Proposed FCC rule threatens Oakland mesh network, Wi-Fi projects

Oakland, Calif. – A proposed rule by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could spell the end of a project in Oakland to create a free or low-cost Wi-Fi network for the city’s residents.

Two years in the making, Wi-Fi sharing project Sudo-Mesh’s viability is in jeopardy as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares to restrict the ability to modify routers, an ability that the project depends upon to make its Internet network widely available.

Sudo-Mesh is a network within neighborhoods that works by installing third party software onto household routers that communicate with each other to build a larger network beyond a home or a building. Anyone on the network can access the Internet for free or a nominal fee. The group’s aim, according to Max Bittman, developer on the project, is to “take back communications” by creating a network that offers a better, more secure Internet connection, especially in the event of a disaster.

But concerned about recent events in which devices with modified radio frequencies disrupted weather radar systems owned by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FCC had passed a broader rule last year requiring manufacturers to take tamper-proof measures that prevent users from installing third party software on devices that use a higher frequency, one not typical in consumer electronics.

The current proposal before the agency extends that rule to nearly all wireless devices with a radio frequency transmitter, including consumer electronics devices such as routers that connect consumers to the Internet, access cards that store identification data, and Wi-Fi chips in laptops.

The new proposal would mark the first time in fifteen years that the FCC has updated its approval process to certify and label wireless devices. FCC documents state the intention is to keep up with the innovations in the way wireless devices are used. But as an unintended consequence, it could leave Wi-Fi sharing networks like the one Sudo-Mesh is planning without the hardware to finish the project.

“If put into effect, portions of this [rule] would render unlawful much of our development activity…software control of these radio parameters has been used in creative and beneficial ways, which are only now beginning to be exploited,” wrote Sudo-Mesh members in a letter to the FCC.

Large, successful mesh networks owned and run by a community exist in other parts of the world, but few exist in the United States. “It’s an esoteric corner of the IT ecosystem with semi-novel work to be done,” said Bittman speaking about these kinds of community owned communication systems.

Industry groups and digital rights advocates from the Consumer Electronics Association to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Free Software Foundation are campaigning against the rule, citing consumer rights and a wide spread impact.

Regulators are now weighing the specific requirements to support their decision and have even taken the unusual step of extending its 30-day comment period by an additional 30 days.

Even outside of mesh networks, the ability to modify wireless devices like routers is important because default software programmed into the hardware is bad, has poor security and lacks extra features.

The Free Software Foundation argues that manufacturers have no incentive to provide software updates for its devices and the FCC’s proposed rule would require consumers to purchase new hardware unnecessarily to achieve higher security levels and updates. It would not only impact individuals but also schools, hospitals, and government agencies among others.

“It’s the worst possible thing to do to a consumer for a million reasons,” said Bittman.

The Consumer Electronics Association also said it is reviewing the proposal and intends to submit comments by the Oct. 9 deadline.

“There are more ways to solve this problem than simply banning third party software,” said Mike Bergman, senior director of technology and standards with the consumer electronics industry group.

He added that the industry could help the FCC solve the problem without the rule. “The reality is many, many devices we take for granted could potentially be impacted.”

Representatives from the Electronic Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization advocating for civil liberties in the digital world, say people should be entitled to freely use their property. “We believe very strongly if you own a device, it’s yours. You can run whatever software you want on it. Regulation should not stand in the way of that,” said Nate Cardozo, the group’s staff attorney, adding that there are many people who believe in free and open source software that allows users to see its source.

Cardozo said third party software could also allow users to heighten security and unlock features within the device.

Members of the Sudo-Mesh project are watching the discussion closely as they prepare to expand their project after just completing its first phase of testing. Currently, the mesh network runs between twenty devices at developers’ homes, but Bittman said the group aims to have a hundred devices on the mesh in its next phase.

If the rule passes, however, the project could suddenly get expensive, forcing the group to curtail their ambitions.

Bittman is hopeful that FCC decision makers will see the benefit of networks like Sudo-Mesh and change their mind. “I’m excited about a community owned and generated network,” he said. “When you envision what that would look like, taking back ownership of Internet and communication.”

This article was originally published Oct. 8, 2015 on OaklandNorth.net.

Oakland residents have a mixed reaction to their new neighbor: Uber

UBER Sears building
Uber Technologies Inc. purchased the former Sears building, 1955 Broadway, Oakland, in the heart of downtown. Photo by Jennifer Glenfield.

This story was reported by Jennifer Glenfield and Emily Snyder

Oakland, Calif. – Long overlooked by Silicon Valley, Oakland may finally have its chance to benefit from the booming tech industry when Uber moves into the downtown Sears building, but residents greeted the news with a mixed reaction.

The San Francisco-based ride-hailing company last week said it purchased the deteriorating seven-story building for $123.5 million and planned to convert it into over 300,000 square feet of office space by 2017. The bottom floor would be leased to retailers. When the office opens, Uber expects 3,000 employees will work there, making it the largest company in the city.

While city officials welcomed the sale as an important move to revitalize the depressed downtown area, residents, who have watched real estate developers convert former auto shops and parking lots into expensive apartments and upscale bars, worry that tech companies and their employees may soon take over their city like they have San Francisco.

Curtis Forte, a 34-year old construction worker and lifelong Oakland resident, said he appreciated the transformation that was starting to happen but was concerned that existing residents would be left behind. “I know they’re not going to reach out to the people of the community when it comes time to build their company,” Forte said in an interview during an open-air concert at a park across the street from the Sears building.

Sears logo faded
Remnants of the Sears logo are visible at 1955 Broadway, Oakland. Photo by Jennifer Glenfield.

At the same time, he said, he holds out hope that he is wrong. “I just don’t want the people of the community to be left out. People have been struggling here for so long.”

Once a thriving department store owned by H.C. Capwell Company, Uber’s new building stands just blocks away from City Hall, surrounded by relatively new bars and restaurants.

For many years, the Sears building stood as a symbol of downtown Oakland’s struggle to attract new businesses and developments. During the years when Sears Corp. owned the building from 1996 to 2014, the store was surrounded mostly by vacant storefronts and parking lots. In 2014 Lane Partners, a commercial real estate investment firm, bought the failing department store building for $25 million and boarded up the windows and doors. They in turn sold the property to Uber. The latest announcement now puts it on the map as a sign of the transformation that is taking place.

In the past 11 years, a few tech companies such as music-streaming service Pandora and search engine Ask.com have made downtown Oakland its home, but Uber’s expansion plans are the largest yet–occupying more than three times the square footage of downtown office space than its fellow tech companies.

In a press conference with Uber last week, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf called the downtown area the city’s “hottest new center for urban innovation.”

Uber’s Oakland plan underscores the rapid rise of the five-year old company that has upended the taxi industry by connecting drivers-for-hire to customers through a smartphone app. In the previous six months Uber has more than doubled it’s workforce to 4,000. The company has also purchased 430,000 square feet of commercial real estate in San Francisco.

But with success has come controversy. Uber has been hit by criticism and embroiled in class-action lawsuits by its drivers, who claim that they should be considered full-time employees rather than independent contractors. Some Uber riders have also been the victim of crimes committed by their drivers, putting the spotlight on the company’s hiring and vetting policy and raising questions about corporate responsibility.

Such news concerns some members of the Oakland community. “Uber is the creator of a small number of good jobs for engineers or those in marketing or branding. They are much more a creator of many, many low-income, non-unionized, non-regulated jobs,” said Dawn Phillips, co-director of programs at Causa Justa, a nonprofit housing advocacy group that works with low-income immigrants and people of color. “That’s literally their business model.”

graffiti
Hours after Uber Technologies Inc. announced purchase of the former Sears building, 1955 Broadway, Oakland, a passerby scribbled the news in permanent marker on a widow of the building facing Broadway. Photo by Jennifer Glenfield.

Phillips, an Oakland resident since 1995, also worries about the influx of more high-paid tech workers moving into the city, pointing out that the encroachment of “cash flush” tech companies into city centers has already driven up property values, forcing out many vulnerable long-time residents from their neighborhoods. Uber itself estimates that one in four employees will be living in the East Bay by the time the project is completed.

Will Scott, an Oakland resident who works for Alameda County, questioned how much the community would benefit from the jobs that are created as a result of the expansion. “It’s good for Oakland to bring in new blood, but I don’t want the citizens of Oakland to be shut out,” said Scott. “If we need to educate them, train them, then let’s do that. But let’s not push the residents of Oakland to the side just so we can bring in an extra buck.”

Uber representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

This story was originally published Sept. 29, 2015 on OaklandNorth.net.

Cortez fishers net boatloads of trash

cortez cleanup boat jg 052015A bright pink roseate spoonbill flew overhead.

Capt. Nate Meschelle, at the helm, turned to the boat of volunteers.

“Hey, look! It’s a flamingo!” he said.

The boat of locals erupted in laughter.

Meschelle was one of a handful of commercial fishers from Cortez who volunteered time and boats for a coastal cleanup May 9.

The cleanup was organized by Mark Coarsey president of Fishing For Freedom’s Manatee County chapter. Fishing For Freedom is a group of mostly commercial fishers advocating for its local industry.

The cleanup was organized in conjunction with the Great American Cleanup with the help of Audubon Florida, Keep Manatee Beautiful and Manatee County, which provided a dumpster, gloves and trash bags.

cortez cleanup meschelle jg 052015Split into groups by the boatload, 28 volunteers hit the shorelines of Cortez and nearby mangrove islands, including Tidy Island and Bird Key.

The area is known locally as “The Kitchen.”

“Back in the day, when you wanted something to eat, that’s where you would go. That’s why its called The Kitchen,” said Coarsey.

Meschelle brought one group of volunteers to Tidy Island, where debris that washes ashore at high tide piles up, Meschelle said.

The tide carries the trash onto the mangrove island and, as the tides go out, it’s trapped by mangrove roots.

Ann Paul, Tampa Bay regional coordinator for the Florida Audubon Society, also boarded a commercial fishing vessel for the cleanup.

cortez cleanup dumpster jg 052015Paul wasn’t necessarily looking to pick up the washed-up trash, but to help guide the volunteers around sensitive bird roosting areas — particularly on Cortez Key Sanctuary.

“(The key) is one of the most important bird nesting sites in Sarasota Bay. We were really glad the cleanup work didn’t impact nesting birds and, in the meantime, they were able to get trash off the island,” said Paul.

Known locally to fishers as Bird Key or Kitchen Key, the mangrove island was leased from the state by Audubon Florida in 1981.

The key is an important nesting ground, where colonies of pelicans, cormorants, herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills and frigate birds frequent the island by the hundreds.

The key is posted as “No Trespassing” to protect nesting birds. The wading and shorebirds nest in the spring and summer months.

Paul said she met Coarsey two months before the cleanup, as she was launching from Cortez for a bird survey and Coarsey was pulling into the dock.

cortez cleanup help jg 052015The two collaborated on the cleanup, a necessary step, Paul said. People are not allowed in the sanctuary without an Audubon manager.

Paul likened the mangroves in estuaries to a kidney. Things get trapped in the mangroves during high tide, effectively cleaning the bay waters and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, which connects to Sarasota Bay.

“(Fishing For Freedom) is a great group and how lucky are we that they’re taking this positive approach,” said Paul. “This group is taking a real leadership role.”

Coarsey said the 20-yard dumpster provided to the volunteers was “more than full” and he speculated they could have filled a second dumpster. The garbage collected in five hours weighed more 6,000 pounds, Coarsey said.

Much of the debris collected consisted of lumber or drift wood, including a portion of the hull of a boat. Among endless beer cans and bottles, other items collected included full-sized trashcans, a deflated basketball, lawn chairs and a chainsaw.

This article was originally published in The Islander May 20, 2015.

Neal-owned Perico Island permit protest gains ground

Perico Island, Fla. – It’s two steps forward and one step back for development on Perico Island.

Three petitions have been accepted that ask to review a permit issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District for development on Perico Island. The petitions filed with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings DOAH challenge the permit issued for four single-family homes in August to developer Pat Neal.

The land on Perico Island owned through a trust by Neal and his family consists of 40 acres of waterfront property. Neal plans to build four homes on four of the acres.

The petitioners — former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and ManaSota-88 — assert the permit allows for insufficiently mitigated destruction of wetlands. The petitions, consolidated Oct. 31 request an administrative review of the Swiftmud permit.

McClash attended FISH’s Nov. 3 board meeting to speak to members about going forward. He said they could hire an attorney or he could, if they agreed, serve as the “qualified representative” on FISH’s behalf.

After brief discussion, FISH members agreed unanimously to have McClash represent the group. He was accepted Nov. 13 as the representative by DOAH.

McClash also urged FISH at its meeting to send a letter to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently considering a permit for the development. The letter wouldn’t be the first discouraging an Army Corps of Engineers permit at the proposed site.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife reviewed the pending Army Corps of Engineer’s permit and in June sent a letter recommending denial of the permit because of the sensitive wetland areas to be affected and the project being non-water dependent.

“I’ve had good conversations with the Swiftmud attorneys. This is fact-based and it’s better than letting it go through without challenging it,” McClash told FISH board members.

He said he enlisted a water-quality specialist to serve as an expert witness and solicited other possible expert witnesses from FISH.

John Stevely, a FISH board member and former agent for the Florida Sea Grant Extension Service, offered to help compile factual evidence for the case.

And factual evidence is key.

The land trust filed a motion to dismiss Nov. 3 citing a lack of factual evidence, proof of substantial interest or injury of fact.

The motion to dismiss asserts that the evidence supplied thus far isn’t sufficient to rise above “a speculative level.”

The motion states the only allegations establishing standing are that McClash owns property in the “undefined and unidentified ‘drainage district’, uses the ‘area adjacent to the area impacted’ for recreational activities, has been involved in the protection of wetlands and waters in the area, and that he would suffer an economic injury by alleged increased insurance costs.”

The motion claims that the “alleged injuries are remote, speculative and lack immediacy” and McClash “does not have standing merely because he uses the area for recreational activities.”

The land trust filed another motion to dismiss Nov. 19 challenging FISH’s standing.

McClash responded Nov. 6 to the challenge of his petition and said as the representative for FISH he is preparing a response to the challenge of its standing.

“I really feel they’re setting a stage for future mangrove destruction,” McClash said referring to planned developments in the area. “With the destruction of these mangroves, we might as well kiss Long Bar and Terra Ceia goodbye.”

The homes planned by Neal on Perico Island would be for his immediate family members, Neal said. The Bradenton City Council approved the site-plan for the project — now called Harbor Sound — in June.

Neal said in an earlier interview he has no plans to develop the remaining 36 acres of the Harbor Sound property after the four homes are built.

“Harbor Sound was always intended to be just four homes for our family,” he said.

A hearing has been set for 1 p.m. Feb. 16-20 at Swiftmud’s Tampa Service Office, 7601 U.S. 301 N., Tampa.

Perico Island has seen its share of development plans over the years.

Once farmland, the area was acquired in the late 1990s by Arvida Corp., which proposed an 886-unit condominium project with several 10- and 12-story structures. The land was annexed into the city of Bradenton and the project was approved by the city.

The approval was met with lawsuits alleging the site plan did not meet the requirements of the city’s comprehensive plan. Manatee County — which recently denied waterfront development on property owned by Long Bar Pointe —was one of the plaintiffs.

The development was whittled down to 668 units and Arvida changed its name to St. Joe Corp. By the mid-2000s, the developer lacked buyers for the $500,000 condominiums it planned to build. St. Joe had paid $2 million for the land.

Construction on a retaining wall and what will become a 23,000-square-foot beach club at Harbour Isle on Perico Island is underway. Construction began in early October and is expected to be completed next fall.
Construction on a retaining wall and what will become a 23,000-square-foot beach club at Harbour Isle on Perico Island is underway. Construction began in early October and is expected to be completed next fall.

The company sold the property in 2009 to Minto Communities LLC of Toronto and Fort Lauderdale for $8 million.

Minto submitted a site plan for Harbour Isle which included a series of “coach-home” complexes, and Bradenton approved the plan in 2010.

According to Brady Woods, Bradenton development services and zoning manager, Minto is approved to build four midrise buildings at 6-stories and two 10-story highrise buildings in Harbour Isle.

Minto Senoir Vice President William Bullock said the height allowances were in place when they bought the property and plans are still being dicussed. He added there is no time table for construction and the future plans are dependent on the real estate market.

The company began selling units in December 2010. Prices started around $225,000 when Harbour Isle opened its first community, Mangrove Walk, in 2011. Home prices now start at approximately $463,000.

This article was published in The Islander Nov. 26, 2014.

Lost art rediscovered in the heart of Cortez

Cortez, Fla. – If these old boats could talk, they would tell of journeys to foreign nations, through storms and calm seas, of fish, swamps and good times and bad.

The boats sitting at the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks, 4404 116th St. W., Cortez, have been given a second life, and Rick Stewart to tell their stories.

Stewart, manager of Boatworks, specializes in wooden boats, but he, and a group of loyal volunteers that routinely joins him, renovate all types of boats donated to FISH.

boatworks capisina jg 082014
Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage’s Boatworks manager, Rick Stewart, places a fresh cypress plank on the historic Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina at FISH Boatworks Aug. 13.

 

“This is art. Wooden boat building isn’t mechanical, it’s an art,” said Stewart.

The boats coming into FISH’s Boatworks are donated, often historical, and are restored to be sold to benefit FISH.

FISH is a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Cortez Village’s maritime culture and history, as well as overseeing the FISH Preserve in Cortez.

Stewart said he has nearly 50 volunteers throughout the year and, in the off-season, he has eight steady volunteers.

“This place is a beehive in October. I need summer volunteers,” Stewart said.

The steady volunteers, Stewart said, are old-timers that have valuable skills relating to the vanishing art of wooden boat building and, they also have abundant knowledge of the area to impart to newcomers.

Stewart is actively seeking younger volunteers with any skill level to come to Boatworks 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, to learn the vanishing trade.

Stewart also is offering classes on the history and trade Saturday mornings at 9 a.m.

“I’m giving back to what I’ve learned in my younger years. I want young people to be involved in craftsmanship. They’re so involved in technology that’s coming out in rapid succession. This industry is about slowing down and handcrafting things and learning skills from elders,” Stewart said.

boatworks raffle jg 082014
A skeletal structure made of African mahogany will be a finished boat by February. It will be raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival in Cortez.

Inside the shop, vessels in various stages of restoration take up all but the little space left for walkways, including the skeleton for coquina-rowing skiff.

The skiff, which is only framework, will be a finished boat by February, and will be a raffle prize at the 2015 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Stewart builds or renovates a boat for the raffle at the festival every year.

The coquina-rowing skiff is made of African mahogany, replacing pressure-treated pine, which Stewart said is know as Cortez teak. Stewart plans to finish the wooden boat with varnish.

“This will really be beautiful when it’s finished,” he said. “It’s like a Harley-Davidson Sportster. It has those lines.”

Seventy-five percent of the materials used in the Little Coquina are recycled from other vessels on the property.

Raised on blocks on the outside porch is an old Cuban fishing boat, the Campesina which, translated means “peasant girl.” Stewart said the fishing boat has sat in the Boatworks yard for years, and with an increase in the Boatworks budget from FISH, he is finally able to restore it.

The previous year’s budget allotted Boatworks $6,000, and Stewart said the amount left him and his crew scraping by, and pushed major restorations off to the future.

The current year’s budget doubled to $12,000, allowing him to purchase lumber and tools necessary for larger projects, such as the Campesina.

“I love this boat. I only have two photos to work from to restore it, so it’ll never be historically accurate,” said Stewart.

But, like a skilled surgeon, Stewart can diagnose the needs of the vessel as he dissects it, and speculate about its history.

“This boat was nailed together, which is not typical. It was crudely built, but the skills used to build it are top notch, including the design. That tells me there was probably a lack of resources,” he said.

boatworks ana mendez jg 082014
The Ana Mendez, a reproduction of a longboat circa 1539, owned by De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton is undergoing renovations at FISH Boatworks.

Next to the Campesina sits a celebrity, the Ana Mendez. The Ana Mendez is government-owned, belonging to De Soto National Memorial. The reproduction longboat, circa 1539, is used in De Soto Memorial’s annual reenactment of the Spanish conquistador’s arrival to Florida’s shoreline.

The longboat also is used in parades and displays. Stewart said the Ana Mendez was originally made at Boatworks, and is on deadline to be used in a fall festival event at the end October at the park.

“This project is helping us build a relationship with De Soto Memorial. I feel like I’m doing a good thing because it’s for all the people,” Stewart said. “It’s one charitable organization helping another.”

The Boatworks building, housed on the northwest corner of the FISH preserve, also houses other celebrity boats including the Esperanza and the Sally Adams. Both historic vessels will be on display at Nov. 1 at the Sarasota Bay Water Festival at Ken Thompson Park in Sarasota and the Nov. 15 at the Florida Maritime Museum’s Boatyard Bash.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 20, 2014.

Birds, nudists edge for space on Passage Key

Anna Maria Island, Fla. – Those passing by Passage Key on their watercrafts get more than a view of the birds at the wildlife refuge.

Passage Key is a nationally designated wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it’s a popular spot for nudists.

Mostly nude boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.
Boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.

The FWS released a statement in late June that said officials were surprised to see a reemerging sandbar, more than four acres in size where the National Wildlife Refuge, Passage Key was designated previously existed.

It had eroded and disappeared almost seven years ago.

“When Passage Key first started reemerging a few months ago, we were under the impression that it would vanish in weeks, like it had been in the previous 7 years. To everyone’s surprise, the sand has been continually accumulating, rising at several feet above the high-water mark,” said Stan Garner, FWS supervisory law enforcement officer, in the June release.

Officials also reported a high number of nesting colonies of least terns and loafing colonies of royal and sandwich terns, black skimmers, pelicans, oystercatchers and other shorebirds, amidst hundreds of visitors surrounding its shores.

However, the hundreds of visitors to the once submerged wildlife refuge are mostly nudists.

“The island has gotten overwhelming attention from the nudist community,” said Ivan Vicente, FWS visitors services specialist. “The thing is, the island came back up, so the nudist community tripled in the last four months and they claimed it as their nudist island.”

Extra markers were placed on the perimeter of the reemerging island, notifying visitors the area is a federally protected wildlife refuge.

Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.
Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.

Vicente said people are allowed to visit the island by boat, and stand in the water, but they cannot walk on land. The new markers allow people to stand in the shallow water around the island, while keeping them far enough away so as to not disturb the birds.

“Ever since it was established as a refuge, it was never allowed for people to be on it. We are reinstituting normal regulations. Now, even in high tide, part of the island is exposed. We don’t care about excluding people, we care about preserving the wildlife,” Vicente said.

Passage Key also is the site of a dispute that led to a suspicious death that is being investigated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

Vicente said a helicopter landed on Passage Key July 13 in an attempt to locate Pamela Carter Doster, who later died July 16 in at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.

The helicopter flushed the birds from the refuge, however Vicente said some of the birds have returned to feed and loaf.

Passage Key was the second established national wildlife refuge in 1905 by Theodore Roosevelt. The preserve is particularly important for nesting colonies of native seabirds and wading birds.

Passage Key also was the first refuge to be a federally designated Wilderness Area, in 1970 under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In the early 1900s, Passage Key was a 60-acre mangrove island with a freshwater lake.

Passage Key began to shrink following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The storms eroded away significant portions of the island. The refuge went completely underwater following the presence of hurricane Alberto in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.

“No one expected it. It’s almost like the hand of God dumped sand on the shoal,” said Vicente.

Officials have stepped up enforcement to keep people off the land, however Vicente said there isn’t constant enforcement.

Passage Key is jointly patrolled by the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We don’t a have a problem with nudity out there, as long as it’s not happening on land. We manage animals first and then people,” he said.

This article was originally published in The Islander August 13, 2014.

Wildlife Inc. faces funding woes

Bradenton Beach, Fla. – The home on Avenue B in Bradenton Beach looks like any other on the street. The exception is the large tortoises milling around the fenced front yard, the colorful parrots calling “Hello” along the side yard, and the cages stacked upon cages filled with various wildlife in the backyard.

Wildlife Inc., an education and rehabilitation center for wildlife, calls Bradenton Beach home in the otherwise non-descript neighborhood.

Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.
Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.

Amid the screeching of birds, Gail Straight co-owner of the rehab with husband Ed Straight, a Bradenton Beach commissioner, said the organization is now facing a new financial obstacle.

“We’re trying to find a sponsor. They’re discontinuing the blood drive on the island,” said Straight. “For us it’s a matter of life and death if we can’t find out where the money is going to come from.”

The annual island blood drive was a saving grace for Wildlife Inc., and benefitted three other island charities: Anna Maria Island Privateers, Anna Maria Island Community Center and the volunteer West Manatee Fire and Rescue Auxiliary.

Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated
Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated

During the island blood drive, donors chose one or shared $100, given by an anonymous donor among the four charities.

Straight said the blood drive was Wildlife Inc.’s single biggest fundraiser, providing on average $10,000 in the weekend-long event.

Other sources of income for Wildlife Inc., include donations collected at festivals, payments for shows and two small local grants. Straight said the nonprofit also receives a small amount of personal donations.

Wildlife Inc. brings shows into Manatee and Sarasota county schools, organized by education director David Sadkin, but Straight said the fee for educational programs in schools is low to make it more affordable for the school.

“If you apply for 100 grants, you might get one. That’s why the blood donations were so important,” Straight said.

She said they learned in July the blood donation program was moving off the island.

A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.
A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.

Straight said Wildlife Inc. has been getting in more hawks and owls, birds of prey that are expensive to feed and has spent $10,000 this year on rats and chicks to feed those birds.

Wildlife Inc. rescues wildlife from all over Tampa Bay. The rehabilitation center has been in operation in Bradenton Beach for 28 years, and a second educational location, has operated for four years at Mixon Fruit Farm in Bradenton.

Wildlife Inc. employee Damen Hurd cares for the animals at the Mixon location and leads tours.

“This is really going to hit us hard. Hopefully the public will step up and help us out. It’s really sad. There’s not a lot people who will give donations to wildlife, but all kinds of people call for us to rescue them. We want to do it, but it’s hard to continue when you’re pouring your own money into it,” Hurd said.

A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.
A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.

The expansion to Mixon’s served several purposes. The space on the farm houses many animals that could not be released back into the wild due to permanent injuries another, and gives Wildlife Inc. a platform to educate the public about local wildlife.

The wildlife tours are integrated into Mixon’s tours of the citrus groves. Hurd said Mixon charges $10 for adults, and $5 for children to take the tour. For every adult 50 cents and a quarter from each child’s ticket goes to Wildlife Inc. And Mixon built some of the wildlife enclosures.

“The whole goal coming out here was to support the rehab. Now expenses have gone up and it’s just not sustainable. We’re really taking a hit,” said Hurd.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 13, 2014.

Local youth, friends suffer rare fish poisoning in Bahamas

Austin Goncalves
Austin Goncalves holding the poisonous porgie and mutton snapper. Photo courtesy Marianne Norman-Ellis

Anna Maria Island, Fla. – A dream visit to a Caribbean island over the July 4 weekend turned into a nightmare for a local family and family friend.

A successful day of reef fishing meant dinner to 15-year-old Austin Goncalves and 14-year-old Marlin Ellis.

However, unknown to them, the fish they caught while pole-spearing near the shore, a porgie and mutton snapper, carried ciguatera poisoning and dining on the fish sent both boys, as well as Goncalves’ mother, Karen, and her companion, Allen Smith, to the hospital.

The group’s weeklong trip to a timeshare in the Bahamas quickly turned from paddleboard tours and dive adventures to a horrific ordeal in a Nassau hospital.

According to Marianne Norman-Ellis, Marlin’s mother, the boys caught the fish on a reef near the resort. Norman-Ellis works at Mike Norman Realty — owned by her father — in Holmes Beach and co-owns Blue Marlin restaurant in Bradenton Beach with husband Adam Ellis.

Marlin Ellis
Marlin Ellis. Photo courtesy Marianne Norman-Ellis

Norman-Ellis received the news stateside of the group’s sudden illness in a short phone call from Karen Goncalves, her speech slurred from the neurological effects of the marine microalgae that causes ciguatera poisoning.

“We’re in the hospital. You need to come,” she said to Norman-Ellis before the phone cut off.

A look back at the events:

June 28: departure

Karen Goncalves, her boyfriend, Allen Smith, Marlin and Austin headed to the airport with bags packed. Destination: the Bahamas.

Austin, who works bussing tables at the Blue Marlin, is an avid fisher, diver and boater. He invited his friend Marlin along on the trip to his mother’s timeshare resort.

June 29: boys pull in a big catch

Marlin and Austin went free-diving on a reef off the beach fronting their resort. They caught huge fish — a porgie twice the size of any found in Florida and a 30-pound mutton snapper.

The boys’ trophy fish became dinner, but would soon prove to be less of a bragging rite.

“I think part of the reason they got so sick is because how old and big the fish were,” said Norman-Ellis.

She said in addition to the age and size of the fish, the location of the catch also contributed to their levels of ciguatera. The microalgae that causes ciguatera lives in the reef, and fish that live exclusively in the reef area and eat their prey from among the reef-dwellers, unlike fish that travel, contain have higher levels of the toxin.

The group cooked the fish for dinner, unaware of the tasteless, odorless toxin they were about to consume. They ate their catch at two meals before they felt the poison’s effects.

As the toxin worked its way into their systems, they continued their vacation plans, going on dive trips and paddleboard tours around the Caribbean paradise.

Marlin was the first to get sick. Norman-Ellis said she spoke to her son and both assumed he was seasick. As time passed, it became clear Marlin’s illness was not seasickness.

July 3: everyone is rushed to the nearest hospital

Norman-Ellis received a text message from her son that read: “We can’t stop throwing up.”

Marlin’s illness escalated and the rest of the party soon also became violently ill.

Ciguatera can cause nausea, vomiting and neurologic symptoms, including tingling fingers and toes, confusion and hallucinations, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ciguatera also can cause cold things to feel hot and the reverse. The toxin affects individuals differently and can be difficult to diagnose.

Norman-Ellis said Karen Goncalves remembered calling the front desk at the resort, but she didn’t recall what happened after the phone call.

Staff at the resort called an ambulance for the four guests. Marlin and Smith experienced violent hallucinations, and Austin and his mom were unconscious by the time the ambulance arrived to the timeshare. Austin was in bad shape, unable to maintain consciousness and suffering from seizures.

They were taken to a public hospital where the staff was unable to ascertain any information from them due to their conditions. Hospital staff assumed they either suffered from food poisoning or they were on drugs.

July 4: a confused phone call

About noon, Karen Goncalves made her short, confused phone call to Norman-Ellis.

“Her speech was slurred. All she said was they were at the hospital and I needed to come. She didn’t even say what hospital,” said Norman-Ellis.

Norman-Ellis and her husband bought plane tickets departing for the Bahamas from Miami that day.

Norman-Ellis was able to find out what hospital they were taken to, but was having difficulty getting directly in touch with anyone in the group.

“All they kept telling me was ‘they are stable’ and wouldn’t let me speak to them,” she said.

She contacted the U.S. Embassy and was able to speak to a doctor at the hospital. As she waited for her flight to board at the Miami airport, the doctor told her to arrive quickly: “It’s not likely they’ll make it.”

Norman-Ellis and her husband went straight from the Nassau airport to the hospital. When she arrived, Austin and Karen Goncalves were still unconscious and her son was restrained in a hospital bed. He had been experiencing “horrific hallucinations” and was reacting violently to hospital staff, requiring them to restrain him.

July 5: an air ambulance takes them stateside

“We were at the hospital for eight hours waiting for the ambulance,” Norman-Ellis said.

Mike Norman, Marlin’s grandfather, arranged for REVA, a private international air-ambulance service, to take the group to a Miami hospital. Each flight carried only one patient, and cost $10,000.

Norman-Ellis was able to gain her son’s release from the Nassau hospital, but not the rest of the group because they are not family members. Meanwhile, a friend of Norman-Ellis was able to contact Austin’s sister through Facebook, and she flew to the Bahamas to release her mother and brother. A release for Smith proved to be more difficult, but he too was eventually able to leave the hospital.

Marlin arrived at Jackson Memorial in Miami at 6 a.m. Austin was brought to the Miami hospital shortly after Marlin and the ambulance returned immediately to get his mother and her companion.

Recovery

Marlin spent three days in the intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial before being relocated to the teen unit. Austin spent several days longer on life-support before he was relocated to the teen unit, where he now is undergoing speech, physical and occupational therapy.

Austin, as of July 18, was still in the hospital.

Marlin was the first to recover and return home, but was told to take precautions for three weeks following his release. He must avoid eating seafood, and also chicken and pork that may have consumed seafood.

He had no further symptoms of ciguatera after his release from the hospital.

According to the CDC, ciguatera poisoning is caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by the marine microalgae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. It has no cure. However, the symptoms are treatable and usually go away in days or weeks, although some symptoms can remain for years.

Norman-Ellis said she has now learned that when traveling to a foreign country, it’s important to know the locations of hospitals. She later learned there was a hospital in Nassau two blocks away that may have provided more intensive care than the public hospital where the group was taken.

The ciguatera poisoning was not diagnosed until they reached the hospital in Miami.

Another important thing she said she learned from the experience: Don’t eat fish larger than a forearm that is caught in the Caribbean.

This article was published in The Islander July 22, 2014.

Cortez Fishing for Freedom members attend protest, appellate

Cortez, Fla. – As workers in Tallahassee prepared for a day in the appellate court, two Cortez fishers packed their bags.

President of the fledging Manatee County chapter of Fishing for Freedom, Mark Coarsey, began making plans to travel to Tallahassee when he heard the 1st District Court of Appeal would hear the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s appeal to Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling concerning on a statewide ban on gill nets issued October 2013.

The constitutional amendment restricting gill nets and mesh sizes of nets rocked the commercial fishing industry in Cortez, and other commercial fisheries across the state, when approved by Florida voters in 1994. The ban took effect in 1995.

Fulford’s ruling in Wakulla Commericial Fishermen’s Association v. Florida Fish and Wildlife over turned the net-ban, making it ineffective, which was quickly met with an appeal and stop order from the FWC.

The now 20-year legal battle over the ban is seeing an emergence of a grassroots collective representing fishers across the state of Florida and is gaining traction on the Fulford ruling.

Cortez fishers Coarsey and Nate “Toasty” Meschelle met up with the Fishing for Freedom group in Tallahassee May 15 to attend a protest and hearing.

The Fishing for Freedom group gathers May 15 around FFF president Ronald Fred Crum and vice president David Grix at a protest at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission building in Tallahassee. The group held signs in protest before the hearing on the recent net-ban ruling at the 1st District Court of Appeals. Photo courtesy Nate Michelle
The Fishing for Freedom group gathers May 15 around FFF president Ronald Fred Crum and vice president David Grix at a protest at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission building in Tallahassee. The group held signs in protest before the hearing on the recent net-ban ruling at the 1st District Court of Appeals. Photo courtesy Nate Meschelle

Coarsey said 50-60 people attended the peaceful protest in Tallahassee outside of the FWC building, most wearing their FFF T-shirts. The shirts have a prominent phrase across the back reading, “Biology vs. Politics.”

Following the protest, FFF members filled the courtroom for the hearing.

“We represented Manatee County. Is it important we went up there? Yes,” said Coarsey. “They’re taking out a species of fisherman.”

The hotly contested net-ban intended to address sustainable fishing practices, and almost exclusively affects mullet fishers. The FWC contends the rule is intended to preserve fish populations by preventing over-fishing. The Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association, the group facing the FWC at the 1st DCA, say the rules do not achieve the intentions.

Coarsey says limiting the mesh size of the nets means it is more difficult for fishers to net legal-sized fish and juvenile fish are caught instead, producing a bycatch that the net-ban intended to eliminate.

“Let us go catch our fish. You won’t have the bycatch we’ve been having and you won’t have the junk in our bays,” said Coarsey. “Commercial fishermen are out to protect our resource.”

A three judge panel listened May 15 to testimony from attorneys representing the Wakulla group and the FWC. A ruling for the case will be issued after the judges have reviewed the testimony and any new evidence offered.

If the panel of judges sides with the Wakulla group, the Fulford ruling will be upheld and the net-ban will be lifted.

Wildlife Inc. races to save injured screech owl

Bradenton Beach, Fla. – Its feathers were matted with blood and a thin layer of tissue separated its small beating heart from exposure.

A harrowing two-day effort to save a badly injured screech owl produced thousands of social media responses offering well wishes, prayers and praise for the work of Wildlife Inc, even after its death.

A screech owl was badly injured by a tree trimmer, exposing its chest cavity. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Inc.
A screech owl was badly injured by a tree trimmer, exposing its chest cavity. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Inc.

The small eastern screech owl was rushed into Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach March 11. The owl had sustained a major injury to its chest after meeting with a chainsaw.

A tree trimmer accidentally sawed the bird’s chest wide open as he sawed through a log it was hiding in. The tree trimmer immediately rushed the owl to Wildlife Inc.

“The tree trimmers are really good about it, most of them are good people,” said Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc.

Wildlife Inc.’s Facebook post assured its audience the tree trimmers were animal lovers and the injury was accidental.

At Wildlife Inc., the Straights had a decision to make: whether try to save the owl, or put the animal down. Despite the injury to the chest, the owl appeared to be alert and active.

The bird went to the Island Animal Clinic the same day and Dr. Ashley Gardener performed surgery. The screech owl survived the surgery and the first night at Wildlife Inc.

“It looked like it was really going to do well. It’s such a bummer the little guy didn’t make it,” said Straight.

Wildlife Inc. announced around 2 p.m. March 11 to Facebook fans: “Unfortunately the little screech owl with the chest wound did not survive. We gave it a try and that’s all we can do. At least he died in a comfortable place on pain medication. I was really hoping he would pull through.”

However vigilant tree trimmers are, birds frequently come into Wildlife Inc. with similar injuries this time of year Straight said. This time of year is nesting season for many migratory birds. The screech owl is not a migratory bird.

To remove a nest of a migratory bird from a tree is illegal without a permit from the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is also illegal to kill migratory birds.

Screech owls are usually heard and not seen. The small species of owl have excellent camouflage, and hide in the nooks and crannies of trees in the day. Their sound is a trilling or whinny sound.

Screech owls can be found in urban or rural settings, wherever there are trees, particularly around water.

With patience and a sharp-eye, they may be sighted at the entrance of their tree-cavity home.

This article was originally published in The Islander March 19, 2014.