The fate of the Gulf ecosystem is a tremendous concern. We may have no idea, yet, how far-reaching the consequences of the BP oil spill disaster will be. It is extremely disturbing to wonder how the beautiful sea life and bird life of Anna Maria Island will be impacted in the next few months.
Spending millions to market the fact that our beaches are still open seems like a desperate attempt for attention and takes resources away from the much more important challenge of actually solving the problem. Let’s hope there is still a good chance of protecting the sea life around here from premature demise.
The sea turtles and the birds are very actively monitored already, but some of the simpler forms of sea life deserve respect, too. This includes Sand Dollars, which is one reason it was very disturbing to find a large collection of them left to die on the beach the other night, abandoned by an ignorant beachcomber.
Sand dollars are not even beautiful when they are alive. Their whiteness comes only after the outer layer of skin and small spines has disappeared. It is the endoskeleton that is beautiful. I’m sure trying to clean a live sand dollar is not worth the smelly effort. It makes no sense to kill these creatures.
This member of the sea urchin family has the five sections of a sea urchin, but a flattened form. The very small spines allow it to move along the sandy bottom of the sea, and to burrow in. They also move food into the mouth. They eat mostly crustacean larvae, algae, diatoms and detritus.
A few years ago, scientists discovered something remarkable about sand dollars. They reproduce sexually, through external fertilization. However, their larvae have the ability to clone themselves and are likely to do this when threatened by a predator. The outcome is twice the number of larvae, with each one half the size. In some ways this is advantageous from a survival point of view.
Aside from general ethical reasons not to kill living creatures unnecessarily, there are laws in Manatee County, backed by the state of Florida, in relation to taking live shells. First of all, one must have a recreational salt water fishing license. And then only two of any particular species may be taken alive. There are some exceptions, such as oysters, several kinds of clams and coquinas, which may be taken in larger numbers.
In these times when our entire marine ecosystem is in peril, it seems especially appropriate to show our marine life respect and treat it well. The entire food chain is at risk.
Important things to keep in mind are to not scare and stress feeding and resting shore birds, do not disturb nesting birds, remove shells and shellfish, do not disturb turtle nests, and to be sure to turn off lights shining out at Gulf-front water, which interfere with turtle landings and hatchings.
When boating, do not churn through shallow grass flats and bay areas especially where manatee may be grazing. For more information about sea-grass and it’s importance see “Manatee Watch”.