Ocean Impacts: Protecting Our Marine Environment

On June 21, I gave a lecture at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on behalf of Cousteau Divers. The presentation focused on the positive impacts humans can have on the marine environment through the study and protection of marine habitats and species.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is distinct from other aquariums and institutes with captive marine mammals in that it functions entirely as a hospital for the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick or injured marine animals. Any marine animal that is unable to return to the wild remains at the CMA in order to educate visitors on the threats marine animals face in the wild, such as abandoned nets and crab traps, boating collisions, and pollution.

As a marine economist, my main research focus is the socio-economic benefits of marine protected areas, specifically looking at different types of management strategies and how those strategies are reflected in short and long term outcomes.

According to the IUCN, a marine protected area (MPA) is

“Any area of the intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.”

Worldwide, only 1.1% of ocean habitats are protected by MPAs, whereas 12% of terrestrial habitats are protected.

In the United States, marine sanctuary is the common term for marine protected areas designed to “to conserve, protect, and enhance their biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy”. Currently, there are thirteen marine sanctuaries in the United States and one marine national monument. Of these, only two are in the Gulf of Mexico. These two sanctuaries protect approximately 3,390 square miles of sea grass beds, coral reefs, coral-sponge communities, and deep water habitats.

One of these marine sanctuaries is perhaps the most renown – the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. However, my personal favorite is the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. 

Designated in 1992, this sanctuary protects the northernmost coral reefs in the United States from the adverse impacts of fishing, anchoring, and oil exploration and drilling. The sanctuary is home to an incredible array of tropical fish, huge manta rays, sea turtles, the occasional whale shark, and an annual migratory group of Great Hammerheads.

The very thought of pristine coral reefs just 120 miles out of Galveston is surprising and almost unbelievable – a testament to the incredible benefits of the marine sanctuary designation.

 

Despite its protected status, the sanctuary is surrounded by oil rigs and platforms and evidence of illegal fishing gear sometimes appears on the site. There is actually an operational platform within the sanctuary, a relic from the days before it was protected. Just like in West Palm Beach, Lionfish are becoming a growing threat in the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary. During my visit last October, our crew caught three in the sanctuary. There is an ongoing effort and a proposal to expand the sanctuary borders, uniting the three individual banks and incorporating nearby banks with a similar wealth of biodiversity,  and to provide additional protection against anthropogenic threats.

If you are interested in diving the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary, I highly recommend booking a trip with the M/V Fling. Their professional crew and well equipped vessel will ensure a great weekend trip.

Beyond the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary exists an entire network of “islands” of life, connected along the Gulf Stream. Although some of these habitats are deepwater reefs beyond recreational diving limits, they provide important nutrients and plankton that supplement shallower water reefs. The hope is to one day protect all of these banks and create a “network” of marine protected areas throughout the Gulf. This would enhance each habitat’s resilience to adverse events, such as oil spills, and potentially increase biodiversity and abundance of species. In total, these protected areas would only protect 1/5 of 1% of the Gulf of Mexico. Such a small, but significant, area of protection would still allow other human activities to continue while protecting important habitats and ensuring a healthy Gulf.

The proliferation of oil exploration and drilling along the Gulf continental shelf and the socio-economic importance of commercial and recreational fisheries pose the biggest challenge to designating additional marine protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico. However, given that only two sanctuaries exist in our nation’s largest marine ecosystem, whereas five sanctuaries exist along the Pacific coast and three on the Atlantic coast, it is clear that these two sanctuaries are simply not enough for our Gulf coast.

How you can get involved:

The best way to promote the designation of additional marine sanctuaries is through research and public support. Public comment periods provide an opportunity for non-profit organizations, research institutions, industries, and concerned citizens to voice their opinions on management plans for existing or potential marine sanctuaries.

You can also volunteer to help monitor and research existing marine sanctuaries. The concept of marine protected areas is relatively new, compared to that of national parks, and only through research can we better understand the short and long term costs and benefits of such conservation programs.

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Gulf Diving: Bradenton, Florida

Unlike its tropical neighbor, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico is not known as a prime diving site. Most divers shun its unpredictable weather, its poor visibility, and its dead zones. Diving in the Gulf brings to thought images of oil rigs, pollution, algae overgrowth. And it’s true that these environmental threats persist throughout the region, but they have yet to dampen the amazing array of marine biodiversity found throughout its waters.

I have discussed the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary at length in my previous entries, so I would like to highlight some local diving sites that promise adventure and an impressive array of life to those who visit.

Bradenton, Florida

Dive Charter: Blue Water Explorers

Captain Bob Eskew and his crew at Blue Water Explorers should be noted for their professional and safe charter services to over 100 different dive sites out of Sarasota/Bradenton, Florida. I started diving with this charter in November 2011 and have not been disappointed since.

The reefs are primarily artificial, either construction debris or shipwrecks, although a few natural reef patches can be explored as well. Colorful encrusting sponges, sea whips, sea fans, and natural corals decorate the otherwise dull metal and wooden structures.

An array of tropical and subtropical fish live on the site, from small spider crabs to large Goliath groupers. The occasional angelfish quickly darts by, obscured by shadows before the camera can fully capture its presence.

Atlantic Goliath groupers (Epinephelus itajara) are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. These normally timid creatures can grow up to 8′ long and weigh around 400 pounds when mature.

Hidden in the sand, flounders could be found throughout the site. Gulf flounder (Paralichthys albigutta), like the one pictured below, are a popular target for recreational and commercial fishermen, as well as spear divers. There is no current management scheme for flounder, making the species vulnerable to overfishing.

Atlantic Spadefish (Chaetodipterus faber) are another popular target for commercial fishermen. These fish, similar to angelfish in appearance, can be found in schools in shallow waters off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. They can grow to medium to large sizes, making the fish a challenging catch for recreational fishermen. There is no current fishery or management scheme to monitor the status of this species, which could put it at risk to overfishing.

A Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) peeks out from an old tire, likely placed there in the hopes of building more reef. Car tires were falsely believed to be good support for artificial reefs. Due to their lack of weight underwater, and ease of mobility, they fail to provide the firm substrate necessary for successful reef building. Sheepshead are similarly colored to the Spadefish, with silver and black vertical bars and generally a medium-sized fish. Found throughout the Gulf, sheepshead are another popular catch for recreational fishermen.

The presence of commercially and recreationally important fish, endangered Goliath Grouper, and fragile corals and sponges are a testament to the success of this artificial reef, and its importance as a site for robust biodiversity and a thriving marine ecosystem.

General Site Conditions

Dive Site: Old Skyway Bridge

Date: 15 June 2012

Max Depth: 31′

Temperature: 82 F

Visibility: 15′

Dive Site: Three mile artificial reef

Date: 15 June 2012

Max Depth: 34′

Temperature: 82 F

Visibility: 15′

Overall, the conditions at both sites were good. Light winds, relatively flat seas at the surface and no current or surge present at the dive site.

West Palm Beach: Tropical Dives on the Atlantic Coast

I recently journeyed to the other coast of Florida, to experience tropical diving in the Atlantic. The results far surpassed my expectations.

During the short two-day trip, I went on two afternoon dives, two night dives, and two morning dives. Most of the dives were on natural reefs in less than 60 feet of water, although I also explored the deep end of the reef at 80 feet and a collection of artificial reefs, known as the “toy box”.

The amount of biodiversity present was outstanding. The abundance of fish, sea turtles, and invertebrates such as brittle sea stars and long spined black urchins all indicated a healthy marine ecosystem.

However, I also found signs of significant human impacts on the reef. During the night dive, I cut up and collected at least two yards of lime green monofilament fishing line strewn all over the reef. Fishing line can entangle passing fish, sharks, sea turtles, and other species, resulting in strangulation or drowning. This line also poses a threat to divers, who may become inadvertently entangled.

If you find such fishing lines on reefs, it is important that you try to cut it up or collect with, while also taking care not to place yourself or other divers at risk.

Perhaps the biggest threat I found was the abundance of lionfish. Lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles) are an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific, entering the U.S. initially through the aquarium trade. In 1992, it is thought that Hurricane Andrew caused some to escape from an aquarium in Biscayne Bay. Lionfish also make popular aquarium pets for their exotic look, but tend to outgrow their aquariums and behave aggressively towards other fish. Aquarists may have released these unwanted pets into Caribbean and Gulf waters.This species has no natural predators in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, or Tropical Atlantic. Their long, poisonous spines and aggressive personalities have allowed them to invade and take over tropical ecosystems from the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to the Florida Keys and even reaching the tropical Atlantic, as pictured above.

On each of my six dives, I observed at least two or three lion fish, primarily adults although there were some juveniles. The Dive Masters on board were equipped with spears to kill this invasive species, although none were killed during my dives.

In fact, Lion Fish meat is actually said to make a good seafood dish, once the poisonous spines are removed, of course. Next time you’re diving in the area, look into ordering some at a local restaurant or catching them yourself!

Amongst the array of biodiversity, the abundance of endangered sea turtles stood out. Hawksbill, Green, and Loggerhead turtles could be seen on every dive, especially at night!
As I was wandering wayward around the reef, separated from the group, I came upon a perfectly smooth rock. I dropped down beside it, only to discover that the “rock” was a large Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caret). Loggerheads are listed as endangered by the IUCN but are found all over the world. From April to September, the Atlantic coast of Florida becomes a crowded with nesting Loggerhead sea turtles. In fact, over 90% of Loggerhead nesting sites occur in Florida!
This trip marked the first time I had ever seen sea turtles in the wild – it was an incredible experience to swim alongside them. Despite their large size and substantial weight, they glide like gentle giants… perfectly buoyant in the water column.
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Other indicators of a healthy coral reef were also present. Colorful Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) grazed on algae and coral.

Spiny lobsters (Panulirus argus), important reef scavengers, peeked out from their burrows.

Large French Angelfish (Pomacanthus part) and other beautiful reef fish decorated the natural landscape of corals and sponges.

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On the artificial reef, sponges dominated the landscape and macro fauna swam by in a flash. Within the first five minutes of our dive on the sunken barge, a Nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), a Southern stingray (Dasyatis sabina), and a Spotted Eagle Ray (Myliobatis aquila) glided past our small group. The encounter was so brief that the photographs are but faded evidence of the sighting.

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It is unfortunate that such a bounty of marine life and healthy reefs remain unprotected from human impacts. Unlike the marine sanctuaries I have visited, trash and fishing impacts were present throughout these sites – a testament to the growing anthropogenic threats to this area.

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However, it seems that with research and community support, protection for this area as an important sea turtle nesting grounds is possible. Onboard our charter was a local marine biologist studying Hawksbill sea turtles and tracking those that have been tagged. It is possible that certain sponges in the area provide an important food source for these endangered animals, adding to the significance of the site and the urgency to protect it.

I would like to thank Pura Vida Divers for six fantastic dives on beautiful natural and artificial reefs alongside the West Palm Beach coast!

General Site Conditions

Dive Site: Breaker’s Reef

Date: 9 June 2012

Max depth: 62′ on the “shallow” side ; 87′ on the northern “deep” side (patch reef)

Temperature: 77 F

Visibility: 15 – 30′

Dive Site: Toy Box

Date: 10 June 2012

Max Depth: 63′

Temperature: 77F

Visibility: 20 – 30′

Overall, the conditions at both sites were good. Light winds, relatively flat seas at the surface and no surge present at the dive site. Each dive was a drift dive, so there was a decent current traveling throughout the sites.

All Washed Up

As I walked along Caladesi Island, I noticed a strange object washed on shore. At first glance, it appeared to be a or some other pollutant. A closer look, and I picked up the object, immediately realizing it was organic matter. Maybe the heart or organ of some deceased marine mammal?

I moved the object in my hands, feeling and searching for some sign of life. I noticed two flaps on top, and some hard core within the object. I immediately thought that, perhaps, this could be a sea hare. I placed the object in the water and watched in amazement as the “blob” unfurled into a shell-less mollusk and began, like a butterfly, to glide through the water.

I continued on my way down the sand bar, only to find a few more of these strange creatures, all washing up on shore. As I collected and released them back into deeper water, some released a spray of purple ink, as a means of self defense (similar to that utilized by squid or octopus).

The Atlantic Black Sea Hare (Aplysia morio) is a benthic herbivore typically found in tidal and sub tidal zones of tropical waters. Although they may appear to be large “blobs” when stranded, and nothing more than a flying, shell-less slug when placed in water, this species is actually environmentally and scientifically important worldwide.

Like other invertebrates, their sensitivity to environmental conditions, such as the presence of pollutants, make them a useful bio-indicator of a healthy marine environment.

Interestingly, sea hares are an important object of scientific research in the field of neurology, due to the large size of their nerve cells.

Speaking of large sizes, different species of sea hares have been known to grow up to 30 inches (75 cm) in length. Recently, large species of sea hares were found along the shorelines of California.

Next time you’re walking along the beach, be sure to keep an eye out for these strange creatures! Not only are they fascinating to watch, but important to humans and marine ecosystems, so be sure to place any you stranded find back in the water.

Introduction 2012

The interdependence of human society and the ocean is a theme that encompasses global environmental, political, and social interactions. The ocean provides endless direct, and indirect, goods and services that benefit all humanity, from the rich protein of fish to oxygen creation and carbon storage. Yet our false conceptions of the “renewable” water cycle and that there are “always more fish in the sea”, lead us to overfish and pollute our oceans.

A recent graduate from Tulane University, I hold a dual degree in Economics (B.S.) and Political Economy (B.A.)… not your typical degrees for learning how to save the oceans. My research lies in the field of “environmental economics,” where I investigate “true” values for marine conservation. Instead of just looking at the market prices for fish, I asked people how much they value marine life, either as food on their plate or as something they know lives and exists in the ocean. My undergraduate thesis proposed the following question to over 1,000 U.S. citizens nationwide: “what would you be willing to pay for a program that would protect marine biodiversity and habitats in the Gulf of Mexico?” The results? Well… more on this later…

For now, I am working as a summer intern, and as the U.S. Coordinator, for the new Cousteau Divers Headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. I am also training to become a PADI Dive Master. On the weekends, I explore the rich biodiversity and habitats along the coast of Florida through diving. During the week, I spend my hours researching and meeting with other knowledgeable individuals to find ways of promoting the protection of marine life. For starters, I am designing a data collection method that any diver, or snorkeler, could use to record and upload their observations to the Cousteau Divers website. With the help of some students from the Canterbury School, I am sure this will become an educational tool for both the divers and those following the data uploaded to the site.

When the BP Oil Disaster happened in 2010, we had no idea what the long-term effects would be, what the immediate and long-term socio-economic costs would be. While the oil and dispersants are no longer visible, we still don’t have any idea as to what the long-term effects may be. This incident highlights the importance of having an established monitoring system and baseline understanding of marine ecosystems, so that when an accident does occur, we can better understand and respond to the impact.

I hope that divers, snorkelers, and just regular people throughout the Gulf coast and Caribbean will participate in and contribute to the Cousteau Divers program, so that we can better understand the health of our ecosystems and be better empowered to protect and restore them.

This blog serves as a space where I can talk about ongoing projects, and problems, in the Gulf of Mexico. Where I can post photographs and videos of what I find during my underwater adventures this summer. I also hope to turn it into a resource for anyone hoping to make a more positive impact on our oceans.