Leatherback sea turtles gain critical habitat

Published on: July, 06 2011 by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle – Leatherback sea turtles gain critical habitat.

The Obama administration agreed Tuesday to protect an area of Pacific coastal waters by November as critical habitat for the endangered leatherback sea turtle, settling a lawsuit by conservation groups.

Leatherback sea turtle with head above water (Dermochelys coriacea) imageThe National Marine Fisheries Service had settled an earlier suit by proposing in January 2010 to designate 70,600 square miles of waters off California, Oregon and Washington as a refuge for the huge migrating reptiles and the jellyfish they eat. The California zone would extend from Point Vicente in Los Angeles County to Point Arena in Mendocino County.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation advocates accused the government in a lawsuit filed in April of ignoring a January 2011 deadline under the earlier settlement for a final designation of critical habitat. The agency has not said whether it plans to change the proposed boundaries in the plan that is now due by Nov. 15.

“We believe the critical habitat as proposed is inadequate,” said Teri Shore, program director of Turtle Island Restoration Network, another plaintiff in the suit. Although the zone is a step toward preserving the leatherbacks, she said, it should cover a broader area off the California coast where drift gillnet fishing, a threat to the turtles, is now banned from mid-August to mid-November.

The federal agency has also heard from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which urged flexibility in the rules to avoid a potential multibillion-dollar cost of a new water-cooling system for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on the San Luis Obispo County coast.

After the government designates critical habitat for an endangered species, sponsors of all projects affecting the zone must consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and take any needed protective measures.

Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles, growing up to 8 feet long and weighing as much as a ton. They also have the longest migration, 12,000 miles each summer and fall from nesting grounds in Indonesia to the West Coast of the United States.

They were placed on the endangered species list in 1970, but their numbers have continued to fall because of pollution and accidental deaths caused by commercial fishing, according to government reports. Conservation groups said the Pacific population has plunged by more than 95 percent since 1980.

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Saving Egypt’s bountiful marine life

Published on: June, 2 2011 by Mohamed El Hebeishy, Politics – Egypt – Ahram Online Saving Egypt’s bountiful marine life .

Coral reef in the Red Sea imageA local NGO is attempting to spread awareness of the long term damage to the Red Sea’s eco-system before the damage is irreversible.

A divers’ Mecca, the Red Sea is a unique eco-system that generates millions in tourist revenues, but are we doing what it takes to ensure its long-term sustainability?

It is hard to come across an avid diver who doesn’t dream of diving in the Red Sea. Colourful corals, a multitude of different fish species, a number of sunken shipwrecks and a couple of Marine Megafauna make it an underwater Eden.

“Egypt is privileged with its Red Sea, a one-of-a-kind environment that is facing monumental issues. The Red Sea is in danger,” affirmed Amr Ali, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).

A local NGO that focuses on the protection and conservation of the Red Sea environment, HEPCA took off in 1992 when a group of 12 dive operators undertook the mooring system initiative. Boats often use anchors to moor; a method that causes substantial damage to the reef. As an alternative, a buoy-based mooring system was brought to the table. A floating buoy attached to a permanent fixture in the seabed, eliminating the need for anchors. As a first wave, HEPCA installed 100 buoys in different locations along the Egyptian Red Sea coast. Today, HEPCA is taking its mooring knowledge to neighbouring countries.

For years, Egypt has been adapting “the more the merrier” concept when it came to tourism development. The core of the problem is not only in the sheer number of hotels and resorts that now dot the Red Sea coast, but rather in the environmental repercussions that couple the rapid urbanisation.

Take Marsa Alam for example. During the past decade, the small Red Sea town witnessed a tourism boom. Even before all the construction was complete, solid waste was already a prevailing problem ripping through the local environment right, left, and centre.

“Solid waste is an issue to most hotels and resorts. Due to the lack of adequate infrastructure, they often resort to disposing their solid waste in [desert] valleys. Wind blows and everything is back into the sea,” explains Ali. In an attempt to counter this problem, HEPCA launched its Marsa Alam Solid Management Project, an initiative that included collecting solid waste, sorting it and partially recycling some of it while disposing the rest in an environment friendly manner. The project proved successful, and HEPCA recently assumed full responsibility for cleaning up Hurghada, the Red Sea’s most populace city with over 250,000 inhabitants who produce 300 tons of waste on daily basis.

Some of us might mistakenly think that the solid waste problem is restricted to garbage piles around the corner or to rubbish-covered beaches. There is much more to it than just a hygiene issue.

“Plastic bags are a killer in disguise. Sea turtles often mistake them for jelly fish [one of the main components of turtle’s diet]. Once a turtle starts chewing on a plastic bag, it is a matter of time before the turtle is dead,” says Agnese Mancini, a turtle specialist who is in charge of the Red Sea Turtle Project.

In a bid to save the Egyptian Red Sea turtles, the project studies turtles’ behaviour, as well as their feeding and breeding grounds. Hawksbill and Green Turtle are the two main species of sea turtles often found along the Egyptian Red Sea Coast. “Turtles had mostly vanished from the Red Sea Coast’s northern sector, and that is primarily why we are focusing on its southern sector. Here, there is a chance of survival, especially when it comes to different Marine Megafauna,” adds Ali.

Marine Megafauna is an expression that has surfaced recently, even though it traces back to a time when large marine species inhabited the oceans during the Pleistocene age. Today, the term is often used in reference to large, often charismatic, species that depend on seas and oceans for their survival.

The Marine Megafauna list often includes whales, sharks, sting and manta rays, turtles, seals, and even penguins and pelicans. Marine Megafauna often poses as a strong attraction for tourists who happily spends large amount of dollars just to see them, rather than to consume them.

Turtles, dolphins and sharks are the top three Marine Megafauna found in Egypt. And one live turtle, dolphin, or shark is worth much more than a dead one. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in the Far East, and one kilogram of shark fins fetches a couple of hundred dollars; but can we imagine how much a live shark contributes to the local economy?

“The living marine resources of the Red Sea are limited but extremely valuable from the ecological, as well as economical, point of view. Taking the sharks inhabiting the vicinity of Brothers Island as an example, one single shark can generate up to $200,000 a year in tourism revenue. Extrapolating the data on a shark’s average lifespan, which ranges between 20 and 40 years, a live shark can generate somewhere between $4 and 8 million during its lifetime.

On the other hand, a single large shark, as catch, won’t fetch more than a few hundred dollars,” said Prof. Dr.  Mahmoud Hanafy, HEPCA’s chief scientist.

In recent weeks, fishermen were permitted once again into Ras Mohamed National Park, a protected by law eco-system that occupies the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Such a breach of protective measures could have irreversible implications.

“By constructing an over-the-top resort on a beach where turtles nest, or by allowing fishing in a protected area, we will lose the turtles, the different fish species and eventually the tourists,” said HEPCA’s marine biologist Maddalena Fumagalli.

The fishing ban was enforced once again in Ras Mohammed National Park; however, awareness remains a key player in the conservation game.

“Awareness is a very broad word, and we need to tackle it on a multilevel platform, which involves the different layers of the community; from school children to resorts’ GMs, and whatever in between,” says Ali. HEPCA is zealous when it comes to awareness and community involvement; supporting, as well as organising, much of the beach and underwater cleanups that take place along the Egyptian Red Sea coast.

Other tools adapted by HEPCA include awareness nights, where a certain environmental hazard is picked as the topic of discussion. The association also has an environmental school curriculum in the pipeline. The environment-oriented curriculum will pay extra attention to the Red Sea eco-system, and the best practices to safeguard it. It is due to be launched, as a pilot test in Hurghada, sometime in the near future.

Years of improper urban planning, corruption and a due negligence have taken a heavy toll on the Red Sea environment; nonetheless, the game is far from over. There is a lot that can, and will, be done to sustain a long-term tourism industry without devastating the surrounding environment. After all, without the unique Red Sea ecology, we wouldn’t have had those tourist bookings in the first place.

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Marine turtle movements tracked

Published on: June, 23 2011 – Science DailyMarine turtle movements tracked.

Loggerhead sea turtle satellite tracking - sea tag copyright Tony Tucker imageA University of Exeter team has monitored the movements of an entire sub-population of marine turtle for the first time. The study confirms that through satellite tracking we can closely observe the day-to-day lives of marine turtles, accurately predicting their migrations and helping direct conservation efforts.

Writing in the journal Diversity and Distributions, lead author and University of Exeter PhD student Dr Lucy Hawkes (now at Bangor University) describes the migrations of a population of loggerhead turtles in the US Atlantic Ocean over a decade (1998-2008). The findings reveal that, despite travelling thousands of miles every year, they rarely leave the waters of the USA or the continental shelf. This discovery could help the US direct conservation efforts where it is needed most.

Monitoring focused on adult females that nest along the coast from North Carolina to Georgia each summer and showed that they forage in shallow warm waters off most of the United States eastern seaboard. The study also revealed that the turtles which travel as far north to forage as New Jersey have to head south to avoid the cold winter there.

Dr Lucy Hawkes said: “This is the first time, to our knowledge, that anyone has been able to say precisely where and when you would find an entire sub-population of marine turtles. This is incredibly useful for conservation as it tells us exactly where to put our efforts. We knew that satellite tracking was a valuable tool, but this study highlights how powerful it is — without it we would still be guessing where these beautiful but vulnerable creatures live.”

Dr Brendan Godley who led the University of Exeter team has been using satellite tracking to monitor sea turtles since 1997. He said: “By attaching small satellite tracking devices to turtles’ shells, we can accurately monitor their whereabouts. Working with biologists and conservation groups around the world we are starting to build a much clearer picture of the lives of marine turtles, including their migrations, breeding and feeding habits. These findings form a valuable resource for conservation groups, who are concerned with protecting turtles from threats posed by fishing, pollution and climate change.”

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NOAA steps up effort to address sea turtle mortality, seeks public input

Published on: June, 24 2011NOAA steps up effort to address sea turtle mortality, seeks public input.

Shrimp trawler imageAs part of stepped-up efforts to address an increase in sea turtle strandings in the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA announced today it will explore new rules to reduce unintended catch and mortality of sea turtles in the southeastern shrimp fishery.

NOAA has documented an increase in sea turtle strandings in the northern Gulf, particularly throughout the Mississippi Sound area. Between January 1, 2011 and June 17, 2011, 379 sea turtle strandings have been reported along the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coastline. The majority of these strandings, 238 turtles, occurred in Mississippi. NOAA leads the National Stranding Network, and is actively monitoring trends and investigating the cause of the strandings.

Results of the necropsies done to date indicate many of the turtles likely drowned. The exact causes of all of the drownings and any contributing factors have yet to be determined.

NOAA has scheduled a series of public scoping meetings in mid-July in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina, to solicit public comments to assist  the  agency in identifying  issues and options for evaluation in a draft Environmental Impact Statement assessing the environmental impacts of  potential regulatory approaches reduce sea turtle mortality.

Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), required in most shrimp fisheries, are effective at reducing sea turtle drowning when properly installed and maintained. However, one type of gear, shrimp skimmer trawls, is currently allowed to operate without TEDs, and is instead regulated using tow time limits. The focus of this scoping process is to assess options to reduce sea turtle bycatch in the southeastern shrimp fishery.

In other efforts to increase compliance, NOAA’s Fisheries Service gear experts and enforcement personnel have hosted several turtle excluder device workshops throughout the Gulf states to provide information and assistance to fishermen on federal requirements and proper installation of the devices. These experts have conducted numerous courtesy inspections on the docks and at-sea to improve compliance within the Gulf shrimp fishery.

NOAA is also actively working to improve compliance by conducting numerous enforcement patrols throughout the Gulf. “Violations of turtle excluder device requirements are being documented, and warnings and citations issued,” said Alan Risenhoover, acting director of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement. “These actions, combined with increased visibility on the water and outreach on the docks, seem to be resulting in increased compliance.”

The shrimp industry has also directly reached out to its members to provide information about turtle excluder device compliance. The Southern Shrimp Alliance scheduled more than a dozen meetings to inform their members that turtle excluder device compliance is a serious issue, stressing the importance of proper installation and maintenance.

Today’s announcement is another step to address a problem recognized by fishing industry leaders. NOAA scientists and managers will continue to work closely with the fishing community and the states to improve compliance, and enhance use of fishing gear and techniques to prevent sea turtles from being caught in fishing nets.

In responding to the increased number of sea turtle deaths in the Gulf region, NOAA is also assessing potential impacts to sea turtles resulting from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Those injury assessment efforts are ongoing.

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Thousands of Gulf Sea Turtles Killed by Shrimp Trawls

Published on: June, 22 2011 – Susan Cohn Rockfeller, Huff Post Green – Thousands of Gulf Sea Turtles Killed by Shrimp Trawls.

Sea turtle Guantanamo imageImagine that you’re going for a swim in the ocean, when suddenly you’re scooped up by an enormous net that drags you under. Scrambling to find an escape, you realize you’re stuck, and you won’t be able to come up for air. There’s no way out.

This is the reality for many sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, who have been turning up dead in appalling numbers. Last year more than 600 sea turtles were found either dead or injured in the Gulf, which is more than six times the average over the last two decades. And already in 2011, more than 560 have washed up. And since only a miniscule portion of dead or injured sea turtles wash up on shore, the real number of turtles dying is enormous.

I was shocked to learn that while sea turtles have been undoubtedly affected by the massive oil spill last year, there’s another culprit: Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawls. Not all trawls in the Gulf shrimp fishery are required to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which are escape hatches that prevent sea turtles from drowning in trawl nets. Without TEDs, shrimp trawls are essentially sea turtle death traps.

Like you and me, sea turtles are air-breathers; when they get caught in fishing nets they may be unable to come up for air. Each of the six sea turtle species found in U.S. waters is listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, which means that they may go extinct in the foreseeable future.

But did you know that under the Endangered Species Act, the government authorizes fisheries to injure or kill a specific number of sea turtles? That’s right, and more than 98 percent of all sea turtle interactions authorized to U.S. fisheries are given to the shrimp fishery.

The government assumed that TEDs are 97 percent effective and authorized the shrimp fishery to kill 1,451 loggerhead sea turtles. Oceana recently released evidence that so many shrimp trawls are not using the escape hatches properly that the number of loggerheads killed is likely thousands higher.

Loggerhead nesting populations in the U.S. are struggling — and these shrimp trawls aren’t helping.

The solution, as Oceana and other environmental organizations have pointed out, is simple: the government must require TEDs in all trawls, especially shrimp trawls, and enforce these regulations — or else shut down the Gulf shrimp fishery.

Sea turtles have been swimming in the oceans for millions of years, and now these ancient mariners are being unnecessarily pushed toward extinction. It’s time to give sea turtles a breather.

Susan Rockefeller is on the board of directors of Oceana, the international ocean conservation organization.

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