Category Archives: Environmental Issues

Glaciers as Social Spaces: Oral Histories, Frankenstein, and Pearl Jam’s Gigaton

Lately I’ve been thinking about glaciers. I re-watched “Chasing Ice,” which is a fascinating documentary film with the first large-scale ground survey of glaciers, directed by Jeff Orlowski and led by photographer James Balog. I’m sure you’ve seen Balog’s incredible documentary films on PBS/NOVA if not “Chasing Ice” or his photography in National Geographic.

Thinking of glaciers as “social spaces” allows us to consider the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—the frozen layers of the Earth, including glaciers and permafrost, from a variety of perspectives. We can examine glaciers as “social spaces” by exploring the ethnography of oral history traditions in the Yukon Territory, the socio-economic impacts, such as the melting of the cryosphere, in those ‘social spaces’ in Alaska, as another example. Additionally, we can explore glaciers as social spaces in literary ecology and contemporary music. How do glaciers “listen?” I explore a few ways below.

51Z+K0PRVIL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region of the southern Yukon Territory (Canada) relayed complex natural and social histories to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank when she did ethnographic research recording the life stories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders. Her book, Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination was published in 2005 (Paperback edition, 2010) but I think it’s still highly relevant. She found that the elders, “grounded precise social histories of twentieth-century life within a scaffolding of much older narratives. [They drew] on established long narrative conventions to reflect on complex life circumstances. In the words [of one elder] Angela Sidney, ancient narratives had helped her to ‘live life like a story.’” (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank, while living with the elders, “heard narratives about glacial caves inhabited by intemperate beings that might emerge unexpectedly: and others that depicted glaciers as living and responsive themselves. Stories dramatized […] bursting of ice-dammed lakes into river valleys, and […] told stories of travel […] sometimes crossing crevasse-ridden glaciers on foot and sometimes piloting hand-hewn cottonwood boats beneath glacial bridges…” (Cruikshank, 2005) They told stories of strangers called “cloud people.” (Cruikshank, 2005) The women’s stories depicted a “winter world” that crossed economic borders, of coastal Tlingit traders, and the shifting power relations described by economic historian Howard Innis on the 19th century market for furs, gold, cod and timber. (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank’s writing is wonderfully evocative of the culture and arctic wonder.

Glaciers, according to the stories, radiate heat and energy. They’re alive. Cruikshank pores into the Athapaskan elders’ stories like a glaciologist drills an ice core, studying its layers, noting the environmental, geophysical changes in a glacier—which tells a social story, since glaciers are part of the Athapaskan and Tlingit life stories. The Little Ice Age (1550-1850) is within reach of the memories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders; some of their stories are memory and some, myth. After the Little Ice Age, the glaciers receded enough to make coastal lands accessible to Eyak, Tlingit, and Athapaskan nations to converge. Stories map the geography and human ecology of the glaciers and the ecological and social corridors connecting glaciers. Through the study of oral histories, we can glean that “glaciers present some navigational, spiritual, and intellectual challenges of a sentient “land that listens.” (Cruikshank, 2005) This is what is known as sentient ecology. (Ingold, 2000) This is what the elders explained to Cruikshank when they told her stories about glaciers listening and responding.

Similarly, a human ecologist could study the environmental changes, such as those impacts from global climate change on glaciers and permafrost, two related ecosystems, and their ecological place in our world—both as social spaces and quintessential geophysical, temporal yardsticks with which we measure global environmental change. These stories, from oral tradition, captured local traditional knowledge of the Saint Elias Mountain region of southern Yukon, and other parts of Canada, and the stories themselves seemed to shift and transform infinitesimally much like the glaciers.  One of the elders, Annie Ned, told stories of “caribou ‘blackening the ice’ on nearby lakes early in the (20th) century.” (Cruikshank, 2005) When Cruikshank and Shelia Greer prepared a report on the region’s oral history for the Archaeological Survey of Canada, Ned’s story about the caribou became important in another context: “Scientists reporting discoveries of ancient tools and caribou droppings melting from a high alpine ice patch above [Ned’s] trapline cited her oral account in their initial scientific paper on prehistoric caribou.” (Cruikshank, 2005) Thus, the oral histories were not solely cultural translations and transcriptions of the women’s life stories; the stories were also part of a larger natural history of the region. Also, the issue of personhood comes into play: these women tell stories that “summon up a moral system that includes relationships with non-humans – animals and also features of the landscape, like glaciers – that share characteristics of personhood.” (Cruikshank, 2005) I am intrigued by the idea of personhood, the Rights of Nature movement, and an old idea—perhaps ancient, and pan-human, of connecting with land and water—the way headwater streams braid and combine to form a stream, intermittent or ephemeral—after storms, and each stream tells a story as it carves through sediment in the streambed. Similarly, anthropologists and human ecologists study the layers of permafrost, or analyze the many ways to tell a story about navigating a crevice in a glacier—the successful and failed rescue attempts, in order to discover the human dimensions of that glacial ecology. Literary ecologists seek to find meaning in the stories of the ways in which people interact with the natural world, including glaciers.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1818), she begins and ends the famous story about the mad-scientist, Victor Frankenstein, a graduate student from Geneva, and his creation, a Monster, comprised of human parts reanimated by electricity—on a glacier in the Arctic. At the start of the novel, a ship captain writes to his sister about encountering a strange man, crossing the ice on a sled, totally bereft but driven by a vengeance to confront his creation, the Monster, who fled to the “Land of Mist and Snow,” the glacial Alps, because he wanted a refuge from the cruelty of mankind. At the end of the novel, the reader rejoins Victor and the Monster, as they have one final showdown on the glacier. In Shelley’s real life, she and her fiancé Percy B. Shelley, had traveled through the region of Mont Blanc, home to Mer de Glace, the second largest glacier in the Alps in 1816. Later, while pregnant, Shelley writes the novel, the plot of which takes her heroes to Mer de Glace, that glacier. “Until the eighteenth century, the Alps were believed to be infested with devils, monsters and dragons. By setting her story of Victor Frankenstein and his Monster at Mer de Glace, Shelley links Victor’s activities with those of mountaineering scientists like Horace Benedict de Sausure.” (Nardin, 2006) Why set a story on a glacier? Her 19th century readers most likely shared her interest in alpine mountaineering, science and exploration. (Mary Shelley was an explorer herself; she had the moon in Sagittarius, a sign associated with wide open spaces, exploration of great frontiers and the outdoors. She was well-traveled even before she met Percy, and then they traveled Europe together. The astrological piece is my own theory.) In their travels, Percy and Mary stopped at inns along the way, and heard German stories, including a strange tale about a 17th century alchemist who had lived at Frankenstein Castle. (Sampson, 2018)

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In studying Romanticism, and in particular the work of Mary Shelley, I would argue that she pushed the borders of what it meant to be human, and the limits of our imagination surrounding consciousness and creation. Her two heroes, the Monster and his creator, Victor, are both intellectual, Miltonic philosophers; the epistolary structure of the novel has several characters communicate via letters; but the Monster, by contrast, writes in a journal. After failed attempts to socialize, he took refuge in the forest, along the river, and in the Alps at Mer de Glace. At Mont Blanc, he built himself a house, an ice cave within the glacier, and that became his home. He desired a mate and implored Victor to supply him a female counterpart, who the Monster planned to live out his (immortal) days, at Mont Blanc on Mer de Glace. I wish I had a cool photo of Mer de Glace–but I haven’t traveled there–but a quick Google Images search yields lots of incredible photo results! Have you been there? Leave a comment and let me know what it was like!

I am currently reading Mary Shelley’s travel journal, which includes her experiences traveling through the Mer de Glace area (I think she and Percy saw it from a distance). Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.34.13 PM

Last year, I began to analyze Shelley’s use of water and wetland metaphors throughout her novel as part of my graduate work in literary ecology. It’s intriguing that she creates this social space on the glacier—instead of within a city, or along a river, or in a forest—other places where the Monster hides and takes refuge throughout the story. The Monster feels safe in the harsh environs of the glacier. Unlike a man, the Monster is not vulnerable to the cold, strong winds, snow and ice. Other scholars, researchers, poets and writers have shared this fascination with Shelley’s use of the glacier, Mer de Glace, as a social space in Frankenstein. I am analyzing this as a part of my literary ecology of works by Romantic women writers–and still have a long way to go to read and digest what scholars have already discovered.

I wrote a Mary Shelley tribute poem, “The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, On the Eve of Her Wedding,” published last summer on Boned literary magazine’s site; my poem revisited the idea of the Monster, having his wish granted for a mate, and is about to return to the glacier. I wrote the poem from her perspective, while she is preparing for a life in the “Land of Mist and Snow.” This is one way that I have explored Shelley’s novel from an ecofeminist perspective.  For the bicentenary of Frankenstein, poet and scholar Fiona Sampson published the biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (2018). I loved this biography!! She writes, “Mary has ‘gone missing’ from literary history; she has faded to white like Frankenstein’s creature who ‘goes out, alone again, onto the Arctic ice to die.’” (Hewett, 2018) The iconic profile of the Monster, loping out across the ice, has haunted my imagination since I first read Frankenstein at seventeen, while my family lived in a historic, haunted house in Maine.

I have been having fun playing with this “Literary Witches” deck of cards, by Katy Horan and Taisia Kitaiskaia, who created a clever way of translating mini biographies on each card of women writers from all sorts of genres and all sorts of periods of literature–from all over the world. Perfect activity for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month! I like to use the cards for inspiration. And yes, Mary Shelley is in this cute deck. The idea is that each of these writers created “magic” through their literary works. (None are suggested to have been “witches” here–it’s just a clever metaphor.)

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Part of Shelley’s genius was her way of weaving together Enlightenment and Romanticism-era science, the including the invention of electricity and the Linnaean classification system, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s botany and natural history articles, as well as Shelley’s own explorations with Percy, sometimes with a toddler in tow, endowed her with additional “tools” of her trade. Her novel brought glaciers to life for readers with her first-hand observations; she enlivened Mer de Glace into an imaginary landscape accessible to her readers. Today’s literary ecologists are re-examining works in Romanticism (and later periods) to extrapolate Romantic ecology, “dark ecology” and the EcoGothic—related themes that frame how we continue to think about the environment today. Industrialization occurred at the time when Romantic ecology was born—the onset, as many scholars believe, of the modern environmental movement. Is it still relevant? There are some literary ecologists who believe we are still in a Romantic treatment of nature. Paul Kingsnorth and Tim Morton, two ecology writers who promote the idea of a “dark ecology,” are examples of those who believe the age of Romantic ecology may never have ended. We continue to be awed by glaciers—their melting, their sublime power, even, on a smaller scale, glacial erratics—geologic memories of prehistoric, ancient glaciers.

In socio-economic terms, we can analyze the social space of a glacier, and related ecosystems, such as permafrost, and the effects of climate change on that ‘social space,’ for instance, in Alaska, where communities have already been seeing socio-economic impacts of climate change. These impacts include the need for relocating and replacing infrastructure that’s been damaged, lost or threatened by permafrost thawing. Permafrost is a frozen, arctic wetland type; specific grasses, lichens and shrubs are frozen in water most of the year, in some places, frozen year-round (thus the name permafrost) creating a carpet-like vegetation. Thinning, melting permafrost can be found at Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve in south central Alaska. Glacial melting has caused increased large landslides in the national park. In 2015, 180 million tons of loose rock fell into the Taan Fjord causing a huge tsunami-like swell that flattened forests. “Tsunamis of some sort triggered by landslides in bays or lakes are fairly common, but it’s rare that they’re this extreme,” according to Brentwood Higman, author of a study on tsunamis in the Taan Fjord, Alaska. (2018) Melting permafrost is also allowing archaeologists ways of uncovering evidence of human and animal use of the cryosphere—with brown ice layers revealing evidence of caribou use, such as illustrated by the senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region whose stories Cruikshank recorded and transcribed—detailing their ancestral memories of the “browning ice” phenomenon associated with caribou use. Additionally, archaeology of melting glaciers provides newer access to human artifacts such as wood arrow shafts, darts made of antlers, and birch bark basket fragments found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (Dixon, et al. 2005) This is, I think, further evidence of the value of oral histories in adding historic context and narrative basis behind newer findings during archaeological research projects made possible in part by glacial melting and permafrost thinning in that region.

In a 2018 study on the economic effects of climate change in Alaska—pertaining to changes to glacial ecology, including permafrost melting, “five certain large effects can be quantified, […] to impose an annual net cost of $340-700 million of Alaska’s GDP.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) These large effects include the melting and thawing of the cryosphere—notably glaciers and permafrost. “Glacial melt affects availability of phosphorus, iron and organic carbon to terrestrial and marine organisms.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) “Melting glaciers will increase the role of seasonal precipitation patterns in determining hydroelectric capacity.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The melting of the cryosphere affects several industries in Alaska and ‘social spaces’ including fishing, forestry, energy demand, tourism and recreation, agriculture, marine and coastal shipping, as well as public infrastructure. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) For native Alaskans, the effects of climate change on the cryosphere include impacts to subsistence living:  “harvest cycles, changes in important food sources, loss of some locations used for fishing and waterfowl hunting,” are among the changes affecting those social spaces. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The largest effects are directly caused by melting glaciers and permafrost in western and northern Alaska. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) There are far more examples, but these are just two significant ones that quantify the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—and that as a “social space.”

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Glaciers are weighed in gigatons. Pearl Jam, my soul (read: more than favorite, since 1992) band, is an environmental activist band. Pearl Jam’s new album, Gigaton, features the close-up image of a glacier on its cover, (at left) and while it’s not out yet, I will be surprised if there isn’t a song about glaciers, or something environmentally-conscious. (I will post a review once the album comes out March 27th.) I love their new song from this album, “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” Pearl Jam has, in the past, taken inspiration from environmental issues like coastal wetlands, hurricanes, and ocean conservation and incorporated those into their music and activism. They create a social space for environmental activism through their music, their Surfrider Foundation, and their concerts. That’s another way of exploring a glacier as a social space. Set it to music.

This spring, I am teaching a literary workshop on Romantic women writers and short memoir for Westbrook Adult Education in Maine. Participants will have the opportunity to explore some literary works by Romantic women writers such as Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe—three writers of Romanticism who were keen on incorporating the sciences of the day, which included the origins of modern ecology. They crafted stories that weaved in botany (as translated by Erasmus Darwin, et al.), based on the formalized classification system of Carl Linnaeus, as well as geography and alpine/arctic mountaineering, and biology. The workshop will also allow participants to experiment with creative writing in hybrid genres, including short-form nonfiction with a focus on memoir. I will be offering this workshop through Westbrook Adult Education through mid-May 2020. If you’re interested, please visit their website to learn how you can register.

Berman, Matthew and Jennifer Schmidt. “Economic Effects of Climate Change in Alaska.” Weather, Climate and Society. April 2019

Cruikshank, Julie. Constructing Life Stories:  Glaciers as Social Spaces, from Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. 2005

Dixon, E. James, William Manley and Craig Lee. “The emerging archaeology of glaciers and ice patches: examples from Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.” American Antiquity. Vol. 70, Issue 1. Jan. 2005

Hewett, Rachel. “In Search of Mary Shelley Fiona Sampson Review.” The Guardian. Jan 2018

Ingold, Tim. The Perception on the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. 2000

“Mountain Waves: Glacial melt is increasing land instability in mountainous regions, with huge tsunamis rising in frequency as a result.” Geographical. Vol. 90, Issue 11. Nov. 2018

Nardin, Jane. “A Meeting on Mer de Glace: Frankenstein and the History of Alpine Mountaineering.” Women’s Writing. Vol. 6. 1999

Sampson, Fiona. In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. 2018

Sharon Blackie’s Book, If Women Rose Rooted (2016), Inspired Me to Go to Ireland

This is partly a book review of a nonfiction book by Dr. Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (September Publishing, 2016) and part of my own journey as an “eco-heroine,” a journey that took me to Ireland in June 2019. Dr. Blackie’s book inspired me to come into my own as an “eco-heroine.” 20190207_205421

At the time I read Dr. Blackie’s book, I was studying the anthropological dimensions of environmental policy, with a strong focus on the intertidal zone, and oceanography, at University of Maine as part of an Interdisciplinary PhD studies program. At the time, I was still getting my footing as a graduate student, having returned to pursue my degree after working in the fields of wetland science and policy for a number of years, and having reached a point where I knew I wanted to teach, write and contribute somehow to collaborative projects and initiatives involving water, wetlands, climate change–and human ecology. I was also coming to terms with the idea that I had lost a sense of my purpose (something that I don’t typically experience) and felt a little like an “Indiana Jones” / “Lara Croft” adventurer getting itchy feet, feeling my way through a quest I’d only vaguely glimpsed in a dream once, while studying human ecology at College of the Atlantic nearly two decades ago. Then, I read Blackie’s book. I cannot explain it except to say that after reading her book, I wanted to live it. Or, come as close as I could possibly get to experiencing what Dr. Blackie described so that I, too, could feel that sense of “belonging” to the land. I grew up on the coast of Maine and have always felt close to nature. That really wasn’t my struggle (being close with nature). But, I felt a little lost in my graduate study program, and somehow, this book helped me figure out how to re-calibrate my inner compass a bit better, to get a sense of direction.

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Hiking in Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve, Co. Cork, Ireland

Become a haunter of edges: sea-swept tide pools of islands, the dark mysterious peat and depths of blanket bogs, the fertile wetlands of the “buried feminine” drench the natural and cultural landscape of Sharon Blackie’s book, If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging (September Publishing, 2016). Students, readers, poets, human ecologists, nature-lovers, wetland ecology scientists and/or wetland professionals, as well as those interested in Celtic mythology, political ecology, eco-feminism, human ecology, environmental psychology and cultural anthropology—with a special interest in place-attachment, will respect the multidisciplinary, multi-species, and holistic suite of stories and case-studies covered in this book.

A 2016 Nautilus Book Award winner in the genre of “Environmental Feminism,” Dr. Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted is a call to action. By the end of the book, it is difficult for any ecologically-conscientious reader not to identify with the journey of Blackie’s “Eco-Heroine.” The journey begins in the “Wasteland,” an internal and external manifestation of the planet in environmental crisis—climate change, fracking, the destructive effects of Alberta “tar sands” on the boreal forests, along with many deeply personal examples of women activists who found themselves at a point of personal or professional crisis—and realized they needed to make a dramatic change (or leap of faith) to return to their roots, to community, to gain a sense of place. Place-attachment evolves into an intense identification with the land, water and wetlands—with a special focus on the Celtic countries of Ireland and Scotland. The “Eco-Heroine’s Journey” delves into the cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, Celtic mythology and ecology of the natural and cultural landscape of Ireland and Scotland—with some fascinating, liminal forays into the Celtic Otherworld through stories of myth and the Celtic Fairy Faith. Dr. Blackie invites the reader to entertain a new philosophy of eco-feminism, to put aside the patriarchal “hero’s journey,” or “quest,” and instead, to embrace a new path. The reader will be introduced to numerous real-life “eco-heroine” leaders, activists, policy-makers, crofters living “off the grid” while also advocating for forestry policy, medical professionals who have adopted new ways of healing and treating patients in remote, nature-inspired retreats, lawyers who proposed an “Ecocide” law to the United Nations (2010) and sparked a new interest in restorative justice.

Four components of the book anchor the “Eco-Heroine’s Journey.” The first component is comprised of stories from the Celtic Otherworld. Stories of selkies, Celtic fairy women, the well-maidens of ancient Ireland, the “mad women” who lived in the wild—these stories serve as metaphors, historic precedent and a prompting to rethink the dualistic argument between two groups of eco-feminists: there are those who advocate for equality to the point where they want to embark on the masculine/patriarchal “Hero’s Journey” (likened to those of the chivalric Arthurian Knights of the Round Table), and in modern society, these women strive to accomplish equal or better jobs as their male counterparts. Blackie proposes an alternative to that dualistic stance, and instead suggests that the Eco-Heroine’s Journey is completely different—not better, not equal to, not lesser than—that of the Hero’s Journey.  Blackie plunges the reader into the Celtic Otherworld, and with poetic and skillful precision, then interweaves an ethnography of environmental advocacy among women, who Blackie interviewed. These women exemplify the qualities and actions of the “eco-heroine,” often marked by unusual, charismatic and fearless quests for some area of environmental policy, or an authentic way of living closely with the land—and their way of showing others a new way of living, healing, being. Put simply, I loved this book. This book became a touchtone for me as a graduate student, as a writer, as a human ecologist. I realized, thanks to this book, I, too, am on the eco-heroine’s journey. Perhaps you are, as well. After reading her book, I joined the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, and I registered to attend their annual conference, which was held at UCC in Cork, Ireland in June 2019. There, I attended a seminar talk on selkies by poet, artist and archaeologist Erin Kavanagh, who opened my eyes to the intertidal nature of selkie mythology. Since I’d just read about selkies in Dr. Blackie’s book, I was even more “in tune” to Kavanagh’s poetic discussion of selkies at the conference on water, climate change and spirituality at UCC in Cork. After I attended the conference, I rented a car, and traveled around southwest Ireland, and swam in the ocean in a strong current. I’m certainly no selkie; I nonetheless felt transformed and awakened in a spiritual way.

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After my swim in the Wild Atlantic, Co. Cork, Ireland, June 2019

Blackie’s observations, first-person narrative and perceptions of the “eco-heroine’s journey” make up the third component of the book, and some readers may appreciate her distinctively poetic voice. Blackie is a poet, as well as a psychologist with a background in neuroscience, and special expertise in Celtic mythology. This multidisciplinary background lends itself to an interesting exploration of woman as a shaper of the land, as a part of the natural landscape—inextricably linked to “Mother Earth” through the “Fertile Fields of the Buried Feminine.” Ultimately, Blackie proposes while the quintessential quest for the “holy grail,” which one could argue has long been considered a destination for the “hero,” can be transformed to reveal the quest for the eco-heroine: that the eco-heroine, herself, is the vessel, the holy grail. She, the “Eco-Heroine,” is the “voice of the wells,” the voice of Mother Earth, who possesses the power to lead in a different way.

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Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve, Co. Cork, Ireland (Stetson photo)

Blackie’s book chapter titles read (at least to me) like names and classifications of wetlands. Any wetland-lover would enjoy the rich, detailed wetland ecology–and the spiritually rich discussion of human connections with wetlands and submerged landscapes in her book. While in Ireland, I was very sick with an illness, but I made the most of my time there. I hiked around in Glengarriff Wood Nature Preserve in Co. Cork, attended a workshop on seaweed harvesting and the intertidal at Reen Pier, Unionhall (Co. Cork) and paddled a kayak in Lough Hyne, a rare saltwater lake (Co. Cork) at night.

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Raheen Castle ruins near Reen Pier, Unionhall, Co. Cork, Ireland (Stetson photo)

I will post more of my adventures from Ireland in the near future.

To learn more about Sharon Blackie’s books, her work, her poetry, and the workshops she offers, I encourage you to visit her website here.

Find her book on Amazon here.

Rarity and Ocean Conservation: Endangered Sawfish, Final Listing on ESA

On 8th Grade “Career Day,” my classmates and I were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember looking at a giant phonebook-sized directory of “careers” with code-keys for filling out a handout in class. I chose “marine biologist,” “oceanographer,” and asked my teacher, “where’s the code for “Ichthyologist?” Admittedly, I also wanted to write down on my sheet that I

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

considered “mime” and “poet” to be future, possible careers, but only one of those was true. Poetry remains a constant passion for me, and so does ocean conservation. I grew up reading poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and essays by Rachel Carson, including her book, A Sense of Wonder and later in high school, The Edge of the Sea, which remains one of my favorite books of all time. In 9th grade, I bought a text book on marine biology with babysitting money and studied it outside of school, over the summer, while I studied biology at Gould Academy. Years later, at College of the Atlantic (COA), I studied conservation biology, island ecology and environmental sciences as an undergraduate student. During a summer field course, my COA classmates and I explored over 30 Maine islands and visited Gran Manan, where we saw a 30-foot basking shark in the Bay of Fundy. Studying at COA, usually in a salt-sprayed hammock overlooking the ocean, definitely helped to shape my early passion for islands, oceans and wetlands into a career in conservation.

Sharks, rays and sawfish have always been fascinating to me. (Ocean conservation nerd alert: I even have a notepad from the American Elasmobranch Society on my desk.) I’ve spent some significant time on wetlands in my career, but I’ve also followed ocean conservation with great interest, never leaning too far away from my coastal roots. One area of ocean conservation that has kept my interest over the last two decades has been rare and endangered marine species, such as sawfish, which is the first sea fish to be listed on the U.S. Endangered Species list.  In recent years, there’s been some hope for sawfish populations in South Florida (see this video). Yet, rules published by the National Marine Fisheries Service listed five species of sawfish as endangered this past month in its final ruling.

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

“The final rule contains the Service’s determination that the narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidate), dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata), largetooth sawfish (collectively, Pristis pristis), green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) and the non-U.S. distinct population segment (DPS) of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) are endangered species under the ESA.” (Miller, December 2014)  (See info on the rule in the Federal Register here.)

What makes a thing like the sawfish rare?

Rarity is driven by scale—how many, how much, how big an area. Rarity means that something occurs infrequently, either in the form of endemism, being restricted to a certain place, or by the smallness of a population. In conservation biology the proportion or percentage of habitable sites or areas in which a particular species is present determines the rarity of a species.[1] In addition to the areas in which a particular species is present, the number of individuals found in that area also determines its rarity. There are different types of rarity which can be based on three factors: 1) geographical range – the species may occur in sufficient numbers but only live in a particular place, for example, an island; 2) the habitat specificity – if the species is a “specialist,” meaning it might be confined to a certain type of habitat, it could be found all over the world but only in that specific habitat, for example, tropical rainforests; 3) the population size – a small or declining population might cause rarity. [2] Generally a species can be locally very common but globally very uncommon, thereby making it rare and furthermore, valuable. A species can also be the opposite, globally common but spread out few and far between so that individuals have a hard time sustaining their populations through reproduction and dispersal.

But usually when a person thinks of rarity, they are probably thinking about a species that occurs in very low numbers and lives in only one place, as in many of the endemic creatures on the Galapagos Islands. It is this latter-most perception of rarity that plays a critical role in conservation work. People value rarity because it makes a living thing special—even if it had intrinsic value before it became rare, if it ever lived in greater numbers or more widespread populations.

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish are a rare, unique—and critically endangered group of elasmobranches—sharks, skates and rays, that are most known for their toothed rostrum. Once common inhabitants of coastal, estuarine areas and rivers throughout the tropics, sawfish populations have been decimated by decades of fishing and survive—barely—in isolated habitats, according to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. Seven recognized species of sawfish, including the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), are listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. In addition to the extensive gillnetting and trawling, sawfish are threatened by habitat degradation from coastal development. Sawfish prefer mangroves and other estuarine wetlands. Currently the sawfish population is believed to be restricted to remote areas of southwest Florida, particularly in the Everglades and the Keys. Sawfish are primarily a freshwater-loving creature but they occasionally go out to sea. Lobbyists proposed to add sawfish to Appendix 1 of CITES in 1994 (as part of the first Shark Resolution) to stop the trade in saws but the proposal was defeated in 1997 because it could not demonstrate that stopping trade would provide the necessary protection in wild populations. [See Petition to List North American Populations of Sawfish, 1999, here.] Subsequent proposals in 2007 and 2013 were successful, according to Shark Advocates International. According to the Mote Marine Laboratory conservation biologists, “even if effective conservation plans can be implemented it will take sawfish populations decades, or possibly even centuries, to recover to post-decline levels.” This is the fundamental crux of rarity in conservation biology: even if we do perfect conservation work, once a species is rare and critically endangered, it can take much longer for a species to recover than the time it took to reach the brink of extinction.  In November 2014, all sawfish species were listed on Appendix I & II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates explains to me:  The listing of smalltooth sawfish is therefore the most relevant; it has resulted in critical habitat designation, a comprehensive recovery plan, cutting edge research, and encouraging signs of population stabilization and growth.

See this NOAA Fisheries video on smalltooth sawfish conservation.

Several different organizations, in addition to federal and state agencies, are working to protect and conserve sawfish habitat and the endangered species. Here are some links to a few of these organizations and their fact sheets on sawfish:

Save the Sawfish

Sawfish Conservation Society

Shark Advocates, Fact Sheet on Smalltooth Sawfish

Florida Museum of Natural History, Sawfish Conservation

Save our Seas, Conservation of Sawfish Project

Fact sheet for the 11th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP11) to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) on Sawfish (5 species)

IUCN Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy 

[1] Begon, Michael, John L. Harper, Colin Townsend. Ecology: Individuals, Populations, and Communities. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, London, et. al. 1990. Glossary pp. 859..

[2] Pullin, Andrew. Conservation Biology. Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp.199-201.

Strange Wetlands: Preventing a Lesser Known Tick-Borne Illness, Anaplasmosis

My trusty dog, Sophie-Bea, a dachshund-pointer, and I frequently walk through wetlands. First, my land is rich in wetlands: a black ash seep, which I call “Fern Gully,” a vernal pool with wood frogs and sallies, and a perennial stream that flows into Raymond Pond. We like to walk along a pine-needled path from my woods down to the pond and back. Lately, a thick mustard yellow froth of pollen coats the surface of the pond. If I had let the dog wade in the water, she would have come out looking more like a yellow lab, albeit a weirdly shaped one. (She’s black and white.) At the edge of the pond, she sniffed the water and it turned her pointy black nose into a clownish canary blotch.  IMG_0295

This time of year, we’re more mindful of ticks. In addition to treating her with Frontline, I pat her down with a natural bug repellant called Skeeter Skedaddle™ – the kind that’s dog-friendly. I love how it smells. I wear it, too, and slathered it on that day, like any other day. I made the mistake of wearing sandals though and by the time I got home, I unstrapped the sandals to find a fat tick stuck to the top of my foot. It glowed red in its belly. I pulled it off and noticed two bite marks. After disposing of the tick, which is unwise to flush into the toilet I’ve learned, but to burn the tick with a match (carefully in the sink), I applied witch hazel and hydrogen peroxide onto the bites, along with a dab of antibacterial ointment. It doesn’t itch. It did worry me.

A year ago this month, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness called Anaplasmosis. It’s a tick-borne illness caused by a tick bite from a tick infected with the germ called Anaplasma phagocytophilum. Last summer, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent out an alert about Anaplasmosis. The alert explained that cases of Anaplasmosis are on the rise in Maine. Previously, it was rare for someone to contract this illness from a tick bite in the Pine Tree State. Even in summer 2012, hospitals misdiagnosed people with “the flu,” when in some cases, it was actually this Anaplasmosis. In my case, it was most likely Anaplasmosis, since I walk through the woods often and come into contact with areas known to inhabit ticks. I occasionally find ticks in my home.

Symptoms of Anaplasmosis include fever, headache, malaise, severe body aches, cough, joint pain, stiff neck and confusion.  In June 2012, I thought I’d eaten a bad avocado, or been exposed to the bad kind of an algae bloom while swimming in the lake. (I wrote about the algae bloom in my Adventures of Fen Fatale series.) At the time, I was working for ASWM and I started to feel sick on a Monday–sweaty, coming down with a fever, nausea. Images of globs of algae clung to me as I suffered through a fever of 102 degrees for two days. On Tuesday night, I called 911 and the EMTs came to my house, since I was convinced I was dying of some kind of poison,  tetanus or some other ill fate. It felt like my organs had seized up and everything hurt.  Chills all over. The body aches were so severe that I had to crawl down the stairs to let the EMTs into my house (rather than let them bust in the door). The EMTs found me delirious from the fever. Even after the fever came down on Wednesday, I couldn’t walk for a few days; my relatives came to take care of me, since I was bedridden. (This is highly unusual for me, since I have an almost superhuman immune system.) It was frightening, too.

See fact sheets, prevention info and notices to Maine residents from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention here. 

Since then, I’ve done some research on how to prevent this from happening again. The reality is that Anaplasmosis is treated differently than that of Lyme Disease. When a person suspects that a tick bite has left that tell-tale sign, a bull’s eye shaped bite, that person has an option of getting an anti-biotic to prevent the onset of Lyme Disease. The same is not true for those who might have contracted Anaplasmosis. The main “prevention” is to reduce exposure to ticks by wearing appropriate clothing and checking clothes and skin for ticks. Apparently, in cases of people contracting Anaplasmosis, they often don’t remember getting a tick bite, and there is no tell-tale bull’s eye mark. For specific prevention and treatment information, visit http://www.cdc.gov/anaplasmosis/ . If you do get a tick bite, pay attention to symptoms if they occur. If you get a fever, and think you might have come into contact with a tick, contact your doctor or a health professional. Treatment is important. Anaplasmosis can be serious, or fatal, in babies, toddlers, elderly people and those with a compromised immune system. For others, it can mean a week of severe body aches, fever, malaise, etc. It certainly knocked the wind out of my sails.

Read these related blog posts:

Mosquitoes, ticks and bees are summer hazards, as are sunshine and poison ivy – Washington Post Blog – June 17, 2013

Drs. Oz and Roisen: Tick, tick, tick  – June 2013

Tick-borne disease is on the rise in Maine and Anaplasmosis in particular – May 2013

Visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden for the National Wetlands Awards Ceremony

Last week I started my new job as Editor of the National Wetlands Newsletter, a bi-monthly publication of the Environmental Law Institute, based in Washington, D.C. It was the first time I visited Washington as an adult (not counting changing planes at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA). My grandfather, Rufus Stetson, brought me to Washington when I was 13 and we stayed at his “club” and visited the Washington Zoo. Bebop, as I called him, was a U.S. tax attorney for the federal government (Justice Department, U.S. Treasury, etc.) in the 1950s and ’60s, and so it seemed fitting to me that I would begin this new role at the Environmental Law Institute while walking in his old stomping grounds in the NW quarter.

I stayed on E Street, a few blocks from the Smithsonian museums–although I worked until after 6pm most evenings, and the museums closed at 5:30pm (except for Fridays and weekends) so I didn’t get a chance to see any of the Smithsonian museums during this trip. On May 9th, I attended the National Wetlands Awards ceremony at the U.S. Botanic Garden, which I loved exploring. Severe allergies gripped me as soon as I arrived in D.C. on Sunday evening, and I couldn’t breathe well most of the week. As I walked around the exhibits of various ecosystems in the Botanic Garden, I breathed easiest in the “Hawaii” exhibit.  I confess that I went to “Hawaii” every chance I got (a few times) throughout the evening’s activities en route to the ladies’ room or just to catch my breath. The ceremony recognized seven leaders in wetland categories, e.g. State/Tribal Program Management, Community Leadership, Education/Outreach. ELI’s President John Cruden gave the keynote address and all of the speakers, including the presenters and the award winners, inspired us with stories about protecting and restoring wetlands. Starting in a couple of weeks, I will become the Manager of the National Wetlands Awards program.  I’ll be responsible for planning the ceremony for May 2014, the program’s 25th anniversary.

If I don’t write much in this blog for the next few weeks, it’s only because I’ve taken the helm at the National Wetlands Newsletter, and I’m focused on setting up my new office. I will also be working on the two new websites for the National Wetlands Newsletter and the National Wetlands Awards in the coming weeks. If you’re an avid reader of the NWN, please reach out to me with feedback or suggestions as I work on the new website and summer issue.

Healthy Waters Coalition – What’s on Our Minds, In Our Hearts

At my Healthy Waters Coalition meeting tonight, where we discussed the value of accurate, balanced information about oil spill prevention, I accidentally spilled pink lemonade across the agenda.  (From now on, the incident will be remembered as the “pink spill,” and it can be added to a long list of funny things I have done while leading coalition meetings.) I began to think about what’s really motivating our efforts to inform and educate Sebago Lakes Region citizens and local businesses about watershed issues.

We are a water-based economy here in this part of southern Maine. Boat rentals and recreation-based businesses, real estate and restaurants, florists and landscaping contractors, summer camps for children and accommodations (think: Inn by the Pond), not to mention waterfront property in towns–and property taxes paid to Towns–all bring in millions of dollars in annual revenue for the Sebago Lakes Region. The State of Maine tracks the annual revenue for freshwater fishing and accommodations for several Lakes Region towns. Wetlands are valued for their ecological services, too, and that translates to dollars. Real dollars. Wetlands attenuate flooding and aid in filtering waters to provide good water quality in our groundwater, which produces the drinking water for those who have private wells.  All of the headwater streams (94-100% of streams) in the region are located in Source Water Protection Areas (SPAs), meaning that they directly feed into a public drinking water system. In our region, that system is Sebago Lake, which is so clean, it’s exempt from the federal filtration requirement, an expensive option if ever it were to become necessary for the Portland Water District to put in place.

I want to reach out to other groups engaged in an open dialogue about the possible transportation of oil sands through New England and the importance of protecting our local watersheds, local economy–as the two are interconnected.  While the HWC already has members in 8 Lakes Region towns, representatives from local government boards and committees, watershed organizations, local businesses and other interests, such as Saint Joseph’s College, and we have partnered with some fantastic environmental and conservation-oriented nonprofit organizations already, I’d like to connect the Healthy Waters Coalition with a broader network.  I’m interested in connecting with folks at ConservAmerica, town and city revitalization committees, regional Chambers of Commerce, and the business community. We have so much invested in our waters. While pondering this, I scribbled some thoughts and turned it into this info-graphic (below). I like how it came out. Let me know what you think.

HWC_wordle3

The State(s) of Sea Level Rise Science

Peaks Island, Maine

Peaks Island, Maine

In early April, I read an issue of a Peaks Island, Maine newspaper. On the front page, a story’s headline caught my eye:  “Sea level rise not caused by climate change, scientists confirm.” At first I assumed it was an April Fool’s joke, but the date was not April 1st. Then I got upset. I read. It seems that the journalist had (mis)interpreted a report on sea levels in Casco Bay that affirmed the sea level has risen for much longer than most people have known about global climate change. In fact, the State of Maine has over 100 years worth of sea level rise data because the City of Portland has tracked sea level in Portland harbor since 1901. That’s valuable data. The University of Southern Maine has conducted a series of studies on sea level rise, sustainability and the economics involved with planning for adaptation. According to the Environmental Finance Center at the Muskie School (USM), “at least 100 coastal New England towns will be impacted by sea level rise and increased storm surge from climate change.” Read about their COAST and Climate Ready Estuary projects here.

The State of Maine published its climate change action plan in 2004. It identified sea level rise adaptation planning as a necessity. In particular, the Maine Geological Survey conducted several pilot projects that assessed coastal wetland migration. The state’s coastal zoning laws and management practices changed several years ago to reflect sea level rise. Read the 2010 report, “People and Nature: Adapting to a Changing Climate, Charting Maine’s Course.” A great list of collaborators contributed to the development of “People and Nature,” including Natural Resources Council of Maine, several state agencies, several cities and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. It’s hard to find on the state’s website because the State Planning Office’s website was moved and merged with those of other departments.

Meanwhile, adaptation planning has moved to the forefront of climate change science in recent years. Sea level rise scientists at NASA, USGS and other agencies engaged in an online chat session about the state of the science for sea level rise and adaptation planning in early April 2013. (You can listen to the discussion after-the-fact.) What I found interesting is that salt marsh ecology and wetlands play such a vital role in our understanding of sea level rise and its implications for coastal systems. Over the past 6 years, I’ve done some research on sea level rise and learned of sea level rise tools and adaptation planning efforts underway all over the country. A hotspot for sea level rise research is the East coast of the United States, where sea level rise is occurring at a faster rate between Cape Cod and the coast of North Carolina—faster than anywhere else in the world.

Leah Stetson photo

Leah Stetson photo

Several other states have begun to plan for sea level rise. Click on the links below to learn more about what states are doing about sea level rise and adapting natural resource management strategies for climate change. In most cases, it’s a collaborative effort.

MA: Mass Fish & Game Adaptation Planning       MA sea level rise planning maps
MA: Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee
NY: New York Sea Level Rise Planning        NY Sea Level Rise Task Force Report 2010
CT: Connecticut Climate Change Adaptation Reports
RI: Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: New Jersey Coastal Management Program Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: Sea Level Rise in New Jersey, New Jersey Geological Survey Report, 1998
NJ, DE, PA, NY: Delaware River Basin Commission Climate Change Hydrology Report, 2013
DE: Delaware Sea Level Rise Planning & Adaptation
MD: Living Shorelines Program (Chesapeake Bay Trust)
MD: A Sea Level Response Strategy for Maryland (2000)
VA: Planning for Sea Level Rise, Virginia Institute for Marine Science
VA Sea Level Rise Maps
VA: Sea Level Rise Planning at Local Government Level in Virginia
VA: Government Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise
GA: University of Georgia, Sea Grant – Sea Level Rise Planning & Research
FL: Florida’s Resilient Coasts: State Policy Framework for Adaptation (PDF)
FL: Multidisciplinary Review of Current Sea Level Rise Research in Florida  (University of Florida)
MS & AL: Mississippi and Alabama Sea Grant Consortium – Resilience in Coastal Communities
Gulf of Mexico States: Climate Community of Practice: Sea Level Rise Planning
LA: Coastal Protection & Restoration – Recommendations for Sea Level Rise Planning (Includes Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan)
CA: California’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water Resources (2012)
CA: State Resources on Sea Level Rise and Adaptation Planning
CA: Adapting to Sea Level Rise Report (2012)
CA, OR, WA: Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon and Washington (2012)
OR: A Strategy for Adapting to Impacts of Climate Change on the Oregon Coast (2009)
OR: LiDAR Sea Level Rise Research (NOAA Digital Services)
WA: Addressing Sea Level Rise in Shoreline Master Programs (Guidance) (2007)
WA: Sea Level Rise Assessment: Impacts of Climate Change on the Coast (2007)
AK: Alaska’s Melting Permafrost and Melting Sea Ice (national research)
AK: Climate change impacts in Alaska (EPA)
NC: North Carolina Coastal Federation – Sea Level Rise

A note about North Carolina: Several state agencies, including the Departments of Environment & Natural Resources, Transportation and Commerce, all identified threats and risks from sea level rise in 2010. At the time, the state’s Governor signed a letter confirming this. Two years later, North Carolina’s State Senate passed a law that banned sea level rise adaptation planning based on the current science. The House of Representatives rejected the bill, but a compromised version of the bill called for a new study on sea level rise for North Carolina and a ban on exponential sea level rise predictions in modeling. Read this Scientific American article on NC and sea level rise, and the 2012 USGS study that found increasing sea level rise impacts on the coast between Cape Cod and the Carolinas. See “More unwanted national attention for North Carolina on sea level rise” (2013).

If you’re interested in a good summary of sea level rise policy in states, see this 2012 legislative report by Kristin Miller, et. al. (Connecticut General Assembly). It includes an analysis of sea level rise related policy in ten states (Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.)

Update: Check out Nickolay Lamm’s Sea Level Rise Images Depict What U.S. Cities Could Look Like In Future (PHOTOS) – click here. 

The Love Lives of Horseshoe Crabs, Not Cannibals

Amidst the studies on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on coastal communities—which affected the lives of people, most notably—some recent studies have examined the impacts on the lives of a strange ancient creature: horseshoe crabs. Distant relatives of scorpions and spiders, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, or crustaceans. They’ve been around for over 1 billion years and lived alongside dinosaurs. See “The Life and Times of the Earliest Horseshoe Crabs,” (Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum). Unlike a scorpion, crab or spider, horseshoe crabs don’t bite, sting or pinch. And unlike cannibalistic crustaceans, adult horseshoe crabs do not congregate (except to spawn seasonally), which is possibly a way to avoid large crabs attacking smaller horseshoe crabs—thus, avoiding cannibalistic behavior as a species. (Sekiguchi, Shuster, Jr., 1999) Their anatomy is interesting, as illustrated below.

Each spring, horseshoe crabs spawn along creek-mouth beaches and shoals. They like sandy beaches. Naturally, these coastal areas, rich in wetlands, peat bogs and saltwater marsh, were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. What’s more, sea level rise has eroded certain coastal beaches where horseshoe crabs used to spawn, decreasing the habitat suitable for spawning. See Sea Level Rise and the Significance of Marginal Beaches for Horseshoe Crab Spawning (Botton and Loveland, 2011).

In the Delaware Bay, for example, the American Littoral Society, along with the Wetlands Institute, the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection and New Jersey Audubon, have assessed the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on horseshoe crab populations in the Bay. Watch this video of horseshoe crab spawning in Delaware. Read Hurricane Sandy Race To Restore Horseshoe Crab Spawning Grounds (March 2013). Videos depict horseshoe crabs spawning, swimming upside down and righting themselves.

In a joint report by the Wetlands Institute, NJ Audubon Society and NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife (“Damage from Superstorm Sandy to Horseshoe Crab Breeding and Shorebird Stopover Habitat on Delaware Bay,” December 2012), wetlands did well overall, despite some “wash over” during storm surges of Hurricane Sandy, according to Lenore Tedesco, Ph.D. Director of Research at the Wetlands Institute. Yet a major finding was a 70% decrease in suitable breeding habitat for horseshoe crabs. In addition, there was about the same amount of increase in unsuitable habitat for horseshoe crab spawning. Specifically, the scientists classified the types of habitat into five categories:

  1. Optimal: undisturbed sand beach;
  2. Suitable: sand beach with only small areas of peat and/or backed by development
  3. Less Suitable: exposed peat in lower/middle intertidal zone;
    sand present in upper intertidal;
  4. Avoided habitat:  exposed peat or active salt marsh fringing the shoreline;
    no sand present
  5. Disturbed due to beach fill, riprap or bulkheading.
    (Niles, Tedesco, Sellers, et. al. 2012)

In areas where the habitat is less suitable, with exposed peat, there is less sand for the horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs. The full report includes recommendations for habitat restoration. For more information about post-Sandy restoration recommendations, visit the Wetlands Institute’s website here.

Many years ago, I learned that horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) lay at the heart of some medical advances in immunology research. Apparently, horseshoe crab blood and immunology can serve scientists with a model to develop treatments for patients with HIV, AIDS or other immune deficiency disorders. Its “blue blood” contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, which allows medical researchers to detect bacterial toxins. In ecological projects, the spawning and genetic diversity of horseshoe crabs is the focus, or the relationship between horseshoe crabs and fisheries. For an overview of various research projects on horseshoe crabs happening in 18 states and two countries, see these project summaries. There’s some fascinating research underway.

The Wetland Institute has a number of publications on its website related to horseshoe crab research and conservation. There’s also an “Adopt a Horseshoe Crab” program and horseshoe crab census data available from 1999-2009. In May, the Institute holds festival activities, including teaching tank/aquarium talks on saltmarsh ecology, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. For more information about the Horseshoe Crab Festival in May,click here.

More videos:

See horseshoe crab counting (Washington Post video, June 2012)
NATURE program on horseshoe crabs (PBS, 2008)
Horseshoe crab documentary (Nick Baker, Science Channel)

For more on horseshoe crab biology and ecology, see this National Park Service webpage and materials developed by the Mid-Atlantic Sea Grant and NOAA joint programs on horseshoe crab research. Finally, check outhttp://horseshoecrab.org/ which houses an online warehouse of information on the biology, conservation and research of horseshoe crabs.

Afflicted Bats Need Avengers; Bat Counters Needed

Lots of people are talking about “Batman.” Why did the “dark knight” choose bats as a symbol for his vigilantism?  In the comics, Bruce Wayne creates his ‘Batman’ identity when he conquered his childhood fear of bats. He created the illusion of having the speed, agility and nocturnal instincts of the only mammal able to sustain flight: the bat.

Although some people readily see the value of bats—including wetlandkeepers—other people are afraid of bats. Myths about bats, such as that bats carry rabies, are unfounded. Less than 1% of bats carry rabies. An individual is more likely to come across a skunk or domestic dog with rabies, than to encounter a bat with rabies. However, it is likely nowadays to find a bat infected with another disease. That is, if you can find a bat at all. Bats are sending up their own “bat-signal” of distress and need our help.

Currently bats in the U.S. are suffering the plight of white nose syndrome, a deadly fungus infection affecting a growing number of bat populations in North America. It started in New York in a bat colony in 2006. The fungus, Geomyces destructans, is considered an invasive species (Lanwig, Frick, et. al. Ecology Letters, 2012). Five years later, the disease has spread to 19 different states.  The death toll of North American bats succumbing to white nose syndrome was 5.5 million as of January 2012.

Myth: Bats will (not) entangle in your hair. Fact: Bats are natural pest control for crops. Myth: Bats suck blood. Fact: You’d have to leave the United States to find a vampire bat. The most common bats in the United States eat insects. Those of us in mosquito-stricken areas of the country, like Maine, are aware of bats’ ability to consume thousands of mosquitoes in a single night. Bats like to swoop through wetlands and riparian areas, and in turn, bat guano fertilizes vegetation. What most people don’t know is that “bat guano is big business” outside the U.S. as a source of fertilizer.  Also see: Effects of wetland network distribution on bat activity.

The most recent studies show that the more “social” the bats are, the tighter the cluster of bats in a colony, the more likely the disease is to spread. The grim reality is that the fungus has wiped out bat populations by the hundreds of thousands throughout the country. It’s in Delaware. It’s in Missouri. It’s in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.  White nose syndrome has been confirmed in Wyoming and Maine, too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a protocol for treatment and reduction of spreading the white nose syndrome in June 2012. For instance, if you handle a bat with white nose syndrome while wearing gloves, be sure to wash the gloves in hot water afterwards.

What’s strange is that not every bat infected with the fungus is dying. Sometimes a bat infected with white nose syndrome can live for a full year or longer after infection. In other cases, such as the big brown bat, scientists don’t know how the bats are avoiding the white nose syndrome; it might have to do with migrating south as opposed to huddling together in the infected caves, where the fungus is present. The endangered Indiana bat has not been hit as hard as biologists feared (their population is down about 70%).  One of the most common bats in the Northeast, the little brown bat, has taken a nosedive –its population plummeting by 90% due to white nose syndrome. SeeNortheastern Bat Update and Bats on the Brink.  There has been some hope in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire:  some of the little brown bat colonies are surviving and having pups, based on reports from state Fish and Game agencies. State agencies are calling for citizens to count bats and help promote awareness about them. In addition to research in the U.S., this year happens to be ‘Year of the Bat’ for international research and awareness about bats across the globe.

For the FWS’ blog on White Nose Syndrome, visit:http://whitenosebats.wordpress.com/
For information on Vermont’s Bat Program, click here.
For information on New Hampshire’s Bat Program, click here. 
For National Park Service (KY)’s Bat Program, visit:http://www.nps.gov/maca/whitenose.htm
Also see related blog post, White-nose syndrome confirmed in endangered gray bats

Pond Scum: The Good, the Bad, and the Sludgy

Globs of algae the size of human heads floated around like something out of a B-movie on MST3K. It was unnerving to bump into one of them. I can handle swimming with eels…but I find it creepy to swim with severed head-shaped algae clusters. When I arrived at my little local lakeside beach in southern Maine, I thought I was lucky because no one else was there in 90-degree heat. Then I realized the beach was vacant because of the algal bloom. An algal bloom is a concentration of cyanobacteria. Strange Wetlands covered types of algae blooms, including blue green algae, in an earlier post (2010).

In the Great Lakes region this summer, some communities are seeing algal blooms, including the Eastern parts of Lake Erie. Algal blooms turn the water a bright scummy green. Some of the vegetation washes ashore in clumps, deterring beach goers but not always causing beach closings.  However, NOAA has recently issued a prediction that western Lake Erie should see a lesser algal bloom this summer. This is good news.NOAA, partners predict mild harmful algal blooms for western Lake Erie this year. A presentation will be held on algal blooms and the “Lake Erie Dead Zone” by an aquatic biologist in Cleveland Heights on July 25th.  For more information about the Lake Erie Dead Zone, visit EPA’s webpage. But this year’s bloom on Lake Erie is likely to be only one tenth the size of the bloom that occurred last year.

Last year, Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom was visible from space (2011). In fact last year’s algae blooms in the Great Lakes were touted as the ‘worst since the 1960s,’ something akin to the comics of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” The Natural Resources Defense Council presented analysis of Ohio beach closings and algal bloomsand on New York beaches for Lake Ontario and Lake Erie with monitoring data collected in 2011. Full report here.

What’s the issue this summer? Not all algae, or “pond scum,” is created equal. Some amount of algae is a normal part of the ecosystem but too much of the wrong types are harmful. A Great Lakes native algae called Spirogyra is thriving on the conditions caused by invasive zebra and quagga mussels. The result is a sludge-like mat of green algae that washes up on beaches along Lake Michigan and other lakes. Another green alga, Cladophora, increased because of the zebra mussels, and both types of algae wash ashore in thick mats, which rot, stink and harbor E. Coli, Salmonella and other pathogens. The stench from the beach muck is comparable to manure. See video, “All Washed Up: Lake Michigan’s Algae Challenge.” For a fact sheet on Harmful Algae Blooms & Muck: What’s the Difference (Michigan Sea Grant), click here. For more about the relationship between algae and zebra mussels, see Changes in the benthic algal community and nutrient limitation in Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron, during the invasion of the zebra mussel (report, 2002).

Another serious factor this summer is drought, which is occurring in a large part of the country. For instance in Wisconsin, the hot weather has caused harmful blue green algae blooms in Lake Winnebago and Tainter/Menomin lakes, where there is a history of blooms, but the harmful algae is also showing up in lakes where it previously did not occur. They are facing a similar problem to that in Lake Michigan with the zebra mussels and Cladophora, warned to be harmful to boaters and swimmers. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has found dead waterfowl, most likely killed by botulism, in Wisconsin lakes this year. For a past FWS report on waterfowl and botulism in the Wisconsin lakes, click here.

Algal blooms are probably not at the top of the list of issues concerning those keeping an eye on the Farm Bill developments—but this is one of the reasons why the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title is so crucial to the protection of wetlands and water resources—including the Great Lakes. See Farm Bill Conservation Programs Are ‘Essential for Great Lakes Restoration’