Marine Life & Conservation Blogs
Florida’s latest assault on sea turtles and why the global community should be concerned
Introduced by Jeff Goodman
In this time of dramatic climate change, habitat destruction, over fishing and species loss around the world, one would hope that governments and local authorities would be pro-active in legislation, education and direct action to address all these issues in a positive way. Ashamedly this is all too often not the case. A prime example of this is the plight of the Sea Turtles in Florida as witnessed and reported by Staci-lee Sherwood, Founder & former Director S.T.A.R.S. Sea Turtle Awareness Rescue Stranding , former founding member and staff Sea Turtle Oversight Protection & former staff at Highland Beach statewide morning survey program.
By Staci-lee Sherwood
Florida is THE major nesting habitat for Loggerheads and one of the few places left for Leatherbacks. You would think being home to such endangered species Florida would work to ensure their survival but that’s not the case. In 2008 Richard and Zen Whitecloud were struck by how few hatchlings actually made it to the water because of all the light pollution from the land.
A nighttime rescue program was started in the hopes of saving any hatchlings that crawled toward all the artificial light that drew them like a powerful drug. Sea Turtles hatch and follow the bright sea horizon which for millions of years was the east blanketed by millions of shining stars and the moon. Not anymore, now the west is so illuminated by all the artificial lights the hatchlings think that is home and crawl towards it. They will follow the lights until they end up being run over by cars, fall into a storm drain or die from exhaustion and dehydration. Every morning the beaches throughout the state would be covered with death tracks going everywhere other then the ocean. This was no secret no mystery.
As far back as 1996 Dr Kirt Rusenko, who ran the Sea Turtle program in Boca Raton for over 25 years, stated “The lighting in Broward County is minimally better than it was 20 years ago” referring to the lack of local laws and abysmal enforcement or guidance from the state. “When I began work as Marine Turtle Permit Holder #041 in 1996, I thought the many sea turtle hatchling disorientation reports I sent to FWC would make a difference.” Time has shown that not to be the case. Death by light pollution is a global problem that negatively impacts many species.
The same year I joined this small dedicated group of rescuers I also started to work the morning survey on a state permit. This was the only program that actually had conservation elements to it. It involved recording any crawls and marking all new nests. I did this program everyday for 9 seasons while also doing the night time rescue program almost every night for 11 years. The morning survey was on Highland Beach, a very dark quiet beach where light pollution was kept to a dull roar and disorientation (DO) by hatchlings was a rarity. The hatchling tracks from the nest to the water went almost in a straight line, they did not fan out into a triangle. I saw thousands of nests over the years and it was always the same: straight to the ocean on Highland Beach but the tracks were all over the place in Broward and most of the other state beaches.
According to Sea Turtle Oversight Protection’s (S.T.O.P.) own data they have, to date, rescued approx 250,000 hatchings that would have died from light pollution in the past 10 years. That means they only rescue about 25,000 hatchlings a year or about 10% that disorientate. We know that Broward County has a disorientation rate of about 75% based on 10 years of record keeping while many other counties have an equal or greater light pollution problem. Because there is never anyone out there at night to save the hatchlings or record their death it’s easy to dismiss this and frame it as a local county problem and not a statewide problem. In Broward about 25% of all hatchlings that make it out of the nest actually make it on their own to the water. That means maybe 35-40% of all baby sea turtles make it to the water but only with a rescue and from there they face a toxic soup in polluted waters and a lifelong perilous journey. This was the nightmare I witnessed for 11 years. No other county has anyone out at night, no other Sea Turtle program involves nighttime rescue.
According to state data for 2020 they had a total of 133,493 nests (Loggerhead, Green and Leatherback). At a DO statewide rate of approx 50%, this could mean a loss of approx 6.671.650 hatchlings that could have made it to the water. Once in the water it’s estimated that hatchlings have a 1 in 10,000 chance to make it to adulthood. But first they have to get into the water.
In the modern era that is no longer feasible, even if the agency wanted to assist them there are just too many light sources. At such a low rate of survival it’s not sustainable long term; this species cannot survive by losing so many hatchlings. I have long felt that indoor hatcheries with a controlled temperature is the only chance to prevent or stave off extinction. This would allow hatchlings to emerge without losing millions to light pollution
In a 2020 permit holders meeting conducted by the state, they had a workshop of agencies and NGO’s about the light pollution problem. Not one person from any agency, not one person from any group had ever rescued a disorientated hatchling or been to Broward to see the rescue program, or had any firsthand in-the -field knowledge of the problem. Not one actual rescuer was involved but they should have been.
In utter disbelief to those rescue volunteers, the state decided to pull most of the permits S.T.O.P. had for their volunteers and end the program all together next year. This severe downsize is only for this year as next year rescue programs will cease and the death rate for hatchlings will soar once again. How will the turtles ever be able to hang on ?
In the words of a local resident who has seen first hand the work the rescuers do and understands the need to keep them: “These volunteers are a vital presence in our community; As residents, we urge the individuals responsible for permits to give thoughtful reconsideration of any plan that would reduce or impede the work of these volunteers.. As with these giant sea turtles, the overall impact of this volunteer effort is irreplaceable. Sincerely, Linda Thompson Gonzalez & Mario E. Palazzi.”
Many local residents chimed in that last year they “saw so many tracks in the morning that were going everywhere except the ocean.” It’s clear that these newborn Sea Turtle’s survival is tied to whether or not there is someone out there to pick them up and place them in the water
According to Casey Jones, founder of Sea Turtle Watch in Jacksonville: “It’s definitely going to be heartbreaking to lose hatchlings because of the volunteers not being able to be out there on the beach,” Jones explained. He said the focus needs to be on the bright lights that attract turtles to the land, which he claims, end with almost certain death. Like I said this is a statewide problem.
Many people who witness a Sea Turtle nest hatch for the first time can’t believe the light problem is that bad. Then suddenly a nest hatches and they all scamper in every direction. They suddenly cry out ‘OMG, catch them, hurry where did they go?’ Then they look at all those artificial lights, start counting all those nests and the numbers in their head start churning. Now they actually see how it could never be just a few hundred hatchlings or a rare occurrence but a nightly horror show that never ends.
If you would like to help please contact the following and politely ask they reinstate the rescue permits ASAP:
- Robbin Trindell admin sea turtle programs for Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Robbin.Trindell@myfwc.com 850.922.4330
- Meghan Koperski signs off on all permits for Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Meghan.Koperski@myfwc.com 561.575.5407
For more information about the plight of Florida’s Sea Turtles contact: Richard Whitecloud Director of S.T.O.P. on Whitecloud@seaturtleop.org
Marine Life & Conservation Blogs
Creature Feature: Sharks with Unusual Names
This month we’re talking about some sharks with unusual names. With names that range from the descriptive to the downright strange. Let’s look at three species with weird and wonderful names!
The Tasseled Wobbegong (Eucrossorhinus dasypogon) is a species of carpet shark found in the shallow coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific. This unique shark gets its name from the tassels that hang from its chin and the sides of its head, making it look like it’s wearing a fancy carpet. The scientific name of the Tasseled Wobbegong, Eucrossorhinus dasypogon, comes from the Greek words “eu” meaning good, “krossoi” meaning fringe, “rhinos” meaning nose, and “dasys” meaning hairy, and “pogon” meaning beard, referring to the shark’s characteristic tassels.
The Tasseled Wobbegong has a broad, flattened head and a body that is covered in small, thorn-like projections. These projections, called dermal denticles, are a common feature of shark skin and help to protect the shark from predators and parasites. The Tasseled Wobbegong’s skin is also covered in a unique pattern of dark spots and stripes that allows it to camouflage itself on the reef floor. With their striking appearance and docile nature, they are a favorite of divers and underwater photographers.
Despite their wild appearance, Tasseled Wobbegongs are relatively docile and are known to be tolerant of human divers. They are primarily nocturnal, spending most of their days hiding in crevices and under overhangs on the reef. At night, they venture out to hunt small fish and crustaceans, using their powerful jaws to crush their prey.
Although the Tasseled Wobbegong is not considered to be a threatened species, it is facing increasing pressure from habitat degradation and overfishing. In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Tasseled Wobbegong as a species of “Least Concern” on their Red List, which is a positive sign that the population is currently stable.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Eucrossorhinus dasypogon
MAXIMUM SIZE: 122cm
DIET: Bony fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods
DISTRIBUTION: Found in the waters around southern Australia, including Tasmania and the Bass Strait.
HABITAT: Shallow, coastal waters with rocky or coral reefs, as well as seagrass beds and sandy areas.
This unique species (Pseudocarcharias kamoharai) is a small and slender-bodied shark. Which was only disovered in 1985! The genus name, Pseudocarcharias, means “false shark,”. While the species name, kamoharai, honors the Japanese ichthyologist, Kamohara. The English common name “crocodile shark” is derived from its Japanese name mizuwani (水鰐, literally “water crocodile”), which refers to its sharp teeth and habit of snapping vigorously when taken out of the water.
The Crocodile Shark is named for its distinct crocodile-like appearance, with a long snout and sharp teeth. With a maximum length of 1.2 meters. This species is found in deep ocean waters around the globe, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, typically at depths of 200 to 500 meters. However, it has been known to venture as deep as 1,000 meters.
What makes the Crocodile Shark particularly unusual is its opportunistic feeding behavior. This means that it will eat just about anything it comes across. Including small fish, squid, and even other sharks. The Crocodile Shark uses a unique hunting technique to catch its prey. Its slender body and elongated snout allow it to navigate through tight spaces and ambush unsuspecting prey, making it a formidable predator despite its small size.
Since being discovered, we’ve not uncovered much about this elusive species. Not much is known about the biology and behavior of Crocodile Sharks. They are rarely encountered. And in 2019, the Crocodile Shark was listed as “data deficient” on the IUCN Red List. This means that not enough is known about the species to determine its conservation status. This elusive species’ DNA has been analysed and they are determined to be closely related to the Megamouth Shark or sand sharks (Odontaspididae). Alternative research, analysis based on teeth structure, suggests that the closest relatives of the crocodile shark are the thresher sharks.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pseudocarcharias kamoharai
MAXIMUM SIZE: 1.2m
DIET: Bony fish and cephalopods
DISTRIBUTION: They are found in tropical and warm temperate waters around the world, including off the coasts of Japan, Australia, South Africa, and Brazil.
HABITAT: Deep offshore waters, typically at depths of 200 to 500 meters, but have been known to come up to shallower depths at night to feed.
The Viper Dogfish (Trigonognathus kabeyai) is a species of deep-sea shark found in the North Pacific Ocean. This unique shark gets its name from its distinctive appearance, which resembles that of a viper snake, due to the long, fang-like teeth protruding from its jaws. The scientific name comes from the Greek words “trigonos” meaning triangular, “gnathos” meaning jaw, and “kabeya” in honor of the late Japanese ichthyologist, Toshiji Kabeya, who made significant contributions to the study of deep-sea sharks.
The Viper Dogfish is a relatively small species of shark, growing up to just 40 centimeters in length. Its body is slim and elongated, with a dark brown or black coloration that allows it to blend in seamlessly with its deep-sea environment. They’re typically found at depths of between 365 and 1,200 meters, where they feed on a variety of prey including small fish, squid, and crustaceans. Their long, fang-like teeth allow them to easily catch and hold onto their prey, despite their small size.
Despite being a relatively unknown species, the Viper Dogfish has been listed as a species of “Least Concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Trigonognathus kabeyai
MAXIMUM SIZE: 40cm
DIET: Small fishes and invertebrates
DISTRIBUTION: Northwest and central Pacific: Japan, Taiwan and Hawaiian Islands.
HABITAT: Deep waters, between 250 – 1000m. Possibly oceanic as some have been caught at 150m over water as deep as 1500m.
Banner Image – © Frogfish Photography
Wobbegong – © Andy Murch
Crocodile Shark – © Dianne J. Bray, 2011, Crocodile Shark, Pseudocarcharias kamoharai, in Fishes of Australia, accessed 11 May 2014, http://www.fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/3001 | Wikimedia Commons
Viper Dogfish – © Stephen M Kajiura | Wikimedia Commons
Marine Life & Conservation Blogs
World Wildlife Day: incredible UK sea life in pictures
Today is World Wildlife Day. The Marine Conservation Society have compiled incredible underwater photography from UK seas, showcasing how special our wildlife is.
Seasoned underwater photographers share how they captured amazing scenes of UK wildlife; get inspired to dive in yourself. While the images below show the colourful and curious world under the surface of the UK’s seas, these fragile ecosystems are in urgent need of protection and restoration. Without a healthy ocean, we cannot have a healthy planet.
To learn more about the Marine Conservation Society’s work, and how to get involved with the Seasearch project, please visit the charity’s website: Marine Conservation Society | Home (mcsuk.org)
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