Category Archives: Atlantic Coast

Introduction 2014

The interdependence of human society and the ocean is a theme that encompasses global environmental, political, and social policy and practice. The ocean provides goods and services that benefit all humanity, from the rich protein of fish to biodiversity and carbon storage. Yet our conceptions of the “renewable” water cycle and that there are “always more fish in the sea” lead us to overfish and pollute our oceans. As coastlines worldwide urbanize and increase pressure on our limited marine resources, we will need new and innovative strategies to balance conservation, industrial and commercial activities, and recreational activities in these environments.

I am a PhD Student of Environmental Economics at Duke University, the Nicholas School of the Environment. I just received my Master’s in Environmental Science from the Yale School of Forestry and I hold a B.S. in Economics and B.A. from Tulane – not the typical degrees for environmental conservation.  My research focuses on resource economics, where I investigate sustainable strategies for coastal development and conservation, where conflicting uses of limited resources lie at the intersection of conservation, tourism, and industrial activities.

My recent Master’s research focused on marine mammal conservation and wildlife viewing tourism in Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. As a child, I would visit my grandparents in Buenos Aires every Christmas to enjoy the austral summer. As I grew older, I strove to maintain my Argentine heritage by studying Spanish, cooking traditional foods, and eventually studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It was in the austral spring of 2010 that I discovered a marine paradise on the windy Patagonian coast of the Peninsula Valdes World Heritage site in Argentina. A dry and shrubby land of guanacos and penguins juxtaposed against turquoise ocean waters filled with southern right whales. This Patagonian adventure shifted my undergraduate focus towards environmental management and pushed me to pursue a Master’s degree in Environmental Science (focus: resource economics) at Yale University.

In the summer of 2013, I fulfilled a three year goal to return to Peninsula Valdes and survey tourists on their wildlife viewing preferences and motivations for visiting the site, and the expenditures incurred to realize the trip. With these surveys, I hope to demonstrate the local, national, and international economic and social importance of marine mammal conservation in this region.

In addition to my academic work, I am also a PADI Dive Master and the acting U.S. Coordinator for Cousteau Divers, non-profit aimed at training divers to become citizen scientists and aid in the monitoring of marine ecosystems worldwide. I work with students at the Canterbury School in Saint Petersburg, Florida and trained divers on a special expedition to the Galapagos Islands last year.

This blog is a platform for sharing photographs, tales of adventure, and economic insights to marine conservation issues and fascinating marine ecosystems. In 2012 – 2013, I traveled to the Galapagos Islands, Patagonia, Argentina, and the Gulf of Mexico. In 2014, I hope to document further travels in Patagonia, the Caribbean, and Gulf Coast of the United States. I hope this blog not only shares my stories, but also serves as a resource for anyone aspiring to make a more positive impact on our oceans.

Bottazzi Whale Watch

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Summer Research Summary: Peninsula Valdes, Argentina

Over the summer 2013, I spent three months in Patagonia, Argentina, where I surveyed over 600 tourists on their wildlife viewing preferences, travel plans and expenditures, and motivations for visiting the World Heritage Site.

For a brief summary of my summer (austral winter) research experience and travels in Patagonia, Argentina, please read my latest Sage Magazine article:

Stephanie Stefanski in Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whale by Puerto Madryn

Life by the Sea: Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Almanecer

The sun rises at 8:45 am here. I start a run towards the coast, four blocks away at the end of my street. It’s a quiet ocean, low, gentle rolling waves. Some days it more closely resembles a vast and endless lake. A soft scent of sea air fills the atmosphere. Dogs chase each other on the beach, barking enthusiastically as their owners run along the sandy shore.

Lonco

Here, the dogs are their own masters. They navigate the streets, playing with school children, begging scraps from kind strangers, and following always in my shadow.

Southern Right Whale Breaching by Puerto Madryn

And there, amongst the sheet of blue, the dark shadow of a whale. A poof of spray breaks the horizon as she powerfully exhales. With luck, you may see a much larger flash of white break – the sign of a goliath breaching, soaring towards the sky. And then again. And again. Always in a successful pattern.

Sea Lion by La Muelle

The pier offers some of the best whale watching, as bystanders can watch whales breach right next to it or venture underneath it during high tide. Occasionally, a curious sea lion can be found basking in the sun right below. On this pier, untamed marine wildlife and curious urban dwellers can meet face to face, exaggerating the land-sea interface of this region.

Illegal Fishing Ship

The growing urbanization of Puerto Madryn and nearby cities, however, places pressure on its neighboring marine ecosystems. Further from the coast, large commercial fishing fleets line Argentina’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waiting to illegally plunder her bounty of marine life. Squid, hake, and prawns are three commercially important fisheries in this region, each one sought by Argentine and international fishing fleets. The Argentine navy, challenged by bribery and the vast expanse of the EEZ zone, is responsible for the prevention of illegal and unregulated fishing. During my visit, the navy hauled in Spanish and Chinese fishing ships caught illegally fishing in Argentine waters. Both sat on the pier for weeks until their respective governments paid millions of dollars in fines to release their crew and return their ships.

Puerto Madryn

I continue my run along the coast, passing dive shops, other runners, and various cafes. Statues commemorate the arrival of the first explorers – Welsh settlers – among other things. Tributes to the bounty of marine mammals that live here cover the town –wall murals, gift shops, and endless entrances to tour companies offering exciting excursions.

Peninsula Valdes is home to southern right whales, South American sea lions, Southern elephant seals, Magellanic penguins, and dusky dolphins, the list goes on. Once almost hunted to extinction, the southern right whale is now a national monument. Even the locals, who watch as these whales arrive each year in early June and depart by December, stop and stare in awe as a whale ventures close to shore, splashing in the surf and raising its tail to the skies. Here the sense of wonder for nature persists, a sentiment too seldom lost, or too obscured, by the consumerism of North America.

Playa

I arrive towards the center of town, passing by the tourism office and shopping mall, and begin my walk onto the pier. Here, local boys and older men come to fish recreationally. A few government vessels and a local cruise ship dock at the pier. Occasionally, a whale passes by. I can see lines of sail boats on the other side of the pier, taking advantage of the mountain winds that sweep through Puerto Madryn. I pull my jacket closer and approach the end of the pier.

I hear a powerful exhalation – a spray of water through the space of time. I turn and see two whales nearby. Others on the pier have turned to look too. We all stop, frozen in the same moment, caught by the same sound. She spy hops, looking back at us. The callosities adorning her head and mouth set her apart from others. Each has their own unique pattern of these whale lice and flesh configurations.

Ballena Franca Austral

I turn around. Time to work. I grab my surveys and my computer, packing a bag for a trek in the other direction. With the city center to my back, I walk a good half-hour along the coast to CENPAT, the regional research institute. I spend half of my walk with my head turned left towards the sea – eyes straining for a glimpse of a whale. They seem to appear less frequently on this side of town, but still I manage to see a quick flash of black as one passes through.

I start my work in a cubicle, greeting the other student researchers in the room. I am but one economist among a center of biologists, but all are curious of my work, and more than happy to help in any way.

Puesta del Sol

As the skies darken around 5pm, I pack my bags and begin the trek home. By 6pm, the sun has set and my nine hours of daylight have ended. Sometimes, I walk through town, finding a café to sit in and watch as people pass by. At this moment, the town is quiet, filled with more locals than wandering travelers and visiting families. The shop owners stand bored behind their counters; today there are no tourists to buy souvenirs. Still a month remains before national vacationers and international tourists arrive. I too wait for this day to start my surveys.

Casita

In my apartment, I can hear the gentle patter of rain against the roof. The sound is calming; it fills the empty space of this small house. I play some music and experiment with cooking pasta in a kettle, as my skeleton kitchen lacks most cooking tools. Without the luxury of Internet, I sit here and write, sketch a drawing, revise my survey, read a book, watch a television show. Simple distractions to pass the time until sunrise.

Big Fish: Goliath Grouper Conservation

The Goliath Grouper, a large fish (sometimes up to 4′ in length!) is the subject of an endangered species debate in the Gulf Coast of Florida. A popular attraction for scuba divers, spear divers and fishermen complain that the population growth of these fish are putting their catches at risk.

The Goliath Grouper has been listed as Endangered by the United States since the early 1990s, which is relatively recent. Experts argue that there is simply not enough data on Goliath Grouper populations to understand if the population is recovered, and if there are enough to start hunting.

This begs the question: should Goliath Groupers be delisted as endangered species?

Which should matter more, conservation priorities or economic considerations for fishing catches?

And what about the economic impact of scuba diving tourism centered on the presence of these creatures in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean?

To explore these questions, check out the blog entry I wrote for Calypso Divers, an excellent PADI dive shop and training center located in Tampa, FL

Calypso Divers

This article was written and submitted by Stephanie Stefanski.  Please check out her blog on marine conservation.

Epinephelus malabaricus I never thought a fish could be charismatic. Unique, beautiful, strange, awe-inspiring are certainly words I have used to describe fish, but charismatic? Usually such a term is reserved for the most noble, or heart-warming of creatures, such as gray wolves, bald eagles, the giant panda, and humpback whales. However, in light of recent controversy over the endangered status of the Atlantic goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara), it is clear that this often-gentle giant has won the title of “charismatic megafauna”.  Charismatic animals are the symbol of conservation campaigns targeted to inspire public concern for the protection of these species, and, more importantly, the entire ecosystem they call home.

In the ocean, these symbols of conservation tend to be whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. Alluring photographs of colorful coral reefs filled with…

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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.