Sunday, August 24, 2008

Shipwrecks can cause long-term biological reef damage

When a ship wrecks on a reef, the impacts go far beyond the mere mechanical damage caused to coral scarred and gouged by the impact and the ship rolling in the surf.

(Image: A shipwreck on the Palmyra reef. USGS photo by Thierry Work.)

New research shows such wrecks can also have long-term effects, including changing the character of life on the reef. And they may require aggressive and somewhat scary responses.

Earlier studies in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands found that certain seaweeds thrive at wreck sites—outcompeting the corals that would normally be there—perhaps in part because of the nutrient value of iron released from the wreck's presence.

A new study at Palmyra Atoll shows that another form of life also can outcompete corals at wrecks.
Researcher Thierry Work found at a Palmyra shipwreck site an expanding outbreak of a form of life called Rhodactis howesii. This is a form of life related to anemones and to corals, but which is not either one. They are called corallimorpharians.

The report on the find, Phase Shift from a Coral to a Corallimorph-Dominated Reef Associated with a Shipwreck on Palmyra Atoll, was written by Work, of the Honolulu Field Station of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, along with coral researcher Greta Aeby of the University of Hawai'i's Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, and Jim Maragos, of the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pacific Islands Refuges. The report was published in the online journal PLoS One.

Howesii is rare elsewhere on the Palmyra reef, but common around the 1991 wreck of a longline vessel.

“We documented high densities of R. howesii near the ship that progressively decreased with distance from the ship whereas R. howesii were rare to absent in other parts of the atoll,” the paper says.
Intriguingly, there are also clusters of the corallimorph around buoys at the atoll.

“This is the first time that a phase shift on a coral reef has been unambiguously associated with man-made structures. This association was made, in part, because of the remoteness of Palmyra and its recent history of minimal human habitation or impact,” it says.

Palmyra is an atoll that lies roughly 1,000 miles south of Hawai'i in an island group called the Line Islands. It is jointly managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy.

The scientific paper's title uses the term phase shift, which refers to a conversion in this case of the reef from coral being the dominant form of reef life, to the new dominance by the corallimorph.

It is possible, though not proven, that as in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, it is the presence of iron or some other component of the metal in a wreck that is feeding the outbreak of howesii. Iron in the hull of the wrecked longliner; iron in the chain and perhaps anchors of the buoys.

One conclusion from the study is that it may make sense when a ship wrecks on the shore to not only stop its physical damage to the reef, but also to quickly remove the ship as a source of nutrients that could change the life of the reef.

“We would hope that the populations of this organism would decrease if the ship were removed, but we are not sure,” Work said in an email.

It might also make sense to chemically kill the corallimorph colony, in hopes the coral reef will re-establish itself at the location. But that's not without consequences.

“Chemical sterilization would kill everything on the benthos. The hope would be that the benthos would then be recolonized by native fauna and flora. Whether this turns out to be the case would have to be seen,” Work said.

While it's not known whether howesii is a natural component of the reef, it seems clear that it is an aggressive species, which can outcompete its neighbors when its populations are dense.

“R. howesii has both anatomic and life history traits that allow it to aggressively compete successfully for the benthos,” the paper said.

Thus, doing nothing may not be a good alternative.
“In the case of Palmyra, the R. howesii infestation is beginning to reach catastrophic proportions,” the paper says.

For managers, the choice is the always difficult one: do nothing and face continued creeping destruction, or do something that could have unanticipated consequences.

“None of the options on the table are really all that palatable, but they may be better than doing nothing,” Work said.

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Plastic marine debris in the spotlight

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is becoming comparatively well known as a source of trouble for bird life, marine life and the shores of the Hawaiian Islands.
(Image: Some of the oceanic plastic debris winds up on the land, as here, at the high water line on a Kaua'i beach.)

Increasing numbers of research and informational missions are trolling the patch for information—the latest being the University of Hawai'i's Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) .

Its voyage aboard the research vessel Kilo Moana leaves Monday (August 25) for a 3,000 mile mission from Hawai'i to the West Coast to collect data on what microbial life is living in there.

The Kilo Moana is unlikely, one supposes, to come across the publicity vessel that has come the other way. The catamaran raft Junk sailed in June from California to Hawai'i to bring attention to the impacts of debris. Along the way, its two-man crew has caught mahimahi with their bellies full of bits of plastic.

As of Friday, the raft—made of netted plastic bottles, with an old Cessna fuselage as a cabin and recycled gear for masts and sails—was reported less than 100 miles from Hilo. Should be there this week.

Read more about Junk at See also

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a section of the eastern Pacific between California and Hawai'i, where winds and currents keep a vast, well, sea of debris clustered up. It includes wood, nets, fishing floats and immense quantities of plastic.

Little by little, we're learning more about this plastic and its impacts. See

The Kilo Moana voyage is aimed at learning more about the effects of the plastic on the smaller parts of the oceans—the microbes that make up 98 percent of the live in the seas.

Says C-MORE in an announcement of the cruise:
“We hope to add to the small but growing scientific database on the GPGP by conducting the Survey of Underwater Plastic and Ecosystem Response (SUPER), a pioneering effort to characterize the microbial community and biogeochemistry of particulate plastic accumulations in the North Pacific Ocean.”

Students, technicians and educators plan to cruise through the garbage patch for 12 days, collecting samples. Interested folks should be able to follow the cruise on the web at Also check

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Botulism confirmed in Midway atoll duck deaths

Wildlife officials have confirmed it is avian botulism that has killed at least a third of the endangered Laysan ducks on Midway Atoll.

The massive die-off appears to have slowed, perhaps with the measures Fish and Wildlife Service personnel have taken, which include flushing freshwater seeps where the birds drink and feed.

Carcasses were shipped to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where avian botulism was found in all samples. Avian bottulism is naturally found in the ground,and can release large amounts of toxin in water during warm periods and in stagnant water.

The confirmation that the kill was caused by a bird disease that is not transmittable to humans means that wildlife officials can work more easily with the birds. More aggressive searching could turn up more than the last count of 134 dead birds.

“Now that we know we are dealing with avian botulism rather than something like avian influenza that could spread to humans, we can include more people in the search for dead birds without compromising safety,”said Matt Brown, acting manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge at Midway.

“At the recommendation of the National Wildlife Health Center, we are draining the catchment wetland where most of the deaths have occurred to eliminate toxin production at the site,” he said.

There has been no sign of the disease at Laysan Island, where the larger population of 600 Laysan ducks lives, and since the birds tend not to fly long distances, there is essentially no likelihood that Midway birds will fly the several hundred miles to carry the outbreak to Laysan.

Wildlife officials are now working to figure out how to prevent the botulism outbreak from recurring.

“Over the coming months, we will be discussing several treatment options to preclude or at least minimize future outbreaks of avian botulism,” Brown said. “We will be working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Laysan duck recovery team as well as USGS scientists to ensure the continued survival of this population.”

For more details see the earlier post s at, at, and

For more information on Laysan ducks, see:

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Midway duck kill update

A third of the endangered Laysan ducks at Midway Atoll have now died or were ill as a result of a suspected epidemic of avian botulism.
(Image: Laysan duck. Credit: J. Marks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Of roughly 400 of the ducks two weeks ago, as of the most recent report from Midway Aug. 19, 122 had died and six more sick ducks were in an aviary being treated.

Most of the affected animals were from this year's crop of hatchlings.

The ducks occur on the two main islands within Midway Atoll, and Fish and Wildlife Officials said the disease is affecting them on both.

Of the dead animals, 100 came from Sand Island and 22 from Eastern Island.

Because the disease is believed to be growing in stagnant water, Fish and Wildlife Service crews have pumped fresh water into the seeps the ducks use on Sand Island. There is no source of fresh water on Eastern Island, and crews brought a 150-pound block of ice to one of the seeps there to attempt to change the stagnant condition of the water in it.

Wildlife officials said necropsies of some of the ducks seem to confirm the initial suspicion that avian botulism is the cause of the deaths. But that conclusion will not be confirmed until tests are complete at the National Wildlife Research Center later this week.

For more details see the earlier post at, at

For more information on Laysan ducks, see:

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Repeated federal court orders haven't protected little yellow forest bird, the palila

It has been almost 30 years since federal courts first ruled that an endangered native Hawaiian bird trumps introduced, environmentally destructive game animals on government property.

(Image: The yellow-headed palila. Credit: Jack Jeffrey.)

But after 30 years and three federal court orders, feral sheep and goats, along with cattle, continue to graze down the habitat of the little yellow native bird, the palila.

Fences to exclude Mouflon sheep and the other species from the habitat atop the Big Island have either never been properly built, or have been allowed to fall into disrepair, says the Conservation Council for Hawai'i.

The organization is calling on government to do the right thing. In its summer newsletter, council director Marjorie Ziegler writes:

“Conservation Council for Hawai'i is calling on the state and federal government to accelerate recovery actions to save the palila, an endemic Hawaiian forest bird currently found only on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai'i.

“Recent surveys indicate that the palila is rapidly declining in number. If the current trend continues, the palila could go extinct in 5 years.”

One key to palila survival is the mamane, a hardy tree that is a legume. Its lemon-yellow flowers and seeds feed palila, which also nest within its branches. Palila chicks are fed native caterpillars that are collected from mamane seed pods. Grazing animals like mamane too, and readily eat seedlngs—which has led to a dramatic decline in the mamane forest.

While the loss of the food and shelter of mamane is not the only factor in palila decline, it is believed to be a big one. Fire, weeds, and disease are others.

Most of the critical habitat for palila is within the state's Mauna Kea Forest Reserve.

The Conservation Council for Hawai'i is asking residents to call on their legislators—state and federal—to protect the palila. Its specific requests are that the government:

--Comply with the three palila court orders and remove all feral sheep, mouflon, and feral-mouflon hybrid sheep, and feral goats from palila critical habitat;
--Secure funding to build and maintain a mouflon-proof fence around the lower-boundary of palila critical habitat secure funding for palila recovery actions, including habitat restoration, captive rearing and release, invasive species removal, predator control, and research;
--Repair and maintain the fence around the Pu‘u Mali palila mitigation parcel and remove sheep and cattle immediately.

For more information, see Ziegler's report at

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Massive Laysan Duck kill at Midway Atoll; botulism suspected

The most successful wildlife restoration program in the Hawaiian archipelago has suffered a crushing blow: the death of more than 100 endangered Laysan ducks at Midway Atoll during the past week.

(Image: Laysan duck with four ducklings. USFWS photo.)

The cause of the fatalities is still not known, and duck carcasses are being flown to the Mainland for testing.

But the best guess right now is that the birds are getting something fatal from their water, and that it might be avian botulism.

In humans, botulism generally comes from eating improperly home-canned foods. The bacteria can grow outdoors in warm, stagnant waters, where they feed on rotting vegetation and bugs. Birds can get the disease directly from the water or from eating affected bugs.

The toxin produced by the botulism bacterium causes paralysis and ultimately death.

Birds are unable to use their wings and legs normally or control the third eyelid, neck muscles, and other muscles. Birds with paralyzed neck muscles cannot hold their heads up and often drown. Death can also result from water deprivation, electrolyte imbalance, respiratory failure, or predation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center website,

Wildlife noticed birds dying at Midway Aug. 10, and since they suspected avian botulism in stagnant water, they began flushing the freshwater seeps where the birds gather. The daily death count has begun dropping, perhaps as a result of those measures, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Midway Atoll is the second-westernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago, and lies more than 1,000 miles to the northwest of Honolulu. It is a national wildlife refuge and lies within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Laysan ducks were once found throughout the archipelago, but by the mid-1800s, they were only surviving in the wild at Laysan Island, a low, sandy island with a large saltwater lake. Laysan lies several hundred miles west of Kaua'i.

They are the rarest waterbird in the United States.

Four years ago, to provide a safety net in case of natural disaster at Laysan, 42 ducks were taken to Midway, where they quickly began reproducing. By this year, the count had gone up nearly 10 times. Before this week's disease outbreak, there were about 400 ducks on the atoll, meaning a quarter of the population has died in a week.

At Laysan itself, the population rises and falls, but it was most recently estimated at 600 birds. The disease outbreak has not been reported from Laysan, where a small crew of wildlife experts keeps watch.

At Midway, as of August 15, 106 birds were dead. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said 69 percent of the dead birds were youngsters from this year's hatchings.

Most of the dead birds have been burned to control the disease. A sampling has been preserved and was flown to Honolulu yesterday, for further shipment to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

Although we suspect avian botulism, we will not have a confirmed diagnosis until next week,” said Matt Brown, Midway 's acting refuge manager.

As recommended in these cases, we have added large amounts of fresh water to many of the wetland seeps where dead birds have been found in order to reduce stagnation.”

The Laysan duck deaths represent the loss of 10 percent of the wild population of Laysan ducks in less than a week. Brown said the situation “underscores the need to have Laysan ducks at more than one location in the Hawaiian Islands.

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Friday, August 15, 2008

Whaler Gledstanes' 1837 wreck found at Hawai'i's Kure Atoll

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have revealed another piece of their long history of shipwrecks: the remains of the British whaler Gledstanes, which broke up on the reef at Kure Atoll in 1837.

The ship's anchors, trypots and other parts have been lying amid the coral heads and patches of sand for more than 170 years—never found in part because Kure is so frightening to shipping that most folks try to stay clear.

(Image: A trypot from the Gledstanes lies on the sea floor at Kure Atoll. Trypots are the massive iron containers in which whale blubber was boiled down to oil. Credit: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.)

The island has a long list of shipwrecks to its credit, including the Gledstanes, the whaler Parker in 1842, the 1870 wreck of the USS Saginaw, the 1886 wreck of the Dunottar Castle and a series of fishing and other boats.

The other islands of the archipelago are also sites of numerous shipwrecks. Pearl and Hermes Atoll is named for two whalers that went aground and ended their careers there.

A marine archaeology crew aboard the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai was specifically looking for evidence of the Gledstanes earlier this week, because they knew it had wrecked on this island. The work at Kure is part of a month-long marine archaeological survey that is trying to document shipwrecks within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which extends more than 1,000 miles from the waters between Kaua'i and Nihoa, past ten reefs, small islands and atolls, to the waters just west of Kure.

“Today was a great day to be a maritime archaeologist,” wrote monument marine archaeologist Kelly Gleason at the monument website on Aug. 13, 2008:

Archaeologists have looked for the Gledstanes before, but have been thwarted by weather, currents, surf and other issues. This year, conditions were better.

(Image: A diver documents a massive anchor wedged in the Kure Atoll reef. It is believed to have come from the British whaler Gledstanes. Credit: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.)

“At the end of the first drift dive of the day, the team discovered a pile of iron ballast and some chain. The ballast led a trail into the dramatic spur-and-groove topography of the reef of Kure Atoll, where further artifacts were scattered as they wrecked in 1837. Four massive anchors, iron ballast, what appear to be two cannons and a trypot filled with bricks, copper sheathing and a fastening are all tucked into the dynamic grooves of the reef,” Gleason wrote.

The ship was destroyed, but its crew was able to make it ashore on one of the sandy islets within Kure's lagoon. There, they built a 38-foot boat and a small group of them sailed for help, managing to get to Honolulu, where arrangements were made to save the rest of the crew.

"The story of the Gledstanes and her survivors is limited, but adds to the important legacy of shipwreck survival stories at Kure Atoll,” said Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries' Pacific Islands Region.

The researchers did a pile of research to give them an idea where to look in the six-miles-across lagoon.

Some details were provided by cruise participant Dee O'Regan, editor of Sea History Magazine, of the
National Maritime Historical Society.

“When Dr. Hans Van Tilburg began studying historical records for information on USS Saginaw’s wrecking event of 1870, he located a hand-drawn map that Saginaw’s survivors had made noting the location of the whaler Gledstanes on the east side of the atoll. Armed with an historical chart, notes, and a hand-held GPS, the team searched the spot thought most likely to hold the remains of the ship. After preliminary surface surveys, one dive and there it was. Remarkable,” O'Regan wrote in a blog posted at

Researchers are still looking for other ships, and are trying to identify wreck sites for which they have no clear identities.

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beaked whales avoiding predators, sonar?

Small whales around the Islands, which dive to nearly a mile deep and stay down for as much as an hour and a half, may sometimes make fast "bounce" dives in response to predators and also sonar.

That's a conclusion in a new paper by whale researcher Robin Baird and his team.

The paper "Diel variation in beaked whale diving behavior," was published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Marine Mammal Science, by Baird and Gregory Schorr of the Cascadia Research Collective, Daniel Webster of the Bridger Consulting Group, Daniel McSweeney of the Wild Whale Research Foundation, and Jay Barlow of NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

They studied both Cuvier's and Blainville's beaked whales, and determined that both species feed extremely deep—close to 1,500 meters down—and stay down for as long as 94 minutes (Cuvier's) and 83 minutes, (Blainville's).

It's not clear what they're eating down there, but one likelihood is deepwater squid.

Baird's team attached recording devices to whales to track their movements, and found one distinct difference between whale day and night activity. After returning to the surface from day dives, the whales often "bounce" down to deep water. At night, they tend not to do so.

Baird said that suggests the bounces are not required for a physical need, like reducing the threat of "bends."

They also tend to stay in shallower water at night than during the day.

His team's conclusion is that the deeper depths maintained during the day and the bounces are done to avoid predators like big sharks, which may be foraging near the surface during the day. Previous research indicates, for instance, that white sharks are primarily daytime hunters.

Both species also avoid vocalizing in surface waters—restricting their calls to when they're considerably more than 1,000 feet deep. That might also be a technique to prevent them from alerting predators to their presence, Baird wrote.

The paper also cites previous studies that indicate that beaked whales move away and alter their diving behavior when they hear killer whale calls, and also that they seem to exhibit similar behavior when they hear mid-frequency sonar.

If the whales make panic dives when they hear such sonar, that might help explain some whale strandings that occur in areas where sonar is being used, they said.

"Mid-frequency sonar associated with naval exercises may continue for an extended period and propagate for a longer period than the higher frequency (and lower intensity) calls of killer whales, thus potentially eliciting a response for an extended period," wrote Baird and his associates.

It could put the animals at risk for the kinds of decompression-looking symptoms found in some strandings, they wrote.

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Regal 'Io, or Hawaiian hawk, to lose endangered species protection

The regal Hawaiian hawk, which has been on the federal endangered species list for 41 years, would be removed from the list under a plan announced today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service said “the population is secure and no longer requires federal protection.” It is seeking public comment on its proposal.

(Image: Jack Jeffrey photo of a Hawaiian hawk on a snag. Credit: Fish and Wildlife Service.)

The hawk is associated with Hawaiian royalty, and 'Iolani or Royal Hawk, was a nickname of kings Kamehameha II and IV. It is also the name of the royal palace in Honolulu.

Fossil evidence shows that the birds were once found on several islands, but now they are only found on the island of Hawai'i.

“The Hawaiian hawk, or ‘io, has shown great resiliency in the face of a changing landscape resulting in this proposed delisting,” said Patrick Leonard, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office.

The service believes there are now about 3,000 hawks on the Big Island, and that the population has been stable for two decades. The raptors forage actively in forest and pasture, and in both non-native and native habitats.

Hawks had earlier been proposed to be downlisted from endangered to threatened status, but the new proposal recommends all federal Endangered Species Act protections be removed. It would still be protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits killing, selling or harming migratory birds or their nests or eggs.

“The Hawaiian hawk is not currently threatened by overutilization, disease, predation, contaminants, lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms, or other factors, and therefore no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species throughout its range,” the service said in its announcement.

The birds would be monitored for at least five years after the delisting to ensure that the population remains healthy after the Endangered Species Act protection is removed.

More information on the hawk is available at

The service will accept public comments on the delisting for two months. Here are details:

“The Service will consider comments and materials from all interested parties received by October 6, 2008. Comments and materials concerning this proposed delisting should be sent to: Federal eRulemaking Portal: Comments and materials may also be mailed or hand-delivered to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: RIN 1018-AU96; Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.”

For more information see the service website at, or for copies call the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Honolulu at 808 792-9400.

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate

Monday, August 4, 2008

Hawaiian endangered birds stunningly underfunded

Imagine coming upon a group of islands where birds were everywhere.

Where multicolored species fluttered like gems in the trees, plumed in greens and reds, oranges and yellows, blacks and tans.

(Image: Sheryl Ives Boynton painting of the golden Kaua'i forest bird the nukupu'u, a honeycreeper that is listed endangered and is probably now extinct. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Where quick dark rails sped through the undergrowth and huge flightless ducks waddled across the grasslands.

And now, imagine that avian diversity fast disappearing, and society not recognizing what it was losing.

A new study suggests that the United States is spending a fraction on Hawai'i's remaining endangered bird population of what it spends on Mainland birds.

A really small fraction.

David Leonard of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife wrote the study in the journal Biological Conservation. It is entitled “Recovery expenditures for birds listed under the US Endangered Species Act: The disparity between mainland and Hawaiian taxa.”

Its point is clear.

Hawaiian birds represent one-third of the nation's endangered birds, and they get just 4.1 percent of the funding for recovery.

The actual numbers, as reported by Leonard: There are 95 birds on the list, and 31 of them are Hawaiian. From 1996 to 2004, the nation spent $753 million on recovery for its at-risk birds, and $31 million was spent in Hawai'i.

What is means is simple, Leonard says:

“Because of the status of many Hawaiian birds and the threats facing them, current recovery expenditures are inadequate to prevent additional extinctions.”

It is no consolation that this won't be a new thing to Hawai'i.

That group of islands mentioned at the top of this piece is Hawai'i. And already, extinction has removed more than half the bird species that once existed here, including the rails, the flightless species, and many of the fluttering gems of the treetops.

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate