Letter from America 8th January

Hi Guys and Gals,

Green Iguanas are enduring another rough cold season in Florida. Last winter’s cold temperatures in southern Florida wiped out entire colonies of these non-native lizards. We first came into contact with these docile creatures, which can grow up to as much as five feet in length, in Honduras some three or four years ago where they are a protected species. The natives of Honduras eat them as a delicacy which is supposed to taste like chicken. We visited a farm that was breeding them; I don’t suppose we will ever see so many, large and small all in one place again. They are not popular in Florida as they have a habit of transforming ornamental plants into blobs of iguana waste on water front patios. These exotic pets from Central and South America first appeared in Miami-Dade County in 1966 and spread south to Monroe County in 1995, in Broward County in 2001. and in Palm Beach County in 2003. It is estimated that last winter’s cold killed 80 percent to 85 percent of the iguana population and combined with this year’s cold could set back their expansion by years. The other non-native species that are suffering from the unusual weather are the Burmese pythons which have turned up dead in the Everglades and the African Rock pythons which had established themselves in western Miami-Dade County. About 20 of the African Rock pythons were caught in South Florida this year but on the Wednesday before Christmas Wildlife Officers swept the area and found none.

Back in the middle of October I mentioned how the nearly completed home of the 1st District Court of Appeal at Tallahassee is cynically referred to as the “Taj Mhal” as its dome, miles of African mahogany and a kitchen for each judge is a monument to state government at its worst. Politicians and state officials, fearful of being implicated in this taxpayer mugging have been feverishly pointing fingers at each other since the scandal broke in August. At that time I remarked on the “blame game” that was going on between Governor Charlie Crist, members of the Cabinet, legislators and the judges. Well the chickens are starting to come home to roost as District Judge Paul Hawkes is the first casualty. He drew scorn for leading a lobbying effort in the Legislature to build this veritable palace for district judges in Tallahassee at a time when the state court system as a whole is struggling to cope with budget cuts. I am sure more heads will role but in the meantime the Legislature still needs to pass reforms to prevent more boondoggles like the Taj Mahal as the taxpayers deserve no less.

Winter has only just started but the Florida Department of Agriculture has just published the cost of the damage done by the cold weather towards the end of December. In Lake County alone they estimate that nearly 9,000 acres of crops were affected at a cost of $273 million. Green beans, cucumbers and sweet corn were hit the hardest which will translate into higher cost to consumers for the local produce that does make it to the retail stores. No doubt stocks will have to be imported to make up shortages. Other significant losses include eggplant (aubergine in good old English), bell pepper and lettuce crops. The strawberry, tomato and citrus crops have fared better than was originally feared. However it is early days as we are only two weeks into winter proper so far!

It might be easier to clean up if the lawn chairs, water bottles and fishing nets were all clumped together like a giant island of trash. However the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is somewhat scattered making things challenging for the crew of a Richmond, California based ship trying to find ways to clean up the mess. Nicholas Mallos a marine debris scientist is seeking to dispel popular notions of what the garbage patch is. “It is not a floating island of trash and it is not the size of Texas” said Mallows, who works for the environmental Ocean Conservancy group. The rubbish which collects in a vast region in the middle of the Pacific consists mainly of plastic where four currents create a vast whirlpool of containers, nets and tiny bits of plastic all swirling about hundreds of miles offshore. The problem is not readily apparent starting about 500 miles offshore with concentrations heavier about 1,200 to 1,500 miles offshore. The plastics have been accumulating for decades and are extremely slow to degrade, though they do break into smaller bits that can be mistaken for food by small animals. Next year it is planned to test ways of safely removing plastic garbage off the coasts of San Diego and Seattle with the object of taking barges out to the garbage patch and see how well they work. In five, six, seven or eight years from now everybody is going to feel the extent of the problem because it is going to be on the beaches, according to the Ocean Conservancy group.

We have just passed the half way point of our annual winter stay in Florida. Like back in the UK it is already the worst winter we have experienced in the twenty or so years we have been coming here, although only about twelve or thirteen of those years have been for the full six months that Uncle Sam will allow us to stay. As the saying goes “things can only get better”, I sincerely hope so for everyone.

Bryan Staples

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