4 years ago

World’s most endangered sea turtle species in big trouble off Alabama’s coast

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By Katherine Shonesy

Newly examined video of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which are found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, shows that the species’ recovery from endangerment has stalled at less than one-tenth of historic nesting levels.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham came to that conclusion after being tasked with identifying the qualifying measure of endangerment for the species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.

Kemp’s ridley turtles are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The species was on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, but a Mexico-U.S. binational conservation program initiated in 1978 was able to reverse its decline.

The decades of intense conservation efforts were evident by 2009, with the Kemp’s ridley exhibiting an exponential recovery rate that was expected to continue for many years. However, an unanticipated downturn occurred in 2010 when the amount of nesting dropped significantly, and since that time, the species has not regained an upward trajectory to recovery.

How many Kemp’s ridley turtles should there be in the gulf? Scientists and conservationists weren’t sure; there was a lack of data between 1880, when the species was discovered, and the start of the conservation efforts in 1978.

UAB’s study, led by Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., a biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and doctoral student Elizabeth Bevan, set out to answer that question through the evaluation of a historic film recorded in 1947 by Andres Herrera, a Mexican sportsman, on the Kemp’s ridley’s primary nesting beach in the western Gulf of Mexico near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico.

The film captured a mass-nesting event known as an arribada, involving tens of thousands of nesting turtles on a single day in 1947. It would help provide a rare benchmark for evaluating the historic population size of a species prior to its becoming endangered, which is usually not available for endangered species.

Uncovering the original riddle of the ridley

Prior to the film, the location of the Kemp’s ridley nesting grounds was a mystery. After hearing about a large mass nesting of sea turtles from locals, Herrera recognized the significance of such a unique biological phenomenon and became committed to documenting this unique event for society.

During a two-year period, Herrera flew his own plane 33 times over the Gulf Coast north of Tampico, Mexico, conducting aerial surveys in search of the mass sea turtle nesting. In 1947, he finally uncovered the event, but his discovery would remain unknown to the scientific community for more than a dozen years.

“At the time of the film’s development, no one was able to connect the dots between the phenomenon of the mass nesting and that the nests belonged to the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles,” Wibbels said. “Herrera was a hobby enthusiast who wasn’t aware of the pursuit in the scientific world to uncover this location. Meanwhile, Archie Carr, who was considered to be the world’s leading sea turtles expert, had been searching for the nesting beaches for this species for decades.”

Carr searched for the Kemp’s ridley nesting beaches in all of the usual nesting regions – Florida, the Caribbean and the northern Gulf of Mexico; but after 20 years, he had found nothing.

“He had no logical explanation for the fact that this abundant turtle was seemingly not breeding or nesting,” Bevan said. “Scientists began to wonder whether the Kemp’s ridley could actually be a hybrid turtle.”

The dots were finally connected, and part of the mystery debunked, by Henry Hildebrand, Ph.D., from the University of Corpus Christi, who heard about the film and viewed it in 1961. Later that year, Hildebrand presented that film at the annual meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, revealing the news to the scientific community for the first time.

Breaking down the nesting numbers

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It was estimated by some who viewed the original black-and-white footage that there were more than 40,000 nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles on the beach that day. Wibbels and Bevan’s recent study reflects more conservative, but still remarkable, numbers.

Wibbels and Bevan calculate that there were 26,000 sea turtles on a 1- to 2-mile stretch of beach on the day the film was taken.

The results from UAB’s study published this week indicate that about 120,000 to 180,000 nests were laid over the entire 1947 nesting season in contrast to about 14,000 nests in the most recent nesting season.

This new information on the historic population size greatly increases the mystery surrounding the abrupt decline in the recovery of this endangered species since 2009. The number of nests laid in the 2015 nesting season represents a 34 percent decline in comparison to 2009, and this occurred during a time when exponential growth of the population back toward historic levels was expected.

What this means for conservation

Intense conservation efforts are continuing, and this critically endangered species is protected throughout its range.

“Because the Kemp’s ridley is so protected, scientists believe that potential factors limiting its recovery may be habitat-related,” Bevan said. “Another hypothesis among the field is that environmental pollution, in particular the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, may have significantly impacted the population, and many years may be required before the species regains an exponential recovery rate.”

An alternative hypothesis is that the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem may have changed over the past seven decades since the Herrera film was recorded, and can no longer support the abundance of Kemp’s ridleys documented in the 1947 film. For example, studies have shown that the abundance of blue crabs, a preferred food item for the Kemp’s ridley, has significantly declined in the northern Gulf of Mexico in recent decades.

“The Kemp’s ridley could be significantly impacted by long-term changes and the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem because of its near exclusivity to the area and presence as a higher-trophic-level predator,” Bevan said. “That’s why it’s so important that we continue our research into the mystery of its stalled growth.”

“Solving the mystery will require continued monitoring of turtles on the nesting beach, a better understanding of the ecology of the Kemp’s ridley in its foraging and developmental habitats, and an evaluation of potential changes in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem since the 1947 Herrera film,” Wibbels added.

Wibbels’ and Bevan’s work was published in Ecosphere this month.

22 mins ago

Alabama Launchpad selects finalists competing for $150K in prize money

Alabama Launchpad, a fund that invests seed money in startup companies, announced the six finalists that will compete for $150,000 in prize money.

The six companies are split evenly into two groups, those currently in the “concept stage” that are not generating revenue yet and those in the “early seed stage” that aim to ramp up their existing business.

A panel of judges will hear the pitches from the companies while a live audience watches. The event will occur in the evening on February 27 and will be located in the Warehouse at Alley Station in Montgomery.

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Three companies in the concept stage will be trying to bring home a $50,000 prize.

Those companies as follows:

  • Acclinate Genetics, a Huntsville-based company addressing the lack of diversity in clinical drug trials
  • Pure Game Sports Network, a sports media & marketing company created for high school athletic departments and fans.
  • Smart Solutions, whose products offer assistive technology allowing more living independence for persons with disabilities

Three companies at the early seed stage have bigger stakes. The winner of that competition will take home $100,000.

Those startups as follows:

  • Buolo Solutions, a company connecting professional women to talent-seeking companies with flexible jobs
  • CerFlux, a cancer-fighting company creating personalized medicine solutions to identify the best and most effective cancer therapeutics for patients.
  • MOXIE, whose engineering team is producing custom-designed IOT solutions for clients within 30 days

Alabama Launchpad is a program by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. According to their website, the EDPA “is a private non-profit organization funded by more than 60 Alabama companies, whose mission is to attract and retain world-class talent across a broad spectrum of interests and industries.”

“We are proud to support these innovative entrepreneurs,” said EDPA President Steve Spencer in a press release. “Alabama Launchpad is here to serve early stage companies all over Alabama, and we look forward to seeing these finalists compete onstage in our state’s capital.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

49 mins ago

7 Things: Doug Jones calls abortion question ‘stupid’, medical marijuana bill advances, Democrats slug it out and more …

7. If Moore can’t make the news for his campaign, he’ll make it for his lawsuit

  • Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has requested that the judge presiding over his case with Leigh Corfman recuse himself just before a status conference that could determine a date for the trial
  • Judge John Rochester donated to U.S. Senator Doug Jones’ (D-AL) campaign when he ran against Moore, and according to a press release from Moore, Rochester’s “criticism and mocking of Christianity on his Facebook page with full knowledge of Judge Moore’s belief in God” are reasons that he should be removed from the case.

6. Aniah’s Law has advanced

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  • As the nation continues to move towards more lacks bail rules, the Alabama House of Representatives advanced Aniah’s Law, a bill that would grant judges more ability to deny bail to those accused of violent crimes.
  • The bill is named after Aniah Blanchard, who was allegedly abducted and murdered by a man who has been released on bond despite prior violent offenses.

5. The GIRL Act is going further

  • The “Gender is Real Legislative” (GIRL) Act has been advanced by the Alabama House State Government Committee, which would require that public school student-athletes only compete in the gender which they were born.
  • The committee vote was along party lines, 8-4. Bill sponsor State Representative Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) has said that “gender is a real biological truth. It truly defies logic that anyone would deny science and want male students competing in female sports.”

4. Assange’s lawyer claims Trump dangled a pardon

  • Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has made an allegation that former U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (D-CA) met with him at an Ecuadorean embassy to offer him a pardon in exchange for information about the DNC server and who fed him the information. The media is reporting this as an absolute fact because they need it to be true.
  • Rohrabacher and President Donald Trump say this is not true. Rohrabacher explains, “When speaking with Julian Assange, I told him that if he could provide me information and evidence about who actually gave him the DNC emails, I would then call on President Trump to pardon him.” He added, “At no time did I offer a deal made by the President, nor did I say I was representing the President.”

3. Presidential debate Wednesday night, but the guy at a rally in Arizona won 

  • The Democratic presidential debate took place Wednesday night in Las Vegas. The main target was not President Donald Trump or the 78-year-old socialist that is running away with the race. Instead, most of the fire was trained on the 78-year-old billionaire Michael Bloomberg who was attacked for his money, his history with women and his history with “stop and frisk.”
  • There wasn’t really a moment at this debate that will reset the field, but U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) essentially took over the debate early on and attacked every person on the stage with pointed criticism, except for Bernie Sanders. This will probably be seen as her attempt to damage Bloomberg and will be compared to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s takedown of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) from 2016 because she won’t win but she tried to make sure he won’t either.

2. Medical marijuana is going before the full Senate

  • In an 8-1 vote, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee passed the medical marijuana bill by State Senator Tim Melson (R-Florence). The bill will now face the full Senate; if eventually signed into law, Alabama would become the 34th state to legalize medical cannabis. Last year, a similar bill passed the Senate but failed in the House.
  • This bill will require Republican votes to pass the Senate. State Sens. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), Will Barfoot (R-Montgomery) and Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) showed there is some Republican support for it. Only State Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Sheffield) voted no while State Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) abstained.

1. Doug Jones really wants to be a one-term senator

  • U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) was recently asked by a tracker, “Do you think abortion should be banned after five months?” to which Jones responded, “[W]hat a stupid question.”
  • The tracker referenced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act that Jones will be voting on next week. Jones said he’ll “vote on it next week, just like I did last time.”

2 hours ago

Medical marijuana bill clears Alabama Senate committee

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A medical marijuana bill cleared its first hurdle Wednesday in the Alabama legislature, giving hope to advocates after years of setbacks.

Audience members applauded as the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-1 for the bill, putting it in line for a Senate floor vote later this session.

The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Tim Melson would allow people with a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana for 15 conditions — including cancer, anxiety and chronic pain — and purchase cannabis products at one of 34 licensed dispensaries. The bill would allow marijuana in forms such as pills, gummy cubes, oils, skin patches, gels and creams but not in smoking or vaping products.

Advocates crowded into a public hearing at the Alabama Statehouse to watch the debate and tell lawmakers their stories.

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“This bill is not about getting high. This bill is about getting well,” said Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado doctor who described the success of using medical marijuana on people with seizures and cancer.

Cristi Cain said her son Hardy’s debilitating seizures have been helped by CBD oil, now legal in Alabama, but said the higher doses that could help him more aren’t legal in the state. Hardy had as many as 100 seizures per day before trying the oil, and now has about 20 to 30, she said

“An area code shouldn’t affect one health’s care. If Hardy didn’t live in Alabama, he could be seizure-free. We shouldn’t have to be and don’t want to be medical refugees,” Cain said.

Another woman described how patches used in another state were the only thing that relieved her husband’s leg pain from Parkinson’s

The bill drew opposition from some law enforcement and conservative groups. They expressed concern about dosing, safety and the potential for abuse.

“Just because we put the word medical in front of marijuana does not make it medicine,” Shelby County Sheriff’s Capt. Clay Hammac said.

The Rev. Rick Hagans described addicts he buried. He said that although they obviously didn’t overdose on marijuana, they started their drug use with pot.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sent lawmakers a letter expressing his opposition that noted marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

The vote was a moment of optimism for medical marijuana advocates who for years made little headway in the conservative-leaning state. A medical marijuana bill in 2013 won the so-called “Shroud Award” for the “deadest” bill that year in the House of Representatives.

Melson said he is hopeful about the bill’s chances in 2020. He said there are multiple steps in the process of obtaining medical marijuana that should limit the danger of abuse.

“You are going to have to go to a physician. You are going to have to get a card. You are going to be on the (state) register,” Melson said. He defended the bill’s allowance of marijuana for a variety of conditions.

“I’m sure some people look at that 15 (conditions) and go, ‘Ýeah, really, that one?’ That’s because they don’t have it or don’t know the literature,” he said.

Sen. Larry Stutts, an obstetrician who cast the lone no vote on the committee, said state medical marijuana laws circumvent the process of drug trials usually required to introduce a new medicine

Stutts said other medications have been “through the process and been through the trials that study its effectiveness and side effects” before patients get them.

Before the vote, Sen. Cam Ward described his late father’s battle with cancer.

“I would have given anything, anything, had he had a tablet to take, something to chew on, some drops to put in his food to avoid the nauseousness from the chemotherapy. That would have changed his life. As a human being, who am I to say … you can’t have that to make you feel better?” Ward said.

(Associated Press, copyright 2020)

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3 hours ago

Alabamians can buy emergency preparedness items sales-tax free this weekend

The weekend from Friday, February 21 through Sunday, February 23 is Alabama’s ninth annual Severe Weather Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday.

As such, several items needed to help prepare for a weather-related disaster can be purchased without state sales tax across stores in Alabama.

Items that cost $60 or less like batteries, ice packs, duct tape, plywood and flashlights will all be exempt from state sales tax this weekend.

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The biggest ticket item that can be purchased without tax is a portable electricity generator, although, any generator that costs $1,000 or more will begin incurring regular taxes.

Dozens of cities and counties also exempt their local sales tax on the holiday weekend, including Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, Mobile and Tuscaloosa. A full list of those areas can be found here.

A full list of the tax-exempt items can be found here.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

16 hours ago

Alabama’s Warrior Met Coal announces historic Blue Creek mine development

Brookwood-based Warrior Met Coal on Wednesday announced that they will begin development on a new “world-class” longwall mine near its existing mines located on the Blue Creek reserves in West Alabama.

Met coal is the type of coal sometimes referred to as coking coal. Unlike the thermal or steam variety, met coal is used as a vital ingredient in the steelmaking process instead of being utilized for power generation.

The new Blue Creek development is expected to have the capacity to produce an average of 4.3 million short tons per annum of premium High-Vol A met coal over the first ten years of production. It is one of the last remaining large-scale untapped premium High Vol A met coal mines in the U.S.

“We are extremely excited about our organic growth project that will transform Warrior and allow us to build upon our proven track record of creating value for stockholders. Blue Creek is truly a world-class asset and our commitment to this new initiative demonstrates our continued highly focused business strategy as a premium pure-play met coal producer,” Walt Scheller, CEO of Warrior Met Coal, said in a statement.

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The company expects to invest approximately $550 to $600 million over the next five years to develop Blue Creek with expected spending this year alone of approximately $25 million to kickstart the project.

Based on the current schedule, Warrior Met Coal expects first development tons from continuous miner units to occur in the third quarter of 2023 with the longwall scheduled to start up in the second quarter of 2025.

The company trades on the New York Stock Exchange and as such must report specific financial details on the project. This included the company projecting a “net present value” of “greater than $1 billion over the life of the mine with a projected after-tax internal rate of return (IRR) of nearly 30% and an expected payback of approximately two years from initial longwall production.”

Warrior Met Coal previewed this project at a Yellowhammer News event in 2019.

RELATED: Study: Alabama coal industry has nearly $3 billion impact; met coal reserves to last centuries

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn