Category Archives: Gulf of Mexico

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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Gulf Diving: “The Ledge”

Originally written September 2012

Sometimes, the best things in life are right in front of you. After a summer of diving all over Florida’s coasts, I discovered a hidden gem of a dive site practically right off of the coast of my parents’ home in Palm Harbor, Florida.

Clearwater, Florida

Dive Charter: Tanks-A-Lot Dive Charters

Bent Knife - natural reef ledge out of Clearwater

Hidden an hour or two from a bustling suburban setting lies the “Bent Knife” ledge – one of the few natural reefs I have explored along the greater Tampa area coast. Halimeda algae covered the site, proving that algae can sometimes be an important substrate and habitat in marine ecosystems. Hard and soft corals grew amongst the algae, all supported by a rocky ledge stretching for a good distance. One could travel along the top of the ledge, searching amongst the Halimeda for nudibranchs and tropical fish, and then return alongside the ledge, peering into the nooks and crannies for urchins, anemones, and toadfish. A lucky diver may even find an oddly shaped frogfish or batfish on the site.

Florida Regal Sea Goddess (Hypselodoris edenticulata)

When I descended upon the ledge, I bubbled in excitement at the sight of this royal blue and gold nudibranch, known as a Florida Regal Sea Goddess (Hypselodoris edenticulata). After further exploration, it became apparent that this nudibranch was actually quite abundant on the site. I had never seen one before, so it was amazing to see so many at this site. The dive charter explained that this is a fairly new occurrence. There was a time when nudibranchs were scarce, but, fortunately, they have been making a comeback over the past few years and are now regularly found at the ledge. Perhaps, this speaks to the health of the water. Invertebrates tend to be more susceptible to changes in water quality and temperature. An improvement in such conditions could spur the abundance of delicate nudibranchs.

Anemone and sea worms

The site was also covered in anemones and small sea worms, appearing to be translucent fans. In every small hole in the side of the ledge, one could discern the tentacles of a Warty Sea Anemone (Bunodosoma cavernata). Anemones are a type of cnidarian, which makes them related to corals and jellyfish. They are generally sedentary, staying in one place and using their mouth and tentacles to capture prey and for defense.

Long spined urchin (Diadema antillarum) and Warty Sea Anemone (Bunodosoma cavernata)

Another important invertebrate abundant on the site was long-spined sea urchins (Diadema antillarum). Sea urchins are grazing herbivores that eat algae, thereby preventing it from overgrowing the reef. Their removal of algae creates a patch of space that allows corals and other benthic animals to grow and flourish. In 1983, a mass mortality event of long-spined sea urchins occurred throughout the Caribbean waters. It is believed that this massive die off resulted in algae overgrowth in the coral reefs, further exacerbating the endangered status of hard corals like Staghorn and Elkhorn. The die off was due to a water-borne pathogen, to which the long-spined urchins were extremely susceptible.

Abandoned stove

During my dives in the Keys, I hardly observed any invertebrates, which seemed an odd contrast to the abundance at this site just outside of Clearwater. Perhaps this further speaks to their fragility and susceptibility to coastal run off, human collection activity, diseases, and changes in water temperature. Whereas the dive sites in the Keys were very close to shore and frequently visited, this ledge was much further from the coast and seemed to be hidden from divers and human activities. Except for the occasional stove… which looked to be obviously dumped at the site as either trash or as a failed attempt to create artificial reef habitat as a means to attract fish that would be good for fishing.

Spotted sea hare (Aplysia dactylomela), thank you Capt. Heidi for finding this guy for me!

One of my favorite invertebrates is the sea hare. Previously, I had found a few of these strange sea slugs washed on shore, the Atlantic Sea Hare to be specific. During my second dive on the ledge, I was delighted to see a Spotted Sea Hare (Aplysia dactylomela). Although not a pelagic like the Atlantic Sea Hare, both share common features of appearing rabbit like and inking as a self-defense mechanism when startled or trying to escape a predator (or a diver carrying said Sea Hare to a location where I could then see it).

Spotted batfish (Ogcocephalus pantostictus)

Another bizarre creature happened across my path, the Spotted Batfish (Ogcocephalus pantostictus). These benthic, “legged” fish are especially adapted for life on the bottom. They are distinct from frogfish, another legged benthic fish, in that their body is laterally compressed, giving them a similar appearance and shape to rays.

Toadfish
This site, hidden off the coast of Bradenton, Florida, demonstrates the beauty that lies beneath Florida waters even north of the Keys and the need for further protection of these natural reefs.

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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Gulf Diving: Saint Pete Artificial Reef

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.

Saint Petersburg, Florida

Dive Charter: Blue Water Explorers

During the summer, I visited the Saint Pete Artificial Reef twice with Blue Water Explorers and the Canterbury Venture Crew. The purpose of our trips was to document the different types of species and habitat we observed at the site.

Saint Pete Artificial Reef is an expansive site that includes a handful of military tanks, a barge, and other rubble and pilings. On a good day, divers will encounter goliath grouper and schools of fish. Unfortunately for us, the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debbie was lingering. The entire month after the tropical storm, which stayed in the Saint Petersburg area for several days, visibility throughout the area in dive sites shallower than 40 feet was dramatically reduced.

Despite the challenging conditions, the entire group found an interesting array of life amongst the rubble, the tanks, and even in the sandy areas.

Starfish and black urchins, both a type of echinoderm, covered the site, serving as indicators of a healthy marine environment. Starfish function through an internal hydraulic water vascular system, which aids in movement and capture of prey. However, this system pumps un-filtered water throughout the starfish’s body, making the creature vulnerable to water pollution. Despite their seemingly sedentary state, starfish are actually voracious predators that can have a major impact on the benthic community. They primarily feed on mollusks, using their powerful limbs to force open the shells of clams and oysters.


This large starfish, over a foot in width from the tip of one leg to the other, could be seen moving relatively quickly across the benthic floor. It appears that the bristles extending from each leg assisted in its speedy locomotion. I observed this starfish in two different sites along the Gulf coast of Florida, but have yet to discover its exact species name.

Fragile corals and sea whips decorated the site, adding to the colorful display of sponges and fishes.

The most abundant and curious creatures appeared to be these small hawkfish. Based on their appearance, they seem related to the Redspotted Hawkfish (Amblycirrhitus pinos). Hanging suspended, one finger gently placed on a rock and the other hand gripping my camera, these fish would quickly approach me… sometimes even nipping my finger! Despite their curiosity, their quick movements allowed them to evade most of my photographs.

As I waited, perched on a piece of the wreckage that formed the base of the reef, a Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) swam by, grazing on the benthos covering the site. Sheepshead are a popular target for recreational fishermen, but there is currently no management strategy in place to monitor their population.

Most of the above photographs were taken during our second trip to the Saint Pete Artificial Reef, on July 25. Although visibility was poor, we were able to see a variety of life through a concerted and thoughtful effort to look at the small nooks and crannies of the reef and the edges of the structure.

During our first dive trip to the site, on July 13, visibility was significantly reduced, being a mere two to three weeks after Tropical Storm Debbie. At this time, it was late in the summer, which meant warmer water and subsequent signs of coral bleaching on the hard corals at the site. Compared to the previous photographs, the water in the above image is a darker green. Using my flash due to the lack of light, I created backscatter in the top portion of the photograph, highlighting the density of particles in the water. Warming ocean waters are also associated with increased algae production and growth, which may overgrow sites that lack the grazing herbivores to control it.

Nonetheless, this site still appears relatively healthy, with an abundance of encrusting and other types of sponges covering the site and tropical fish swimming all around.

 General Site Conditions

Trip #1, 13 July 2012

Max depth: 35′

Temperature: 81 F

Visibility: 3 – 5′

Trip #2, 25 July 2012

Max depth: 36′

Temperature: 84 F

Visibility: 5 – 10′

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.

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.