Deep Trouble: A Dying Sea
Gulf marine life, birds fight losing battle against pollution, people
DIANNA SMITH / Naples Daily News (Florida) 3oct03
[Mindfully.org note: This is the 6th in a 15-part series. We strongly suggest visiting the Daily News]
An X-ray shows how debris tossed into the Gulf can lodge in sea turtles and other species that are finding it more difficult to locate nature's food. Researchers say rubbish is increasingly causing injuries and death to marine life, including endangered species like sea turtles. More then 50 sea turtles a year end up in the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Cameron Gillie/Staff
Widget was like a piρata when she first came to the Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys.
But instead of pieces of candy, the loggerhead sea turtle was filled with garbage.
Inside her were three shredded balloons red, green and black. One plastic glove the kind sandwich makers wear in fast-food joints. A black cap that looked like it belonged on a tire stem, and some duct tape.
Widget ate the items, mistaking them for food.
The pieces of garbage are now in a glass jar that sits on a counter in the hospital, where only sick turtles are examined. As Widget rested in her own tank, volunteers waited for more junk to flow out of her.
Once her system was clean, volunteers would take the jar with them when they talked about pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.
Debris in the Gulf is only one type of pollution that harms sea turtles and other species. For many humans, the Gulf serves as a gigantic garbage can. For marine species, like Widget, it's their home, which she returned to in July.
Researchers are finding that rubbish and human error, such as boaters disregarding speed zones, are causing injuries and deaths of some marine life, including endangered species like sea turtles.
They also are finding that other types of pollutants such as pesticides and an algae bloom called red tide are just as harmful, perhaps worse, to marine life such as dolphins, manatees and birds. But it is even more difficult to prove that these silent killers are the reasons for countless deaths.
"The one thing we always worry about is when there is no injury," turtle hospital founder Rich Moretti said. "We have a lot of pollutants out there. It's so hard to pin it down."
Moretti is a former hippie turned turtle hospital and motel owner who resembles a younger Ozzy Osbourne without the tattoos.
His long, dark brownish-gray hair is held together with a faded white ponytail holder. While he talks to his guests and employees, he stares at them through round, pink-tinted glasses that cover his small, brown eyes.
Moretti does the talking for the sea turtles. He's like a kid on a sugar-high when he talks about his patients.
His six volunteers care for a variety of sick turtles some need their flippers amputated or have shells cracked open by collisions with boats. Others like Widget have their bellies full of debris. Some are like a green sea turtle named Snickers, who has fibropapillomatosis, a deadly disease that causes cauliflower-shaped tumors to develop on turtle bodies like chicken pox on humans.
Some of the turtles are in a 10-foot-deep pool, which is divided into three sections by thick, brown nets. The two small sections house sick turtles. Once their health improves, they graduate to the larger section, where they can swim with other marine life such as barracudas, snapper and puffer fish. Once they are fully recovered, they are released into the Gulf.
Other turtles in need of special attention, like Widget, are in round tanks that resemble 5-foot-high hot tubs, which volunteers step into when it's time to give the turtles their shots. They pet them like dogs.
There are labels on each tank displaying the turtles' names, their illness and what they get to eat that day, such as shrimp or squid pieces. At least 50 sea turtles are in the hospital throughout the year.
Moretti didn't know much about sea turtles before he moved to Marathon in the 1980s. He retired from his job as a Volkswagen repairman in Orlando and bought a bungalow-type motel, which raises the money to keep the Turtle Hospital going.
Moretti, 59, created a saltwater pool on the grounds so he could display exotic fish. Soon after, he wanted to display sea turtles, but found out the only way he could was if he had a state permit to rehabilitate the turtles because they are endangered. He got the permit, but never thought he would spend a huge amount of time rehabilitating them.
Once they started piling in, Moretti took an interest.
When people go fishing, whether it's from a boat or a pier, they usually have with them buckets of fishing supplies, such as bait in sandwich bags, fishing line, hooks and rope. For whatever reason, the wind or carelessness, the contents are sometimes spilled into the Gulf where sea turtles, birds and other species mistake the debris for food or get entangled in the line.
Nets are another threat to turtle survival. Thousands of sea turtles have died because they drowned in trawling nets used by shrimpers.
An estimated 40,000 sea turtles drowned each year before 1989, said Ben Higgins, a research fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 1989, the United States required that offshore shrimpers have turtle excluder devices in their nets and Higgins said the law has helped immensely. The devices are sewn into the back of the nets so the turtles can escape and return to their habitat.
- VIDEO CLIP ONE Richard Moretti, Dr. Peter Ortner and Dr. Brian Lapointe, three leading scientists, share insights into what could be causing a rise in marine diseases.
- VIDEO CLIP TWO Dr. Eugene Turner, professor of coastal sciences at Louisiana State University, discusses his studies of wetlands and how runoff and industry are affecting fisheries.
- VIDEO CLIP THREE Rick Trout, founder of the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo, discusses the increasing numbers of dying marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico.
- GO TO THE MAIN VIDEO PAGE This page allows you to view the video clips from the 15 day Deep Trouble: The Gulf In Peril series.
- GO TO THE MAIN SERIES PAGE From this page, you can view all all 15 days of Deep Trouble: The Gulf In Peril series.
"It's helped. If we didn't do something, the Kemp's ridley (sea turtle) would have probably gone extinct," Higgins said. "In 1985, there were 705 (turtle) nests in Mexico. This year, as of the middle of May, there were 7,200 nests. We're at 10 times the nesting level we were in 1985." Turtles also are known to become entangled in fishing line or rope tied to crab traps, which damages their flippers.
But the most common surgery performed is the removal of debilitating viral tumors that affect more than 50 percent of the sea turtles in the Keys and around the world.
When sea turtles have fibropapillomatosis, tumors cover their body, including their eyes, bellies and flippers.
Tumors on the flippers make it impossible for turtles to move them, making it difficult to search for food. The tumors can become so large, eventually they lose their blood source. Some turtles arrive at the hospital alive, but covered in dead tumors.
When sea turtles with the disease are brought to the hospital, the staff takes X-rays to see if the tumors are inside the bodies as well. If they are, the turtles are euthanized because the tumors will continue to multiply and the turtle will eventually die.
If the tumors aren't internal, those on the body are removed with a laser. Those turtles have to stay at the hospital at least one year so the volunteers can make sure there's no regrowth. They believe the turtles build an immunity to the disease.
Scientists have been able to transmit the disease, which proves that it is infectious.
Volunteers say there isn't enough time for researchers to develop a vaccine for the virus that causes it because they are busy caring for the large number of turtles that frequent the hospital.
Each of the seven types of sea turtles, all of which are endangered, have been found with the disease. But the tumors were first found on green turtles. Then, 10 years ago, people started to see them on loggerhead turtles in Florida Bay.
Still today, no one really knows what causes the virus.
Researchers like Larry Herbst believe the virus is dependent on water temperature.
Herbst, the director of the Institute for Animal Studies at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said sea turtles are cold-blooded animals and that their metabolism is linked to temperature.
"I have every belief if you look seasonally at water temperature, you'll see an effect on how fast the tumors and how well the virus spreads," Herbst said.
Experiments have been conducted for more than 60 years. Although more than $1 million has been spent on research, the cause remains just as mysterious as finding a cure for the common cold.
Not far from the car horns and rattling engines on U.S. 1 sits the Marathon Wild Bird Center Inc., operated by Kelly Grinter.
Besides the high-pitched squawking of birds and the fluttering of wings, the only other noise one can hear is Grinter talking to the birds as one would a baby.
The bird hospital, paid for with proceeds from Grinter's pet-sitting business, sits on an old estate that stretches across 60 acres. What used to be the garage is now the bird hospital. A tennis court has been replaced with a maze of bird cages and holding areas for sick birds.
Most of Grinter's patients are there because of humans.
Wings have been sliced from fishing wire, which cuts through a bird's tender skin like a knife.
Many pelicans are there with fish hook injuries, which occur frequently because pelicans linger near bridges and piers where people fish.
When a fisherman fillets a fish, he may throw the carcass to a pelican thinking he is doing the bird a favor. But the carcass is normally too large to inhale and digest, so it gets stuck inside the pelican.
Other birds, like the least tern, are harmed because humans have taken their homes.
The least tern normally nests along beaches, but most beaches are now occupied by tourists and condominium complexes. So the least terns nest on rooftops, which makes it dangerous for the babies. Once the eggs hatch, the least terns wander around the rooftops and sometimes fall off the roofs.
Then there are internal injuries that aren't as easy to explain.
In October 2000, Grinter's bird center received 50 brown pelicans from the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean side of the Florida Keys that at first glance seemed perfectly healthy. But while examining them, she noticed some were paralyzed. Others couldn't blink their eyes.
They were heavy birds and had normal body weights, so she knew it wasn't because they were malnourished.
She thought maybe it was botulism but tests proved her wrong. Today, the cause remains unknown though she still believes that whatever was making them sick was somewhere in the food chain.
Grinter wasn't able to find researchers outside of Florida who had come across brown pelicans in a similar condition. Florida researchers began to think the "poison" was only found in the Florida Keys because loggerhead sea turtles with the same symptoms were beginning to flood the Turtle Hospital a couple of blocks away.
Then the bird center began caring for great white herons who also were paralyzed and couldn't blink.
Herons are territorial and don't travel far from the spots they have designated for themselves. One of the birds had been feeding near a waterfront home in Marathon and the residents took notice of it every day. But one afternoon they noticed the bird lying motionless, so they called for help.
A bird center volunteer approached the heron and was able to pick it up like a baby, without any struggle from the bird.
"It didn't go far to get into whatever it got into to get sick," Grinter said.
Among 12 herons brought to the center in 2000 and the beginning of 2001, only one survived.
The mystery illness, as Grinter and Moretti now call it, hasn't disappeared. The bird center has seen six pelicans this year that were paralyzed, but otherwise healthy.
All have died.
Something is killing the dolphins.
Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota is trying to find out what it is.
One of the worst episodes was on Choctawhatchee Bay along the northern Gulf, where half of the 100 resident bottle-nosed dolphins died from September 1998 through April 1999. Many others have died along the Gulf rim since.
An estimated 10,000 manmade chemicals have made their way into the marine environment, said Randy Wells, director of the Center for Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research at Mote.
"You may find high levels of contaminants in a dead animal, but being able to say the contaminant caused the animal death it is difficult to make the link," Wells said.
Toxic chemicals, like polychlorinated biphenyl, otherwise known as PCBs, have built up in the food chain.
Marine mammals have the highest concentration of any other species, said Jackie Savitz, director of the pollution program for Oceana, an international nonprofit organization created two years ago to restore and protect the world's oceans.
High levels of PCBs have been reported in the tissues of some species of marine mammals. The chemicals suppress immune systems and can harm the reproductive process.
PCBs were mass produced in the United States before they were banned and phased out in the early 1970s. Yet the effects linger in the environment.
"It's this legacy left over by these chemicals the marine life are having to struggle with now," Savitz said.
Mote has been studying the effects PCBs have had on dolphins.
In 1990 and 1992, there were high mortality rates of bottle-nosed dolphins in the Gulf, Mote researchers said.
Although Wells said it's difficult to prove that PCBs or pesticides are to blame for the dolphin deaths, researchers have been able to prove dolphins absorb chemical pollution through the food chain.
Dolphins eat 15 to 35 pounds of fish every day and accumulate the contaminants from fish in their bodies.
They have a lot of fat tissue in their bodies, which changes in thickness from season to season. In the spring, blubber thickness declines because dolphins are in warmer water and that makes it easier for the chemicals to circulate internally.
Researchers have found that first-born calves are at a higher risk of dying because their mother is carrying chemicals that aren't threatening enough to kill a 400-pound dolphin, but toxic enough for a 40-pound baby. Mothers transfer 80 percent of their contaminates to their calves.
Another pesticide researchers are finding in Gulf dolphins is DDT.
DDT is a pesticide that was used worldwide after World War II on mosquitoes that spread malaria and lice that carry typhus, but problems with the insecticide started to appear in the late 1940s. Species of insects started to develop a resistance to DDT and it was discovered to have a high toxicity toward fish.
DDT was banned in the United States in 1973, but is still used in other parts of the world. Some of it can dissipate: The Environmental Protection Agency reported a 90 percent reduction of DDT in Lake Michigan fish by 1978 as a result of the ban.
Still, Wells said DDT has a long lifespan that can stretch over decades.
Mercury is another toxic chemical that has been found in marine mammals. In 1976, the EPA banned most pesticide uses of mercury, and in the 1990s, its use as a fungicide in latex paints also was stopped.
According to the EPA, an estimated 80 percent of the mercury is released into the air from burning fuels, mining and trash-burning incinerators. Another 15 percent is released into the soil from fertilizers, fungicides and garbage, such as discarded batteries, electrical switches and thermometers. The remaining 5 percent is released into water through industrial wastewater.
Mercury pollutants can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested through contaminated water and food.
Researchers have documented cases of birds that have become debilitated because of mercury in their systems.
Cruise ships also are on Oceana's list of Gulf polluters that can harm marine life.
Ships can dump untreated sewage once they are three miles from shore, which Savitz calls a loophole in the federal Clean Water Act. Sewage contains nitrates, phosphates and toxic metal compounds known to cause human health problems. Some researchers say these byproducts also create algae blooms, which can kill marine life and cause disease on coral reefs.
"It's an important habitat," Savitz said. "The reef they form is important for sea turtles; they live in the area. When you start killing the reef, it's like you're taking away a habitat for animals." Cruise ships aren't allowed to throw trash overboard and are told to grind the garbage before spilling it into the Gulf, but Savitz contends that does not always happen. She said cruise-goers have reported to Oceana that plastics are thrown overboard as often as fishing lines are cast into the waters.
Species, such as sea turtles, mistake the plastics for jellyfish, so they eat them. The plastics fill their stomachs so they don't feel hungry, don't eat and eventually may starve to death.
As workers at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa hastily tried to prepare Whidden for her new home, the manatee looked like she was crying.
Water dripped from her button-shaped eyes. What looked like tears was a reaction to moisture in the air, workers said.
Whidden was transported from Sarasota to the manatee hospital one sunny Spring day in a silver Dodge 4x4.
When driver Lucy Keith of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission parked the truck, she opened the back and the smell of rotten fish gushed out as Whidden repeatedly arched her barnacle-covered back.
The movement was a reaction to red tide.
Red tide is a toxic algae bloom that causes respiratory problems in some humans and can kill animals by attacking their nervous systems when the toxin is ingested or inhaled.
It causes paralysis, as well as seizures. Each time Whidden threw her head back and her tail forward, the toxin was shooting through her body like water through a garden hose.
She had five deep cuts scattered on her back. The wounds were shaped like the blades from the propellers that struck her leathery skin.
It took eight people to pull the manatee out of the truck. They wrapped her in a tarp and gently carried her out and onto the ground, where she was lathered in a dark yellow antiseptic. The group then attached the tarp to a crane, which lifted her into a treatment pool where Whidden, believed to be 2 or 3 years old, spent the next 48 hours.
Lowry's assistant curator of Florida mammals, Virginia Edmonds, sat beside her, holding her head out of the water so she could get air and watching her as she twitched from red tide.
Normally, a manatee lifts its head out of the water every minute or two for air; every 20 minutes if it's sleeping.
"Once they're in fresh water, the toxin passes through their system and they're fine," Edmonds said. "But as the toxins pass through their intestines, there is discomfort involved. You just have to sort of wait it out." It takes 24 to 48 hours for a manatee to get rid of red tide.
When Sarasota beach-goers saw Whidden, her head was being pushed out of the water by two adult manatees. She couldn't put her head above water to gasp for air, so her companions were trying to do it for her.
They didn't want her to die.
By the time Katie Edwards of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission got to the 500-pound manatee, she could put her arms beneath the body like a mother would cradle a baby. Edwards guided her through the water to safety.
Although Whidden lived, many manatees don't survive red tide. After they breathe or eat sea grass exposed to red tide, effects range from a bloody nose to paralysis. Scientists don't know how long it takes for one to react and are puzzled why some marine species can be exposed to red tide and never get sick.
Manatees are among the susceptible ones, however.
"It alarms me the number of dead animals we've had," Keith said. "We're a long way from understanding how to prevent such a thing." In 1996 a red tide was blamed for 149 manatee deaths, most of them in a six-week period in March and April. According to state statistics, 305 died in 2002 and about 120 died in the first three months of 2003 of various causes.
The David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital, a non profit center for manatee treatment, has seen more than 100 manatees since it became a part of the 41-acre Lowry Park Zoo in 1991. About 85 percent of those surviving the first 48 hours there have recovered and been released back into the wild.
The hospital sits behind a boardwalk, where visitors strain their necks, hoping to see a manatee in two of the underwater viewing pools. The manatees in those pools are healthy and ready to be released into the wild.
But the ones in the treatment pools have different stories and uncertain futures.
The three 16,500-gallon treatment pools look like above-ground swimming pools normally found in the yards of suburban neighborhoods.
The pools, which are connected to each other, are holding areas for sick manatees. The bottom of the pools are decorated with heads of romaine lettuce, which are shoved into pipes. The hospital staff puts the food at the bottom of the pools to remind the manatees that when they are in the wild, the food they eat, which is sea grass, is along the seabed.
Patients at the manatee hospital are brought in with injuries mostly caused by humans.
Some have damaged flippers because they were entangled in crab trap rope. Others have punctured lungs because they were hit by propellers. Some eat fish hooks and pieces of plastic that fall into the sea grass.
The Florida Marine Research Institute's population survey done in January indicated there were about 3,000 manatees in Florida coastal waters.
The state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is trying to decide whether to drop manatees from the state list of endangered species, changing their status to "threatened" instead.
Turtles. Sea birds. Dolphins. Manatees.
Regardless of their status on an endangered or threatened species list, their futures are linked to the increasingly polluted water body they call home the Gulf.
Activists say their futures may rely on educating the human species. The boaters who speed through manatee zones. The coastal visitors who carelessly discard plastic into the sea grasses that sea cows like Whidden eat. The partiers who release balloons that end up in the stomachs of turtles like Widget.
Widget's picture hangs in the lobby of the motel adjacent to the Turtle Hospital. The garbage she ate sits beneath it.
Tourists, eager to check into the motel to begin their Florida Keys vacation, immediately see pictures of Widget and other sick sea turtles tacked along the walls like strands of Christmas lights.
Next to the pictures are notes explaining what had happened to the sea turtles, like notes in an art museum explaining the paintings. Each one has a story similar to Widget's.
Some might say the pictures are harsh, but the staff wants to drive home the point, said Sue Schaf, the hospital's animal and education coordinator.
Education is one of the most important ways to prevent people from polluting the Gulf, she said. And the only way to keep sea turtles like Widget from spending months of their lives away from home.
"It doesn't hit people until they can actually see it," Schaf said. "They're very shocked. It makes them think. Even if it just hits one person out of 100, at least that's one person who will not throw garbage in the water."
source: http://www.naplesnews.com/03/10/naples/d975382a.htm 3oct03
you have come to this page from an outside location click
here to get back to mindfully.org