For two weeks in August I was in Charleston, S.C., learning about coastal conservation fieldwork. And boy, did I learn a lot. I went down to Charleston because I was curious to see what sorts of things coastal environmental scientists do when they work in field. Thanks to a wonderful friend and that friend's amazing sister, I found a place to stay and a way to get in touch with people who work as coastal conservationists.
I spent time working with conservationists and scientists who work with sea turtles, sharks, fish and birds. In each area, I learned new things about methods of research on coastal ecosystems and conservation efforts that went with the research. For now, I'd like to share some of my highlights with you.
One of the first things I did was to help inventory loggerhead sea turtle nests on Cape Island National Wildlife Refuge. Three days after a sea turtle nest hatches naturally, it is dug up so that the number of total eggs, bad eggs and turtles who died before they could make it out of the nest can be counted. Sometimes there are also live baby sea turtles that couldn't make it out of the nest for one reason or another. One of the nests we dug up had nine live baby turtles in it. They were trying to dig their way out, but couldn't make it through a thick spot under the sand overgrown with reeds. Some organizations believe that baby turtles need to crawl unassisted from the beach to the water because they gain necessary development during those few minutes. Other organizations believe that the turtles have more a chance to survive if they are placed directly in front of the water. I was with the latter, and we placed the babies right by the water so they could quickly make their way into the ocean without being picked off by gulls or overheating. I watched the little turtles fight the waves, swimming as fast as they could. Every few seconds I could see their little heads pop up out of the water to take a breath of air. Eventually, I couldn't see them anymore; they were hard at work making their way 25 miles off shore to their feeding grounds. All I could do was hope they all wouldn't be eaten by larger predators.
Next, I tried a new technology called electric fishing. I went with another volunteer and a fish scientist. We were on a boat that had two machines, which generated electricity when prompted, sticking out of the boat's bow. The machines strongly resembled metal octopuses or jellyfish with long tentacles reaching into the water. Once the generator was running, I stood up at the bow with a large net and pressed my foot to a petal, allowing electricity to run into the water and shock anything within reach. Soon enough, fish started rising to the surface. They were still long enough for me to scoop them up into my net and plop them into the live well in the boat. As soon as they were in the live well (a trough filled with sea water), they were back to life. The next step was to inventory the types of species we caught, measure them, tag them if needed and toss them back into their natural habitat. The main species being looked at was the red drum, a type of bass found on the east coast. Red drum are a very popular recreational fishing catch. When their numbers began waning, size stipulations and number limitations were placed on recreational catches in an effort to raise their numbers. Electro-fishing allows scientists to inventory the red drum (and other species) in its habitat in order to keep track of its numbers and ensure its survival.
I also got to participate in a shark fishing outing. The scientists were conducting research on sharks for similar reasons to the red drum research. Instead of shocking the sharks, however, we used long lines and gill nets to capture, measure and tag them before releasing them back into the water. I saw bonnetheads, baby hammerheads, sharpnoses and sand sharks. The scientist I was with told me that he had found two bonnethead females that were not pregnant when they supposed to be. He doesn't know the reason for this, but expressed concern about it. The research conducted on sharks will hopefully help to explain why the sharks aren't pregnant, and will lead to a solution.
The marine life ecosystems are so finely balanced, it is a bit scary to think what might happen if even just one species dies off. How would that change marine life, and how would that affect humans? Imagine if there were no more shrimp. Obviously that would affect humans because we eat shrimp. But it would also set marine life way off balance. The predators that eat shrimp would have to find another species to fill that role, which would endanger other species to over-predation. It would become a domino effect, resulting in a completely different marine scene than what we are used to, and probably devoid of vibrant and diverse marine life. Since we are the ones putting these species in jeopardy through overfishing, polluted waters and rising ocean temperatures, it is our responsibility to do what we can to ensure their survival.
Photos: Molly Canfield