Saturday, January 12, 2019

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin calf stranding here in Antigua.




As you may know, one week ago today at about 10:00am an Antiguan family found a baby dolphin swimming outside their home in Willoughby Bay. They called me and told me it was less than a meter long and seemed to be weak. I quickly called a team of fellow Antiguan conservationists who lived fairly close to that side of the island and also posted info on the Facebook page Antigua Whale and Dolphin Network appealing for expert advice. By 11:12 am the people on the scene reported that the dolphin was occasionally getting washed close to the rocks on the west side of the small bay where she was found. I made contact with the management of stingray city who in the past had made enclosures, and asked them if they would help build one quickly so that we could secure the baby dolphin in the sea until we had clear consensus on what to do next. I also contacted our government's Fisheries Department to alert them of the situation. A few of the small team took a boat and spent an hour looking in and around Willoughby Bay to see if there were any other dolphins in the hope that "mom" could be spotted. This was unsuccessful and none were seen. We also asked the local sailing community to keep an eye out for dolphin pods. Very quickly marine mammal stranding experts were contacted around the world and at 12:40 pm Caribbean Stranding Network founder, Dr. Tony Mignucci agreed to come from Puerto Rico with a small team and  emergency supplies. His immediate instructions were not to feed it and to take the dolphin out of the sea and to put it into a pool until he arrived early Saturday evening. He identified it as a Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (stenella attunuata) and thought it was 6 months old. According to the data available online, this species' conservation status is "of least concern" meaning that there are loads of them around the world and that they lived offshore in deeper waters. It would likely not feed on it's own in the wild until it was well over a year old.  By this time we had a very good core group of about 7 people who have spent their lives in and around marine conservation here locally. Some in the group felt that we should take it out to sea and let nature take over. In the end we decided to follow Tony's expert advice despite some disagreement on the pool. 
Some in the group felt that a small pen in the sea would have been better, but days later Dr. Tony explained that dehydrated marine mammals often were hydrated more effectively by putting them in a pool. 
However, at it entered the pool it sank to the bottom and seemed to be in shock. Group members had to keep it on the surface. Dr. Tony explained that this was normal because of the difference in density, feel, and temperature. Days and days later when I had seen correspondence from Dr Sutty from Martinique saying originally that we should keep it in the sea water and then from Steve McCulloch another world famous dolphin expert saying to expect deterioration in the pool, i asked Dr Tony about the pool decision again. He explained that a maximum of 6 or 7 days was advisable in the pool. Some of the group felt that it wasn't a good idea to have it in the pool.
From the start, our small team made the decision that there was only one outcome that we would be satisfied with and that would be rehab and release into the wild. All of our local Antigua team was and still is against keeping marine mammals in captivity so the idea of a lifetime in captivity was always off the cards if we had a say. The other option that was spoken about by Fisheries and many others was to euthanize the baby dolphin. Not all in the group agreed with this but it was something that had to be on the cards. As one expert said, what we were doing now was not natural and that if we hadn't gotten involved, nature would have had it's way and the animal would have died and ended up feeding other creatures in the marine ecosystem. 
That being said, we were advised by Dr. Tony Mignucci to take the dolphin out of the sea where we found it on Friday 4th January and that decision created a huge ethical and moral dilemma which we have been struggling with for a week.


Originally Tony said that there was no chance at all of the dolphin being released into the wild ever again. He said "this dolphin can never be successfully released. I have a better chance of winning the lotto multiple times than this dolphin has after a future release."  I wasn't there when he said this but the others in the group were and spoke about it to me. As it was a deal breaker for the group, Dr Tony agreed initially to take it back to his Facility in Puerto Rico after blood work was done and after it had been stabilized. He agreed that after rehabbing it and getting it prepared for a release, he would release it back into the wild unless there was a medical reason which would require it to remain in captivity. Examples of that would have been things associated with organ health or other physical issues. With this semi optimistic outlook, the group organized a schedule of volunteers to look after the dolphin in the pool just off the beach where it was found and starting from 1pm on Friday 4th when it entered the pool, volunteers sat with it around the clock day and night. While Dr Tony was on his way to Antigua through the BVI, he asked if we could find a local veterinarian who would be willing to help and learn along with his team. We called Dr. Fiona Francis from the Ark and she was delighted for the opportunity and agreed to come and help. After Dr Tony arrived on Saturday evening and did blood work, it started getting more healthy in the pool. Bell Lab was amazing and did the lab work on Sunday. Bloods showed that it was in good health and was just dehydrated as he had expected. Within a few days, she was able to swim unassisted around the pool only occasionally running into trouble. This at least made her look as healthy as she had been when we found her in the bay. Every hour another volunteer would arrive to sit or stand in the pool. Because rehab and release was the only option to the majority of the group, more calls were made around the worlds searching for opinions that would show any optimism for a future release. Dr. Tony agreed to give it a try despite his position that a successful release was almost impossible.
From very early on, the St. James Club which is just around the corner agreed to cater food for the volunteers which was so helpful because all of this was so time consuming and exhausting. So far we have incurred many costs and this was really one less expense we had to account for. The bills already are in the thousands and it's just been one week! I dunno who will pay for this so far.
Very quickly after the lab results came back, it became apparent that getting it back to Puerto Rico would be impossible because of Trump's government shutdown. According to Dr. Tony, Special permits would not be processed during the shutdown and the USA/PR was off limits until they got their sh!t together. This was a huge blow because as Stephen D McCulloch, President of Ocean Experience said, Dr. Tony Mignucci was the best person for the job and it would help his facility in Puerto Rico get "dolphin accreditation" or something along those lines. Tony was there with his assistants ready to help but were being grounded by the shutdown. It was very depressing. 
With this unfortunate development, we then searched for another facility that would take the dolphin with the hope of rehabbing and releasing it into the wild. Together we spoke to facilities in Jamaica, St. Kitts,  Curacao, The Bahamas and others. Finally we found info that suggested a ten year old dolphin of a similar species was found, rehabbed and released successfully into the wild from a facility in the Bahamas. This story coming from a world famous dolphin expert, Dr. Denise Herzing, was about a ten year old Atlantic Spotted Dolphin which is a very different species according to Dr Tony Mignucci. Here is more info on that rescue, rehab and release. As you can see, not only a very different species but a very different situation as you will see in the letter from Atlantis a few paragraphs down. However, Dr Tony started speaking with the famous sailor, businessman and creator of CNN, Ted Turner who was apparently in charge of the program at Atlantis, in the Bahamas where the release happened. Originally he said he'd fly in and take the dolphin back to the Bahamas and rehab it with the goal of releasing it, and he said he'd have an emergency meeting with his people at Atlantis there in the Bahamas to discuss it and would get back to us. 
This was happening on Wednesday afternoon. Also on that day, our friendly and helpful fisheries officer requested a meeting among the core helpers/organizers. Fisheries had been so helpful up to that point and had facilitated entry for Dr. Tony, his two assistants and their equipment and was prepared to organize all permits needed in order to export it from Antigua to Puerto Rico or The Bahamas. We attended that meeting, the first proper one at 5:45pm on Wednesday 9th. Our fisheries officer essentially wanted a progress report and a clarification of the options on the table. 
Martha Gilkes of ABITPC, gave a summary of the options. 

Option 1 was the Bahamas Atlantis rehab and release option which would be a minimum of 6 more months of hand feeding using a milky mix and then potentially equally as long again teaching it how to feed on live fish. This sounded good in theory, but it was realized that the only contact so far had been with the 80 year old billionaire, Ted Turner, and I said I was worried that the offer didn't sound solid enough to me at that point. We all agreed that if it went well, then we would accept it as offered up to that point. 
I also asked Dr Tony to tell us how many Pantropical Spotted Dolphins were alive in captivity in the Americas (North, Central and South America). He said there were none. In an effort to understand the survival rates for these species in captivity, I asked him how many pantropical spotted dolphins have been put into captivity and later died. He said that all died and he wasn't sure how many but felt that over the past thirty years the number would have been a dozen or so. He explained that this species wasn't like the more hardy bottlenose dolphin and that this particular species was the weakest of the 4 others in the genus and a very "delicate" species. He said that the best outcome if kept in captivity would be 3-7 years. He didn't know if there had ever been a calf this young put into captivity.
Option 2 was putting it into a pen here in Antigua, and doing the rehab here in the hope of returning it to a pod offshore. This according to experts around the world was foolhardy and irresponsible for a multitude of reasons including an estimated cost of about US $175,000 a year. It would be seen as something experimental and too risky considering the lack of experience on hand.
Option 3 was to euthanize it and Fisheries agreed that this may have been a good option before it was taken from the sea. Some in the group thought that it was still the most humane option given that the trauma and odds of survival were stacked so much against this 6 month old dolphin. 
We agreed to wait to hear back some more specifics from the Bahamas. Once again, i said that we needed to build a sea pen to keep this poor dolphin who was sitting in limbo until a decision was made. Dr. Tony agreed that this was now night 6 and it was not good for the dolphin to keep it in the pool for much longer. However, he said that it would be taken down to the beach to let it swim there during the day.
Later that night we got this message back from the Bahamas: 

"Gentlemen – we conducted an emergency meeting today and determined the following in regards to your request for Atlantis involvement in the spotted dolphin calf rescue in Antigua.  Our stranding authorization is for the Bahamas only and thus our resources very limited, as we have just completed two successful stranding response, transport, rehab and release events.  However, we are willing to offer the following:
1.       Atlantis will certainly participate in this animal’s rescue/recovery but has no intention of keeping this animal long-term.  As is standard, we do not recommend a routine transport of dolphins younger than one (1) year old except in emergencies such as this and therefore, we would house this animal at Atlantis for at least this long.
2.       We can provide housing, medical attention and long-term care for the dolphin at our cost, and as long as needed to ensure safe transport to another qualified (industry recognized and accredited) marine mammal facility at some point in the future, dependent upon the health status of this animal.  We recognize the challenges faced by qualified U.S. institutions due to the current government shut-down, particularly as it affects this critical transport timing.
3.       In this regard, we are requesting that the Antigua government or future receiving institution assist by absorbing the air transport costs, which will be substantial.  We have received pricing for a round trip private charter jet out of Ft. Lauderdale for a 3 hour flight time (Nassau/Antigua) at $30,000.
4.       Due to this animal’s young age, lack of early exposure and acquisition of survival skills at a critical period in its behavioral development, need for familiar surroundings and familial protection from predators, we do not recommend experimental “wild” release of this animal in the future as it will have little chance of survival.
5.       We highly recommend that a long-term housing facility be located and the animal transported directly there, to prevent further disruption of this animals important socialization/developmental/health needs.
6.       Should you choose to request the housing/care option from Atlantis, we cannot obtain CITES permits until late Friday at the earliest due to tomorrow’s holiday here.  Therefore, air transport cannot be arranged until Bahamas government authorizes.  This may take valuable time that should not be spared. 

Let me know if you have questions."
This letter was not a shock to me but for the team was totally demoralizing and a big surprise. There was so much hope up until this point and a meeting was called for yesterday morning at 10:00am to discuss next option.
10:00am on Thursday 10th a meeting where the core group once again met to discuss options. This time instead of fisheries, we had someone from the Government who had 10 years of study abroad in various different Environmental fields and who had 15 years of work experience with our local Fisheries department, Environment Division and National Parks Authority. She made it abundantly clear that in her professional opinion, we needed to consider option 3 as discussed the night before. She said that this was her personal opinion based on all the info and on her various related degrees and her 15 years of environmental work, and it was the most natural thing to do. Any other decision was being made for the benefit of humans in an emotional capacity. Four others at the meeting completely agreed with her for a multitude of reasons including simply it being the most humane thing to do at this point. Another thing she said which i think is the best advise given so far is that we need to develop local guidelines for future strandings that could be endorsed by Fisheries. For example, these could have a list of species, their conservation status and the chances or stats of rehab and release. This will happen again as it has happened before and we need to have solid plans for what to do next time. Many feel that taking it out the water was the wrong thing to do from day one, but with the limited info we had, it was felt that we had to try to help especially with the advice from Dr. Mignucci.
Dr Tony was not happy with the idea of euthanasia and said he would not help anyone with putting "a healthy dolphin" down. He said we came here to save it and did that but wouldn't help kill it. He also said that a swim with dolphin park in St. Kitts, Dolphin Discovery had agreed to take it with the understanding that they would attempt to rehab and release it. He told us that they wouldn't put it with their other dolphins until some special virus test was done and in the meantime they would have to find something to keep her. There was not a great deal of trust or confidence for the facility in St Kitts for some reason (maybe because of stuff like this) and some of the team thought that this could be an option. I said that at the end of the day, the dolphin didn't belong to any of us and that the decision rested with Fisheries. I felt that we needed to give them all the facts and let them decide what to do since there wasn't a consensus within our group. It had been an emotional rollercoaster and people were exhausted and drained. There was no clear agreement on the options. I categorically am against and always have been against marine mammals being kept in captivity and especially for the purpose of recreation. I think a goldfish in your aquarium is very different to an intelligent marine mammal being stuck in a pool for the rest of it's life. I had a hard time with the idea of humanly killing it too, and that was the kinda job and decision that needed to be taken by a Vet or fisheries officer. Either way, it was an impossible decision for me personally because i knew that the best best possible outcome of sending it to a marine mammal center or dolphin park was a few years in a walled tank until it died. The stats were there to show this to be true, so i couldn't support it and felt that it would only help one of these parks with their PR which would show us send them a dolphin to be "saved". Already, with the utmost respect to Dr. Tony, he is saying he and his team saved it. I know that's what he thinks, but in my opinion, he didn't. He has kept it alive and it is doing as good now as when we first found it in the sea.
Ultimately we wrote to Fisheries telling them that Atlantis fell through and that we didn't feel that we could make a decision on what to do next mainly because there were strong differences of opinion on what we should do. We also reminded them that something had to be done because it was now 7 nights in a pool. Dr Tony wrote to fisheries asking them to release it into his custody so that he could export it to the St. Kitts facility. It is my understanding that this permission has been granted by fisheries and while I disagree with this decision, it's not mine to make. The dolphin will likely leave Antigua on Monday after 10 nights in a swimming pool. I for one think this is not a humane or sensible solution and several others who helped around the clock over the past week have dropped out at this point leaving responsibility with Dr. Tony Mignucci. Some of the core group feel that this is a bad decision in the grand scheme of things. We will see what happens to the little dolphin next.
All I can say is that I have had experience with saving marine species since i was a kid with my dad back then and without him as an adult. Recently we saved a 25 foot long sperm whale that was attempting to beach itself. Knowing what to do with wild animals is never an easy thing, but this has been the most difficult ethical and moral dilemma I have come across.

edit Jan 12th, 2019
At 10:40am today I received a call from a close friend who was offshore fishing. He was alongside a pod of what he described as "spotted dolphins". He sent me the GPS coordinates and I passed them on to the original whatsapp group that's been used to coordinate this event. Forty minutes later I asked for comment and then later at 11:54am Fisheries said that is was too late now and that they wouldn't agree to taking the calf there at this stage. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

2017 hurricane stress - photos

The following description puts the photos in the link at the bottom into some sort of perspective. The photos and videos in the link will be moving to some of the Barbudans involved in last summer's tragic distaster.

In late August 2017 I saw a long range forecast which looked like a big hurricane would be coming our way. At that time our Atlantic rowing boat was still in the British virgin islands where we had rowed almost a month before. There was no time to waste so later that night after clearing customs immigration I left with two friends for the Virgin Islands on our powerboat. We needed to retrieve the rowboat and tow it 200 miles back to Antigua before any threat of a hurricane. People in Nanny Cay Marina were already panicking. Somehow they knew that the island would be devastated in less than a week. We collected the boat and immediately turned around back towards Sint Maarten. At Bobbys Marina, Sir Bobby told us that despite all forecasts saying the storm would go north he was 100% certain it was coming to destroy Sint Martin in a few days. He was getting his companies and his associates ready for a mega hurricane. While we sat around the marina table st sunset drinking beers and talking about old wooden sloops, sailing and fishing, I was still sure the storm would miss the Caribbean. My crew, Shamel and Guilli were not too happy with Sir Bobby's confidence that a disaster was approaching. The next morning we left early towing the row boat back to Antigua. By the time we had completed those last 100 miles, the surge was starting to "roll" across Five Islands Harbour at the entrance to jolly harbour. I was a little frustrated to see that each day the computer models' forecast tracks had shifted further to the south. While still forecast to track north of our Leeward Islands, Hurricane Irma was now rapidly strengthening and getting too close for comfort even though three days away. Each forecast pulled her closer to us and by the next day I started to realize that because of the trip to collect the row boat, I'd be pressed for time in getting by boats and house prepared. It wasn't that it had crept up on me as I'd been watching the forecasts for a week but unlike Sir Bobby, I just placed too much confidence in the forecast tracks which all placed it pushing north of the islands. The marinas were full and I couldn't get space for all of our boats. We had to tie them down as best we could. Irma kept getting closer despite the forecasts and as the sun set before her arrival, I knew that if she didn't turn north and we got a direct hit, then my business and life as I knew it would be changed forever. I don't think I slept a wink and late in the night when the now category 5 storm finally moved a bit to the north I almost cried with relief. Up until that point I was telling my mom and other people close to me not to worry and that all the super computers were in agreement that IRMA would go north. I was faking my optimism and bravery just in an attempt to keep them calm. A few of them were panicking. The North turn was too close though as you can see from the screenshots I took. Barbuda was going to get hit hard. There was zero communication until late the next afternoon when my friend Greg took the PM and a camera crew to Barbuda in the helicopter. Upon his return we heard that over 90% of the homes had been damaged or totaled and that one young child had died. I knew that they would need water and food and organized a small team to go the next morning. Friends in jolly harbour supplied food and water. While that was being organized, i spoke to Carlo Falcone from Antigua Yacht Club and Marina who was also doing the same thing. He called me later in the night to say that the Coast Guard had told him that boats were not permitted to go. It was not 24 hours after the storm but we both knew that things would get desperate soon and decided to  go anyway but to keep it quiet. My team left by 8 the next morning. It was still rough at that point, just 30 hours after the deadly hurricane had touched down in Barbuda. Greg, the chopper pilot had told me that the lagoon had been breached in several spots so I figured that we could go straight up to Codrington village. We were the first boat into the lagoon and the first to arrive at the fisheries dock. We didn't know what to expect and for safety we decided to drop me and another crew off so that we could speak to police or defence force guys first before we came to the dock with supplies. The coast guard had arrived at River Dock earlier that morning and had brought some polices and troops to setup base at the Japanese Fisheries plant. We got the boat onto the dock and offloaded. I was told that there was going to be a council organized meeting at the airport to discuss plans. I went and listened. People seemed to be in shock and unaware of how bad things could become. There was compete devastation all around and dead creatures big and small in the tangled mess. My Barbudan friends didn't want to leave but some did. We offered the council to take whoever wanted to and ended up taking the first Barbuda evacuees back with us. I think we took 16 people. On the dock before we left, the mother of the child that was killed came and told us her story. Heartbreaking! The trip back was an emotional one but those on board were happy to be going. Half way over we realized that some of them didn't have anywhere to go in Antigua. We ended up taking them into town where they were collected by the National Office of Disaster Services. Nico organized lodging for some. Coming back into jolly harbour and knowing that I could have a hot shower and get into my nice dry bed felt strange. Thinking about what we'd just seen and what was going to happen to them was overwhelming. That night we planned another trip the next morning to take more food, water and animal feed. We left early and by the time we arrived we found out that because there was another storm approaching, the government had ordered a mandatory evacuation. We had so many wanting a ride that we left half our crew there planning to do two trips at least and took an almost overloaded trip back to st Johns. In fact, I had to "make some noise" on the dock in Barbuda before we left as too many were pushing and attempting to get on board. 24 hours before we had a hard time convincing people to come with us as most seemed calm and prepared to stay. Amazing what can happen a few days after a disaster when reality kicks in together with the threat of another storm looming. By this time boats of every description were helping to evacuate and the Venezuelan military were also helping. There was still no communication and by the time we dropped them off and came back to Barbuda, the military and police had forced all to leave the village and go up the coast to the grassy strip where the Venezuelans were flying from. My crew that I left behind were forced to fly with them and while I tried to figure out where they were, the swells started to pick up at River Dock. We left two boats there and took off with the last few Barbudans that we could find.
Thankfully that storm did go north but the government and NODS decided not to let people go back home to Barbuda. So many people had left dogs, horses, sheep, goats and other animals penned or tied assuming that they'd be able to return after the storm threat. That didn't happen and the Barbuda disaster got worse. Dogs started hunting in packs and the trail of death and destruction only got worse. We did more and more trips with animal rights people, press, engineers, government people, aid workers and eventually with Barbudans. In the meantime there was another cat five hurricane east of the islands. Maria ended up smashing Dominica, and the Atlantic rowing team I was part of decided to take some supplies there as well. We had heard horror stories and felt like doing a run. It wasn't much and we knew that our boats were not designed to carry huge heavy loads long distance. Thankfully more help was on the way and there were no more storms on the horizon.
By the time Team Antigua Atlantic Rowers had to make our way to the Canary Islands to get ready for the start of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge (a 3000 mile rowing race back to Antigua), Nico, John, Scott and myself were happy for the distraction. The summer had been a stressful one.
Here's in this link are some photos my Google account saved. I'll show a few below the link too.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/QN5NjgHGe8vX5GJ39


Monday, May 23, 2016

More and more invasive species doing damage

Halophila Stipulacea is the newest invasive species making a mess of our marine habitats and Antigua and Barbuda could be a favorite new home for it.
Just over a year ago we started seeing this grass floating all around the island especially in protected bays and harbours. I even saw it far offshore in the Atlantic while freediving. It was quite a surprise to see it suspended in the water column thirty miles offshore.
From http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304377013001289 "Native to the Red Sea and western Indian Ocean, H. stipulacea spread to the Mediterranean Sea in the late 1800s and became established in the eastern Caribbean in 2002. The species has dispersed north and south of its first sighting in Grenada and now spans a latitudinal distance of 6° (>700 km), most likely facilitated by a combination of commercial and recreational boat traffic."
So what?
Well, this grass notoriously spreads very quickly often displacing other native seagrass beds. Our country's seagrass beds are incredibly important providing food and habitat for a huge variety of marine animals. In fact, there are some islands without much seagrass bed type habitats that wouldn't see certain creatures at all if it were not for large seagrass beds from islands like Antigua and Barbuda. Some species of sea turtles would be severely effected if our native seagrass habitats were overrun.
Last year my company, Adventure Antigua took part in an in-water sea turtle study with our Antigua Sea Turtle Project. We surveyed the Carlisle Bay area for several days and never noticed any beds of halophila stipulacea, but yesterday Roddy Grimes-Graeme and I saw large beds in quite a few areas there. The photos attached show one spot where it seemed to be mixed with and displacing turtle grass.
I have no idea how we can deal with this but just shows another reason why we have to be careful to protect marine habitats and their species. Habitats and related species that are already under threat or pressure from human activity are easily damaged by invasives. I'm sure we'll hear more and more about this situation over the next few years. We here in Antigua and Barbuda need to understand that it's not just reefs and mangrove habitats that need protection. Seagrass beds are incredible hot spots for biodiversity (read more) and equally important in the fight against climate change (read more).
Ten hours after blogging this today my son kicked his ball into the water of jolly harbour marina by accident. I grabbed a raft and found the weed shown on the white background right next to the ball. It's everywhere!

Monday, February 08, 2016

Antigua's greatest adventurers - Team Wadadli




When #teamwadadli comes in to Antigua there will be many records set, but the achievement is more that just record breaking. The precedent being set is something so unique for this region that all Caribbean people should be proud. The great adventurers and explorers we have read about and seen on the TV almost always come from far off places, "worlds" away from our cricket fields and paln fringed shorelines. These adventures are the thing of dreams and stories for many of us here in the Caribbean. Until now! This astonishing adventure often described as a crazy endeavor could inspire a new generation of home grown explorers and adventurers who now know that the stuff that was once merely dreams is achievable by us little people here on these little islands. 

When Doc Nick Fuller decided to take the plunge I don't think he had any idea what kind of splash he would end up creating here in Antigua and Barbuda. I don't think that while rowing just 300 miles east of us that he even knows now what an incredible following the team has or the emotion that is on the verge of overflowing when they get here. When something is posted on the Team Wadadli Facebook page in the morning, it usually has hundreds of "likes" and comments by the end of the day having been seen by thousands. The island is buzzing with excitement and people from all walks of life are taling about Team Wadadli.

When he started his team's website, even before he had found anyone to join him he wrote the following:

"For several years, we have enviously watched small contingents of brave-hearted and adventurous individuals row into English Harbour here in Antigua, as they complete the bi-annual Atlantic Campaign’s Rowing Challenge, the so-called “World’s Toughest Ocean Rowing Race”.
As these rowers approached Antigua from the East, We have often powered up to meet them in our sport-fishing boat some 30 miles above Antigua, watching in awe as these sunburnt and weary seafarers slowly row their way to English Harbour to complete their transatlantic 2,800 mile journey from the starting point in the Canary Islands, just sixty miles off the coast of Africa. It has often been said that more people have been into space or to the top of Mount Everest than have rowed across the Atlantic." 
He went on to say that it was proving to be difficult to find anyone willing to join him:
 "Unfortunately so far the ones that I’ve asked to come with me have given me a peculiar look and then walked away laughing."
Let's face it, this is a Herculean task and maybe they were all crazy to sign up.....even the Doc! That being said, all of history's explorers were once described as crazy, and thank goodness they were not dissuaded. A quote that is often wrongly credited to Steve Jobbs but was actually spoken by Rob Siltanen reminds us that the crazy ones sometimes change the world.

“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Team Wadadli gets its name from the Amerindian name for Antigua. These early indigenous adventurers and explorers who traveled from island to island in small wooden dugouts, explored and inhabited them long before the European's dreamed of sailing here. They rarely are talked about these days. Team Wadadli not only reminds us that the earliest Antiguans and Barbudans were explorers going from island to island in tiny boats at one with nature, but fills us with pride in knowing that we can still be explorers and adventurers. Wa'Omoni is the name of our team's boat, and that name is the original indigenous name for Barbuda, our sister island. 

This adventure is truly akin to Edund Hillary's first summit of Mount Everest in 1953. I can't help but feel that it is like America's Neil Armstrong fist stepping on the moon in 1969, or Russia's Yuri Gagarin's first orbit in space years earlier in 1961. It's like Dame Naomi Christine James being the first woman to sail solo around the world, or  any other of the great adventurers' or explorers' accomplishments. For a little island in the Caribbean, this is a huge big deal and one that people here are excited about. All of these people returned home to huge fanfare and celebrations, and I think Team Wadadli not only deserves the same but will undoubtedly receive it. 

Nick Fuller, JD Hall, Archie Bailey and Peter Smith will go down in our history as great explorers and adventurers and there can be no doubt that they will inspire others to follow. I have already seen comments from other nearby islanders who have no expressed interest in being just as "crazy" as our team. The little kids I spoke to in the preschool that JD attended when he was a kid didn't think Team Wadadli was crazy, but they were all filled with wonder and amazement which is what so many kids these days are missing. 

It looks like our team will either arrive sometime between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning into Nelson's Dockyard. Be there! It's going to be special. 

Friday, October 09, 2015

Mitigating Climate Change in Antigua and Barbuda

While out on our boat tours I love to tell the story about how the artifacts of an Amerindian settlement disappeared one day back in September 1995. This archaeological settlement along Barbuda's south coast had been there since the earliest inhabitants lived there 1500 years ago, and in one day all evidence of that site washed away in the monster of a storm called Luis. The purpose of the story is to explain to my guests just how strong that hurricane was and to give an idea about how climate is changing. There are various climate change factors which contributed to the damage Antigua and Barbuda received in Hurricane Luis and each year we are finding out more about this thing we call Climate Change. Stronger than normal hurricanes are not the only thing we need to worry about with this new reality. 

According to scientists, the measurable signs of climate change are varied. Sea level rises which account for 6.7 inches over the past 100 years and the rate over the past ten years being nearly double that of a hundred years before are probably the biggest concern for small island states. Global temperatures rising is another symptom of climate change, and since 1880 the ten hottest years as measured by NASA occurred over the past 12 years. Coupled with the air temperature is also a global sea temperature rise. Another symptom is shrinking of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice sheets. NASA satellite imagery show a significant decline in ice coverage for these areas since 2002. The same is happening in the Arctic as well according to NASA's satellite imagery. The world's glaciers are also retreating at alarming rates. Ocean acidification is another measurable factor of climate change which is increasing and having a huge impact on all creatures using calcium carbonate like for example, the world's corals. This summer there were several studies showing oceanic current changes and highly ususual changes in Atlantic water temperatures. The US Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the oceans have a interconnected collection of water currents which they describe as the Global Conveyor belt. They say that there is scientific evidence that with higher rainfall amounts in the North Atlantic and the melting of the sea ice and glaciers, there will be a much higher influx of fresh water into the sea which ultimately would lead to less cold salty (denser) water sinking. Normally this cold dense salty water sinks and flows south forming the main starting point of the Conveyer Belt's "streams". Scientists are extremely worried that this could have drastic and very immediate implications for the world's weather which is intricately linked to oceanic circulation. All in all the evidence is now becoming irrefutable and whatever you may think is the cause, the effect has major implications for us here in little Antigua and Barbuda. I have seen the changes happening and the most noticeable has been to do with the corals and those species, systems and industries that rely on healthy coral reefs. 

My team takes guests by boat on sightseeing and snorkeling excursions around our island's coastline. We have been doing it as a business each week since 1999 and for fun for much longer than that. My brothers and cousins grew up often spending more time on boats and on the sea than we did on land and the changes we have seen have been dramatic. The reefs which were vast fertile forests of corals are now ruins which look like messy piles of stones and rocks with scattered bits of soft corals and the rare piece of hard coral. It's difficult to explain to people what it looked like before the big die offs in the 90s, and it's probably better that they didn't know what it was like. It was a real magical wonderland and now there are only a few places on the planet that look like what it did all those years ago. Intricately linked with Climate Change and the health of coral reefs is fishing and in our case unmanaged fishing. Herbivore species of fish like parrot fish (chub), surgeon fish (doctor fish) and others help keep reefs healthy by feeding on algae which grows on dead corals while producing huge amount of sand in the process. Corals need sunlight to survive and when algae covers reefs they quickly perish. Climate change factors like stronger hurricanes, coral bleaching, ocean acidification as well as other stressors for corals are mitigated when there is a healthy population of herbivore fish preventing algae from taking over the live corals left on the reefs. Unfortunately, some of the species most often targeted by inshore fishers are these same reef cleaning species. There are some islands nearby that have Marine Protected Areas teaming with fish and have coral reefs which appear more healthy than our own. The main difference is that these particular areas are carefully managed with enforced fishing regulations. Sadly for a number of reasons our MPA sites are not yet carefully managed. Our government's Fisheries Department has fought hard to protect these species in recent times with new regulations and even closed seasons for parrotfish, but with only a tiny budget to do the actual work on the water, they have had a difficult task. When we guide guests through our reefs we often get comments about the scarcity of fish seen and as hard as it is to hear their comments we know that it's true. A few years back I took some of my team to the Tobago Cays which is a MPA in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As we pulled up to an anchorage we were met by wardens who gave us a warm welcome and provided us with info about the park. We were asked to pay a small fee and were encouraged to enjoy snorkeling. My team were blown away with how beautiful the reef was and especially with the large numbers of fish, lobster, turtles and conch we saw. Corals seemed healthy compared to anything we had back home and it was a joy to be there. That lesson of what a well managed Marine Protected Area could look like stuck with my team and the example is seen over and over around the world where special areas are well looked after. Climate Change is a reality we can't avoid but looking after our reefs significantly lowers the impact of climate change on them and by extension on us all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Killing sharks and eating their meat is more dangerous than swimming with them.


Recently the Daily Observer newspaper YET AGAIN published a photo of a large dead mother tiger shark. This one had just been landed in Jolly Harbour by some local fishers. I can't remember exactly but the caption was something like "this wonderful delicacy will be eaten by many lucky residents." Each year sharks come inshore to give birth to their live babies. The puppy sharks as many call them spend their early years close to shore where they are able to hide from predators and feed on other small marine creatures. This has been going on for millions of years before the first indigenous people travelled here from south America. Their numbers now are dwindling thanks to mankind. Shark conservation is extremely important and something taken seriously in many places around the world..just this week a video of people saving a stranded great white shark in the USA went viral.
I am writing this on behalf of the Antigua Conservation Society (ACS) in the hope that the Antigua Observer will stop printing such unfortunate pieces which ultimately cause damage to a species which is under pressure from over fishing and habitat change. What is even more important than that is the ACS hopes to educate The Observer Media Group and the people of Antigua and Barbuda on the very serious dangers of eating sharks and other large marine predators.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA has done extensive studies on shark meat and strongly advise the following people to avoid consuming it.
  • Women Who Might Become Pregnant
  • Women Who are Pregnant
  • Nursing Mothers
  • Young Children
The reason for this food warning is mercury and methylmercury which are toxic to humans. According to the Environmental Protection Agency: "Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it builds up in them. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These large fish (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) pose the greatest risk. Other types of fish and shellfish may be eaten in the amounts recommended by FDA and EPA."

Methylmercury causes central nervous system and spinal cord damage in humans. Symptoms of this damage can be:


  • Blindness
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Deafness
  • Growth problems
  • Intellectual disability
  • Lung function impairment
  • Small head (microcephaly)

  • The Antigua Conservation Society is very concerned with calling tiger shark meat a delicacy. Do more research. Even healthy adults are advised to eat small portions of shark meat once or twice a week at the most.
    As I mentioned, tiger sharks face many pressures. According to Wikipedia: "The tiger shark is captured and killed for its fins, flesh, and liver. It is caught regularly in target and nontarget fisheries. Several populations have declined where they have been heavily fished. Continued demand for fins may result in further declines in the future. Tiger sharks are considered a near threatened species due to excessive finning and fishing by humans according to International Union for Conservation of Nature.[2]
    While shark fin has very few nutrients, shark liver has a high concentration of vitamin A which is used in the production of vitamin oils. In addition, the tiger shark is captured and killed for its distinct skin, as well as by big-game fishers.[5]
    In 2010, Greenpeace International added the tiger shark to its seafood red list, which is a list of fish commonly sold around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries."
    Many Antiguans like watching whale wars on TV. What they don't know is that the Sea Shepherd gang have faught even harder for shark protection. To find out why click this quote from their website:
    "Sharks keep our largest and most important ecosystem healthy. Our existence, in part, is dependent upon theirs. Sharks have sat atop the oceans’ food chain, keeping our seas healthy for 450 million years. They are a critical component in an ecosystem that provides 1/3 of our world with food, produces more oxygen than all the rainforests combined, removes half of the atmosphere’s manmade carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas), and controls our planet’s temperature and weather."

    Before anyone jumps up and down saying something like "sharks need to be killed because they are dangerous", please ponder these facts:
    655,000 people killed each year by mosquitos
    2,900 people are killed by hippos
    130 people killed across the U.S. by deer
    53 people die each year in the U.S by bees
    35 are killed each year in the U.S. by dogs
    20 killed by horses in the U.S. each year
    25 by cows!
    Globally 6 people are killed each year by sharks.

    The Antigua Conservation Society thinks that the brave fishers that catch sharks should be encouraged to target other sustainably caught species that provide good safe protein for the people of Antigua and Barbuda.


    Thursday, June 25, 2015

    Fish Aggregating Devices in Antigua and Barbuda - a can of worms.

    Since 2006/7 I have been fishing on and writing about Fish Aggregating Devices or FADs here in Antigua. What is a FAD? If "fish aggregating device" doesn't explain it well enough, then just imagine a FAD as an artificial reef anchored out or in some instances floating in deep water where a massive food chain is attracted artificially for the purpose of exploitation. I suppose "exploitation" isn't a nice word for some and they would rather hear something else like FADs attract fish so that fishers can catch more fish. That too!

    Anyway, at the end of the day a FAD aggregates fish which means it brings together fish that would have normally been spread out across a larger section of open ocean. FAD fishing in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been primarlily done by fishers from the islands of Guadeloupe, La Désirade and from Saint-Barthélemy (St. Barts). In the French islands they call them DCPs. Do a youtube search for "Pêche sur DCP" and have a look at some of the vids. Some of them could very well be in our warters!
    We don't know how many of their FADs are in our waters or how many fishers from these islands fish in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) each week. Suffice to say that the very small number of our local fishers who fish offshore see many foreign FADs and their fishermen each week. Click here for an old blog post about illegal FAD fishing. In many cases the foreign fishers attempt to chase our local fishers away from these FADs. I wrote about that here back in 2011 when it happened to me. I know many local fishers who have been threatened. Some have had their equipment destroyed by these foreign fishers. I remember a boat called MiniBite reported that during an Antigua Sport Fishing Event a Guadeloupe boat deliberately ran over their lines cutting all. This past weekend a friend called Stevie was threatened by foreign fishers when he approached one of their FADs just 20 miles from shore. Fishing on FADs when you know what you are doing, gives you a better chance of catching certain fish like several species of tuna, marlin, mahi mahi, rainbow runner and even wahoo. Conservative estimates suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of pounds of these species being caught by foreign fishers within our EEZ each year. It very well may be over a million pounds a year depending on which local commercial fisher you speak with. I am convinced it's over a million pounds of fish a year. In those islands where fish sells for more than it does here, the dollar amount is probably close to twenty million EC dollars a year. And that number is probably growing while the amount of the same species being caught in the traditional fishing grounds by long time local fishers diminishes every year. After speaking with some of the French fishers about their FADs in our waters they argue that they are permitted to fish where they are because the waters are not Antigua and Barbuda "Territorial Waters". They are correct that most of their FADs are not within our Territorial Waters but they are wrong thinking that they are legal to fish there because they seem not to understand what the Exclusive Economic Zone is. For a good definition of all these things click on this link (especially if you are a fisherman from one of our neighboring islands). 
    Most commercial fishers blame FADs for the decline in stocks on the "edge" (continental drop off) and offshore banks (sea mounts) saying that historical migratory routes are being changed by all the offshore FADs which are being set as close as 5 miles off our shelf and as far as 70 miles off shore. Of course, FADs may be being set further but our local fishers are not venturing that far off yet. Recently I visited a FAD anchored in 15,000 feet of water. The amount of rope needed for that would probably be three times that!

    "If You Can Beat Them, Then You Join Them!" This has been the attitude of more and more local fishers who have given up on our government's ability to understand or to deal with the problem of foreign FADs within Antigua and Barbuda Exclusive Economic Zone. Some local fishers spend huge amounts of money and time searching for, finding and then fishing on these foreign FADs whenever the owners are not around and some have invested tens of thousands of dollars into building and setting their own FADS. Recently over the past few years the Government of Antigua and Barbuda has received resources from Japan to set FADs of their own. Instead of fixing existing FAD problems within our EEZ, this move by Japan and our government could be creating more problems associated with FADs. As is usually the case with underfunded government departments that are run without effective and well informed leadership (think Ministerial level here), policy and management decisions have made a mess of an already disorganized situation. Why do I say this? Let me explain. A few years ago thanks to the sustained efforts by some of us, new fisheries regulations were passed taking stagnating Fisheries management out of the 1980s. All fishers had to register properly for the first time with the government Fisheries office and get licenses. The commercially licensed fishers all had to provide various contact details and other info including the type of fishing that they were engaged in. I only fished pelagic species of fish and mentioned that I fished FADs. Anyway, many others did the same. Recently when our government got the FAD making bits and pieces from Japan, a small number of fishers were contacted to ask them for help in constructing and setting these FADs. I only know about this because I am friends with several of them. I don't know how many government FADs were set or what was the extent of the Japanese FAD funding received here in Antigua and Barbuda because there seems to be tight secrecy about this funding and the FADs. Only certain fishers were invited to help make the FADS and only certain fishers were given the positions of these Government FADs. When I asked my friends why this was they tell me that it was felt that only people who helped make and set them should be permitted to fish them. When I pointed out that it was strange that only certain Antigua and Barbuda commercially registered fishers (many who are non nationals) were told about the opportunity to help build and set these FADs, I was told that they felt that the people invited were viewed as FAD fishermen by Fisheries.
    There have been several meetings at the Government Fisheries base where catering was prepared and discussion on FAD policy took place. Again, only certain Fishers were contacted about these meetings despite Fisheries having contact info for all of the commercially registered fishers who registered as fishing for the species found on FADs.
    Since these FADs were set off shore, they have been spotted and fished by other commercial fishers. In fact, one very calm day I found three of them while out looking for mahi mahi south of Antigua. I have been told that certain fishers who helped construct these Japenese sponsored, Antigua and Barbuda owned FADs are furious that other locally licensed fishers are now fishing on them. It appears that the FAD conflict is now not just between foreign fishers and our local fishers but now between local fishers too. This is madness and is caused by poor decision making, policy and planning at the Government level. At the end of the day our nation should be attempting to alleviate the pressure put on our inshore fishery and environments by encouraging fishers to fish off shore for pelagic species which can be fished more sustainably. Fishers displaced by no fishing zones within Marine Protected Areas such as NEMMA and the Cades Reef and Cades Bay Marine Reserve as well as the growing number of inshore fishers who simply can't catch enough to feed themselves, should be educated about pelagic fishing and be encouraged to fish FADs if we are indeed going to be setting them.
    But there are many other problems arising. One of the worst problems about FAD fishing is that it is felt that with the huge number of FADs being set in the Atlantic 20 to 70 miles from our shore, the fish are simply not coming to the traditional fishing grounds. I mentioned this but to be specific the area known as South Bank was once teaming with four or five different species of tuna and mahi mahi (dolphin fish). These days you are lucky to see any. The same species are being caught less than ten miles away on FADs. Similar stories from long time fishermen are told all around the island. Recently FADs set by the government close to an area called "The Bubbies" are catching large wahoo. This is unusual for FADs and the many charter fishers that have traditionally fished the area have noticed a dramatic decline in their wahoo catch recently. The small blackfin tuna that congregated around that area have vanished. Blackfin are the main prey of the big pelagic species typically caught on FADs like Blue Marlin, Yellowfin tuna and Albacore. They congregate around FADs in large schools. Sometimes you arrive at a FAD only because you see a massive flock of birds feeding around Blackfin tuna which are tearing up the water while feasting on smaller prey. This was a sight seen at many spots around our twin island's continental shelf until recently. Pelagic species now have an artificial "shelf" made up of a ring of secretly placed FADs right around our islands. The foreign French fishers are making the most of it while we do nothing about it. Instead of using foreign Japanese fisheries grants (given to us in exchange for our whaling/fisheries vote on the international stage) to do something about the monstrous problem of foreign FADs in our waters, our government is building FADs of thier own and setting them between our shelf and the foreign FADs much further offshore. Even if you don't fish, I am sure you can imagine which FADs will be more effective at aggregating mahi mahi, tuna and other species that are migrating through the region. The ones way offshore or the ones closer?
    Notice I haven't mentioned any sustainability issues. Greenpeace and other international marine conservation organizations are categorically against FADs mainly because of by-catch issues associated with large scale commercial fishing on FADs. So far we only know of small scale fishing by independent operators, but with total lack of concern, enforcement or management of fishing offshore there is a possibility of large commercial operations fishing FADS within our 200 mile EEZ. These large commercial FAD fishers use nets around FADs to scoop up everything that aggregates there while searching for one or two particular species. The rest is discarded dead as by-catch. Imagine what this would do to our fishery.
    Blue species are targeted while the white species are discarded as by-catch.


    This Video shows a bit more about Western Pacific Fads and one organization's controversial goal of banning FADs globally. Without thinking much about it I can agree with a ban on net fishing around FADs as clearly it's a bad idea. 

    The implications of turning our backs on a problem that exists are very serious for the people of Antigua and Barbuda. We need to be able to feed ourselves in the future. Food security is essential and while history repeats itself over and over the lessons are often ignored. This problem of illegal FAd fishing has decimated fish stocks of many underfunded and under organized third world nations. I have always felt that Japanese aid is horrifically immoral and this latest funding for FADs continues on their policy of throwing money at us without caring about our long term sustainability. They should be using their free cash gifts to fund studies which would help us understand our fisheries strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats. It is abundantly clear that they don't care and the sad part is that despite this being clear, we take the money that ultimately hurts us.

    Since writing the section above, i have spoken with the Fisheries officer who's in charge of FAD construction and deployment here in Antigua and Barbuda.
    I think he was unaware of some of the concerns that many commercial fishers have with FAD fishing. He says that the Japanese funding for FADs is a regional thing and that the reason he only decided to use a small number of fishers with the initial FAD program was that he felt it would be better to get the program started with a smaller group than with a larger one. I pointed out that the process of deciding who to invite clearly was unusual. Some of the fishers were not even nationalized! He agreed with my sentiment that a more inclusive approach was needed and that policy needed to be directed by a larger group than the small group of commercial fishers currently involved in the FAD program. In certain areas FAD fishing is heavily regulated to ensure food security and sustainable fishing. Take for example Hawaii where I am informed that the only FADs that are permitted are government set FADs. There are a finite number of FADs set and these FADs are carefully monitored. Any other FADs set are deemed illegal. A growing number of places don't permit FAD fishing at certain times of the year and some don't permit FAD fishing at all. These nations recognize the danger of FADs if fished without proper management. We here don't have the capability or interest in controlling FAD fishing which has been going on here mostly illegally for a decade already.
    The government of Antigua and Barbuda spends very little of its budget on their Fisheries division, and seems to let the small department get steered or influenced by Japanese policy in many respects. The status quo seems to be centered more on catching more, rather than on the often touted concept of "sustainable use". Japan spends millions of dollars on Antigua and Barbuda fisheries so that they get their whaling/fisheries vote sorted out but none of that seems to be spent on figuring out how to fish sustainably. Antigua and Barbuda's fishers on the whole, are poor people who could be doing much better if the resources they targeted were managed more sensibly or in a sustainable manner. Policy and planning are crucial and I think Japan will ultimately benefit from their manipulation of our Government's Fisheries body. Very little proper study is done to see what species can and should be targeted and very little is spent on educating local fishers on sustainable practices. This FAD situation needs to be looked at, not just by Japanese influenced Government technicians or a small self serving group of fishers but by people and groups looking out for the country of Antigua and Barbuda and it's future.