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Seagrass Comeback Bolsters Climate Change Battle
29 April 2016, WVTF (USA)
There’s good news on the environmental front today. Aerial surveys show a 21% increase in sea grasses – plants that store carbon and other greenhouse gases while making the Chesapeake Bay a cleaner place. Sandy Hausman reports that Virginia is becoming a model for other countries hoping to fight climate change.
For a decade, volunteers working with the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and the University of Virginia have been gathering seeds from sea grass – sowing them across a wide expanse off the Eastern Shore. Professor Karen McGlathery says that area was once rich in underwater meadows, but they were wiped out by disease and storms in the 1930’s.
“A third of all the world’s seagrass meadows have been lost," she says. "That released carbon back into the atmosphere, so through restoration we’re trying to reverse this trend. We create these habitats and then carbon gets stored back again for decades to centuries.”
Sea grass meadows store twice as much carbon as forests, and they come back much more quickly. They’re also home to growing populations of blue crabs and scallops.
“The scallops are important for local markets," Mcglathery explains. "There's an increases in biodiversity, in water quality for the region, so there’s a whole host of benefits.”
McGlathery and UVA student Mathew Oreska have been working on a model that could lead to carbon credits for companies that grow underwater meadows, and several countries have contacted Virginia to learn more about the restoration project.
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Lagoon water quality rebounds since algae annihilation
The Indian River Lagoon still glows green, but water quality tests show light at the end of the "brown tide," at least for now.
Biologists report improving conditions since brown tide algae annihilated thousands of fish in March, mostly in the Banana River near Merritt Island and Cocoa Beach.
Long-term averages of water quality can deceive, scientists say. It is the short-term spikes in cloudiness, the blunt drops in dissolved oxygen and other sudden shifts that can kill.
But to provide some basic benchmarks for the lagoon's evolving condition, FLORIDA TODAY has rekindled a monthly water quality map the paper published a decade ago. The map, originally developed by the nonprofit Marine Resources Council, at the time included 17 sites along the lagoon, from Scottsmoor to Sebastian. MRC no longer tests all those sites, due to lack of funding. So for now, FLORIDA TODAY will examine similar water quality parameters using five continuous water quality monitors maintained by the St. Johns River Water Management District.
FLORIDA TODAY will examine the past 30 days of data each month, using a similar grading system developed by MRC and with input from environmental scientists.
Biologists warn that much of the more recent water monitoring data is "provisional" and has yet to go through quality assurances, so outliers should be viewed with caution, but they also vouch for the five monitor's accuracy since being installed two years ago.
That said, the past month of data shows a lagoon on the mend, going into the season in which seagrasses, as well as algae, prosper. Rain and temperature will drive whether salt levels, pH, dissolved oxygen and other key factors for sea life stay within healthy ranges or trigger another fish-kill catastrophe this spring or summer.
"The fishing has improved on the Indian River, although the water is very cloudy," said Pete Wallace, of Capt. Pete's Lagoon Adventures, a nature and fishing tours, Merritt Island. "On the Banana River side, things are terrible."
That's where thousands of fish began floating up dead in mid March, when a brown tide algae bloom crashed, and its rot choked out fish after almost all of the dissolved oxygen in the water was consumed by bacteria decomposing dead algae.
Preliminary data from the five lagoon monitors shows mostly healthy levels of dissolved oxygen, salinity, pH and overall cloudiness over the past month.
But in the days surrounding the mid March fish kill, dissolved oxygen dipped near zero, suffocating thousands of fish. Dissolved oxygen is among the most vital indicators of good water quality, essential for fish and other marine life. Fish need at least 2 milligrams per liter of dissolved oxygen in the water. Below that, they begin to suffocate.
Cooler water holds more oxygen, so as summer approaches, hot days increase risk of depleting dissolved oxygen in the lagoon.
Salt concentrations also have been healthy levels for fish over the past month, the five monitors show.
But heavy summer rains could dangerously dilute salt levels and carry excess nitrogen and phosphorus from land, via canals and ditches, to fuel future algae blooms.
"Rain drives inputs," said Charles Jacoby, a senior scientist for the St. Johns River Water Management District.
The turbidity, or "cloudiness" of water, measures the degree to which muck, algae or other particles suspected in the water scatter light, blocking sunlight seagrass needs to photosynthesize.
The monitor just south of Haulover Canal showed turbidity in the southern Mosquito Lagoon at levels high enough to block light to most seagrass. But the 30-day averages of the maximum turbidity levels have otherwise been in good ranges for seagrass, data from all five monitors shows.
Biologists on the water also report a cleaner looking lagoon than what they saw a month ago.
Ed Phlips, professor of algal physiology and ecology at the University of Florida, sampled the lagoon April 16. The water was much clearer near Melbourne, but brown waters lingered near Cocoa, Titusville, southern Mosquito Lagoon and Merritt Island — the epicenter of the fish kill.
"It looked like the concentrations of algae were still quite high," Phlips said of water he sampled near Max Brewer Causeway.
But overall, brown tide algae levels had dropped to thousands of cells per milliliter — a teaspoons is about 5 milliliters — from the millions of algae cells per milliliter biologists found during the peak of the algae bloom.
The best news this week was improved visibility, biologists said. For months, scientists snorkeling in the lagoon couldn't even see the seagrass beds to measure their extent. Seagrass needs light to grow. When stirred up muck, algae blooms or other particles block light, the bottom grass dies.
When light can't penetrate more than about 2.5 feet, seagrass can't thrive in deeper waters.
While light could only penetrate barely a foot deep during the brown tide algae's peak, more recently water clarity has allowed light penetration of more than 5 feet, ideal for seagrass.
How the lagoon fares in coming months will depend upon light availability, temperature, and how much rain hits the region.
For now, the data hint at cautious optimism.
"We're not 100 percent out of the woods yet," Jacoby said.
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St. Pete's $20 million gamble: Growing sea grass for money
It's good to be green, especially if it makes the city millions in cash.
That's the appeal — and the challenge — of an ambitious environmental project to restore dozens of acres of seagrass just off North Shore Park. The program is not just intended to protect the area from future degradation, but also to sell credits to developers who are destroying seagrass elsewhere.
The concept of a "mitigation bank" has been around for decades. It has hung on despite a track record of failure, especially when it comes to seagrass.
But city officials, led by council member Jim Kennedy, think St. Petersburg has picked the right area and plan to successfully restore seagrass in an 18-foot deep dredge hole dug to create North Shore Park and its beach.
The city was given rights to the submerged lands off its waterfront a century ago by the state. In November, voters approved a change to the city's charter giving the City Council the power to pass protective ordinances after a public hearing but without holding a referendum.
In fact, the city could reap up to $20 million from selling mitigation credits, which would likely be priced between $500,000 and $675,000 each. Some of the money would be used to preserve more than 300 acres of existing seagrass, plus the restored sections (a smaller patch by the mouth of Coffee Pot Bayou also is planned).
This week, the city picked Tampa Bay Watch, a Tierra Verde nonprofit, to complete the project. The group said it could do the job for $482,550.
The city will now negotiate a contract and hopes to bring a plan to the City Council for approval at its May 19 meeting, said assistant city attorney Michael Dema, a former environmental consultant who has helped spearhead the project.
The council will be asked to approve around $500,000 in BP settlement money, which council members have been reluctant to spend on Mayor Rick Kriseman's initiatives. The bike share program, for example, languished for months before the council approved spending $250,000 in BP money — a quarter of what Kriseman proposed — last month.
And there is a catch.
For the city to collect the cash, it has to grow the seagrass. And that's not an easy task, said Margaret "Penny" Hall, the top seagrass expert at the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Hall has studied the success rates of mitigation permits for seagrass. She found that attempts to grow seagrass where it hadn't previously been present usually failed.
The good news is the city, in restoring a seagrass meadow previously damaged by dredging, has a better chance than most at restoring seagrass.
"The ones that have been most successful are dredge holes in existing seagrass meadows. If you can fill that hole to the right elevation, it's among your best bets," Hall said.
Still, restoring seagrass is always tricky, said Hall.
Tampa Bay Watch estimates it will take up to a decade to fully restore the damaged areas. Seagrass provides habitat for snook, redfish and trout, plus stone and blue crabs, and, of course, manatees that feed on the grass, said Peter Clark, the organization's president.
The group will work with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the project. The corps would provide material from its maintenance dredging program to fill the dredge hole. Restrictions on boating would be created to help preserve the grass, which grows in shallow water.
Some of the credits could be sold as soon as the boater zone is in place, Clark said, and others will be sold as the seagrass is replanted and takes hold.
"It's the perfect location to do this," Clark said.
And there is a teachable moment. By linking up with the city's new Pier project, Tampa Bay Watch could ferry schoolchildren and eco-tourists from the Pier to the seagrass beds for opportunities to study local fisheries, take basic water quality measurements and snorkel through the seagrass beds.
A partnership with a local non-profit appealed to all three members of the city's selection committee. Tampa Bay Watch's proposal won out over four competitors, in part, because of its local knowledge and use of volunteers in environmental projects.
The sale of credits will help fund the education component on the Pier, Kennedy said, but its real value is a green twofer: environmental restoration and a cash infusion.
"Tampa Bay will be much healthier," Kennedy said. "And the city will receive tens of millions of dollars."
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BECQ fines Best Sunshine for repeated violations
THE Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality on Thursday imposed a $40,000 fine on Imperial Pacific International/Best Sunshine International for the repeated discharge of wastewater into the lagoon from the construction site of the Grand Mariana in Garapan.
Variety learned that BECQ had earlier fined Imperial Pacific twice for the same violation.
In the order of correction and fine, BECQ-Division of Coastal Resource Management Director Fran Castro said Imperial Pacific/Best Sunshine International “has violated the conditions of the CRM permit.”
These violations, Castro’s order stated, involved the repeated occurrence of wastewater discharge into the Garapan lagoon and reef without a permit. The order stated that there was damage to the sea grass bed and lagoon habitat as a result of the discharge.
For such violation, CRM directed Imperial Pacific to pay a fine in the amount of $40,000. The payment is to be made by check to the Department of Finance within 30 days of receipt of the notice. Castro also ordered that a copy of payment receipt be provided to the CRM office.
According to CRM, on Feb. 19, Imperial Pacific was warned about the wastewater discharge that was having a negative environmental impact. The warning also specified repairs that needed to be made to prevent future wastewater discharge.
But CRM said the repairs were not made.
On March 7, 2016, CRM was informed by a concerned citizen that the wastewater discharge was still occuring at the site. Pictures were submitted to CRM.
On March 10, 2016 CRM Chief Enforcement Officer Richard Brooks visited the area and confirmed the concerned citizen’s report. He observed the wastewater discharge around 8:40 p.m.
The night after Castro’s meeting with HHCG Building and Civil Engineering Assistant Project Director Alan Tam to discuss the violations on April 8, 2016, Brooks noted at 9:45 p.m. “indications of additional wastewater being discharged from the southwest corner of the project site with signs of substantial erosion damage to the shoreline and damage to the sea grass bed at the point the wastewater was entering the lagoon.”
CRM said Imperial Pacific may object and seek an enforcement hearing by submitting a written response notice within 30 days of service of the order.
BECQ earlier fined Imperial Pacific $25,000 for the same violation, along with poor maintenance of the temporary erosion control silt fence, the excavation of an unpermitted trench under the fence line as a discharge point and the presence of ponding outside the fence line.
In his April 20, 2016 cease-and-desist order, BECCQ Administrator Frank Rabauliman ordered Imperial Pacific to pay a fine of $25,000 for those violations.
On April 12, 2016, CRM’s Castro told Imperial Pacific to pay a fine of $30,000 for violating her April 8, 2016 order that reduced the work hours at the construction site.
On April 9, 2016, the day after Castro informed Imperial Pacific that the hours of operations were to be limited to between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday, CRM enforcement staffers observed at 7 p.m. construction activity at the job site.
This happened again on April 10 and 11, 2016, according to CRM enforcement staff who saw continuing construction past 9 p.m.
“These are flagrant violations of the work-hour stipulation in the major siting permit as clearly outlined in the letter suspending work outside the hours indicated within the permit,” Castro said.
“Imperial Pacific had been warned [before] that continued violations would result in restricted work hours. Work being completed outside the hours specified in the CRM major siting permit would be a violation of the permit,” she added.
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“This unprecedented event has now happened twice”: Huge seagrass die-off hits Everglades
The shallow coastal waters of Florida Bay are famed for their crystal clear views of thick green seagrass – part of the largest stretch of these grasses in the world.
But since mid-2015, a massive 40,000-acre die off here has clouded waters and at times coated shores with floating dead grasses. The event, which has coincided with occasional fish kills, recalls a prior die-off from 1987 through the early 1990s, which spurred major momentum for the still incomplete task of Everglades restoration.
“It actually started faster as far as we can tell this year,” said James Fourqurean, a Florida International University marine scientist who studies the system. “In the ’80s, it continued to get worse for 3 years.”
Fourqurean and government Everglades experts fear they’re witnessing a serious environmental breakdown, one that gravely threatens one of North America’s most fragile and unusual wild places. When most people think of the Everglades, they envision swamps — but seagrass is just as important, if less romanticized.
Besides being the home to majestic sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees, Florida Bay also hosts pink shrimp, spiny lobsters, spotted seatrout, and much more – sport fishing alone here is worth $ 1.2 billion per year, according to the Everglades Foundation.
And although there is at least some scientific dissent, Fourqurean and fellow scientists think they know the cause of the die-off. It’s just the latest manifestation, they say, of the core problem that has bedeviled this system for many decades: Construction of homes, roads, and cities has choked off the flow of fresh water. Without fast moves to make the park far more resilient to climate change and rising, salty seas, the problem will steadily worsen.
The Everglades ecosystem “being out of balance at a time of climate change is really going to have a huge impact on South Florida, if we don’t do something about it,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who surveyed the seagrass die-off last week during an Everglades Trip.
Holding dead grasses in her hand in a National Park Service boat in the more than half-a-million-acre estuary, Jewell told a group of staff and reporters, “This is what we get when we don’t take care of Florida Bay.”
Florida Bay encompasses roughly one-third of Everglades National Park. And like the park’s mangroves and sawgrass prairies, it relies on the same broad water system. Both need fresh water to flow southward from Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, and the central part of the state, to preserve their unique characteristics. And both have suffered from highway and water management projects that have blocked or diverted much of this water away.
“It’s basically a permanent manmade drought, created by the drainage and development patterns to the north in the Everglades,” said Robert Johnson, director of the National Park Service’s South Florida Natural Resources Center, on the boat trip with Jewell.
The seagrass die off, according to Johnson, was caused when this perennial problem was further exacerbated by a 2014-2015 South Florida drought.
Flows through Shark River Slough, which feeds water to the Everglades and eventually Florida Bay, plunged to just 200,000 acre-feet in 2015. That’s just a quarter of standard annual flows, which themselves are less than half of historic flows of 2 million acre-feet per year before major projects blocked and redirected the Everglades’ water.
The center of the bay then heated up last summer, saw considerable evaporation, and became quite salty – for some parts of the bay, twice as salty as normal sea water.
“It’s a really delicate balance between how much freshwater comes in each year, how much rainfall falls, and then how much evaporation occurs,” Johnson said. “In the absence of rainfall, salinity takes off in the bay, and we get a lot of harmful impacts of that.”
In very salty conditions, waters hold little of the oxygen that seagrasses need to live. At the same time, other marine organisms turn to a different “anoxic” process – one that goes forward without oxygen – that has a nasty by-product: hydrogen sulfide.
The chemical “is a notorious toxin,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “It kills life, including human.”
And that’s just the beginning. Once the seagrass dies off, it becomes a feedback – the water becomes filled with dead grasses that release nutrients, and those can stoke huge algal blooms (which happened the last time around, but so far have not appeared en masse). That clouds the water and prevents light from reaching remaining seagrasses, which then also die, because they need the light for photosynthesis.
“You have this water that’s notoriously gin clear water, because the seagrasses and the biology kept the light penetrating, and then all of a sudden it changes pretty dramatically to a system without grass, and very turbid waters,” Boesch said.
Granted, there are some dissenters. Brian LaPointe, a researcher with Florida Atlantic University, contends that Florida Bay seagrass die-offs are caused by the runoff of too many nutrients, like nitrogen, into the Bay’s waters, which in turn stoke algal blooms. “There really isn’t a correlation over time of high salinity and problems in the Bay,” LaPointe said.
Seagrasses, he said, “can handle pretty high salinities.” During the last dieoff, a large scientific debate erupted over whether changes in salinity were indeed the cause.
But Boesch, who led a scientific review of the last die-off during the Clinton administration (which failed to reach a conclusion at the time), said that the high-salinity explanation “has now become kind of the mainstream scientific explanation,” although that now encompasses other related processes involving oxygen content of waters and buildup of hydrogen sulfide.
It’s not just Florida Bay: Seagrasses the world over are threatened. In a 2009 study, scientists found that segrass extent had declined globally by 29 percent since the late 19th century. They concluded that seagrasses were just as threatened as their companion coastal ecosystem, coral reefs, though the latter tend to get far more attention.
The Obama administration, in collaboration with Florida state agencies and local leaders, has been moving lately to simultaneously restore historic Everglades water flows and to try to safeguard the park against climate change.
President Obama visited last year, telling his audience that “You do not have time to deny the effects of climate change…nowhere will it have a bigger impact than here in South Florida.”
And this year Jewell visited the Everglades on Earth Day to announce a $ 144 million “bridging” project that will elevate 2.5 miles of Highway 41, more popularly known as the Tamiami Trail, which connects Miami to Tampa and runs through the Everglades. Constructed in the 1920s, the highway impairs water flow southward, from Lake Okeechobee, into the Everglades (and, eventually, the Bay). It’s like a dam across the famed “river of grass.” Lifting it could restore a substantial part of historic freshwater flow levels.
But that will take years – the project should be completed in 2020 — too long to stop the current seagrass die off from running its course and perhaps having many cascading effects, scientists fear.
And it’s not just nature that needs this fresh water: It’s people.
South Florida, the home to 6 million people now and growing steadily, relies on the Biscayne aquifer, which is refilled by the Everglades, for drinking water. The aquifer’s water flows through limestone that is quite porous, which means that saltwater and freshwater can both penetrate it.
In effect, two walls of water abut one another, facing off — and for the sake of nature and people alike, freshwater needs to hold its ground. If inadequate freshwater flows southward in Florida, then Florida Bay can get too salty even as the seas also creep into the Everglades, potentially causing land to subside and sink – but also penetrating the aquifer and threatening drinking water.
In short, it’s bad news across the whole system.
And even as governments at the local, state, and national level move faster to send the Everglades and the Bay more fresh water, the question remains just how much climate change will worsen problems like the seagrass die-off. After all, it will raise seas, increase air and water temperatures, and perhaps drive more droughts as well.
“The questions I would ask, from a climate perspective, going forward, is first of all, are we going to have more conditions of really high temperature, due to, you know, the atmospheric warming, coupled with these extended periods of still water?” Boesch said. “Are we going to have longer periods of drought in the Everglades?”
Boesch said that while higher temperatures are a given, precipitation patterns are difficult to predict, but notes that there is some reason to fear South Florida could get drier in the future.
“What happened to the Bay is very much a climate change issue,” Jewell said in an interview during her Everglades tour. “It’s tied in to a drought. Now, is the drought tied to climate change? None of us could tie any single hurricane or storm event or drought to climate change, but we do know that the weather here is getting more extreme. And we do know that those extreme weather patterns are having a dramatic impact on our ecosystems, as we saw today on Florida Bay.”
Still, much of Florida Bay remains unaffected – for now. That includes an area of lush seagrass meadow near a small island named Johnson Key. A trio of bottlenosed dolphins approached the National Park Service skiff there, and as the boat trolled slowly through the clear, only 3- to 4-foot-deep water, started to lead the way ahead of it.
Nonetheless, the second major seagrass die off in three decades certainly suggests that something has changed recently in the system. “The really disturbing thing is, this unprecedented event has now happened twice in my career,” Fourqurean said.
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Fishermen charged for catching green sea turtles
Associate Judge Teresa Kim-Tenorio has found probable cause to charge three fishermen who were arrested for allegedly catching three green sea turtles in Saipan waters without authorization on Feb. 2.
In yesterday’s preliminary hearing, defendant Anthony Pangelinan appeared with his counsel attorney Tiberius Mucano. Defendant Vicente Aldan Sablan was represented by Chief Public Defender Douglas Hartig and Jeffrey Igue Teigita was represented by attorney Jordan Sundell. Assistant Attorney General Heather Barcinas represented the government.
Defendant Alvin Fitial, an officer of the Department of Fish and Wildlife earlier posted $10,000 cash bail and waived the preliminary hearing.
Barcinas said the the defendants are facing charges of possession of an endangered species which carries a maximum punishment of six months imprisonment and $5,000 fine.
The defense lawyers argued, on behalf of their clients that there are five kinds of turtles in Saipan waters and the government was not able to prove if the turtles the defendants caught were green sea turtle. Mocanu said that Billy was not trained to identify if it was green sea turtle which is endangered species.
Conservation Inspector Erwin Flores took to the witness stand yesterday and testified how the defendants were caught on surveillance camera by Commonwealth Ports Authority Police Sergeant Vincent Billy within a restricted area at about 8:30 to 9 p.m. while conducting routine patrol on Feb. 2.
Flores said he interviewed Billy and got information that Billy heard a flapping sound from the bed of a blue pickup truck owned by Sablan. When he investigated, Billy told Flores he saw three live green sea turtles restrained with rope to control their movements.
Flores in his affidavit stated that Fitial who was on duty at the seaport on that night arrived on the scene and the other defendants took the live turtles, and put one turtle in Fitial’s government-issued vehicle. He said the defendants were not authorized nor had submitted any documentation that would allow them to procure the green sea turtles.
Green sea turtles are protected under CNMI law due to their federal status as an endangered species. The noncommercial Fish and Wildlife regulations of the NMI Administrative Code states that any person who unlawfully harasses, takes, hunts, captures, collects, kills, possesses or removes a green sea turtle from Saipan waters is in violation of NMIAC 85-30.
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Texas A&M drones survey damage to seagrass from boats
Drones have been used by Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi to survey seagrass for damage blamed on boat propellers.
School officials on Monday announced that experts will compare the images taken by drones to data collected from traditional flights.
The project, co-sponsored with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, is meant to determine if drones flying lower can produce images as effectively as using planes at upper altitudes.
Michael Starek, who's an assistant professor of engineering, has been analyzing images collected from December drone flights about 450 feet above Redfish Bay.
TPWD since 2007 has done aerial surveys using piloted aircraft flying at about 2,000 feet.
Officials hope drones can better map the scar features on seagrass, which is prime environment for fish, shrimp and crabs.
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Our Environment: Seagrass spotlight of festival
The Sarasota Bay National Estuary Program and Sarasota County will be co-sponsoring the First Annual Sarasota Bay SeagrassFest and second annual seagrass survey on April 30.
There is not a more important issue to bring to the public, in my opinion, than the ongoing health of our bay based on the vitality and growth of seagrass in the estuary. From 1950 to 1988, Sarasota Bay lost 30 percent of the seven major species known to exist here, out of the 52 across the globe. A variety of issues were to blame for the loss, including poor management of sewer and storm-water runoff, propeller scarring from careless boaters and dredging/filling.
Due diligence by numerous agencies and concerned citizens with the welfare of the bay at heart brought about a reversal over many years. SWFWMD now has an aerial mapping done every two years which has documented an increase of seagrass acreage in the bay to 13,288 acres in 2014, up by approximately 700 acres since 2012.
The upcoming affair is a double-barreled effort to educate the public by way of the Festival itself. There will be numerous people on hand to educate the general public with talks and displays explaining the vital link between healthy seagrass and the overall quality of the marine environment. To sweeten the pot, there will be music, food vendors and the like. For the second year, a seagrass survey will take place.
The SBNEP and the County could use volunteers to assist in this endeavor. Able-bodied volunteers that know how to swim and have their own snorkeling equipment are welcome to take part. Fully-equipped shallow-draft motorboats would be a big help as well. If you are able and willing to assist, contact Ashley Melton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteers will also get an event T-shirt and lunch.
The seagrass survey begins with registration at 7:30 a.m. and runs until about 1 p.m. The Festival will be at Ken Thompson Park, City Island, Sarasota from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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St. Pete looking for sea grass farmers
The city of St. Petersburg went looking for a sea grass farmer, and five different entities filled out an application.
The response validates a notion city council member Jim Kennedy nurtured for about three years.
"If somebody's going to be interfering with sea grass, they'll need a mitigation bank," Kennedy explained to FOX 13 News, "The first bank could generate maybe up to $20 million."
The business concept hinges on Florida laws requiring amends for environmental impacts caused by development projects, including building bridge, dredging ports and shipping channels. The city proposed filling in old dredge holes off North Shore Park and planting about 125 acres of sea grass.
The resulting sea grass farm could be divided into environmental credits.
"Somebody can come to the banker and say Hey, we've got X amount of impacts, we're going to need to use X amount of your credits- and how much can we purchase those for?" assistant city attorney Michael Dema said.
The entire process is regulated by federal and state agencies.
"There will be a lot of agencies with jurisdiction over a banking project" Dema said, "At the top of the food chain, so to speak, is the United States Army Corps of Engineers, but we anticipate working with the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection?) and the SWIFTMUD (Southwest Florida Water Management District?) and other local agencies as well."
A long time ago, the state deeded the shallow waters near St. Petersburg's eastern shoreline to the city, essentially from Coffee Pot Bayou to Lassing Park.
While the initial sea grass bank would be 125 acres, "We have maybe up to a thousand acres if we carry it all the way down" Kennedy said.
It would take years to get the first bank planted; the grass must be durable. Kennedy said the initial revenue stream would be used to create a trust fund.
"If somebody runs aground in your sea grass or you have something that kills the sea grass, it would be our obligation to replant and re-nourish," he said.
Once the trust account is funded, the revenue stream would flow into the city's coffers. The new sea grass would serve its natural purposes, including providing habitat for juvenile fish.
"The long term benefit to the bay is substantial, and potentially the economic benefit to the city is substantial," Kennedy said.
Kennedy and Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration hopes to present the concept to the rest of the city council at its May 5 meeting.
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Sarasota Bay preservation effort becomes model for others
Jon Thaxton grew up in Sarasota and has seen the health of the waters go through several shifts and changes. Perhaps the most memorable, was a dramatic decline in water quality in the 90s.
"Within a short 10 to 20 year period, the Bay just took a nose dive," said Thaxton. "A lot of the sea grass just started to die off, and that's what really inspired us in the 90s and the early 2000s to do something about it."
That's when Thaxton and his fellow County Commissioners took action, putting into place several ordinances to remove nitrogen from the water and protect Sarasota Bay from collapse.
Now, nearly a decade after those ordinances were put in place, their impact can be felt. The bay is healthy and sea grass levels are up.
"There are more sea grasses here today then there were when we took the very first aerial photograph of Sarasota Bay back in the 1940s," said Thaxton, "so the program I believe can clearly be demonstrated as a success."
Meanwhile, on the East Coast of Florida, Indian River is struggling. In the last few months, the bay has seen major fish kills all due to brown tide. Those from Indian River are now looking to Sarasota Bay as a model to keep Indian River from collapse.
"We followed the Tampa model actually, and now they're following us," said Mark Alderson of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. Alderson met with those from Indian River a few months ago.
"They're having huge fish kills, huge marine mammal deaths, and their canals are full of dead fish," said Alderson of Indian River. "It's been quite a sight."
In his 20 years the Estuary Program, Alderson says he's seen serious improvements to local waters, and he says that's largely due to a commitment in local government to aggressively protect the Bay.
"It's been very gradual and very slow," said Alderson, "but over time there's just been a great improvement in the Bay."
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Frustration spills over seagrass die-off in Florida Bay, the worst in decades
The campaign to save Florida Bay should move to the ballot box, speakers fumed Thursday in Islamorada.
"Talking to the politicians obviously is not working," Islamorada Village Council member Jim Mooney said after a presentation on Florida Bay's woes to the village board.
"I think you've got to march on Big Sugar and got to go big," Mooney said. "Make a statement the entire world has to see."
"It's up to each and every one of us to send those people a message," Councilman Dennis Ward said, suggesting sugar boycotts and demonstrations outside grocery stores.
Congressional and state candidates "need to be vetted [on Florida Bay] by everyone in the Keys," he said.
Presentations on Florida Bay's worrisome status by Stephen Davis, a wetland ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, and Dave Preston of BullSugar.org, a group fighting government sugar subsidies, were followed by a string of annoyed residents.
"Rankin Bay is now dead, period. Snake Bight is dead," said fishing guide David Purdo, a former councilman. "We are losing the economy of the Florida Keys. Somehow we've got to stop it, but I don't know how."
"It's pathetic," said fishing outfitter Sandy Moret. He described a recent meeting on bay problems as "the exact same meeting" he attended 35 years ago. "There's no political will."
Audubon biologist and fishing guide Peter Frezza said, "The dire situation in Florida Bay is pretty evident."
"The shallow-water fisheries really are in trouble. We're losing skiff guides," Frezza said. "That's history and a part of the community and I feel it's going away."
Florida Bay is undergoing a massive seagrass die-off, which the Everglades Foundation and other environmental groups say was caused by a summer drought that turned bay waters abnormally salty.
That in turn caused oxygen deprivation for seagrasses, which led to an increase in hydrogen sulfides that destroyed seagrass roots.
After a century of statewide development, Florida Bay has received far less water from Central Florida and the Everglades than it historically received.
Last summer's drought worsened the problem, with the result leading to a seagrass die-off similar to the massive incident of 1987-91 that included an algae bloom that destroyed bay sponges and drove fish away.
A plan to create a huge storage area for fresh water south of Lake Okeechobee that could be released when needed has stalled.
Conservationists say elected officials who cater to the demands of Florida's two major sugar-producing companies are to blame.
The Big Sugar companies "effectively control every drop of water in our state" through lobbying and campaign donations, Preston said.
"We've got to focus on the land" for the storage area, Preston said, "and the current powers that be who stand in the way of fixing the problem."
"It's a heavily subsidized industry [by government price supports] and we're subsidizing them to destroy our waters," Preston said.
Former village councilman Ted Blackburn said, "What do you do when both sides take money from Big Sugar? It seems hopeless but I guess you start at the ground level and keep going."
Government subsidies make the sugar-growing land valuable, Village Councilman Mike Forster said. "Take away the subsidies and you can buy the land for cheap."
"Everybody agrees on the problem and the solution, except for two [sugar-producing] families in the center of the state," Forster said. "The political will is not there at this point."
Islamorada is joining with Monroe County and other Keys governments to craft a strong resolution on the need for Everglades restoration and increased water flow to Florida Bay, Islamorada Mayor Deb Gillis said.
County Commissioner George Neugent said Friday that he expects Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay to become major discussion points in the two federal and state election cycles.
"We're certainly not going to forget, and the people in Sanibel, Fort Myers and Port St. Lucie aren't going to forget either," Neugent said.
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Florida Bay at 'knife's edge of collapse'
Not even the wettest winter in South Florida's weather records likely will curtail a massive seagrass die-off now occurring in Florida Bay, experts caution.
"Florida Bay is on the knife's edge" of collapse, said Everglades Foundation wetland ecologist Stephen Davis at a Monday awareness event held in Islamorada.
"It looks exactly like it did in 1987," said Jim Fourqurean, head of the Seagrass Ecosystems Research Lab at Florida International University, referring to Florida Bay's last major seagrass die-off that triggered a nasty algae bloom.
"Now for the second time, it's happening again," Fourqurean said. "If it is happening with greater frequency, it's because of the missing water."
It took the bay's seagrass nearly 20 years to recover, he noted, and fisheries still may not have recovered fully.
Everglades advocates have been campaigning for new regulations and construction projects that will send more fresh water from Central Florida and Lake Okeechobee back toward its natural flow through Everglades National Park and into Florida Bay.
Last summer's drought caused "hypersalinity" in Florida Bay, Davis said. In places, the salt content in Florida Bay -- historically a brackish environment of mixed fresh and salt water -- was twice that found in the Atlantic Ocean.
The end result has been at least 25,000 acres of dead seagrass -- and estimates of up to 50,000 acres.
"This is really upsetting," said flats guide Steve Friedman, who fishes the area near Whipray Basin for trout and snook.
More water reached the bay in this unusually wet winter but the lack of a large storage area to contain fresh water from rain meant billions of gallons had to be funneled into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
"We have three estuaries in crisis right now," Davis said.
Even if more fresh water had reached Florida Bay this winter, the damage from the summer's drought had already occurred.
In extremely salty conditions, oxygen levels in the bay water drop. That causes a sharp increase in naturally occurring hydrogen sulfides, which produces a rotten-egg smell and can destroy the underground roots of seagrass.
"The smell tells us that it's something we want to move away from," Fourqurean said.
"People are talking about the threat of sea-level rise and that's something that might be 70 years off," said Islamorada Village Council member Mike Forster, an avid bay fishermen.
"What's happening in the bay is happening right now," he said. "This affects our entire way of life here."
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents the Keys, said he strongly supports water-quality improvements for Florida Bay and South Florida but fears that tight federal budgets in a few years may cause Congress to cut back funding.
"I agree we need to get the reservoir done," Curbelo said. "But there are some stakeholder groups that are going to object."
"It's very disappointing to see where we are today after 15 or 20 years" of working on Florida Bay, County Commissioner George Neugent said.
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Dead dugong washed ashore
Police said the dead mammal was found by the locals and alerted the Coastal Security Group police.
The CGP police inspected the mammal and passed on the information to the forest and fisheries departments.
A spot post mortem was carried out on the dead creature and buried thereafter.
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Algal blooms off Kep coast lead to swimming and seafood scares
A massive algal bloom off the coast of Kep that has left scores of dead coastal crabs and fish in its wake resulted in warnings from the Ministry of Environment and Prime Minister Hun Sen this weekend to avoid eating seafood or swimming in the seaside province.
“The Ministry of Environment appeals to the public, especially tourists and people living along the sea in Kep province, to temporarily stop swimming in the sea or eating seafood caught there,” reads the statement issued by the Ministry of Environment on Saturday.
Its words of warning, which come little more than a week before the expected throngs of tourists for Khmer New Year, were echoed by the prime minister in a Facebook post that evening.
An algal bloom is a sudden overgrowth of algae brought on by a variety of ecological factors, including warming water temperatures, an excess of waterborne nutrients and various hydrological conditions such as shifting currents.
They occur throughout the world in both marine and freshwater environments. When blooms die, the algae collect in long, slimy stripes that float on the surface and wash ashore in unsightly, putrid piles.
When decaying, the dead algae sucks oxygen from the water and can suffocate sea life. In certain conditions, blooms can “produce potent toxins that contaminate seafood and can even kill humans”, according to Gustaaf Hallegraeff, an expert on harmful algal blooms at the University of Tasmania.
Ministry of Environment officials are currently monitoring water samples from Kep for toxicity levels, according to Kuch Virak, director of Kep’s Fisheries Administration cantonment, but have yet to reach any conclusions, he said yesterday.
According to a leading conservationist in Kep who is working with authorities, the recent bloom, normally a natural, yearly phenomenon, was likely exacerbated in this case by manmade factors.
“I believe the largest contributing factor is the illegal bottom-trawlers working in the areas between the islands and the mainland,” said Paul Ferber, director of Marine Conservation Cambodia, in a phone interview yesterday. Illegal bottom-trawling has in recent years become an epidemic in Kep Bay, according to officials there.
Ferber theorised that decomposing sea grass ripped from the seafloor by the trawlers’ nets had created an unnaturally nutrient-rich environment for plankton, which is the main food source for Noctiluca scintillans, the microorganism that makes up algal blooms. Higher levels of plankton would have fed and intensified the bloom, he reasoned.
“This event happens more than once a year in Kep. [The plankton] acts as a natural food source that is usually beneficial to the ecosystem, but as the ecosystem is close to collapse, this one had a very negative impact,” he said.
Cheam “Chris” Oeun, who manages the Democrat, a seafood restaurant near Kep’s popular crab market, said that despite the government warning, he was still serving local seafood. Oeun said he believed the warning not only to be an overreaction on the government’s part, but also a potential threat to his livelihood.
“I am concerned that the Ministry of Environment is telling people not to eat seafood here,” he said. “Khmer New Year is coming up. If people don’t come here for seafood, our business will have many problems. We won’t have any money.”
Kien Wagnir, the German head chef for the upscale Sailing Club and Strand restaurants in Kep, was treating the situation more cautiously.
“Until we have 100 per cent certainty on what’s going on with the water, we are not serving seafood from Kep,” he said, before adding, “This is really not good for the reputation of Kep.”
Wagnir added that rumours were spreading in Kep that the bloom was somehow caused by a chemical agent leaked by Vietnamese factories. The unsubstantiated claim was alluded to dismissively by Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap yesterday.
“According to our examination, the rumour claiming that a chemical substance caused the bloom is not reputable. This is just a natural phenomenon because our country is affected by rising temperatures,” he said, referring to scientific theories linking the frequency and intensity of algal blooms to climate change.
According to officials and Kep residents, the bloom had shown signs of subsiding yesterday but had not yet fully cleared.
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Demand for wildlife products falling in Vietnam: seminar
Vietnam’s strong appetite for wildlife products has been changed in recent years thanks to many campaigns launched by governmental agencies and advocacy groups, according to counter-trafficking organization Freeland.
“As two of the world’s foremost markets for rare species products, Vietnam and the US have contributed significant resources to demand reduction in the region,” the organization said in a statement released at a seminar on the issue on March 30.
Recent activities included USAID ARREST Program, which provided funds and resources, and Operation Game Change, a public-private sector initiative that brings wildlife range and consumer countries together to stop cross-border illegal wildlife trade. Operation Game Change initiative included the outdoor film and music festival WildFest, Vietnam’s largest wildlife conservation awareness-raising event to date.
“Wildlife trafficking will remain a major global threat to species loss, ecosystem degradation, human health and security unless we work collaboratively with stakeholders and as one community,” US Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius said at the seminar that attracted 25 Vietnam-based civil society and government organizations.
According to Steven Galster, Freeland’s executive director and founder, changing centuries-old consumer behavior and countering clever marketing techniques employed by criminal organizations requires a smart strong and long term behavior change campaign.
“The seminar on wildlife demand reduction efforts in Vietnam was a great step in the direction of crafting a broad-based alliance of civil society organizations and government agencies that can use rich data and state-of-the-art methods to convince Vietnamese to refrain from purchasing rhino horn, tiger bone, pangolin and other rare and endangered wildlife,” he said.
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