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Date of Issue: December 28, 2006

Sandscript

Nation's first ship monitoring system comes to Tampa Bay

Here's a general, no-nonsense rule of thumb that has worked well for generations: If a new law or proposal is offered, and your first thought is "gee, I thought we already did that,” then it's probably a pretty good idea.

Ships entering and exiting Tampa Bay will have what amounts to an air-traffic controller system activated starting next month that will monitor exactly where, what kind and at what course vessel traffic is undergoing in the busy waterway.

Gee, they don't have that already?

Apparently not.

Harbor pilots keep in contact with each other through radio, radar and some other more elaborate monitoring systems. However, there hasn't been a central command center established to act as a "Big Brother” over the ships.

That command post, located at the Port of Tampa, will be up and running in early 2007 with oversight by the U.S. Coast Guard and port authorities. Six civilian employees will peer through big computer monitor screens to track vessels in real time. The displays will include ship size, speed and heading, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Command central will also monitor radio traffic between the ships. If there appears to be a problem brewing, the command office can intervene and order course or speed changes.

Ships have been required to have transponders installed that relay much of that information since 1997. However, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of oversight to keep track of the information. Tampa Bay has the first such system in Florida, and there are only a dozen or so similar setups in the country.

As one Coast Guard official put it, most ports mimic the systems that are in place at small rural airports - aircraft pretty much regulate themselves. With the new Tampa Bay system, "We're moving to an air traffic control system,” he said.

Considering the massive amount of material that flows in and out of the ports of Tampa Bay, it sure seems to make sense. Especially considering some of the problems that ships have caused in the bay during the past few decades.

Remember the Skyway disaster in 1989? The 608-foot-long freighter "Summit Venture” rammed into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, taking out one of the spans. Thirty-five people died as a bus and some vehicles dropped into the bay.

Remember the tanker fire in 1993? A freighter was outward bound when it collided with a pair of tugs pushing barges of fuel. The accident caused a fireball easily seen from Anna Maria Island. About 330,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled in the bay, the biggest fuel spill in Tampa Bay's history.

Enough said about the need for some sort of central command for ships and shipping into and out of Tampa Bay.

 

And about another monitoring program ...

I readily admit to being of two minds on the commercial fishing monitoring proposal.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has ordered all reef-fish vessels - those that go after grouper or snapper - to have a Vessel Monitoring System installed on board. The $3,000-plus electronics send out a signal that allows officials to keep track of where the boats are located and if they are in areas that are closed for fishing.

Rabbit Brooks of Cortez is opposed to the matter, citing another act of Big Brother butting into the lives of commercial fishers. He's also opposed to the recurring costs of keeping the gear up and running.

Julie Morris, who is a member of the council, argues that the VMS system is needed the same way that the highway patrol is needed to keep cars at speed along interstates. Something is needed to keep the fishery stock at fishable levels, she said, and the electronics are just another tool in that attempt.

Both are good arguments.

On the one hand, I dislike the idea of Big Brother as much as anyone. On the other, I'm afraid that if something like the VMS system isn't installed, the remaining management tools to protect the grouper and snapper fisheries could be outright bans on harvest.

Remember how lawmakers dithered about how to control mullet harvests until the only solution offered was an outright ban on nearshore gillnet fishing?

We sure don't want something like that happening again.

Underwater smellavision

Star-nosed moles have a couple distinctions in the animal kingdom. The little critters have been ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the fastest eaters in the world.

And scientists now believe they are the only mammal that can smell underwater.

The moles are active swimmers in the swamps they inhabit in eastern Canada. And the mole gets its star-nosed name because of a weird snout that has feelers that help it find food, since moles traditionally can't see worth a darn.

Scientists now believe that the little water rats actually blow out and snuff in bubbles as they swim underwater. They do that a lot - up to 10 times a second - and in the midst of the snorting they're able to detect smells as they swim, according to the journal Nature.

According to the author of the study, "If you go through the literature on the historical ideas of olfaction, there's a lot of statements to the effect that 'Obviously, it's impossible for a mammal to smell underwater.'" However, after watching the sniffing action of a mole in a tank, he started to lay down some earthworm tracks on the bottom. Sure enough, the moles tracked the earthworm scent most of the time.

The scientist has found similar activities in freshwater shrews, but not to the level that star-nosed moles exhibit.

 

Sandscript factoid

As lobsters wave their antennae around, biologists believe they are allowing specialized hairs to sweep through the surrounding water and pick up passing scent molecules.

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