Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Our Sea Life Doesn’t Have a Choice, But It Does Have a Chance

Rumination from the Rock and Beyond

Photos by Jory Westberry | Tyler Beck holds a small green turtle shell at a presentation. (Note: it is illegal to possess any part of an endangered animal. The green turtle is on the threatened list; this shell is part of Rookery Bay’s collection.

You’d have to be under water or out in the ozone not to read, hear about or personally witness the destruction of our sea and air creatures as a result of the red tide, blue-green algae and the brown, murky water from yet another destructive infestation.

It’s almost inconceivable that thousands of TONS, not pounds, of carcasses have washed up on our beaches. Most of the casualties on public beaches have been removed by paid clean-up crews and dedicated volunteers and trucked inland where they continue to decay out of sight and smell. Some are used in the incinerator that converts waste to energy, but regardless of the clean-up, it’s still devastating to those who live here full-time or part-time or expect to find pristine beaches when they visit.

Most of us are not able to see the magnitude of the loss in its totality; instead we see a random manatee, dolphin, bat fish, redfish, snook, Goliath grouper and other fish species, shore birds, horseshoe and other crabs, sharks and eels dead and decaying, and even a 26-foot whale shark, but not a fraction of the quantities that are ending up in the landfill, which, if observed in person, would surely shock and frighten us in its magnitude.

In addition, the reefs are dying. Multitudes of formerly living sea urchins and sand dollars are washing up on the beaches. Diver friends of ours have witnessed reefs in our area with NO FISH. None, at all. The same reefs were teeming with life several months ago. Scary.

This devastation has both positive and negative effects. The positive is that personally observing even partial piles of decaying sea life can be heartbreaking, and yet, may inspire some activism on our part with other citizens. This putridity may encourage you to research how and why the three harbingers of death came to be and who or what is responsible. With elections soon, you could listen and determine which candidates have a related scientific background and can offer solutions as well as make their voices heard where it counts. You may even join with wildlife organizations that are working tirelessly to rehabilitate the creatures whenever possible.

The demise of our sea life is not only how it affects the health of our two-legged, four-legged and aquatic life now, but how it will affect them for decades to come. If we are shortsighted, we’ll assume that these species will regenerate and return soon with the populations and vitality they had previously. Such is not the case.

Endangered loggerhead sea turtles have been washing up on beaches in unprecedented numbers, about 100 on Sanibel and Captiva and in Sarasota County and the same in Collier County, which could be termed a mass mortality event. When you consider that a female loggerhead turtle needs to be 20-30 years mature to lay eggs, what if the hundreds of dead turtles were all juveniles? It could be decades before there will be as many loggerheads in our waters again. Even if the average female lays 80-120 eggs each time, the survival rate of hatchlings is one in 1,000, but again, it could be 10-20 years before we have mature loggerheads again, so consider the ramifications for this species. Out of 10,000 baby turtles that hatched this season, about 10 will survive. You can see why they’re threatened.

The “turtle volunteers,” under the direction of Tyler Beck, Rookery Bay turtle intern, check the beaches on a daily basis to check for “crawls,” the tracks that show where the females crawl out of the water to lay eggs and, afterward, head back to the water. The females come back to the place where they were born, pretty amazing directional abilities, right? (Thank goodness for Siri!) They may come back two to four times per season to lay more eggs. When the nest is located, it’s caged for protection, catalogued, given a GPS code and checked at regular intervals for signs of predation, flooding or hatching. Tyler’s knowledge and commitment to the turtles is inspiring.

Here’s where I come in as a recent volunteer! In addition to the above, we checked for signs of hatching, which occurs in 60-90 days. Three days after there is a verified hatching, the nest is carefully dug out and the unhatched or empty eggs are counted, examined and catalogued. Every bit of information is documented and recorded for seasonal and longitudinal analysis. Sadly, there were always some unhatched eggs, flooded or buried nests and evidence of raccoon or ghost crab feasting on the hatchlings.

Besides just being part of the crew and learning so much about turtles, another highlight of the day was watching the release of two green sea turtles, which are on the threatened list. They were rescued and medically treated at CROW; Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife on Sanibel Island and brought south of Marco Island, where there was cleaner water and a better chance for survival.

Despite the wasteland of marine life in the last few months and the repercussions even to our human bipeds, there is hope that with more commitment and understanding of the harmful issues, we can progress toward a balance in nature and humanity.

Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!

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