquarium’s new veterinary hospital, which opened in December.

The clinic also rehabilitates animals recovered by organizations elsewhere in the Northeast that don’t have their own clinics, including a manatee found on Cape Cod last fall that was eventually flown to Florida by the Coast Guard.

Last year was the aquarium’s busiest year for rehabilitating seals. About 30 animals were rescued and brought to Mystic — half of them harbor seal pups recovered in the summer in Maine — and 25 of them were nursed back to health and released at Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown. Most were young seals struggling with malnourishment, dehydration and traumatic wounds such as shark bites. Other animals were suffering from human interactions, such as fishing-gear entanglements or boat-propeller wounds.

How long the animals remain at the aquarium depends on their age and the severity of their malady.

“This time of year, we often turn around a dehydrated harp seal in a month, gray seal pups in two or three months, and days-old harbor seal pups are usually here four or five months,” Schuh said. “They’re sometimes here for over a year if they have bad injuries.”

She said the number of stranded animals isn’t increasing, but it’s unlikely that it will decrease enough to put her out of a job.

“There’s always going to be a need,” she said. “Marine mammal populations are increasing significantly, especially seal populations, and there will always be human interactions as the number of animals increases.”

While few seals have been rescued from disease in recent years, an outbreak of the avian flu virus in harbor seals in 2011 resulted in ongoing research projects that require aquarium staff to collect biological samples from every animal that comes into the clinic.

According to Schuh, one of the benefits of the Animal Rescue Program is the public education that results from the rescue, rehabilitation and release of the animals. The public learns first-hand how their actions, such as the irresponsible disposal of plastics, can affect marine creatures.

Those who observe a seal or other marine mammal or sea turtle on a beach are encouraged to report it to the Mystic Aquarium Animal Rescue Program at 1-800-572-5955, ext. 107. The aquarium advises the public to give the animal plenty of space, don’t touch it, keep pets away, and be observant for obvious signs of injury, general body condition and any identification tags.

“It’s human nature to do what we can to help an animal in need,” Schuh said. “That’s the philosophy we take here. If we see an animal in need, we’re going to help it and take care of it regardless of what’s happening to the population in the wild. In some cases, they’re too far gone to help, but we can still ease their suffering. It’s the least we can do.”

 Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog and is a contributor to ecoRI News..

Todd McLeish: Decline in birth rate of North Atlantic Right Whales raises alarms

North Atlantic Right Whale with calf.

North Atlantic Right Whale with calf.

Just three North Atlantic Right Whales were born this winter, a precipitous decline in the species birth rate that has scientists concerned for the future of one of the rarest whales.

With four Right Whales killed by human causes last year, the birth rate is now below the mortality rate, signaling a population decline from which the animals may have difficulty recovering.

The endangered whales give birth off the coast of Georgia and northern Florida, and the three calves born this winter is the lowest total since 1999. An average of 24 calves were born each year during the 2000s, and the average for the 2010s had been 13.

“We had an increasing trend from 1982 to 2009, when we had a record 39 calves born, but since then it’s been going in the other direction steeply,” said Robert Kenney, a marine-mammal expert at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography who manages the sighting database for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. “I’m more worried about the animals than I was the first time we had a drop in calf numbers in the 1990s.”

The prior decline quickly reversed itself, but Kenney doesn’t see the present decline in birth rate improving any time soon.

“The most obvious reason for the decline is that something has disturbed the predictability of their food supply,” Kenney said. “There’s something about the warming water or the timing of the spring plankton bloom or something else — the food is just not where the whales expect it to be in the abundance and concentrations they expect. They still go to their traditional feeding grounds, but they don’t stay because the food isn’t there.

“They’re spending more time hunting for food, and looking for food is energetically expensive because they have to travel. The more they travel, the more chance they have of running into fishing gear and becoming entangled.”

Fishing-gear entanglement is the leading cause of mortality for Right Whales, followed by ship strikes.

A healthy female Right Whale gives birth every three years, according to Kenney. They are pregnant for a year, they nurse their calf for a year, and they take a year to recover and regain their fat stores so they can become pregnant again.

“But if she can’t get find enough food to put on that fat, she’ll skip a year,” Kenney said. “So that resting period between pregnancies gets longer as they become more and more energy stressed.”

In recent years, female Right Whales have doubled the interval between pregnancies from 3-4 years to 6-7 years, which lowers the species’s overall birth rate.

“Survival and mortality haven’t changed,” Kenney said. “The change in their population trajectory is because of a decline in the birth rate. Not enough babies are being born to replace those that are dying.”

Scientists believe that only about 524 Right Whales are known to exist, up from about 400 a decade ago.

“With the way the climate and oceanography is changing, we don’t know if the population can adapt to it and rebound,” Kenney said. “They’ve adapted multiple times through their history, so they might be able to do so again. But before, they weren’t getting drowned in fishing gear and run over by ships with the same frequency.”

Mortality from ship strikes is no longer increasing, despite significant growth in the shipping industry, thanks to regulations imposed in 2008 requiring ships to decrease their speed to 10 knots in areas where the whales are known to spend time during certain periods of the year. Just one Right Whale per year, on average, is killed by being struck by a ship.

About four or five Right Whales are known to die annually as a result of becoming entangled in fishing gear. However, it’s likely that others die but their carcasses aren’t recovered.

“If a healthy Right Whale is killed by a ship, it floats and is apt to wash up on a beach, so we know about it,” Kenney said. “But when a whale becomes entangled, it often takes a long time to die — they starve to death or eventually succumb to their injuries — so they are much more likely to have lost much of their fat and they sink, and we never know about it.”

Despite fishing regulations aimed at limiting whale entanglements, mortality rates haven’t declined. Four out of every five Right Whales have scars from being entangled at least once.

“There is nothing we can do in the short term about the changes in the ocean affecting the whale’s food supply,” Kenney said. “We can only stand by helpless and watch it happen. Where we can make a difference is on the human mortality side of the equation. We really need to get a handle on entanglements. It’s happening way too frequently.”

Unfortunately, he said, the future looks bleak for Right Whales.

“Given the expectation that changes in the ocean are going to be continuous and are going to get worse, the handwriting could be on the wall,” Kenney said.

Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog. This piece originated in eco RI News (ecori.org)