Saturday, December 16, 2017

App Review: Clean Swell

Recently,  my 8-yr old and I participated in the International Coastal Clean Up - an annual worldwide event hosted by the Ocean Conservancy. I have been on different sides of this event over the years: as a site coordinator, as the breakdown/clean up after the clean up crew, as a participant with friends and alone. But this was a new experience as I shared it with my son and the Ocean Conservancy added a new tool too, the Clean Swell App. 

Every year, in addition to just picking up trash and debris, the Ocean Conservancy has quested participants to record their findings. This data is important when creating jaw dropping graphics like this one:

I have unfathomable respect for organizations that include data and research with their good deeds. We, as consumers, must wade through countless fountains of strange and random facts only to wonder “where on earth did they get that information?”. As a scientist, I understand how any opportunity to incorporate citizens into the gathering of data is priceless. Just like this App!

Clean Swell is a free application for your phone, available for your Apple people or Droiders. This is a great option for those who have no desire to carry around the clipboard and pen to record their collection data – however, this DOES require you to have your phone out and on the beach during a cleanup which is maybe not the best option for chronic phone destructors like myself.

Signing up is easy, only requiring very basic information such as your e-mail. Incidentally, I abhor getting junk mail and I have found only summary e-mails from what I have reported appear in my inbox. I can absolutely live with that. The intro page for the app is self explanatory and user friendly. The purpose of installing this app is to motivate those participating in a structured clean up to consider doing more cleanups on their own and still report the data. This is an efficient and waste-free option and to be honest not particularly time consuming. I'm sure most people, like myself, keep their phone on them anyway so sending in the data was even less trouble than sending an e-mail. The "History" tab is a very cool function that provides the use an opportunity to track what they have done and where. The profile is simplified, with only your zip code and e-mail kept so you don’t have to fret about too much personal information being on file.

I have always found recording data during a clean up to be bulky and sometimes difficult. Add in weather such as wind or a light rain, and getting data down was a mess. I imagine trying to sort through sandy, torn and wet pages was not particularly fun for those charged with reporting the data either. Flipping through pages on a clipboard while holding trash bags and picking up trash is impossible to do alone without getting frustrated. My favorite part of the app is the data tracking grid. A sample is pictured here, but there are so many options that you don’t have to think about anything while collecting except to tap the items being picked up. Every time you snag a plastic bag, or lid, or even just a fragment – they all have their own separate icon that can simply be tapped. Having said that, deleting an item accidently tapped is tricky and much easier to do on the back-end right before you submit the final data. Stopping everything to tab backwards to delete an extra balloon isn’t really worth the effort when you are out in the elements or on a time crunch (or trying to chase down an 8-yr old with a pair of trash pickers who is really excited and hauling down the beach at speeds I am not capable of without copious amounts of coffee in advance).
As a motivational perk, the app has 'badges' you can earn for participating. For instance, completing our first clean up yielded the "Ahoy Matey" and apparently, I am the queen of beverage related items such as bottle caps and straws with my "Beverage Buster" badge earned in only 3 outings.

Here is an easy pro / con list:

  • Less to carry vs a clipboard, paper and pencils
  • Easy to report data
  • Data is quickly available to the Ocean Conservancy
  • The ability to track your own data and look at what you (or your team) have collected. This type of data can really help a program measure the direct impact in a community.

  • The phone must be out and used every 10 seconds or so. Otherwise it will time out and your cleanup data is lost. I am not aware of this being fixed via update since my last clean up. I did not find a way to change the timeout settings.
  • Clumsy users might want to have someone else handle the phone while they pick up trash.
  • In the Florida heat, your phone may get hot being out in the elements. I put mine in a dry bag, and was able to touch the screen through the plastic, but my phone became very hot since it was on constantly. (I have a GalaxyS7)
NOTE:  not necessarily a “CON”, but it is important to understand this is designed to collect data on marine debris - meaning shoreline and aquatic debris. If you are cleaning up a park, the app should not apply and the data collected could be skewing the overall project results. When cleaning up in a park, and not a reef, beach or along a freshwater system, do not report your data via this app.

Have fun reclaiming the water and consider adding the Clean Swell App to help keep that New Year's Resolution to be a citizen scientist in 2018!

Friday, November 3, 2017

International Coastal Cleanup

For years I was an avid participant in the International Coastal Clean Up, and had many sequential years of promotional t-shirts to prove it. Over time, as my career progressed, I was on the front line and out in the field far less, which led to me being tied up with other responsibilities and I was no longer able to attend this iconic event as it took place all over the world. This time around, I was all set to miss it – again. Then Hurricane Irma swept our coastlines and filled our streets with water and debris.
The hurricane, along with the ensuing damage and loss of power throughout the region, led to a huge number of facilities with live animals having to delay their events. I would not have made the September event, but I was able to join the beautiful and unique Sandoway Discovery Center in Delray Beach.
The International Coastal Cleanup is an annual event put on by the Ocean Conservancy and they have a great site to help you find one close to home check out the Ocean Conservancy's Coastal Cleanup page.

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers band together for an amazing joint effort to tackle the trauma caused by marine debris – a problem that is directly related to human interactions and therefore a problem that can be directly addressed and the results are quite measurable. But despite the well-meaning outpour of individuals who make a shining appearance once a year, I have found that too many show up for this with very specific and limited intentions:
  • Many of the teens show up for the community service hours for school.
  • Many of the adults to show up for free beach parking and a t-shirt.
  • Many of kids don’t even know why they are there, but hey – it’s the ocean, let’s go!
I wanted to be different. I wanted to do more, but also understood the pressures of life would allow only a limited amount of time. Dedication aside, I wanted to share this experience and make it something special. So, I recruited my 8-yr old son to join me. We spent well over a week discussing the importance of trash in the ocean, and what the significance of the cleanup meant. We looked up photos and shared videos of various marine animal rescues, like the poor Olive Ridley sea turtle with a straw up its nostril that went viral (in case you missed it: Sea Turtle Straw video  WARNING, there is strong language in this 8-min video).

On October 7, we trucked down to the Sandoway Discovery Center. They had a rough time post-Irma and I know some of the staff there. Part of my son’s reward, unbeknownst to him, was a trip to Sandoway immediately after our contribution to the cleanup concluded. He was excited and we arrived before 8:30am ready to work. We checked in, and geared up with a recycling bag, trash bag, grabber and a new tool to track our trash – the Clean Swell app downloaded quickly to my smart phone. Jace commandeered the trash picker and we were ready to rock!

We dropped off some items in the car, and while there my son must have credit for a great idea – he suggested we start our cleanup in the parking lot and on the walk to the beach itself. Nearly half our trash bag was filled before we ever even saw the ocean.
Once our toes hit the sand, the beach was crawling with volunteers and Jace commented on how he hoped we would still find trash to gather. This is when I received a true wake up – the wrack line was dense and the beachcombers were not yet out. People wandered around aimlessly looking from only a standing position, and were missing copious amounts of tiny trash. Bits of plastic that crumbled into exponentially more pieces were scattered within the weeds.
Somebody was taking it all in with a smile!
But we persevered from the waterline to the dune and back down again for half a mile, taking short breaks now and again to enjoy the sunshine, wind, waves and let mommy add the data to our list. Bottle caps and bits of plastic or foam dominated our search. Our trash bag filled while the blue recycling bag stayed light and near empty. We decided to walk along Ocean Blvd on the way back to the Discovery Center, and pick up trash along the road as well. By the time we dropped off the bags of anti-treasure, it was hot and sticky. I can easily admit disappointment at seeing so many bags left near empty, knowing so many tiny pieces of plastic remained out in the sand.

What appeared to be 'clean' was far from it
A simple suggestion to rehydrate and visit the inside of the Center turned the next hour and a half into a new chapter of exploration. I know we made a real effort during the cleanup and most certainly earned our shirts, but above all else it felt good to be on the front lines again.
Most coastal communities have regular beach cleanups, and local organizations can usually get you to the right place. Our local resource is Keep Palm Beach County Beautiful: a non-profit organization that is a great way to find which organizations are working together when and where. For those who just need a few hours of volunteer service, projects like cleanups are easy and rarely require confusing paperwork or time-consuming waits for approval.
It is important to keep it fun and interesting. Playing games like trash bingo or having planned rewards post-collection can really help and introducing younger ones to the significance of what happens to trash left outside is what not only changes habits but has a lasting impact. Every tiny bit adds up to huge gains, and keep challenging yourself to make a difference!

Okay, sometimes he can be a little dramatic...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Trash Talk turned Trash Walk

Kael + Thor = 115lbs of doggie-ness
While I love many different types of animals, our current pet capacity involves the retention and care of two large dogs. Both rescues, one is a pure-bred Alaskan malamute and the other a standard mutt. Kael, whose name means ‘mighty warrior’, was born in the heat of Florida when his mother was dumped from a puppy mill. The average litter size for a malamute is only six, and Kael is one of ten. Having a dog bred for cold weather living so close to the equator is a challenge, and walking the dog takes on a whole new meaning when A) he looks like a wolf and either scares or intrigues people at first sight, B) he weighs 115 lbs. and C) is prone to overheating due to a thick double coat.

Living in the Florida suburbs, we have a wonderful and dog-friendly neighborhood – perhaps this is because very few residents actually have a yard, ourselves included. Whenever the heat takes a step back we jump on the opportunity to get outside for a real walk and not just a business trip. Often one of the side effects of hurricanes is a break in the heat, and with hurricane Irma this past month Kael enjoyed time in the wind and rain – me, not so much. Watching him outside being a normal dog and not panting heavily within 90 seconds is always a treat for me too, and I decided while getting whipped by the storm (and, no, we did not go out during the height of the inclement weather) that I needed to get out there and really let my dogs have some quality time on the leash.

It was only while regularly walking my dogs post-Irma that I really began to see all the trash that had piled up in our sweet little neighborhood. Not just the piles of downed trees and fencing, but all sorts of flotsam and bits of trash had even blocked the sewer drains. Yards were covered in litter and rotting filth. People didn’t have power, and windows remained shuttered. It didn’t look or feel like the nice little blocks I was used to and found myself getting annoyed at how people could just let these things pile up in their own space. After all, I had picked up the trash that blew into my yard within two days…

I'm not talking about the hurricane-induced debris piles, of which there are still so many even weeks later.
The hurricane had caused many facilities to reschedule events, one of which was the International Coastal Cleanup. When power returned, I decided to sign up myself and my 8-yr old for a cleanup in Delray Beach in October. I was feeling quite smug and accomplished as I announced to my son that were going to help clean up the beach – and then it really hit me - like a plastic bag blowing onto the front windshield of my car on the way to school (which of course has NEVER happened). Plastic is destroying our oceans. Countless cleanups and many wonderful organizations dedicate themselves to ridding the largest biome on this planet of plastic and trash. It takes no time whatsoever to go online, search the words ‘wildlife’ and ‘trash’ and be inundated with horrifying photos, videos of poor sea turtles with straws stuck up their nasal passages, and the ever-present soda can rings of death and destruction. I know the trash doesn’t necessarily come from boaters or even beach goers. It can travel by wind and storms, by drainage canals and highways, and I was walking right past trash every day and doing nothing.

Hello there, bottle cap
It started with a bottle cap.
Caps cannot be recycled here in Florida by simply tossing them into the blue bin and it is best to remove them from bottles before they are put in the bins. Between our two dogs, I walk ~165 lbs of pup each day. The cute little doggie bags are no match for the boys, so I put the plastic bags from the grocer or other stores to use. Despite typically having reusable bags on hand, I have friends and family who give me their plastic bags specifically for doggie-doo duty. As I went to pick up after one of the dogs, there was a bottle cap in the grass nearby. It had obviously been there for a few days, and I picked it up with a plastic garbed hand while doing my neighborly assignment of picking up after Thor (he’s the little dog at 50 lbs). And being the unique person I am, I took a photo for future contemplation.

I stared at the photo that evening and the next day took an extra bag with me specifically for trash. I didn’t go into any bushes or climb trees; I didn’t walk any closer to a house that the sidewalk, and yet I was shocked in the amount of trash collected during a short walk with a panting malamute. Walking the second dog, I decided to take a different street and found a whole new array of trashy treasures. I felt so good! No letters to the HOA complaining, no dirty looks at neighbors (nor from any neighbors either), and my dogs are getting much better on the leash. Stopping frequently has led them to be better at heeling and let’s face it, dogs are really good at finding bits of trash so they are even helping the cause when walking after dark. Success! I have made the world better!
Day 1 haul - thanks for the help, Thor!
And then, we went for walk the next day – same route, more trash. But wait, I was just here yesterday?! This makes no sense. So now, we are about two weeks in to the “trash walk” and the amount being collected is about the same each time. We rotate our routes, which means I have met more neighbors and my dogs receive new enrichment of smells, contact with humans, and so many squirrels eventually they will stop lunging at them (right?). I don’t take photos anymore, but I do talk to the dogs about what we are doing and why it is important.

I look forward to showing my son next month that cleaning the beach once a year is great, but that we can and will do better. Every bit of refuse that ends up in the right receptacle and out of the environment is a good thing, and I am reminded again how small decisions can lead to big results over time. Who, knows - maybe even a few neighbors here us chatting.

I am not so sure, however, about how much trash will be around the neighborhood on November 1st – the day after Halloween. That should be an interesting walk.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

If you have spent more than a week anywhere in Florida, then you understand the perfect word to describe the weather here: hot.  Even when raining, breaking a sweat is standard order.  When the humidity dips below a balmy 90%+, I dive into the hidden regions of the closet to pull out long sleeve tees and light jackets.
Two days after Hurricane Sandy whisked by Florida's east coast, the weather became stunningly un-Floridian. To my family's delight, the humidity dropped below 80% and the temperature below 75°F. Having already been to the local pumpkin patch (and I use that endearing term very loosely; for those of you from where winter is an actual season, do NOT confuse where we went with what you have enjoyed as child), we were ready for a family hike.  The child's hiking backpack was retrieved from the garage the previous night and ready for adventure!

Contemplating the Map
I want to take a moment to give credit to the wonderful invention pictured here in use.  My son was in a stroller twice from birth to 4 months in age, and was never keen on the limited view available from a stroller or a rear-facing car seat.  The American-made Kelty used here has served us well across the country to areas including Las Vegas and Monterey Bay.  I'm not sure if it is the close proximity to his favorite person, or just the chance to see everything from a grownup's point of view that keeps our little adventurer happy out on the trail.

Close to home is a rare treasure - the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Run by the FWS, but also supported by non-profits and FWC, the first thing I suggest you do prior to visiting is to take the time to check out the website:  The second thing I recommend is to have $5 cash in hand. The front gate is not always manned, and payment into the park is still on the honor system.  It is only $5 per car, so don't be chincy and just fork it over.  Your family will definitely get your money's worth!
We started our rediscovery of the LOX Refuge at the beautiful Visitor Center, then headed out to the boardwalk - ready to enjoy every moment of the wonderful weather.  The staff on site were extremely friendly and seemed genuinely happy to see us there, very cool first impression!  The boardwalk is well shaded and in excellent condition.  Out little guy was able to run around, but also peek between the rails, see cool things, and point them out all by himself.  The flora and fauna are true to the Seminole word Loxahatchee (technically "low chow") and its meaning "river of turtles". We also heard a symphony of insects and birds on this particular day. There are guided walks along this boardwalk for those in search of the details on species above and below the water line. This day the water was higher than normal due to recent rains, which made for an excellent and comfortable nature walk.
The Everglades also bears the unofficial title "River of Grass", a term coined by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her 1947 book by that same name.  The book is, well, a bit dry for my taste.  Still, it captures in epic description the senses and sites experience throughout the Everglades as a large, fluid ecosystem.  For those of you unfamiliar with wetlands ecology, I shall save the "101" for another post, but essentially the Everglades is comprised of both swamps and marshes.  Swamps are wetlands with trees, and as you can see are plentiful in the boardwalk portion of the ARM Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The cypress trees towering overhead with dangling old man's beard and air plants is still one of my favorite non-ocean related views.
This freshwater ecosystem is not stagnant; the water is constantly, albeit slowly, moving throughout the state of Florida.  The Loxahatchee watershed alone is well over 200 square miles and just as important to the humans living in this area as it is to migrating wildlife.  The Refuge is also iconic when it comes to nature hikes and bird watching.  Personally, I am not a "bird-er", but if you want to get in that mood before coming and exploring one of many vibrate nature hikes, watch the movie The Big Year (2011; starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson).  This feature was unfortunately billed as a comedy instead of a heartfelt movie that addresses serious issues including family dynamics, prioritizing career decisions, and personal discovery.  While I do not know how the hard core bird community felt about the movie peeking into their favorite obsession, I enjoyed it immensely (and watched it several times) and scenes from the film kept swooping into my mind while walking through the Refuge - this place must be slammin' during migration season!
Making his own discovery
There were some bird houses nestled off the boardwalk, but still in good view for those walking and searching for wildlife.  Jace found his own friend and was enamored for over 30 seconds! In toddler time this is quite a feat.  He visibly jumped when the moth flew off, and would not leave the area until we found it again and he knew it was safe.  Only then, after saying goodbye, we were allowed to move on.

A closer look at Jace's new friend
Be sure to bring your camera on this trip, and your best shots can be submitted in the annual photography contest too.  Teachers can enjoy the park with a group of kids, or as students themselves, as part of Project WILD.  Miles of levees can also be enjoyed on a bicycle, just be sure to bring water - after all, it is still Florida weather!  This is not serious trail riding, though, so hard core bikers should stem their expectations.
After completing the boardwalk, we headed out on the Marsh Trail, and immediately found a family struggling on the gravel/dirt/grass trail with a standard stroller.  Nobody appeared happy except the 5 year old running ahead of everyone gleefully.  Poor mom was grunting and fighting with the stroller, and the toddler that was probably supposed to be inside it was sitting on dad's shoulders.  Moral of the story?  If you are bringing a stroller, it had better be off-road ready or maybe your family should stay off the trails this time.  See the above photo of our hiking backpack as another option!
We spotted the wildlife watching post pictured here, and made that our target.  In less than 30 minutes, with Jace running around most of that time, we were atop the tower and ready to enjoy the great breeze and the welcome cool breeze.  This perfect spot to take a break branches off into 3 different trails, and includes a large set of binoculars that does not cost a quarter for 30 seconds of viewing!  It is FREE!

My guys taking a break and discussing where to go next

Some of the birds found along the trail included the great blue heron, great egrets, gallinoles, ibis, cattle egrets, and a few more I am certain on the species.  As mentioned before, I am not a true birder.  We heard, and saw baby gators too.  Sorry, none of those photos turned out well so they are not included here.
One of many scenic shots, this one features a great egret
Not sure when to visit?  The annual free event, Everglades Day is not a bad place to start.  The place will be overflowing with visitors and exhibitors, guest lectures and animal interactions.  This day is the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge at its biggest and brightest, so take advantage of it!  The 14th year of the event is February 9th, 2013, and the theme is "Healthy Everglades, Healthy People".  Details about the event is also on the Refuge website.
All photos were taken by me, on the day described in this post.  Feel free to use them, but please provide photo credit, and if you are really feeling generous - a link or post to this blog.

When the weather gives you a pleasant surprise, do not waste it by spending the entire time indoors! Have some fun with your family bright and early... then enjoy football later (like we did) and still have a wonderful, high quality day! 
-Callie Sharkey

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Oceana Coffee - Café Review

Water is the most consumed liquid on the planet. No surprise there. When looking for the runners up I was shocked to be inundated by useless websites, but can state with reasonable certainty #2 is between tea and coffee (depending on the source) with alcohol close behind.

Over the last few years, I have evolved into a full on coffee drinker and anyone who has ever seen me prior to 9 am... well, at basically any time of day... has probably spotted me and a travel mug of coffee within arm's reach. This does not mean in any way that I understood a single thing about coffee aside from how to use my 2-4 cup Mr. Coffee maker. As my mugs grew larger, I have since upgraded to a 12 cup version. I swear I don't drink the whole pot, really I mean it.

While working at a local nature center/aquarium, I taught kid's yoga and also found myself leading the story time programs on a regular basis. As a brilliant plus, coffee is served to adults at the River Center's free "Starfish & Coffee" story time. Being the most avid coffee drinker amongst the staff, I made the dark drink using a boring generic brand we kept stored in the freezer for "freshness".

When Amy Angelo walked into my yoga class as just a mom with 2 great kids, I had no idea of how this encounter would essentially change my way of thinking about a vital part of my daily routine. She is the founder and owner of Oceana Coffee, along with her husband Scott, and one of those ladies working moms can see as a true role model.

Oceana Coffee at the River Center's Birthday Bash

Before the first Oceana Coffee location opened, and patronage was only available online, Amy brought her kids to our story time and immediately grabbed me after the program. "I'm sorry, Callie. We love this place and your program, but I cannot in good conscience let you serve that coffee anymore." Oceana Coffee became a sponsor for the River Center, providing a refined level of excellent coffee for all programs, events, and staff. Basically, I got spoiled - quick.

I started buying coffee for home use, as presents for friends and family, and even took 2 freshly ground lbs with me up to West Virginia because based on previous holiday trips the coffee pickins were gonna be slim. Better to make my own each morning and leave the extras for the owners of the condo to savor as a token of my gratitude.

By the time they opened a cafe in Tequesta at the end of 2011, I had been waiting far too long to get the full "Oceana Experience".  My first coffee was made courtesy of Chris Sands - which I think is a totally cool name for somebody working at a place with ocean in the title - and it changed my coffee religion.

As always, thank you, Chris!
I also met Brooke Kruhm, who began my coffee education within moments. When purchasing my first pound of coffee, she asked what type of coffee maker I had at home. Uh, Mr. Coffee? What does it matter? She smiled and clarified: french press, drip filter...? Oh, I get it now. It does matter how the beans themselves are ground. Question #2 from Brooke: How do you store your coffee? Would you like a resealable bag? Oh, I just store it in the freezer. Brooke's eyes grew large and then softened as she truly came to realize what a coffee rookie looked like, staring ignorantly at her and smiling - goofily numbed by some amazing mocha and open to all suggestions from the coffee gurus. Oh no, sweetie, don't do that ever again. Now promise me you will not put this in the freezer, or else I won't give it to you.  Wait... you say I, I ... can't have my awesome coffee if I put in the freezer?!! "Yes, ma'am. I promise. It won't happen again. I'm sorry."  I have made certain to keep that promise.

Ok, so right now maybe you think I am just a crazy caffeine addict, but for those who enjoy another popular worldwide beverage ponder these points:
  • The best beers come from microbreweries.  If you dont' agree, then you have not sampled nearly enough specialty beers to understand.
  • Teas have a variety of unique blends and can be brewed to different strengths and tastes.  Anyone who cannot tell the difference between black, white, and green teas may as well stick with straight water.
  • Good wine can have complexity and depth.  Sommeliers were biologically proven to have more taste buds and a more sensitive palate than the typical human being.  It takes years to develop a beautiful wine, and I now know that coffee can be just as intricate in flavor and scent.
Heaven exists, and it comes in an eco-friendly cup
Freshness is vital to any agricultural product.  Gourmet restaurants pride themselves in using local produce and the high quality of their ingredients; coffee is no different.  At Oceana Coffee, the beans are carefully selected and shipped in fresh; then they are roasted at the shop itself.  The Angelos even announce "roasting events" where the public is invited to stay after normal business hours to experience the art of this process for themselves.  Talk about getting a real coffee education!
Greeted through the front door by the machine that makes the magic
Kid-friendly corner
While having a toddler has contributed greatly to my need for/love of coffee, I wouldn't exactly refer to the typical cafe as being kid-friendly.  This is NOT the case at Oceana!  Remember, I was introduced to Amy as a mom first, and being a parent was carefully taken into consideration when crafting the interior of her shop.  There is a kid's corner - toys, puzzles, books, and even a kid friendly computer with already on screen.

Making friends quickly
It took Jace about 3 seconds to find the toys and settle in happily.  Oceana Coffee will even make a "baby-cino" (steamed milk in a tiny cup) so your little one can have their "coffee" too!  Since Oceana was not created as a fast-food style coffee shop, having a way to keep my little boy happy is a priceless commodity that actually allows me to sit down to drink a cup of coffee - any parent knows this is quite a luxury in itself.  To put things simply: Jace cried when my cup was empty and it was time to go.  We were there for 45 minutes last time and he still wanted to stick around and enjoy the atmosphere.

There are also pastries and some useful gift ideas, but this place is all about the coffee and sharing the opportunity to enjoy it as the coffee gods intended - slow and relaxed.  Meanwhile, I have also been reading the book Onward by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and realized something incredibly interesting about the company and its path to mass market success.  I am positive that Schultz would walk into Oceana Coffee and not only be blown away by the experience, but reminded that this is how his own little coffee dream began.  Wouldn't it be amazing to be a part of something great in the very beginning? Well, Oceana is already expanding to a second location - so here is your chance.

To learn far more about coffee than I could ever understand, including links to great video tutorials check out their website:  Go there, get the history and feel for some amazing locally roasted coffee.  Once smitten, try ordering some to be shipped in case you aren't exactly local.  I also recommend following them on facebook. The staff attends green markets and various community events regularly, and the social network is a great way to stalk them and know when/where to track down the best coffee in town.  Admit it, don't you hate it when you settle for nationwide chain coffee just to find a quaint little cafe 2 streets down?

Oceana Coffee is not about rushing around or waiting in lines and fighting over the last bagel.  This lovely local cafe harnesses their passion for coffee and will lure its guests into the fold with open arms and warm smiles.  They know the product intimately, and every roasted bean and filled cup expresses this proudly.  I consider myself lucky to have found them over a year ago, and perhaps my latest compliment to Oceana Coffee's premium product and staff - I bought a coffee grinder.

In case the review isn't clear on this one:
~~~~~ (5 out of 5 waves), and I think that is a first even for me.

Never be too busy to enjoy a cup with friends or family... maybe have a sip after a SUP session?
-Callie Sharkey

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Invasive Species 101: Lionfish in Local Waters

Lionfish, Pterois volitans and Ptrois miles found very far from their native home
There are waves and trends that flow through every field from fashion to education.  Those particular two divisions melded together for me about 10 years ago when I bought a t-shirt that simply read "Green is the New Black".  Think about health food trends: oat bran, wheat bran, no carbs, vegetarian friendly - as our worldwide culture constantly evolves, there is also regular shifting among conservation efforts too.
The new eco-based 3 R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Once upon a time, recycling was depicted as a homeless person in the big metropolis pushing a shopping cart around and digging through trash in search of valuable glass bottles or aluminum cans.  Now theme parks with large mouse ears on everything boast recycling bins throughout the park, conveniently located right next to standard trash bins.  Small children in school are learning a very different 3 R's than our grandparents did: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  From experience I know that kids are getting that phrase hammered into their brains at a very early age; but do they really understand what it means and how to implement these changes in their everyday lives?  Eh, maybe / maybe not.

A few years ago, the theme of plastic tailgated the recycling party. While this is still an extremely important issue across the globe, as Heidi states in every episode of Project Runway, "One day you're in, and the next day you're out."  I watched the next trend and was very much involved in sharing the message of "Water".  Water is a limited resource and far more valuable than any fossil fuel, but just wasn't getting the attention deserved.  Too many people living in "civilized" areas were, and still are, taking water for granted.  Living in a state which suffers serious droughts and water restrictions most years has taught me how little human beings understand water as a limited commodity.  Florida might be surrounded by water, but it is undrinkable and would kill most plants. That particular concept I took on as personal challenge to teach to as many children as possible.  Kids simply don't often ask questions like: Where does water come from? Where does it go when I am done with it? What would happen if the water ran out?

These questions are just as important as recycling and global warming, plus all of those issues are integrated on a very tightly knit little blue planet.  In fashion, by the time a style or article of clothing makes it to the shopping mall, it is time for the industry to move on; otherwise, it wouldn't be cutting edge, right?  So, now that the plight of water has made it onto to episodes of Super Why (popular toddler's educational cartoon about reading/spelling on PBS and Sprout networks) and even become the main topic for the Girl Scouts of America's Brownie level Journey: Wonders of Water (W.O.W.), I look ahead and feel comfortable predicting the next new eco-friendly trend. By the way, I did also predict the water trend - so it helps my confidence in calling out the next play.

So what is the latest environmental impact that YOU should know about to remain cutting edge on the eco-front?

Now, I would never throw a pitch without teaching you how to swing, so get you ready for the next wave of conservation efforts that are already in place despite not always making the media headlines.  Here is the 101 needed for understanding invasives.

First, a few foundation terms that it never hurts to properly define:
"Species" means a group of organisms all of which have a high degree of physical and genetic similarity, generally interbreed only among themselves, and show persistent differences from members of allied groups of organisms."
"Native species" means, with respect to a particular ecosystem, a species that, other than as a result of an introduction, historically occurred or currently occurs in that ecosystem."
"Invasive species" means an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health."

Let's start by looking at these terms.  Basically, a "native" means this organism has always been found in a region naturally.  There is a term often used interchangeably and inaccurately with "invasive" and that is "exotic".  An exotic species is not necessarily an invasive species.  One escaped pet lemur roaming around the neighborhood is simply an exotic animal on the loose.  It will not establish a breeding population all by itself, and will not cause any large scale or long term negative impacts to the ecosystem where it is wandering around.

An invasive species is much different.  It has adapted to the environment and is breeding.  By adding an entirely new population to an ecosystem, now there is the threat of serious, detrimental impact.

Look back in the archives to "Jellyfish 101" to see my first mention of an invasive species in local waters - the Tripedalia cystophora box jelly (July 2012).  Invasive plants and animals are an issue every time explorers set foot on new lands, so this is not a new problem.  The United States Department of Agriculture even has an Invasive Species Council that was established back in 1999 to take on the arguably impossible task of tracking and stopping invasives from establishing themselves.

Most of the invasive species to an area don't get attention because they are organisms like non-toxic plants or critters low on the food chain. An invasive plant that does not sting like Africanized bees or eat your small dog as a large boa constrictor might simply do not garner extensive media coverage. Take a very short walk anywhere in Florida and several lizard species will be darting out of the way - none of them are native save for the small green anole and the bluish black skink. But since they do not grow to the impressive 4' and up of an iguana, most people do not see them as a problem even though many tinier animals are now at risk of endangerment and extinction due to the uninvited reptiles' presence.

So how exactly does a species go from being simply an exotic to an invasive?
  • Often these invaders become very successful predators. This concept does not exclude plants.  Many vines and shrubs will move into an area and choke out the previous residents. (i.e. Brazilian pepper, Schinus terebinthifolius). The Australian Pine (Casuarina sp.) sheds needles with a high acidic content, and over time the soil below the tree itself becomes too acidic for much of the local fauna to grow.
  • Generally, the local wildlife does not see this new inhabitant as either threat or food.  So potential predators overlook the new food source, and instead the population booms.
  • Invasives breed successfully, and often.
  • Natural processes do not apply to an invasive species
To better explain, I will use a marine invader that is adapting so quickly and efficiently, researchers and conservationist are pulling out all the stops to get the public on board and involved in this local eco-war: Lionfish.
A very successful predator on local reefs is the schoolmaster snapper (pictured above).  The bait in this particular predator/prey relationship are small grunts.  This photos shows clearly how the prey recognizes its predator and swims around the snapper, staying out just out of striking distance.

Grunts in the same area on a similar reef behave in a completely different manner with the lionfish.  While many of the fish in the photo above could be eaten, they pay no attention to the predator in their midst.  This allows for the lionfish to essentially gorge themselves on a regular basis.  Study of stomach contents has shown lionfish will eat around 80% of the animals found on reefs, including crabs, shrimp, and fish species.  They can also consume an animal almost 1/2 their own size in one big gulp.

Where are lionfish native?  The Indo-Pacific region:

How did they get halfway across the planet? These bottom dwelling fish are not the type to migrate into open water, and certainly not across long distances.  So, like every other invasive, they are introduced to an area.  Lionfish are an extremely popular decorative aquarium fish.  I have personally spoken to dozens of people who kept them and soon realized that the other tank residents were disappearing, until only the lionfish and anything too big for it to eat remained.

An invasive species may arrive in the form of pets that are released often enough to find mates and breed, but sometimes an exotic species is intentionally released into an area.  It is now considered a last resort effort to control a destructive invader by introducing its natural predator.  The cliche goes "two wrongs don't make a right", but nobody was thinking that clearly when the mongoose was introduced to Hawaii.  Rats became rampant when the islands were originally discovered, as there are no native snakes or other rat predators in Hawaii.  To tackle this problem, the mongoose was introduced... but rats come out primarily at night, and the mongoose is a diurnal day hunter... anyone else see the problem?  So now essentially Hawaii has both a rat issue and a mongoose dilemma. Nice.

Back to the lionfish.  These fish are commonly thought to be poisonous, but the proper term is venomous.  Use this adage:
"Poison is ingested, Venom is injected"
The lionfish meat is not toxic, and very yummy (personal experience talking).  The venom of a lionfish is only found in the spines along the dorsal (back) and ventral (belly/anal) of the fish, meaning those beautiful flowery pectoral fins and tail plumage are harmless (also personal experience).  These barbs work on a pressure puncture system, meaning that touching the sides of these needles will not sting.  That does NOT mean I suggest trying this out on a live lionfish just for kicks - actually that is a really bad idea.  While there have been no reported deaths due to lionfish stings, the venom is still very painful and any lionfish victims should go to the hospital for treatment.  There is always a chance of allergic reaction, so take precautions if tagged.

Available online & with local vendors
Researchers with Florida International University, the Loxahatchee River District, REEF, and Martin County are just a few of the amazing organizations working in different regions of Florida alone - but they are all tied together and focused on the same goal: lionfish removal from the natural ecosystem.  These Lionfish Derbies are working hard to get the word out the lionfish are edible to humans!  Because let's face it, humans have proven themselves to be excellent predators particularly in the oceans.

This book also includes how to safely clean a lionfish, but there are also tutorial videos out there for free.  Instead of providing a long list of great organizations involved in the valiant effort of lionfish removal, instead I shall focus on some of the lionfish biology that is less known and very important to understanding why they have become such a successful example of an invasive species.

A strong invasive species population breeds early and often.  While lionfish are becoming rare in their own native habitats, the explosion of inhabitants locally has also provided a plethora of biological specimens for scientist to study.  We have learned that lionfish breed when reaching a length of only 4" for males and 7" for females; considering these relatives of the native scorpionfish can grow to a record length of 18" and have been found all too often in the 15-17" range, that is an opportunity for exponential population growth.

When the zebra mussel was introduced into the Great Lakes back in the 1980's, the population expanded all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico.  This freshwater mussel cannot survive in saltwater, and this natural process is the only factor that truly stopped this invasive filter feeder's progress.  A great dynamic map of this migration can be tracked here:

Natural barriers are often the deciding factor in the growth and success of an invasive species.  The jungle and heat loving iguanas found here will never reach into the states north of the Floridian border.  Cold snaps and even rarely freezing temperature put these endothermic animals into shock and they will quite literally fall out of trees from the cold.

So, lionfish live on saltwater reefs, and surely cannot breach the salinity gap - right?  Many estuaries, like the Loxahatchee River and Indian River Lagoon have brackish water that ebbs and flows with tidal influences.  This mixture of fresh and saltwater serves as a nursery for countless species in the area, and the further one paddles upstream the lower the salinity.  While the salt content in the water decreases, there are also changes to the species found.  Very few animals can withstand a full change from fresh to saltwater - snook is one popular local example.

A friend and associate with FIU, Zack Jud, has been working with the Loxahatchee River District (LRD) to track and study the lionfish population in the Loxahatchee River.  One scary development from an environmental standpoint is the discovery that every time the research crew goes further up river as part of the lionfish study and a long term Oyster Restoration Project (more about that study in a future post), lionfish are spotted.  The most recent sighting/sampling had researchers on the Loxahatchee shortly after a freshwater spike in the estuary due to rain and Tropical Storm Issac.  Lionfish have now been tracked 4 miles upriver into waters with a salinity of 8 ppt (parts per thousand).

Let me clarify this simple fact:  On average, ocean salinty ranges from about 32 - 37 ppt.  There can be extreme ranges like the Red Sea (42 ppt) and locations where freshwater and saltwater collide to lower the salinity, creating brackish ecosystems that eventually turn freshwater (0 ppt salinity).  As mentioned before, very few animals have the ability to adapt to this severe shift in salinity, so to find healthy lionfish so far upstream is disturbing.
Photo taken in the brackish waters of the Loxahatchee River, on one of the Oyster Restoration Project research sites.
Courtesy of Zack, here is the abstract from the original publication on the invasion of lionfish in the Loxahatchee River ecosystem:
Their initial discoveries immediately prompted more research, particularly to find out how fast these animals are migrating as a population, if at all.  This is the most recent published work in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology following up on the lionfish data regularly collected in the same area. Soon to be "Dr." Zack Jud and Dr. Craig Layman authored this particular paper as well.

Essentially, individual lionfish don't stray too far from home, showing a fairly strong inclination for "site fidelity".  Hey, if there is food here, why move?  Makes enough sense.  But, going back to the topic of successful breeding, larval lionfish will float in ocean (or in this case river) currents for around 30 days before settling in an area.  That fact will quickly compensate for any lack of migration from established individuals and keep the population growing and moving simultaneously - yikes!
Lionfish have since been documented 4 miles upriver.
So are invasive species a problem? Uh, yeah.  How are changes made to stop these earth-bound aliens from taking over?  Well, that is where everyone becomes an important part of the eco-puzzle.  Three major changes will have a huge positive impact:
  • Stronger regulations and enforcement on customs and international shipments will greatly reduce the introduction of new species.  One more reason to buy local!
  • Pet Trade
    • Do your research before getting any pet.  Instead of releasing that invasive animal because you feel bad about not being able to handle it anymore but don't want to kill it, research Pet Amnesty events in your area. Most zoos across the county have at least one pet amnesty day each year. The purpose is to find homes with prepared owners ready and willing to take responsibility for these exotic animals, so Fluffy the pet iguana will still have a good home.
  • Remove invasive species
    • Population culling/sterilization.  This means open fishing season on the lionfish in particular.
I want to address one last issue regarding the lionfish invasion here in south Florida - word of ciguatera fish poisoning in lionfish has come up.  First, a little note about ciguatera from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)
"Ciguatera fish poisoning (or ciguatera) is an illness caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by a marine microalgae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. People who have ciguatera may experience nausea, vomiting, and neurologic symptoms such as tingling fingers or toes. They also may find that cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold. Ciguatera has no cure. Symptoms usually go away in days or weeks but can last for years. People who have ciguatera can be treated for their symptoms."
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this toxin is usually transmitted to human by consuming the following fish:
Marine finfish most commonly implicated in ciguatera fish poisoning include the groupers, barracudas, snappers, jacks, mackerel, and triggerfish. Many other species of warm-water fishes harbor ciguatera toxins. The occurrence of toxic fish is sporadic, and not all fish of a given species or from a given locality will be toxic.
These top predators essentially are so high up on their food chain, the toxin builds up in their tissues as they consume other animals that have been feeding on the algae blooms.   Several articles have inched their way out into the general population, and Zack has actually been awesome enough to research this and provide his professional opinions (see link below).  As of right now, the only lionfish found to have the ciguatera toxin in its tissues were in the Caribbean, not U.S. waters - and lionfish show high site fidelity, remember?  (Look at how much you have learned today!)  The FDA revealed the findings and made them public, as they should.  Unless you plan to not eat snapper or grouper anymore as well, there is no scientific reason to shy away from eating local lionfish.

 Special thanks to Zack for sharing his work and staying in touch!

Keep up with Zack's research directly on The Abaco Scientist Blog:
This site is updated regularly with the latest news by the ultimate experts on our local lionfish epidemic.  Photos and video clips are also included with many of the posts as well.  I can certainly recommend contacting these guys with any questions, comments, or sightings because unlike many brilliant scientists I have met, they are not only very knowledgeable but also friendly and approachable too.

To check out the lionfish cookbook or order online, visit:

For information on the how the government defines and addresses invasive species, follow this link:
Definitions of many terms were taken directly from this government website to ensure accuracy.

To find out more about Super Why episodes:
To learn about or get involved with the Girl Scouts of America's WOW program:

All photos were either taken by yours truly, or provided by Zack Jud and Dr. Craig Layman and their research team. Thanks again!
If you are interested in joining a lionfish derby, just post a comment on where you would like to participate and I will be happy to respond with the closest organization and event to your area.

I am extremely lucky to have worked with so many wonderful individuals on the cutting edge of research and conservation efforts.  It even inspired me to return to school myself for a Master's degree and to conduct some research of my own again too. Thanks, everybody!

-Callie Sharkey