Sunday, August 31, 2014

Reclassifying Florida manatees: From 'endangered' to 'threatened.'


Reclassifying Florida manatees: From ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’

Fish and Wildlife Service is considering downgrading the species’ status, which could loosen marine regulations
For more than four decades, the iconic, blubbery Florida manatee has been listed as an endangered species, enabling it to survive in protected warm water habitats along busy, heavily populated Florida coasts.
The whiskered marine mammals, which can weigh as much as 3500 lbs., make a home where there are plentiful sea grasses and freshwater from estuaries and slow-moving rivers. That does lead the “sea cows” into conflict with humans, especially via boat collisions. It’s rare to find a manatee that hasn’t been struck, to the point that scars and gouges are commonly used toidentify the survivors.
But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering reclassifying manatees down to "threatened" status, a process that could take at least one year to determine. Protections for endangered species are fixed by law; those for threatened species can be reduced by administrative decision. Although manatees would still remain protected, the move to become merely "threatened" would allow restrictions to be lessened for waterfront development and allow boaters to drive at faster speeds something that could — in theory — lead to more manatee collisions. That has some activists outraged.
“It would be a foolish thing to down-list manatees now,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club. Rose is one of the world’s leading experts on manatees and was the first federal coordinator for manatee recovery in Florida. “I call them the 'tugboat' species because of the political tug of war involving these animals,” he added.
It would be a foolish thing to down-list manatees now. I call them the ‘tugboat’ species because of the political tug of war involvingthese animals.
Pat Rose
Save the Manatee
Wildlife officials disagree about the threat posed by the possible change. “People have misperceptions that we have two lists. It’s one classification. Being endangered or threatened relates to whether a species is moving toward extinction or not. Manatees will remain protected,” said Chuck Underwood, FWS spokesperson.
But in the last few years, manatee mortality has increased dramatically. Last year, scientists were baffled when more than 800 manatees perished in different parts of the state. On the west coast, there were toxin-producing algal blooms known as red tide that settled on sea grasses manatees eat. Scientists speculate that the microscopic algae could be occurring more frequently due to increasing amounts of nutrients from lawns and farmlands being absorbed into the waterways. On the east coast, an unprecedented cover of algae bloomed across 47,000 acres of coastline and smothered sea grasses. Dead manatees, pelicans and dolphins washed up on shore.
Yet at the same time – and over a longer timescale – the species seems to be doing well. Before 2007, manatee populations gained ground so well that in the FWS five-year review, the animals were considered good candidates to be reclassified to threatened status. In 2010, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the minimum known population was 5077, more than twice that of a decade earlier.
“Numbers tell us partially what’s going on. What they don’t tell us is how many manatees total we have out there and how healthy they are. We don’t know if the numbers represent 90 percent or half of the population. We don’t have statistical high confidence,” said Underwood.
Part of that vagueness is how the animals are counted. Flight surveys rely on catching a glimpse of the animals when they bob up for air. The weather conditions must be ideal and water must be transparent to see and count them. Plus, the assessments are only done in winter, when manatees predictably migrate to warm waters near power plants and springs.
Yet, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a libertarian-leaning national law firm, is using the numbers in the five-year review as ammunition to change the manatee’s endangered status. The PLF is representing some well-connected waterfront property owners around King’s Bay, who formed the Save Crystal River (SCR) group in 2011. 
People have misperceptions that we have two lists. It’s one classification. Being endangered or threatened relates to whether a species is moving toward extinction or not. Manatees will remain protected.
Chuck Underwood
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
King’s Bay, which forms the headwaters of the Crystal River, continues to be a critical habitat where manatees migrate each winter. But for boat motorists and local residents, it’s a playground that leads from the river and the bay to the Gulf, as well as a source of both leisure and work activities.
The court fight pits those championing environmental protections against those wanting more human use of the landscape. But in this case, the PLF’s stated goals to protect free enterprise and bring a common-sense approach to environmental regulation have meant attempts to dismantle land-use regulations in what some say are ecologically critical habitats. The SCR has twice before petitioned Florida to remove all manatee protections from the area, and both times they were they were denied. Now it is trying again and the PLF has recently won battles over other species. Last year, the PLF was able to get the formerly endangered wood stork bird reclassified to threatened status.
But as the court fight looms over the manatee, one man thinks he may have an answer for how to protect the animals in their safe zones. And it is a paradoxical one: let boats go faster through their habitat.
Dr. Edmund Gerstein, from Florida Atlantic University, has been testing manatee hearing and said part of the problem is that manatees can’t hear the low frequency sounds made by the propellers of slow-moving boats. He concluded that demanding slower speeds for boats was making things worse because manatees could hear only the propellers sounds of faster boats that produce higher-frequency sounds. This led him to develop an acoustic alarm device that emits high frequency sounds in the water, which he said could be used to warn the animals of boats coming into their path.
Although strikes by fast boats are more likely to result in death than those by slower-moving boats, Gerstein’s conclusions have received enthusiastic support from boating groups – yet not from the FWC.
“The FWC is very resistant to it. They’re waiting for more results,” said Gerstein.
The findings certainly go against the FWC’s own research. In 2007, FWC biologists published a paper that laid out the conceptual basis for why slower boat speeds reduced risks to manatees, and why the FWC and others would continue to use boat speed limits as protective measures.
Given all the debate about manatees – how best to protect them or whether they even need much protection – only one thing seems certain: their reputation as a “tugboat” species remains intact.
“Manatees are like a tugboat pushing and pulling protections for the entire aquatic ecosystem, along with its protections as an endangered species,” said Rose.

Gulf Stream Gold: Mining green energy from Atlantic currents.


Gulf Stream gold: Mining green energy from Atlantic currents

Scientists hopeful for renewable potential from sea turbines, environmentalists concerned about impact on marine life
gulf stream turbine test
A rendition of the experimental test configuration to be deployed to measure effects of turbines on a marine environment. 
gulf stream
Sharks and other fish circle in Atlantic waters.
Stephen Frink / Corbis
The Gulf Stream meanders clockwise from the Gulf of Mexico, past the mid-Atlantic coast toward Europe. It is one of the most powerful currents in the world, and it is full of life.
Many species of pelagic fish, endangered marine turtles and other marine organisms roam the relentless conveyor belt of warm blue water unhindered, flowing beyond the shores of Florida. Their travels were relatively unhindered — until now.
Landbound humanity is hoping to capitalize on the Gulf Stream’s fast-flowing waters, eyeing them as a potential source of endless power and a possible solution to Florida’s energy needs. A pilot project to test a variety of electricity-generating turbines right in the middle of the Gulf Stream has been given the go-ahead in the form of a five-year lease to Florida Atlantic University (FAU). The lease covers 1,000 acres right in the flow of the current.
The environmental upside is obvious. It is believed the Gulf Stream has the potential energy — from a clean and renewable source — to supply Florida with 35 percent of its electrical needs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
However, there is also concern that there might be an ecological downside. According to a detailed report issued last summer by BOEM, the environmental impact would be minimal. But no one wants to take any chances as the global quest for clean energy aims to bring full-scale commercial deployments of devices, turbines and cable-to-shore systems in the ocean. Many believe it still remains uncertain how life in the current will respond if the industry takes off in a big way and suddenly turbines become a common part of the underwater world.
So the FAU project is aimed at finding out exactly how marine life might react, and prove if it is possible to generate power from the ocean current. “Because there is so little known in certain areas, there is a tendency for everybody to protect everything at all costs when the data may say something else,” said Susan Skemp, executive director of FAU’s Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center (SNMREC).
One area of research looks at how schools of fish approach the structures. After all, neither the fish nor the turbine companies want any marine life caught up inside the machines' whirring parts. “It may indicate that the fish are naturally curious, but once they get within a certain distance of an operating system, they may be repelled by it and may move away from it, so that's all part of the research,” Skemp said.
FAU’s project is going to be a serious test bed for a whole new industry. The scheme is trying to bridge the gap from lab to market by encouraging private companies to launch their turbine prototypes from FAU research vessels, which will be moored for weeks at a time, collecting measurements of ocean conditions. Three floating test berths will be connected to buoys anchored to the ocean floor. So far, the center has nondisclosure agreements with over 40 private companies, but “six to 10 have prototypes that are ready for field testing,” said Gabe Alsenas, program manager of SNMREC.
Companies are lining up for offshore testing, which is to take place later this year. That’s when FAU plans to prove that its 5,000-pound turbine will generate electricity. “What is realizable will depend on the systems that are built, and also what environmental regulatory processes we need to have in place,” said Skemp.
guf stream turbine
SNMREC's test turbine.
But environmentally, very little is known about life from the seafloor to the surface. SNMREC hopes that by deploying these single-device prototypes, it will be more able to predict how an array of permanent industrial equipment in the water column would put the ecosystems at risk.
One company that has already signed an agreement with FAU is Minesto, a Swedish firm that has produced electricity from its prototype, called Deep Green. The unit resembles an underwater kite and a turbine that is tethered to the ocean floor. While the current lifts the kite, a rudder is supposed to guide it in a trajectory shaped like a figure 8. A quarter-scale model is currently undergoing sea trials in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland.
“Theirs is a tidal system, and they haven’t done it with ocean currents yet. So they will have to revise the design to make it applicable to this type of system,” said Skemp.
A distinctly different design would use a combination of small turbines encased in a large honeycomb-shaped device made of Kevlar and carbon fiber. Bruce Heafitz, CEO of Ocean Current Energy, said the lightweight turbines would have much lower maintenance costs than their competitors. “We’ll suspend this honeycomb structure from the ocean floor and bring it up to the top, where the current is equivalent to 200-mile-an-hour wind force,” said Heafitz.
But even as the focus is on designing the most efficient turbines — which undoubtedly produce “clean” renewable energy — the emphasis on environmental protection is also key. “Environmental groups really do support what we’re doing in terms of renewable energy, because it’s green and clean. But they are concerned about any ancillary affects to corals, marine species, and we’re trying to alleviate those fears in terms of development,” said Camille Coley, associate director of SNMREC.
Several years ago, when wave energy farm proposals were contemplated in California, the research and tracking of gray whales as they migrated past the San Francisco shoreline helped provide key information.
In Florida’s waters, all 16 populations of marine turtles are on the endangered species list, yet their lives remain mostly a mystery.
Jeanette Wyneken, an FAU marine biologist, is heading up a long-term, systematic study of marine sea turtles to answer basic questions about how these protected animals use the Gulf Stream.
“We need to know what is normal. And it’s complicated, to say the least. These species take 25 years to mature, and we have to look at variations in population over 10 years. Water temperature is a major factor in determining the sex ratio of the population — not only that, but climate and seasonal effects too,” said Wyneken.
Many believe the best approach to avoid negative environmental impacts will be some sort of adaptive management system as described by a 2009 U.S. Department of Energy report. As projects expand from small to commercial-scale developments, repeated evaluations of monitoring results will be crucial.
Skemp, who spent nearly three decades in the aerospace industry before heading SNMREC, said the state of ocean current technology is comparable to where space research was decades ago.
“We’ve got to be able to answer that question: What will be the interactions between the developer’s hardware and the marine ecosystem?" asked Skemp. "We don’t have the answers yet.’’

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Across the county, cities are banning plastic bags to help the environment but in Florida, it's Illegal.



Miami’s plastic vice: Bagging the ban on bag bans

South Florida businesses and environmentalists fight political battle over state rule outlawing plastic bag prohibition

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fate of Endangered Panthers



FINANCIAL  Obstacles

Less than 200 remain as ranchers, conservationists, state and federal officials debate recovery
Until the late 1800s, the endangered panther was a common cat that roamed eight states, from Arkansas to Florida. But ranching, farming and suburban sprawl chewed up the territory and now it leaves only the rarest paw prints in what remains of the last vestiges of its historical homeland in Florida. Biologists estimate top panther populations at 160, but the nocturnal cats are elusive and the projections are mere estimates based on how many cats appear in smaller areas.
And while the iconic feline’s territory shrinks, efforts to increase its numbers now involve state and federal agencies, environmentalists, ranchers, farmers, oil companies, would-be big-box stores, and cold, hard cash.
The heart of panther territory occupies nearly 25,000 acres of public and private lands in southwest Florida — not enough territory for the cats to expand their numbers. Panthers need space: males up to 150 square miles to roam and hunt, females up to 100. A full panther recovery from endangered to healthy populations requires three groups with about 240 cats spread anywhere within its old hunting grounds, and that doesn’t appear to be happening soon.
“Are we close to reaching the first population? I’d say were several years from that,” said Kevin Godsea, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.
Listed as critically endangered since 1973, the recovery of this large, tan nocturnal cat is significant for its status as an umbrella species — in other words, saving the cat also ensures protection for the land and many other species that live in its natural territory.
The panther’s future depends on many factors, but the real issue hinges on whether female cats can be lured to expand their range beyond south-central Florida to establish a breeding population. Wildlife officials want the panthers to rely on rural crossways, or “corridors,” to reach the northern side of the Caloosahatchee River. But for cattle ranchers with livestock in the path of the large, predatory carnivore, keeping the land in its pastoral condition while panthers gobble up cattle is not a sound business plan.
A couple of years ago, Aliese Priddy, a third-generation cattle rancher whose property covers 9,000 acres in the heart of panther territory, noticed some of her prized heritage cattle were missing.
“I used to check on them every day and it was breaking my heart because I couldn’t find them,” she recalled. “They were more like pets to me that I wouldn’t sell.”
Last year, more cattle went missing. Priddy estimates a loss of 6 percent of her herd is due to panther predation. 
“We can’t afford to lose cattle and stay in business,” Priddy said.

Developing concerns

The financial question is a complicated one as ranchers and farmers seek compensation for lost livestock or incentives for keeping their land undeveloped.
For her part, Priddy said she has no plans to shutter her family’s ranching or to subdivide her property, but there are no assurances other large private landholders won’t be tempted.
“My biggest fear is somewhere down the road, the agriculture operations on private land — either cattle ranching or row crops or citrus — may not be profitable for those land owners, so they may need to divest and look for more urbanized development,” said Darrell Land, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and a long-time panther expert. “When agricultural areas start becoming golf courses, Super Targets and Walmarts, then it really becomes a loss for the panther.”
As development opportunities come up, wildlife officials are trying to secure cooperation from large corporate farmers and ranchers to maintain as much of their property in as rural condition as possible for the good of the panthers. 
“We want to find a way to ensure that private agricultural lands stay undeveloped,” Godsea said, “but that means finding financial incentives for famers not to develop their land and cattle ranchers not to give up their lifestyle.”

Further complications

In the past, discussions about compensation centered on how landowners could attain certainty for a level of development while still preserving the condition of the land for panthers. Further complicating the picture now is potential oil exploration.
One of the largest private landholders in Florida is Barron Collier Companies, which has agricultural holdings that span nearly 80,000 acres. The company also owns 800,000 acres of mineral and gas rights, which in recent years has become more attractive to oil companies. As the price of oil began climbing a few years ago, companies started applying for leases for oil exploration in panther territory.
Mickey Gardan of Preserve Our Paradise, a group of residents from the Golden Gate Estates community, protested a proposed site of an oil injection well that would be located near her neighborhood and one mile from Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.  
“If they do that, the operations would require activity 24/7, which would totally intrude on the panther’s nocturnal habits,” she said. “But, more importantly, it could harm our underground water supply.”
But Land, the FWC panther expert and a resident of Golden Gate Estates, said he thinks the panther concern is misplaced. 
“Golden Gate was platted out in the ’60s. If you go in and put in thousands and thousands of roads in panther territory, then that is more damaging than the proposed well drilling site, which may be over 100 acres of already cleared parcel,” Land said. “It doesn’t mean we’re supporting the oil well, we’re saying it’s not a panther issue and that there may be water quality issues that are more important.”
The discussion about whether oil exploration in southwest Florida is safe for panthers and the public remains a matter of debate. For now, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has postponed a decision to permit a Texas oil company, Dan A. Hughes, permission to drill a wastewater disposal well in the area.  It could be up to 90 days before the EPA reviews all the public comments and makes a final decision.
Meanwhile, a compensation plan for public landholders is still in the works but the discussion has been kept quiet. In late January, members of the Florida Panther Recovery Implementation Team (FPRIT) met in closed-door sessions to discuss the future of how to expand the panthers into central Florida. This included representatives from five states, federal officials, Barron Collier Companies, and an environmental group.
A public meeting is scheduled May 22, but so far no one is saying whether funds will be available to compensate private landowners.
Laurie MacDonald, the Florida program director for the conservation lobbying group Defenders of Wildlife and a FPRIT team member, said talks are moving along but there is still a lot of groundwork to cover.
“I heard compensation could come from a new farm bill,” Priddy said, “but it should not be the state of Florida to pay for it.”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Outdated Canals Too Weak for Sea Level Rise

It’s been more than half a century since flood controls structures such as dams and canals were constructed throughout Florida. Now with the chilling impact of sea level rise on the horizon, many of these structures are fragile barriers to keep flood waters and tidal surge safely away.  In this report, we hear how the ocean is slowly seeping past our man-made barriers, below and above ground.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Everglades Guava "Lava" Cake Tradition

Just like the Key lime pie is an iconic dessert from  the Florida Keys, some local southerners claim the guava cake and some form of it - is a mainstay everglades favorite.  The guava’s name, which comes from the Greek, literally translates to mean edible fruit.

But despite its gastronomical attributes, you would be surprised to learn that the common guava, is listed  as an Invasive species…

I traveled to edge of the everglades to see how one town is not likely to condemn this tasty fruit.