8 Manatees Found Dead, Toxic Algae Suspected as Culprit
An illness that might be linked to toxic algae blooms combined with a record number of boat collisions has taken a toll on Florida's manatee population this summer. Since May, eight dead manatees have been found in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, a waterway that's been fouled with microscopic toxic algae, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Florida manatee cow and calf.Keith Ramos, USFWS
"We are still narrowing down the cause, but the hypothesis is still that the change of vegetation that the manatees are eating makes them susceptible to complications in their guts," Martine de Wit, lead veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said. De Wit said the manatees have been found with little or no seagrass in their stomachs. The animals digestive systems were filled instead with algae commonly known as seaweed. Researchers say the animals succumb to illness so quickly they drown. Videos from residents have documented the manatee's struggle.
The water coming from Lake Okeechobee contains fertilizer, sewage and stormwater, which is flushed into portions of the Indian River, according to the Sentinel. The stretch of the Indian River has been "a killing field" for brown pelicans, bottlenose dolphins, manatees and many species of fish. The microscopic algae has turned waters a greenish, brown color, some spots as thick as guacamole, as previously reported by EcoWatch.
This isn't the only year toxic algae has impacted manatees. More than 150 manatees have died in the past four years, the Sentinel said.
The manatees are also facing an increased threat from recreational boaters. Manatees are being killed by boat strikes at a record pace this summer, Florida Today reported. "As of July 22, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had counted 71 manatees killed by boats, compared with 58 manatees killed by boats by mid-July 2009. In 2009, a record 97 manatees died from boat strikes," the publication said.
An increase in boat traffic on Florida's waterways—because of less expensive fuel, a mild winter and a hot summer—is causing more collisions with manatees, according to Dr. Katie Tripp, the director of science and conservation at Save the Manatee. Tripp argues the increase in manatee boat strikes shouldn't be attributed to a population increase. "We disagree," said Tripp. "We believe that educated, compliant and watchful vessel operators are key."
Though manatees are already facing enough threats, the species might also lose some of their protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Save the Manatee is urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to change the status of manatees from endangered to threatened.
"We firmly believe downlisting without better controlling the escalating threats is premature," said Tripp. The organization is calling for residents to sign Florida's Clean Water Declaration in the effort to reduce pollutants in the state's waterways.
However, Fish and Wildlife Service officials don't appear to be rethinking their plan. Aerial surveys show the manatee population has risen from 1,267 to more than 6,300 in 25 years, according to the agency website. Officials also believe there is no direct link between manatee deaths and blue green algae blooms in the St. Lucie River and estuary in Martin County Florida. A decision on reclassifying manatees could come as early as next year. A change in the status could effect boating speeds in waterways and access to protected areas.
The toxic algae problem is not limited to Florida. Algae blooms that have been occurring in Lake Erie since 2013 returned last week. Sections of Presque Isle State Park are closed because of the harmful algae blooms, the Erie Times News reported.
Jim Grazio, Great Lakes biologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the Erie Times, "Harmful algae blooms are capable of producing toxins that can cause skin irritations, nausea or vomiting in humans, and potentially be fatal to animals."
"Some of the features of climate change, such as warmer ocean temperatures and increased light availability through the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, are making conditions more favorable for phytoplankton growth—both toxic and nontoxic algae—in more regions and farther north," Kathi Lefebvre, a biologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, told the Times.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.