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Marine Life

Plastic presents a difficult but necessary to address challenge for the world's oceans. Photo courtesy of United States Coast Guard

By Herb Herman

“The charmed ocean’s pausing, the waves lie still and gleaming, and the lulled winds seem dreaming,” wrote Lord Byron, an 18th-century British poet.

Yet is our ocean, in which scientists estimated in 2014 that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris, still charmed? Of that, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. The United Nations estimated in 2006 every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. According to a University of Georgia study, about 19 billion pounds of plastic trash winds up in our oceans each year.

Durability is one of plastic’s chief properties, which is the reason plastics present a seemingly endless threat to the marine environment. And the oceans are not the only repository of pollutants. Approximately 40 percent of the lakes in America are too polluted for fishing, aquatic life, or swimming. More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals are killed by plastic pollution every year.

One of the main culprits of this high level of ocean, lake and river pollution is from industrial sources, an abundant source of plastics in various forms. Further contributors to pollution are municipalities’ garbage, a significant quantity of which ends up in our waterways. But boaters are not by any means innocent. Virtually all boaters have plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, plastic wrappers and more onboard. Much of this detritus finds its way overboard instead of into designated garbage bags, which should be removed when departing a boat. Remember, plastics are not degradable. And while plastic bags and other items may be labeled as biodegradable, in most cases they will only break down at temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius, a temperature not normally reached in the ocean.

Hurricane Irma resulted in an enormous number of fiberglass boat wrecks in the Florida Keys. In an effort to clean up after the hurricane, many of the boats were crushed, giving off fiberglass particulates. This airborne pollutant made many people ill, to the extent that a number of residents had to be hospitalized. There is no acceptable way to recycle fiberglass, although means for doing just that are widely sought.

Further, plastic microparticles less than 5 millimeters in size, have shown up in the stomachs of marine life. These particles can be consumed by humans, causing still not clearly understood health problems, although it is believed these toxins can cause cancer and stunt the growth of fetuses. The U.N. has further recognized the possibility of these plastic microparticles acting as vehicles for transporting diseases such as Zika and Ebola from animals to humans.

So, you might ask, why bother us, the boating public with these lectures about keeping the trash in the boat and disposing of it responsibly? It might seem that boats contribute a marginal amount of pollution. However, for example, during an average summer, Port Jefferson Harbor has almost 600 resident boats and some 6,000 transients and is a busy cruising destination from May through October. One can imagine the amount of plastic pollution this number of boats could contribute to this beautiful body of water.

“Take it with you” should be emblazoned on all boaters’ minds.

Herb Herman is the public affairs officer for the USCG Auxiliary Port Jefferson Flotilla 014-22-06. He is a distinguished professor emeritus at Stony Brook University.

A few concerned local citizens are taking the health of the Long Island Sound into their own hands.

The 10 locations in Port Jeff Harbor being tested by the Setauket Harbor Task Force. Image from the task force

From May through October, nonprofit Save the Sound, an organization dedicated to the health of the body of water, will continue its Unified Water Study: Long Island Sound Embayment Research program for a second year, testing the water conditions in the Sound’s bays and harbors. The program operates through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and using a corps of trained testers, called Sound Sleuths, who volunteered to measure dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, temperature, salinity and water clarity out on the water at dawn twice monthly during the six-month period. Port Jefferson Harbor will be tested by members of Setauket Harbor Task Force, a nonprofit group founded in 2014 to monitor and advocate for the health of the harbor, who volunteered to serve as Sound Sleuths. Setauket Harbor lies within the greater Port Jefferson Harbor Complex.

Task force members George and Maria Hoffman, Laurie Vetere and volunteer Tom Lyon set out in a roughly 15-foot-long motorboat May 25 at 6:30 a.m. to test 10 randomly preselected specific locations in Port Jeff Harbor, with testing equipment provided by Save the Sound, for the second round of research set to take place this spring and summer. The testing needs to be completed within three hours of sunrise in order to ascertain the most valid data possible, according to George Hoffman.

George Hoffman of Setauket Harbor Task Force tests water chemistry in Port Jefferson Harbor. Photo by Alex Petroski

“I know a lot of people are familiar with water testing, but it’s usually about pathogens,” Hoffman said, which often is examined to determine the safety of swimming or eating shellfish. Testing for water chemistry will reveal more about the health of marine life in the harbor. Hoffman discussed the task force’s plans for testing during a May 6 meeting of the Port Jefferson Harbor advisory commission, a group overseen by the Town of Brookhaven that includes representation from all nearby municipalities and also takes up the responsibility of monitoring harbor health.

“We’re not testing for pathogens,” he said. “This is really about harbor health and chemistry.”

Hoffman said while out on the boat May 25 the group tested each of the 10 sites twice — once about a half a meter off the bottom of the harbor and once a half a meter from the surface of the water, using an instrument called a sonde, which is attached to a long cable and submerged in the water. Hoffman said the instrument costs about $30,000.

“That gives us a pretty good idea of what’s happening in the water column,” he said.

Save the Sound explained the importance of testing the chemistry of bays and harbors within the Sound in a May 16 press release announcing the year 2 testing kickoff.

Laurie Vetere reads data that’s tracked by Maria Hoffman as the Setauket Harbor Task Force tests Port Jeff Harbor’s water chemistry. Photo by Alex Petroski

“More than a decade of federally funded monitoring of the open Sound has documented the destructive impact of nitrogen pollution — including algae blooms, red tides, loss of tidal marshes and fish die-offs — and the incremental improvements brought about by wastewater treatment plant upgrades,” the release said. “Conditions in the bays and harbors — where much of the public comes into contact with the Sound — can be different from conditions in the open waters. More testing on bays and harbors is needed to judge the effect of nitrogen on these waterways and what action is needed to restore them to vibrant life.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who also chairs the county’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture committee, said while the county has taken up the fight in finding ways to reduce the amount of nitrogen in Long Island’s waters, having dedicated citizens also keeping an eye is an asset.

“That’s critical, these kind of community efforts to protect water bodies,” she said. “It’s special.”

Results of the study will be published in future editions of Save the Sound’s Long Island Sound Report Card.

Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport is home to the largest privately assembled collection of sea specimens from the preatomic era.

Now, thanks to a $135,000 grant from The Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation, the museum is beginning to perform crucial conservation measures on many of those rare specimens. The foundation gave the Vanderbilt  Museum the two-year grant in January. In July, the curatorial staff began working on some of the more than 1,000 wet (preserved in fluid) specimens exhibited on the second floor of the Marine Museum. An additional 600 are on display in the mansion’s Memorial Wing.

Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum
Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Among the marine life William K. Vanderbilt II found on oceanic collecting expeditions during the early 20th century were 67 new discoveries.  Stephanie Gress, the museum’s director of curatorial services, said the finds — not previously identified — are called “type specimens.” Most of the 40 ocean fish and 27 marine invertebrates have been on loan to the American Museum of Natural History since the 1990s.

Gress said the Gardiner grant is invaluable to the future of the marine collection, as many of the specimens have not been touched since the last major conservation-restoration project in the 1990s. The project is “very time- and labor-intensive,” she said.

“Cracked seals on the specimen jars and containers let in air, which evaporates some of the preservative fluid,” she said. “That exposes fish and other creatures to possible deterioration. Air leaks also make it easy for infections and mold to develop on the specimens.”

Gress said she and her colleagues prepared a manual with step-by-step procedures and careful protocols for working with the specimens. Conservation includes opening the containers, cleaning them, gently treating infected specimens, replacing the fluid (alcohol and water), resealing the containers with fabric tape and melted beeswax and affixing new labels.

Vanderbilt had the museum’s seamless specimen jars and containers custom-made in Germany nearly a century ago, and they are irreplaceable, Gress said.

An intriguing project detail is the creative reuse of the original calligraphy from the 1930s specimen labels. “We took samples of each hand-calligraphed letter to create the alphabet for a typeface for the new labels we’re making,” Gress said. “With the original calligraphy as a model, curatorial assistant Kirsten Amundsen fashioned a nearly identical typeface by using existing, computerized calligraphy pen strokes in accurate proportions,” she added.

The marine collection was the first aspect of what became Vanderbilt’s larger natural history museum. He built the single-story building he called The Hall of Fishes in 1922 and opened it on a limited basis to the public. By the late 1920s, after more oceanic expeditions, his marine collection outgrew its original space. He added a second floor by 1930.

The two largest marine specimens are a 32-foot whale shark — the world’s largest example of fish taxidermy — and a manta ray with a 16.5-foot wingspan. The shark, caught in 1935 and restored in 2008 with a federal Save America’s Treasures grant, is the centerpiece of the habitat animal-dioramas gallery. The ray, which Vanderbilt called the Sea Devil, was caught in 1916 and recast in the late 1990s. It is exhibited prominently on the first floor of the Marine Museum.

“The Vanderbilt [Museum] is the only Long Island destination with a world-class planetarium and natural history collections that rival those at major urban museums,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director. “In addition to thousands of rare marine specimens, the Vanderbilt collections range from an Egyptian mummy and 18 wild-animal dioramas to ethnographic artifacts from Africa and the South Pacific, fine and decorative arts and centuries-old furnishings.”

Nearly a century after Vanderbilt found those 67 new type specimens, his museum still receives inquiries about some of them. “A marine biology doctoral student contacted me recently about a particular invertebrate, whose common name is the Elegant Coral Crab,” Gress said. “I told him he’d have to call the American Museum of Natural History,” where Vanderbilt’s type specimens are housed.

“Mr. Vanderbilt is credited with the discovery and identification of the first of each of those species,” Gress said. The type specimens were published in editions of the Bulletin of the Vanderbilt Marine Museum, prepared between 1928 and 1938 by scientists Lee Boone and Nicholas Borodin. “Mr. Vanderbilt and his associates had the fun task of naming the new specimens,” she said. “Some were named for his wife, himself or his scientific team.”

Vanderbilt added marine specimens to the second-floor gallery chronologically, she said. When the restoration is complete, the specimens will be put back into the tall display cases in taxonomic order, in which like specimens are exhibited together. In the Invertebrate Room of the museum’s Memorial Wing, wet specimens are arranged by complexity of the organism.

The Vanderbilt marine collection of 13,190 specimens, housed in the Marine Museum, Habitat and Memorial Wing, includes wet and dry specimens and dry marine invertebrates (shells and corals).

For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

William Belanske sketches while waiting with his luggage to embark on a journey with William K. Vanderbilt II. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum archives

William E. Belanske already had an enviable job as an artist and taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) when he got a call from William K. Vanderbilt II.

The year was 1926 and Vanderbilt was preparing for an expedition on his yacht Ara to collect animal and marine life. The voyage would take him to one of the most scientifically diverse and remote places on earth — the Galápagos Islands, on the Equator off the coast of Ecuador. He needed an artist to record the live specimens he would bring back to his private museum in Centerport. To Belanske, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, which marked the 65th anniversary of its official opening on July 6, has created a new exhibit honoring Belanske’s work.

On display in the Memorial Wing of the museum, the installation features a recreation of Belanske’s studio on the Vanderbilt Estate and includes some of the detailed paintings of the numerous marine specimens Vanderbilt collected from the oceans of the world. Large illustrated panels detail Belanske’s work, on the expeditions and at the museum.

Kirsten Amundsen and Brandon Williams of the curatorial staff came up with the exhibit concept and design.

“The ship’s artist, Mr. William E. Belanske, has been with me since 1926,” Vanderbilt wrote in 1932. “He makes accurate paintings of rare fish. With every scale carefully drawn, every shade, every nuance of color exactly portrayed, his reproductions are true, lifelike, and of value to science.”

In 1927, following the Ara expedition, Vanderbilt requested Belanske’s services full time at his museum, and Belanske chose to resign from the AMNH. He served as Vanderbilt’s curator and lived in a cottage on the estate from 1928 to 1945. His work included taking part in around-the-world cruises on the Ara in 1928-1929 and on the Alva in 1931-1932.

Notably, Belanske collaborated with the renowned painter Henry Hobart Nichols (also of the AMNH) to create the Vanderbilt Habitat in 1930, nine stunning dioramas that depict animal life from several continents. The centerpiece of the room is a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.

Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs for the Vanderbilt Museum, said, “On the Ara, they placed fish in holding tanks with saltwater to keep them alive. Belanske would paint the catches immediately in order to record the colors accurately.”

Before color photography, Gress said, the beauty and vibrant hues of the collected marine specimens could only be captured with an artist’s hand. Belanske’s perfect color images of the specimens were displayed in the Marine Museum next to the faded, fluid-preserved specimens.

When he returned to his studio, the artist began the time-consuming task of creating his final images. He used his notes, measurements and rough sketches to create fully accurate, detailed fish prints worthy of scientific publication, she said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. Through Sept. 6, the museum will be open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

A horseshoe crab no more than 4 years old. Photo by Erika Karp

With its horseshoe crab population dwindling, Town of Brookhaven officials are calling on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to ban harvesting within 500 feet of town property.

At the Mount Sinai Stewardship Center at Cedar Beach on Tuesday, Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced the Brookhaven Town Board is poised to approve a message in support of the ban at Thursday night’s board meeting.

A horseshoe crab no more than 4 years old is the center of attention at a press conference on Tuesday. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine is calling on the state to ban the harvesting of the crabs within 500 feet of town property. Photo by Erika Karp
A horseshoe crab no more than 4 years old is the center of attention at a press conference on Tuesday. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine is calling on the state to ban the harvesting of the crabs within 500 feet of town property. Photo by Erika Karp

Horseshoe crabs are harvested for bait and medicinal purposes, as their blue blood, which is worth an estimated $15,000 a quart, is used in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries to detect bacterial contamination in drugs and medical supplies, due to its special properties.

While there is already a harvesting ban in place for Mount Sinai Harbor, Romaine is seeking to expand the restriction across the north and south shores so the crabs have a safe place to mate.

The crabs take about nine years to reach sexual maturity.

“We think it is time not to stop or prohibit the harvesting of horseshoe crabs … but instead to say, ‘Not within town properties,’” Romaine stated.

Brookhaven’s Chief Environmental Analyst Anthony Graves and clean water advocacy group Defend H20’s Founder and President Kevin McAllister joined Romaine at the Tuesday morning press conference.

Graves said the ban would help preserve the 450-million-year-old species’ population.

Preserving the species affects more than just the crabs: If the population continues to shrink, other species — like the red knot bird, which eat the crab eggs — will suffer.

“They are in some ways an ecological keystone species,” Graves said. “That means that they serve a function beyond their individual existence.”

East Coast waterways are the epicenter for the crabs and, according to McAllister, states like New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia have already enacted harvesting limits. The crabs’ nesting season starts in mid-May and lasts until the end of June. Officials said the crabs are oftentimes harvested at night and illegally.

Romaine said he has asked all of the town’s waterfront villages to support the measure. If the DEC moves forward with the ban, Romaine said the town could help the department with enforcement by establishing an intermunicipal agreement.

A DEC representative did not immediately return a request for comment.

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