Thursday, August 22, 2019

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S.O.L.O. and Project Komodo©: Answering the Call

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Save Our Leatherback Operation (SOLO)
Save Our Leatherback Operation (SOLO)

Waterways the world over are facing multiple hazards from all angles. Ocean acidification is blanking out swaths of sea flora and fauna, disrupting already fragile environments. Human neglect and apathy – haphazardly discarding trash and sweeping it under the rug – are choking vital ecosystems necessary for a healthy planet. Answering the call from two fronts are volunteer projects Save the Leatherback Operation (S.O.L.O.) and Project Komodo©.

By John Tapley; images courtesy Larry McKenna

S.O.L.O.’s dedication to protecting delicate leatherback sea turtles and their fragile environments took root in 2003 when photographer Dr. Larry McKenna learned of the creatures’ plight: its species was on the brink of extinction. These animals are equally monstrous in size as they are majestic in appearance with males exceeding 16 feet in length and weighing in at over 3,000 pounds – originating from a small egg about three inches long.

Dr. Larry McKenna
Dr. Larry McKenna

“They’re an amazing throwback to the Jurassic period,” says McKenna. “Should you have the good fortune to interact with one, you have touched a real dinosaur.”

McKenna became enamored by the leatherback sea turtles with their primordial appeal and mammoth stature and decided to capture them on film. Alongside a cadre of scuba explorers, McKenna ventured to a remote beach in Eastern Indonesia; and after a few travel setbacks, witnessed female turtles nesting at night. This was an eye-opening event for McKenna, and by next morning, he was approached by the village chief who asked him if anything could be done to save and safeguard the critically endangered species.

Explains McKenna:

“They told us that in the older days the nesting beach was filled with so many turtles you couldn’t see the sand; but now there were just a few coming out. I told him I was there to take pictures, but I would go back and do some research – I figured it would be an adventure for me (I love adventures). There wasn’t even a photograph shown in the data – the Internet, anywhere – at that time.

“We did the research on our own through volunteering and had no guidebook to take us. We experimented and found a way to reverse extinction. We put our findings to work; and now, that many years later, the hatchlings have come out and they’re now big enough to lay eggs. It’s been a regeneration of the population.”

McKenna established S.O.L.O. as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and primarily managed its daily operations. Today, four directors govern the operation, including McKenna, his wife Bonnie, Dr. Mike Miller and Pam Miller.

Having succeeded in this vital mission, McKenna and company set their sights on a different, though related, goal: safeguarding the world’s oceans from trash. Like the catalyst that activated S.O.L.O., this new venture started small and grew exponentially.

Says McKenna:

“We took on the trash tossers in the ocean, which is happening worldwide: in some places, the trash is so thick you can’t see the water. We started taking on different areas in the country and set up a research station in the Philippine islands. We did some healthy work cleaning up the waters; and then somebody alerted me. Did I know what a gyre was?

“I never heard the word. There was a chuckle, and they said I had better find out. I found some data on the Internet, and it was a stunning shock: it revealed that over 50 to 55 years, people from all over had been routinely tossing their trash, garbage, and runoff into the streets, rivers, and creeks. Somehow it all worked its way into waterways and wound up in the ocean. The prevalent belief was that we threw it in the ocean and didn’t need to see it because we couldn’t; I was part of that population.

“We did some more research, and thanks to the help of NASA satellites, we got a handle on what this was. A gyre is the effect of ocean currents picking up the junk until it reaches a location where the currents come down to practically zero – aided by an enormous mound of trash that has been tossed away.

“There are now five of these gyres in our oceans. The nearest one to America is the Great Pacific Gyre: its eastern-most part has an area mass of approximately the size of Alaska: 6,750,001,595,000,000 cubic feet. This mass collection of our throwaways is about 50 feet deep. It’s heading towards the west coast of America and Canada. Only one intrepid Dutchman is using his own money to tackle the problem and we wish him well. As of now, there is no effort of size and quantity to solve this issue. “

McKenna reached out to S.O.L.O. directors to tackle the ever-growing global threat of gyres and presented an idea forged from his knowledge of airplane and helicopter design, his background as a sea captain, and his passion for the aquatic world. This culminated in his latest initiative, Project Komodo©: a feat of engineering designed to collect and recycle ocean trash, and ultimately, stamp out gyres. Named after the voracious Komodo dragon, which consumes every bit of material from its prey, the project hopes to leave not even a speck of debris behind.

McKenna elaborates on Project Komodo©:

“It’s going to be more expensive than S.O.L.O. because of what we have to do: put together workable equipment on a ship, freighter or barges, to go into the Pacific well beyond the 200-mile limit and start to process this mass of trash. We’ve designed flexible scoops that can go down 50 or 60 feet, drag the stuff onto the sink, let it sun dry, then put it through a combustion process with a recyclable steam engine, which powers the turbine. It’s free regeneration as long as the engine is working; we intend to leave no carbon footprint. Plastics from this mess will be separated from wood and paper, bailed up, and sent to the States to be recycled.

“Funds permitting, we’ll rent a building and bulkhead at the Houston ship channel and will assemble a prototype, transfer it to a barge, and take it into the ocean to get it working the right way. Again, subject to funding, we will equip a rented freighter, and after putting this stuff together, it will determine the size of what we need in the ocean: that it can do the job and is safe enough in case storms come by. Subject to the prototype working and more funds available, we’ll look at maybe six ships.”

While Project Komodo© is a work in progress, McKenna and his allies are sharing the importance of good ocean stewardship through presentations and seminars around the country. He stresses educating adolescents in order to establish a better future.

S.O.L.O.
S.O.L.O.

He says:

“The first step is to educate our people to stop throwing trash on the street. It’s so very important. Like the speeches I’ve given on leatherback turtles, I’ve educated school kids from grades four to 10 about going home and telling mom and dad to stop throwing that stuff in the street. I can demonstrate that education works, and we need volunteers to go around and do the same. I’m hoping to get corporate America to join in and have this spread through the country. If we can put the trash in a bin, this will help everything.

“A white Styrofoam cup takes centuries to decay. Dolphins and porpoises put their snouts into a plastic bag, and they can’t get it off their nose, and therefore can’t eat; big turtles like leatherbacks will think a piece of plastic or a net is a jellyfish (their primary food supply) and will die and wash up on shore. Off the west coast of Florida, staghorn corals protect against ocean surges, and those reefs, before your eyes, are being killed every day; and the reef protection has been destroyed. The staghorn can be repopulated, but it takes an effort, volunteers, associated money to reseed the beds… and if someone like us doesn’t jump in with support, those reefs aren’t going to regenerate, and the next big storm will probably damage [the coast] ten-fold.

“What else are we doing to our environment? We’re ruining the nest we were born in, and that’s the key message: we’ve got to stop doing that. We’re all a part of this. Everyone that’s breathing air is the cause of this pollution that’s coming at us. It didn’t disappear; it’s out there waiting to get its revenge.”

In a recent partnership, McKenna has received support from Lonestar College near his residence, Kingwood, Texas. The college’s graphic design department has assembled a team of five students who are eager to help promote ocean protection and stewardship via the production of motivational and marketing materials, including a pamphlet, PowerPoint presentation, and website.

NOAA and McKenna predict the Pacific gyre could end up on the West Coast within seven to eight years. He shares a warning:

“To people who live out there: as the gyre approaches, don’t go out and buy a new bikini because you won’t be able to use the beaches. The beaches will be fouled to such a degree a backhoe won’t clean it up. If it comes ashore, it won’t just be west coast residents, it’ll be the entire country impacted in so many ways. We – all of us – did it to ourselves and are still doing it.”

“A solution won’t happen overnight but once we get everything working and given a decent chance at weather and other ocean conditions… you can’t put your head in the sand because those things are out there,” he continues. “It’s going to be like building blocks, and we may need to put two or three ships to neutralize the Greater Pacific Gyre.”

Looking forward to a healthier, vibrant ocean, Larry McKenna and his fellows are seeking volunteers and financial contributions to make Project Komodo© a reality.

“We’re open to partnerships and workable associations. We aren’t going to do this alone. We’re pushing it because we know the severity of the issue and what has to be done,” he says. “Hopefully other people will bring more talent to us and help us put the money together. None of our organizers will take a dime in pay. We do this because we care.”

Standing stalwart against ocean degradation – the diminishment of all life on Planet Earth – are Larry McKenna, his directors, Project Komodo©, and the many volunteers who devote their time and talents toward a common goal. Amidst overwhelming odds, they are answering the call and fostering a healthier planet.

For more details, including volunteer opportunities, visit S.O.L.O.’s website at www.saveourleatherbacks.org.

Howe Sound Sponge Reefs

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Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s has finally announced the protection of 8 new protected areas in Howe Sound British Columbia, that will protect 9 sponge reef sites. This announcement is the culmination of years of work on behalf of numerous individuals and organizations. This article will give a rough history of the process. It is the acknowledgement of an effort on behalf of numerous individuals and organizations that participated.

By Roy Mulder, President of the Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society

Very few individual/organizational efforts have resulted in the creation of full ocean protections in Canada. The sponge reef protections started because the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society recognized the critical importance of these sponge reefs. They understood that they play a hugely significant role in filtration of water, as well as providing a safe habitat for fish and other species. Consequently CPAWS under Sabine Jessen’s leadership set out on a path that would see protections given to a sponge reef site by Haida Gwaii B.C.. Dr. Sally Ley from University of Alberta provided the science used to establish the live sponge reef’s significance. It was this effort that was leveraged by several organizations and individuals to start dialogue on the same need for protections for the Howe Sound sponge reefs. CPAWS was a leader in putting all of the concerned parties together to strategize how this could happen.

Previous to their discovery Dr. Manfred Krautter had been studying sponge reefs from fossilized remains in Germany. At that time science only looked at the sponges as fossils. Dr. Bill Austin from Sydney B.C. was amongst the first to realize that there were live sponge reefs that still existed on the planet and he contacted Dr. Krautter.  This was in the early days of live sponge reef studies.

CPAWS recognized the significance of the sponge reefs off of Haida Gwaii and consequently they started the effort that saw these reef sites become the first of their kind to receive DFO protections. Sabine Jessen and CPAWS set out on this campaign using a sponge specimen “Mr. Stinky” (the sponges give off a strong odour) to promote the need for protections.

Meanwhile Glen Dennison and his regular dive team were encountering sponge reefs in Howe Sound that were within air diving limits. It became apparent early on that these reefs were extremely delicate and the dive team would observe damage from fishing activities on the reefs. At the time Roy Mulder (this author) was president of Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of BC and Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society. Roy brought both organizations into the mix of other’s interested and CPAWS worked on putting together mass meetings of groups and individuals to discuss what could be done to protect these sponges. 

Glen through a massive citizen science effort using divers, boats, data loggers, drop camera work, and created incredibly detailed charts of the sponge reef sites. Any sites within air dive range were video recorded by Roy and chart locations were done by Glen. In his efforts Glen discovered numerous new reefs by going out on his boat with biologist assistants using his sounder and drop camera. Through this work it became evident that there were many more sites than were previously thought to exist in Howe Sound.  Glen also consulted with Dr. Jeff Marliave from Vancouver Aquarium to bring in a scientific component to his studies.

The first site to see protections was the Halkett reef site which is part of BC Parks.  It was the BC divers that created the effort to see this site protected.  While watching the sinking of the HMCS Annapolis off of Gambier Island, Glen Dennison took the opportunity to bring B.C, Member of Legislative Assembly Jordan Sturdy over to the sponge reef site which was nearby. Partnering with MLSSBC M.L.A, Sturdy put an effort into creating official protections which resulted in the Halkett sponge reef being protected and the boundary of Halkett BC Park was extended to include the sponge reef site.

Meanwhile the DFO meetings started up to put concerned parties into the same room to discuss what it would mean to protect 9 sponge reef sites in the Strait of Georgia. This resulted in a mass consultation with CMEPS, First Nations, MLSSBC, Sunshine Coast Conservation Association, David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver Aquarium, CPAWS, DFO, Sports Fishing Advisory Board, commercial fishers from the prawn industry, and numerous others. The largest challenge revolved around what the fishing exclusion zone would look like. The fishing industry was supporting a 50 meter/164 ft. limit, while the conservation organizations were more in favour of a 150 M zone. It was the 150 M/492 ft. zone that ended up becoming the standard distance. The net result of these discussions is what resulted in the creation of 9 new fully protected sponge reef sites in the Strait of Georgia.

Thanks to pressure from several organizations DFO was approachable in regards to extending protections to the sites that were known in Howe Sound. Thanks to Glen’s dive team and his mapping there was significant information available for DFO to use to truth the sites. A special dive team led by divers Hamish Tweed and Chris Straub ventured to over 73M/240 ft. on the Lions Bay sponge reef site.  Thanks to support from articles by Larry Pynn from the Vancouver Sun, as well as other smaller publications like Lions Bay News and Squamish Chief public interest was growing. Meanwhile the lucky divers began a citizen science project led by Glen. This resulted in temperature data loggers put on sites by the dive team, while Glen would go out with an assistant every Saturday to do more comprehensive mapping and drop camera work. I took the lead on video production and produced the documentary Cradles of Glass to use in promotion for the need to protect the sponges.

This video was amongst some panel discussion/video screenings that were hosted by Vancouver Aquarium and David Suzuki Foundation. The public was clearly in support of protections for the sponges and ultimately it was this groundswell of support that provided the input for DFO to create the protections.

One of the most significant outcomes for divers as a result of this whole process is a special PADI “Sponge Diver” specialty course offered by Ocean Quest dive shop in Vancouver. Deirdre McCracken spearheaded this course to ensure that divers visiting the sponge reefs had the necessary skills to dive the reefs without damaging them. The glass sponges are incredibly delicate and the slightest touch by a fin is enough to do damage. This means that diver’s buoyancy and trim is a critical component of diving these reefs. Another challenge to divers is the depths at which the sponges are found. Most of these reefs start at 30M/98 ft. and can go down significantly deeper. The tech specialists that were part of the deep water sponge sites had to be incredibly well trained to visit these sites. The precision of these divers was a great demonstration of mixed gas diving and complex decompression skills. Any qualified divers interested in diving the Howe Sound sponge reefs can contact local dive charters that frequent the sites. They truly are a wonder to behold and are well worth the effort to pay them a visit.

There are numerous other sites still being studied in Howe Sound and with the support of the dive and conservation community, we will hopefully see several sites get some protections as well.

I would like to thank all of the individuals and organizations involved in creating the protections for the sponge reefs and I apologize if you were missed. This whole process demonstrated the critical role of conservationists and divers in the creation of protected areas. It was a group effort that resulted in this announcement by the Canadian Minister of Fisheries:

Crystal River Watersports Receives Guardian Guide Designation

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Crystal River Watersports received designation on February 11 as a Guardian Guide under a new program established by Save the Manatee Club and the Manatee Ecotourism Association (META). The Guardian Guide program sets principles to provide sustainable, world-class ecotourism opportunities for in- and on-water visitors to Crystal River that promote stewardship of manatees, their aquatic ecosystem and the surrounding spring shed.

Upon receiving the designation, Mike Engiles, Executive Manager of Crystal River Watersports, said, “We are extremely proud to be one of the first companies to adopt the standards and be approved.   We always strive to conduct our activities in an environmentally friendly manner.  This recognition by Save the Manatee Club further solidifies Crystal River Watersports as a premiere eco-tourism operator.”

The Guardian Guide program requires tour operators to adhere to the following principles:

Vary times and locations of tours to allow manatees the ability to rest undisturbed

Require all swimmers to wear a wetsuit, utilize a flotation device and observe manatees only passively from a distance of at least one body length when possible

Have guides accompany guests during all tour segments while captains remain aboard the vessel, with a guest-to-guide ratio not to exceed 12:1

Prevent over-crowding and manatee disturbance by avoiding areas already in use by another tour group

Create stewardship among guests and the manatee ecotourism community by encouraging guests to support manatee conservation efforts, engaging guides in community service that benefits Kings Bay, and by donating $1 from every guest to aquatic habitat protection and restoration within the spring shed.

Crystal River Watersports has been adhering to many of the Principles of the Guardian Guide program for the last few years.  The 2017-2018 manatee season was a probationary time for Save the Manatee Club to evaluate the program and ensure adherence to the principles.  

Engiles said, “CRWS is continuing to emphasize a quality eco-tourism experience that conducts tours on the manatees’ terms to ensure their survival and the sustainability of the industry.  Our family-owned and -operated business is committed to quality versus quantity.”

The Crystal River Watersports staff conducts and attends training on manatee biology, physiology, and the recognition of illness and injuries.  The Captains and Guides assist with the identification and documentation of ill manatees, their rescue, release, and the annual health assessments. 

Donations have assisted with King’s Bay area cleanup as well as youth education in environmental and marine science.

Crystal River Watersports is looking forward to a mutually beneficial partnership with Save the Manatee Club in support of our mutual goal of having all guests have a sustainable world-class eco-tourism experience that results in manatee and marine advocates.

Carbon Footprint

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Carbon Footprint - Shutterstock
Carbon Footprint - Shutterstock

In my last article, I discussed the connection between carbon dioxide (CO2) and the shells of the tiniest mollusks in the deepest ocean. The more I thought on the subject, the more I realized I wanted to learn more about my ‘carbon footprint,’ and its connection to our warming seas.

By Bonnie McKenna

The concept of the name ‘carbon footprint’ originated from the term ‘ecological footprint,’ which was developed by Willian E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel in the 1990s. The original footprint compared how much people demand as compared to what the planet can renew. In 2007, the name ‘carbon footprint’ was first used as a measure of carbon emissions when developing an energy plan for a city in the state of Washington. Today, the term is focused on the gases that are implicated as the cause of warming oceans and climate change.

Most of my research, and it is no means complete, comes through the world-wide-web; where a plethora of information can be found. Unfortunately, not every source includes the date of submission, but both www.eia.gov/energyexplained and www.epa.gov/ghgemissions have the most current information and a number of links to follow if you are interested.

‘Carbon footprint’ is the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced directly or indirectly by any activity to fulfill a human need that requires energy that emits CO2. A ‘carbon footprint’ is measured in tons of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) that is calculated by multiplying the emissions of each of the GHGs by its 100-year global warming potential (GWP).

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a natural, colorless and odorless GHG that is emitted when fossil fuels (i.e., natural gas, oil, coal, etc.) are burned. CO2e allows other GHG emissions to be expressed in terms of CO2 based on their relative global warming potential (GWP).

Global Warming Potential (GWP) was developed to allow comparisons of the global warming impacts of different gases. Specifically, it is a measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Many of the chemicals found in the earth’s atmosphere act as GHGs. Interestingly, without naturally occurring GHGs, the earth would be too cold to support life. The temperature would be approximately -2F or -19C.

When sunlight strikes the earth, some of it radiates back into the atmosphere as infrared radiation in a process called radiative forcing. GHGs absorb this infrared radiation and trap its heat in the atmosphere, creating what is termed the greenhouse effect. The result of this effect is believed to lead to global warming and climate change.

The major GHGs that are included in U.S. and International estimates:

  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2) produced by burning fossil fuels for energy.
  • Methane (CH4) comes from landfills, coal mines, agriculture, oil, and natural gas operations.
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) using nitrogen fertilizers, waste management and burning fossil fuels.
  • Industrial gases are high GWP gases, which are human-made.
    • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
    • Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
    • Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)
    • Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)

Other GHGs not counted by the U.S. include:

  • Water vapor
  • Ozone – technically a GHG because it has an effect on global temperature, but at higher elevations in the atmosphere ozone blocks ultraviolet light from reaching the earth’s surface.

Scientists know with certainty that increasing GHG concentrations tend to warm the planet. The excess energy is absorbed by the oceans. As the oceans warm up, sea levels rise because warmer water takes up more room than cold water; not the melting ice caps.

As divers, we have seen one of the most visually dramatic effects on the marine ecosystem, coral bleaching; a stress response to warming ocean water temperatures that can lead to coral death. Many marine species, including plankton that forms the basis of the oceanic food chain for mollusks, corals, fish, and indirectly polar bears, penguins, and sea birds are altered as the species change location in search of ideal water temperature.

Rising temperatures are also suspected of directly affecting the metabolism, life cycle, and behavior of marine species. For many species, temperature serves as a cue for reproduction.

Temperature affects the number of male and female offspring for marine turtles, as well as some fish and copepods (tiny shrimp-like animals on which many other marine animals feed). Changing climate could, therefore, skew sex ratios and threaten population survival.

Warming waters could, therefore, be the knock-out punch for many species which are already under stress from overfishing and habitat loss.

Some scientists feel the most significant climate change challenge is to mangrove ecosystems. The amount of light reaching marine plants and algae dependent on photosynthesis is affected by the rising sea temperatures and levels.

An additional, but hidden consequence of the warming oceans is a multitude of marine animals are being deprived of oxygen. Less obvious than rising seas and coral bleaching – it is no less dangerous to marine life. According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, seventy percent of the planet is being changed in invisible ways that will have synergetic impacts on the marine ecosystems.

Just as humans have the power to wreak havoc with marine life, we can also mitigate global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone can help slow global warming by reducing our ‘carbon footprint.’ Power down, make little changes to reduce energy use – and carbon emissions.

If you are interested in learning about your ‘carbon footprint,’ go to www.epa.gov/carbonfootprint-calculator.

Remember: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse.

Thanks to:

Environmental Protection Agency

New York Times

Science magazine

Scripps Intuition of Oceanography

Project Komodo©: Leaving Nothing Behind

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Project Komodo
Project Komodo

The vitality of the world’s oceans is in peril: ocean acidification has devastated sea star populations; mounds of swirling trash – gyres – have formed toxic blockades. Enter Project Komodo©: a new mission produced by ocean stewardship non-profits Save Our Leatherback Operation (S.O.L.O.) and 11th Hour Heroes, which seeks to collect and dissolve ocean debris and junk, leaving nothing behind.

By John Tapley

Project Komodo© plans to construct a barge (or “electronic breadbox”) device using old and existing technologies to scoop upgyres, sort the debris, and send the harmful materials to recycling. The barge will be designed with aquatic environments in mind and will leave a carbonless footprint (after combustion). Project Komodo© has a global purpose – according to data gathered by the University of Georgia, University of California, and Sea Education Association, 83 percent of ocean plastics come from countries with inadequate or limited waste management. The project aims to follow in the success of banning shark fin soup; the sale of Chinese shark fin soup has been reduced by 81 percent.

11th Hour Heroes
11th Hour Heroes

Project Komodo is headed by S.O.L.O. and 11th Hour Heroes founders Dr. Larry McKenna, his wife Bonnie McKenna, and S.O.L.O. directors Dr. Mike Miller and Pam Miller.

We spoke with S.O.L.O. and 11th Hour Heroes founder Dr. Larry McKenna about Project Komodo© and its meaning.

John Tapley (JT): Larry, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. What was your inspiration for founding Project Komodo®?

Larry McKenna (LM): We’ve come to realize, while traveling around the world, that oceans are sick and decaying. Our efforts to find ways to save leatherback sea turtles from extinction have been successful, and having completed this mission, we’ve recognized someone must step in and do whatever it takes to bring the oceans back to a productive life.

Our directors, Bonnie McKenna, Pam Miller, Dr. Mike Miller, and I declared a unanimous decision to tackle the gyre… to find solutions. Dr. Miller went further with his quiet investigations concerning the gyre phenomenon. Project Komodo© was founded to develop methods of solutions, and as it develops, we expect to be joined by donors and volunteers.

Save Our Leatherback Operation (SOLO)
Save Our Leatherback Operation (SOLO)

JT: What are some factors affecting the environment you’d like to share with us?

LM: This situation has been happening for approximately 45 years and it’s important that people accept everyone on this planet has created this problem in small and big ways. For all this time, people have carelessly thrown around plastic, plastic bags, clothing, old fish nets, and just plain junk – for the ocean to take it away and make it “disappear”.

People who live away from oceans toss their trash into the street or into small waterways, it all finds its way to the ocean. In many locations around the world, people pay trash collecting companies to take away their garbage thinking it will be disposed of in a proper way: but in so many cases, we’ve learned the trash is dumped into the ocean where nobody can see.

On a much larger scale, the huge manufacturing companies produce everything in factories that process environmental poisons, which are put into pipes and pushed out into the oceans: further compounding the pollution in our seas. Chemical and petroleum industries are probably the worst offender, and oceans are still trying to process the huge petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. We estimate the heavy oil sitting on the bottom is destroying plants, fish, shrimp, and lobsters. Some environmental experts estimate it may take up to 100 years to break down this layer of unrefined petroleum. A simpler, almost everyday example– a white Styrofoam cup will take about 50 years to dissolve.

JT: What does Project Komodo© mean? What is the importance of its name?

LM: We selected then name to be symbolic of the eating habits of the giant Komodo dragon, which lives in eastern Indonesia. The Komodo digests everything and leaves absolutely nothing to give you the idea it had a meal: if it catches a deer, there’s no bones, fur or teeth left; just a small pile of white powder.

We intend to develop new technology and re-design existing technology to collect and dissolve the masses of junk floating around the ocean: leaving nothing – no carbon footprint – in its wake.

JT: How much do you estimate the barge will cost and how will be it funded? 

LM: Our first stage, the barge, and related research is budgeted at $660,000. In past events our directors, out of pocket, funded what they could. We have been financially assisted by a small cadre of supporters who have given us the ability to develop the path to survive. This is a “must do” project.  Without financial help, we cannot proceed.

JT: Thank you for the conversation, Larry. How can our readers get involved with Project Komodo©?

LM: Thank you, John. Our directors can easily be contacted at our websites: www.leatherbackturtles.org and www.11thhourheroes.org. Become a donor and get others to donate now! We all caused this real, pending ocean disaster. Fix this mess right now!

Ocean Acidification

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There is a no more significant group of ocean enthusiasts than scuba divers. As I write this, there are divers out enjoying the bounty and beauty of our oceans underwater; those very people are also seeing reef destruction and diving with floating rubbish. It has happened to me, and I am sure it has happened to you. 

By Bonnie McKenna

We are also concerned with what is referred to as ‘ocean acidification’ and ‘global warming,’ often spoken of as two separate entities. They are different, but inexorability connected like everything is in this world. For example, driving down a highway in any city in the world is related to the strength of the shell of the tiniest mollusk at the bottom of the deepest ocean.

Not everyone believes in ‘ocean acidification,’ ‘global warming,’ or that we are doomed as a result. This article is not designed to make you believe it or not; this is just a story and the science that makes connections. In fact, most scientists, until this century did not give much credence to these theories and many textbooks, still, have not corrected the science.

The earth has, in millennia past, gone through a period of ocean acidification and global warming. Science knows that this occurred by a natural phenomenon where an excessive amount of CO2 was released into the atmosphere. They do not know what caused it, but they do know the results. It is believed, that plants and animals, both land and sea, underwent massive changes. Not overnight, but over thousands of years; those that could adapt survived and flourished.

The latest study (2017), revealed global emissions from all human activities will reach an all-time record of 45 billion tons of CO2. Even though the ocean is immense, enough CO2 can have a significant impact by dropping the pH of surface waters. A quick change in the chemistry of the ocean does not give marine life, which evolved over millions of years, much time to adapt. Scientists have been tracking the pH of the ocean for many years, but biological studies only started recently.

The term “ocean acidification’ was coined in 2003 by two climate scientists, Ken Calderia and Michael Wickett, working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California. Calderia said he chose the term ‘ocean acidification’ for its shock value. Seawater is naturally alkaline.

‘Ocean acidification’ is a consequence of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolved in the ocean which, in turn, correlates to the pH of seawater. The pH scale is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of an aqueous solution. For science nerds, like me, it is approximately the negative of the base 10 logarithms of the molar concentration, measured in units of moles per liter, of hydrogen ions. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14; 7 is neutral. The higher the pH (1-7), the more acidic; the converse (7-14) is more alkaline. Seawater, normally alkaline, has a pH ranging from 7.8 to 8.5.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is naturally in the air; plants need it to grow, and animals exhale it when they breathe. Most of the CO2 collects in the atmosphere, but approximately 30 percent of it dissolves in the ocean and then it is released back into the atmosphere. This is known as the Carbonate/Bicarbonate System or the Carbon Cycle; it is the ocean’s process of maintaining equilibrium.

When water (H2O) and CO2 mix, they form carbonic acid (H2CO3) a relatively weak acid – we drink it in carbonated beverages. As with all acids it breaks down to hydrogen (H) and carbonate (CO3) ions. More hydrogen (H) ions are the clue to raising the pH of the water. This causes in fact, for the seawater to become less alkaline not more acidic (pH less than 7).

Marine creatures that require calcium to build shells (mollusks, crabs, lobsters, sea stars, urchins and corals) are especially sensitive to a change in the pH of seawater. The calcium these animals use to make their shells is derived from their environment either from the food they eat or the water they dwell in. The shell is formed, repaired and maintained by a part of the anatomy called the mantle. If the animal encounters harsh conditions that limit its food supply, it can become dormant, or the mantle ceases to produce the shell substance. The hydrogen (H) ions have a greater affinity for the carbonate (CO3) ion than the weaker calcium (Ca) ion. If a hydrogen ion bonds with a carbonate (HCO3) it prevents shell-building organisms from extracting the carbonate (CO3) ion they need to bond with the calcium (Ca) ion.  With less calcium carbonate (CaCO3) available the shell becomes less viable, can weaken and even dissolve.

The increased atmospheric CO2 as a result of burning fossil fuels has driven this entire reaction to far to the right (less alkaline). The result: ‘Ocean acidification.’

This brings us back to the example of how driving down the highway with hot gases, CO2 and other pollutants spewing from the exhaust pipe is connected to the strength of shells of not only the tiniest mollusk in the deep ocean but all shell-building animals and corals.

Thanks to the following:

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Smithsonian Ocean, April 2018

Deep Future, The Next 100,000 years of Life on Earth, Curt Sager, 2011

Science still does not understand the life histories of most marine animals, much less than their responses to chemical changes in seawater. The challenge is to take a ‘giant step’ from shared knowledge to shared responsibility on a global scale.

Florida’s Perfect Environmental Storm: The Complex Balance of Biodiversity and Sustainability – Part II: Manatees in Peril

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Manatees of Crystal River - by Mike Engiles
Manatees of Crystal River - by Mike Engiles

This article is the first part of a series covering a controversial subject with a number of differing positions on the cause, effect, and solutions to the red tide crisis.

Article by Selene Muldowney; photos from Mike Engiles

At first you are greeted with a stench – a stench that tingles your nose as it spreads into your throat, a burning sensation griping your now shallow breathing, your lungs filling with putrid particulates – then your eyes gaze toward the red-brown, muddy waters and the shoreline littered with rotting carcasses.

The normally clear waves along the Florida Gulf coast has been plagued by toxic levels of a sea algae called Karenia brevis. These blooms of algae, naturally occurring at low levels around the Gulf of Mexico fed by nutrients from fertilizers, pesticides, wind, and ocean currents have washed ashore and along Florida’s southwestern coastline. This phenomenon known as red tide turns the beautiful crystal-clear waters near the shore into the murky putrid mess encountered by aquatic animals and humans. This bloom first started drifting toward the Gulf Coast of Florida sometime in October of 2017 with dire consequence; leaving a trail of death killing fish, sea turtles, sharks, whales, birds, invertebrates, and Manatees.  In addition to suffocating fish, the algae also confuses sea turtles and kills manatees that mistakenly eat the contaminated sea grass. Birds that eat contaminated prey also suffer.

There are a number of reasons the algae blooms develop and have become as rampant and deadly as they have in recent years. These blooms have been document around the Gulf of Mexico since anywhere between the 1500s to early 1700s and while its presence wax and wane, there is evidence to suggest the K. brevis will grow faster as the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase. This could lead to the conclusion, that in an age where the globe is warming, algae bloom may become more potent.

To make matters worse, the inland waterways are clogged with another bloom of vibrant green cyanobacteria. Runoff from cattle/dairy farms and residential developments that lie north of the state’s largest freshwater body, Lake Okeechobee, carries in nutrients, turning its waters into a thick green smoothie. On the south of the lake development and sugar cane farms prevent the natural trickling and filtering of overflow through the Everglades which results in the release of the polluted water into the estuaries that lead out to the sea. Worse yet, the problem is mired in politics and the whodunnit syndrome.

The debate over cause seems endless as Floridians struggle to cope with the ever-changing water conditions and casualties. Some have posited the cause is human-made nutrients driving the algae blooms and removing and/or requiring increased regulations from farming and other agricultural developments will mitigate the introduction of these nutrients into the water. Others posit the introduction of pesticides to alleviate the blooms is actually accelerating the bloom’s growth. Global warming has also been cited as a driving factor to the rise in harmful algae although human interference is still questionable since in some locales many of the nutrients come from natural resources and periodically the combination of winds and currents cause the algae to bloom rapidly.

The Manatee dilemma

More than 6,300 manatees call Florida home which is an impressive comeback since 1991 when there were 1,200 left. Sadly about 540 manatees have died this year with a number of them directly linked to the red tide. Manatees suffer when they nibble on seagrass that’s been contaminated with the algae. It produces a powerful brevetoxin that harms their central nervous system. It is unclear if the brevetoxin kills the manatee or the dangerously low oxygen levels produced by the algae.

Mike Englies, manatee tour operator of Crystal River Waterports and Manatee Eco Tourism Association (M.E.T.A.) president, has seen a number of changes in manatee conservation efforts. Established 19 years ago, Crystal River Watersports offers a full range of scuba dive training and local water tours with a focus on manatees. Engles purchased the business five years ago and operates four dive and tour boats daily stating,” Manatees have an international appeal and we regularly take tourists and divers out to see them, but we do not allow scuba diving when in proximity to the manatees. We strictly adhere to passive observation through snorkeling.”

His operation is 100 miles away from the red tide coastline and while he has not seen direct consequences from the algae bloom he is very aware of the dwindling numbers of manatees.

Engiles states, “Locally in Crystal River and Citrus County we did not experience any red tide. However, the manatees that winter here may have been in areas that were affected. Thoughts are that while the red tide increased mortality, it directly increased it by about 25%. Indirectly, there may be longer implications because rehab facilities are overwhelmed and there may be fewer spaces for winter cold stress related rescues. Unfortunately, there are limited resources and that impacts decisions on when to rescue vs nature taking its course.”

Manatees of Crystal River - by Mike Engiles
Manatees of Crystal River – by Mike Engiles

Engiles believes conservation is necessary regardless of how the manatees are dying. As a result, he and other manatee tour operators and conservation minded groups have joined in partnership to promote the wellbeing for the manatees. It took some time for these different businesses and organizations to work and develop a strategy toward a common interest. Both want to make sure eco-tourism is sustainable and to provide protection for the environment, namely the manatees.  This partnership grew out of the work both conducted by M.E.T.A. and Save the Manatee Club.

The Manatee Eco Tourism Association (M.E.T.A.) is an organization comprised of Crystal River businesses and organizations, which is committed to responsible, safe interactions with manatees and their environments. Association members pledge to uphold courtesy, cooperation, and safety to visitors and fellow operators, and ensure manatees are observed passively and peacefully.

Local M.E.T.A. manatee tours include Crystal River Watersports, Crystal River Kayak Company & Dive Center, Birds Underwater, and Manatee Tour and Dive.

M.E.T.A. has joined with Save the Manatee Club (SMC) of Maitland, Florida to produce the Guardian Guides Stewardship Program: a series of principles designed to promote manatee stewardship and the protection of their ecosystem while opening safe, sustainable ecotourism opportunities. Under the program, committed manatee tour operators must adjust their schedules to allow manatees to rest, adhere to passive observation, limit tours to 12 or fewer guests per guide, prevent overcrowding at viewing sites, and share manatee and environmental stewardship to guests and guides.

In the last few weeks the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has announced that the Florida’s coastal waters are entirely free of red tide algal blooms, according to the latest round of tests. The Karenia Brevis algae that causes red tide was only observed in four Southwest Florida water samples over the past week. It was not observed in northwest Florida or along the east coast over the past week. It appears there have been no additional casualties from the red tide. While this is good news for beach goers it certainly is better new for the ocean residents whose brethren have tide at the mercy of an algae bloom. The red tide is in remission for now – some maps predict days while others predict weeks, but ultimately the situation is far from over. The warm waters will once again caress the shorelines and bring with the tide a resurgence of the deadly bloom … will Florida be better prepared?

Diving With Cetaceans

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Diving with Cetaceans often captures your imagination

By Roy Moulder

The topic of diving with cetaceans has many different aspects with varying points of view. This is my personal view as a diver of 43 years and a marine conservationist, not necessarily the view of the organizations I am part of.  I write as someone who has experienced chance encounters only a couple of times while in the water, although I have seen them in the wild numerous times. It is difficult to express the feeling of surfacing from a dive and seeing large male orca dorsal fin go by right beside you. Better yet was being spy-hopped by a large male right next to the boat after taking off my tank. To this day I have to wonder if he was seeing if I was that diver he just saw next to him in the water.


There are two categories of interactions of divers and cetaceans, chance encounters and intentional ones. The latter brings up ethical considerations in regards to how invasive the interaction is. Rules on diving with cetaceans vary from countries that have or don’t have legislation on diving with cetaceans. Many countries have regulations on proximity to boats which often means that divers are dropped off in the paths of the cetaceans in the hopes of them swimming by.  Some countries have regulations specifically banning being in the water with cetaceans. Often there are provisions in the laws to facilitate getting permits for scientific or documentary purposes. The benefits to view cetaceans in the wild are much more useful (than in captivity) to the scientists as they can observe natural behaviour.  Any attempt at a wild encounter needs to be researched beforehand to see what the legal rules of engagement are. There are also voluntary suggested best practices in places that have yet to receive legal protections. This is why the best way to approach this is with local operators that are well versed in what is allowed and what is not.  To risk an encounter without good knowledge of the risks is not recommended under any circumstances.

A good dive operator will recognize signs that the cetaceans are not willing to participate.  Diving is often discouraged because blowing bubbles by divers can be interpreted as aggressive behaviour. Consequently many dive with dolphin encounters only allow snorkeling.  Most charters will not stay for any long period of time and not push the animals. The good operators will build an educational experience for participants so that they can learn more about cetaceans. Baiting and touching are discouraged by operators that follow best practices for viewing cetaceans. 

Diving does have inherent risks and it is always a good practice to investigate the reputation and experience of any charter organization that offers encounters. Many encounters are restricted to by snorkel only with no open or closed circuit dive systems allowed. Bubbles can be interpreted by cetaceans as aggressive behaviour, so diving is not always a good option, with the exception of using a reabreather. Reputable charter operators will be able to answer the needs for permits, rules of behaviour when diving, and provide rules of engagement. It is always important to remember diving with wild animals can be dangerous. It is usually prudent to discourage direct contact with the cetaceans.

These are incredibly intelligent creatures deserving of respect and given proper recognition of having priorities over human activities. Not all people are prepared for chance encounters and even those who do it out of love, still need to be conscious of the risks.  The feeling of being in the water with cetaceans is one few get to experience and is deserving of doing it properly.

Roy Mulder

Is the Trustee of the World Cetacean Alliance and current President/Canadian Marine Environment Protections Society. You can find more info on their work : www.cmeps.webs.com. Mulder is also served as the past President of the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of British Columbia and the past Vice President of the Underwater Council of British Columbia.

Minnesota Science Group Unveils the Mysteries of Sponges

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Philbrook Imaging
Freshwater Sponge in pristine Midwest waters

By John Tapley

Porous, amorphous, and harmless, sponges have been an integral part of Earth’s evolutionary system since their primordial beginnings hundreds of millions of years ago. Despite popular understanding, not all sponges are bound to pineapples under the tropical sea: from polar climes to brackish junctions to enclosed freshwater environments, sponges have spread throughout the entire globe. Freshwater types make up nearly 240 known species with 31 of these residing in North America; and a closer look reveals five types within Minnesota’s waterways. Monitoring, categorizing, and testing these specimens is the Minnesota Freshwater Sponge Project, which in recent months, has had great success confirming valuable findings of the past – and may be on to new discoveries in the future.

A program by the University of Minnesota Crookston, the project seeks to identify sponges, find new species if available, and share the importance of these ancient animals and their interconnectedness with the greater world. From surveys to genetic research, the three-year-long project also provides a significant boon to students studying biology.

“The University of Minnesota Crookston is a primarily undergraduate university,” explains Karl Anderson, researcher and teaching specialist for the university’s Math, Science & Technology Department. “A project like this is amenable for undergraduate students to get involved in: discovering something that hasn’t been described in a long time or finding something new… moving forward into genetic research and microbiology in discovering these organisms.”

While they may seem simple on a surface level, sponges play a critical role in aquatic environments: not only as filters for debris and detritus, but as housing for even smaller creatures. Freshwater sponges are especially resilient in comparison to their more colorful, tropical cousins: requiring them to withstand frigid Great Lakes temperatures. Mini, but mighty, these sedentary creatures can indicate good water health, and in turn, form a stronger and clearer aqua scape; and beyond the immediate ecosystem, their function ripples into the greater food web.

Anderson elaborates further:

“There is some research that attributes sponges to great water quality: when you see them, you probably have good, pristine waters – depending on what’s being filtered. Sponges, as poriferans in their classification, are described as organisms that have pores, which water goes through. It continues moving through them, and the sponge structure itself as well as other organisms that live in it, are removing different materials from the water. Think of them as a live filter for the environment: they remove microscopic debris in the environment, which can include chemicals. 

“They’re really important in terms of a filter in certain environments, and also as a home for all sorts of other creatures. Their structure allows different microbes and invertebrates to live within, and that moves into the whole food web: smaller fishes are going to consume smaller invertebrates, algae, and bacteria in the sponge. It’s an important environmental relationship: from small fish to bigger game fish, and on to humans.”

From late summer to fall of this year, Anderson and company conducted an important mission: sampling “two major watersheds in Minnesota, half a dozen different lakes, and a dozen rivers”; and in turn, doing spicule analysis (observing shape and bony structures), and performing extractions for genetic testing. Their efforts were well worth the endeavor, as the team successfully confirmed findings from a University of Minnesota study conduced in the ‘70s and ‘80s: two sponges called Spongilla lacustris and Ephydatia muellerimake a home in Minnesotan waters.

While these findings shined as milestones for the project, a third, more mysterious discovery piques Anderson’s scientific curiosity, and he is excited to unveil these mysteries following the next expedition when waters and their spongy denizens warm up.

“[We] have found another genetic sequence from one of the samples that may be something that hasn’t been described in any research we have found so far: it might be something interesting; it might be a subspecies with subtle differences,” he explains. “Chemical analysis work is still in development, and we’re excited to move forward when we hit the water again in late spring and summer.”

As the project continues onward, the thrill of discovery and dedication of the local science community leading the way, Anderson is optimistic about future findings, and encourages others to help out. While a concrete system for citizen scientists to share their discoveries in tentative, the project is more than willing to receive helpful information from snorkelers and scuba divers. By contributing their time to the Minnesota Freshwater Sponge Project, volunteers may lead to a big breakthrough; and by corollary, encourage others toward scientific pursuits.

“This project has been a great learning experience all around for everybody involved: from citizen scientists to the freshman starting out in college,” says Anderson. “It’s been a great tool in getting others excited about learning. A lot of students are chomping at the bit to get involved in the project and see what we can do. We’re excited for what’s next.”

For more information on the Minnesota Freshwater Sponge Project, including contact information for interested citizen scientists, visitwww.freshwatersponges.crk.umn.edu

Florida’s Perfect Environmental Storm: The Complex Balance of Biodiversity and Sustainability

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Part One The Rank Smell of Blooming Algae and Rotting Corpses: Florida’s Tipping Point

This article is the first part of a series covering a controversial subject with a number of differing positions on the cause, effect, and solutions to the red tide crisis.

The putrid smell is the first thing that hits you followed by the site of a rotting graveyard of marine victims, all felled by a single-celled organism, the dinoflagellate species Karenia brevisalgae, colloquially known as red tide or Florida red tide.

The Science

By now you have become familiar with Florida’s red tide if not by reading the articles then by glancing over the hundreds of titles from “Everything you Need to Know About Red Tide” to “Red Tide Blamed for Massive Fish Kill at Robinson Preserve”. Red tides, named for the muddy brown hues created by the harmful algae blooms (HABs), are not uncommon in Florida (and a number of other states). In fact, many states plan for the bloom, taking measures to warn citizens of the possible exposure to toxins and other harmful effects. The Karenia brevis, most abundant in Florida’s waters, is a different species than the algae bloom found in the northeastern United States and the Gulf of Maine. This is caused by another species of dinoflagellate known as Alexandrium fundyense. The related Alexandrium monilatumis found in subtropical or tropical shallow seas and estuaries in the western Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern Pacific.

This isn’t the only harmful algae bloom haunting Florida’s waterways. The toxic blue-green algae plaguing Florida’s fresh waterways, like Okeechobee, is believed by many to contribute to the massive die-off of marine animals as well as creating havoc with human health, drinking water quality, and upsetting the balance of a once pristine state. It is necessary to clarify that blue-green algae are not algae at all – they are bacteria called cyanobacteria. And there are many species, many of them quite beneficial that are normally present in many lakes, estuaries, and oceans. Certain cyanobacteria however can be toxic to both aquatic animals, and to people. The cyanobacteria blooms which occurred this summer in Okeechobee and within the freshwater rivers which are outlet from Okeechobee, were the toxic species. When presented with ideal conditions these toxic cyanobacteria will grow quickly, producing cyanotoxins (toxins produced by cyanobacteria) that can make humans and animals sick.  

The Problem

While these two phenomena are separate and caused by differing species of algae, combined, they have created a huge challenge within the state of Florida. The red tide phenomenon isn’t new in the state nor is it historically new. In biblical terms, many scholars believe the Nile river ‘turning into a river of blood’ as described by Exodus is actually a red tide. The red tide is also referenced in Homer’s Iliad in Greece, documents from the Tang Dynasty in China, American Indian Lore from Alaska, and during the Spanish explorers’ discovery of the New World in 15thcentury. In this case, Florida’s red tide, while it could be described as a tragedy of biblical proportions, is more aptly described as a modern-day plague. While the red tide is similar to the black plague that killed indiscriminately in England, it is far more vicious and deadlier to the environment as a whole, killing on a massive scale, taking the lives of millions of fish, invertebrates, and mammals. Unlike the plague, the cause is not a single species of bacteria. Instead, the deadly combination of the red tide and toxic blue-green algae are attributable to a variety of factors, from natural to man-made. Many scientists blame gulf temperatures, weather patterns, dust from the Saharan Desert, salinity in the water, pollution, as well as increased and wide spread use of pesticides and fertilizers. Researchers have observed a long-term upward trend in the concentration of Karenia brevissince the 1950s.

So, who or what is responsible for this upsurge?

The answers lay in a complex system from agricultural businesses along Lake Okeechobee, chemical spraying of unwanted or invasive aquatic plants, flow manipulation and drainage of water in the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, and a lack of a cohesive plan to mitigate these very different sources combining together and flowing into the Gulf.  This culmination of factors lends to each other and unfortunately this is where the contentious discussions begin. The science is conflicted regarding the overall causal factors, influenced by an honest misunderstanding of the actual problem, industry supported academia and research, and politics at all levels. The current situation is further amplified by the bureaucratic dependency on quick and short-term solutions and a refusal to acknowledge the depth of the massive die off of a multitude of different species and the increase in cancer and other diseases tied to the resulting environmental degradation – although the evidence speaks for itself.

What do an environmental engineer, a pastor, an environmental advocate, and a charter boat captain have in common?

These men, along with many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are keenly aware of the environmental disaster that has become synonymous with Florida. We will meet them along this journey as well as a number of other individuals who are fighting not only for the environment but their lives, as they face science, public conceptions and the government head on.

Allen Stewart III P.E is a registered professional environmental engineer, biologist, and the retired principal engineer and vice president of HydroMentia, Inc. of Ocala, Florida. A native Floridian and an advocate for environmental preservation, reclamation, and restoration of Lake Apopka, Lake Okeechobee, The Indian River Lagoon, and The Everglades, Stewart has extensive experience in the development, design, and full-scale operations of impaired surface water and advanced wastewater treatment facilities based upon Managed Aquatic Plant Systems (MAPS), extending back to the mid 1970’s.

“There is an interconnection across the Kissimmee Basin, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades. These systems are intertwined and when we begin to change their ecosystems we affect change all along the larger system from the rivers, marshes and lakes down to the Gulf. Nature has a way of establishing an equilibrium. The Everglades is very unique – a flat marsh some 50 miles wide which flows at an imperceptibly slow rate for about 120 miles south from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay. Prior to the influx of European culture, the area was a cornucopia of life for fish, birds, and other wildlife, which the indigenous people sustained as a source of food, cultural and religious ceremony, medicine, shelter and water.

Around 6,000 years ago nature set up a balanced system—an equilibrium; however, when Euro-American populations moved in and realized how challenging it was to farm in the flooded marsh, they began to place much of their energies into changing the land to suit their needs. Eventually they imposed upon the system an overloading of nutrients along with disturbance of historical flow patterns, and the introduction of toxic chemicals, such as herbicides and pesticides – and as we see – we now have a serious dilemma.”

Scott Wilson, a pastor and fisherman with a passion for the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes has become an advocate for the state, the wildlife, and the people of Florida impacted by the red tide. The first thing he will tell you is that he is not a scientist, yet he has spent countless hours researching, investigating, and documenting the herbicide use in the chain of lakes. His interest in the overuse of chemicals has garnered significant attention on social media as well as the interest of nature documentarian Erin Brockovich.

“The water quality, habitat, and fishery has gotten progressively worse since 2011, but exponentially worse over the last month. It is clear we have something in that water that is creating this disaster. Usually red tide is localized and lasts a couple of weeks – this is not the case today.

Consider the amount of chemicals being sprayed into the lakes – ten to twleve containers, each with 100 gallons of mix, per day. That is 100-gallon tanks times ten to twelve times in one day – the math speaks for itself – 1000 to 1200 gallons per boat per day. This is a complex, multifaceted situation with so many trails and ultimately so many victims.”

Jim Abernethy, owner of Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures based in South Florida, is an award-winning author, photographer, cinematographer and environmental advocate who pioneered shark encounters without a cage. Much of his life has been spent in and around the water both personally and professionally. He is best known for his passionate crusade for shark protection.  Abernathy’s passion and relentless conservation efforts resulted in his founding WildlifeVOICE and Operation Blue Pride. Both non-profits concentrate on conservation as well as education and encouraging positive wildlife encounters.

“I was on a trip when I received a text message from a friend – it was a picture of a dead whale shark on Sanibel Beach. It was heartbreaking. When I had the opportunity, during this trip, I would watch the news and it was so dismaying to hear the responses from the politicians. Sure, what they said was partially true – red tide is naturally caused by the vast amounts of rain we have had – but they stopped there. The proportions of dead animals washing on-shore is absolutely horrifying. From memory – there are 100 million tons of sealife [seahorses to small fish] dead [all classified under three feet]. This staggering number includes larger species as well: one whale shark, two false killer whales, 700 manatees, 110 bottle nose dolphins, 49 critically endangered goliath groupers, a multitude of birds, and 1100 sea turtles of five different species all listed as being endangered.

This is not normal! This is an environmental disaster. I grew up in the Everglades and the once thriving forests and waterways are now … well … the lakes and rivers have turned into mudholes and the animals are gone.”

Captain Slate, owner and operator of Capt. Slate’s Scuba Adventures located in Tavernier Florida just south of Key largo, is a longtime advocate for marine life. He has seen the results of the red tide first hand and the impact it has made on both the environment and the tourism industry.

“This red tide is the worst we have seen – the sheer volume of dead marine mammals including birds is exponentially larger than previous years combined. We have a lack of accountability all up the food chain – from the lack of enforcement of the use and disposal of fertilizers to the use of toxic pesticides in the lakes. We have been fighting hard to stop this disaster by encouraging stricter laws and looking at alternatives to the use of chemicals and fertilizers – like mechanical farming. As citizens we need to hold our politicians accountable as well as the big businesses who are adding to the nutrient load in the water.

Millions of fish are being killed including bottle nose dolphins and manatees, but they aren’t the only victims … humans are also succumbing to the effects of the red tide. We have to find the culprits and address them holistically.”

The debate over the cause of the red tide seems endless but regardless of the canned responses from government officials to scientists and academia the results are … deadly. We will explore the different views from natural to man-made or a combination of both and how these factors are all part of an extremely complex ecosystem. For now, the state maintains a vigil eye as they search for answers, while residents watch as the bloated carcasses of the once thriving marine populations both inland and along the coast grow. The petitions demanding answers is also growing – the current state of Florida is simply unsustainable.

Learn more about how these men are making an impact and how you can join this necessary movement in January’s edition of Scuba & H2O Adventures Magazine. 

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