It is August, we are just off another successful Sea Turtle Baby Shower event in the Pensacola area, and we are in peak season for sea turtle hatching. Those little guys have a tough road to follow trying to emerge from their nest to reach the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Within the nest the young wait for cooler temperatures and no vibrations to begin their climb towards the surface. Once they have emerged, they locate the shortwave light of the moon and stars reflecting off of the water and head for sea. However, ghost crabs, fox, and coyotes, all excavate nests and consume hatchlings running across the sand.
This sea turtle frequents the nearshore snorkel reef at Park East in Escambia County. Photo: Robert Turpin
But these predators are not alone on Pensacola Beach. Humans have moved onto the island in large numbers. Vehicle tracks, large holes, tents, chairs, and our pets all are obstacles for the young in their journey to the sea. One of the larger problem has been lighting. Most of our buildings are well lit for safety. We tend to use shortwave lighting systems that produce bright white lights similar to what the moon and stars reflect off of the Gulf – many times brighter. Because of this many of the hatchlings will disorient and travel towards the buildings and roads instead of the open Gulf… this certainly is not good. Disoriented turtles will wonder onto road ways where they are hit by cars, and under or around buildings where they can become lost or come in contact with house pets and rats – not to mention the increase time on land will increase the chance of a native predator finding them. If they make it until morning, there is the problem of shorebirds and the sun – the chances of the hatchlings surviving a disorientation are not good.
There are a variety of reasons why sea turtle populations are low enough to have them listed, but this is certain one of the larger problems. Data from Escambia County extending back to 1996 show that, on average, 48% of the sea turtle nests disorient – and it has been as high as 70%.
So What Can We Do to Help the 2017 hatchlings?
First, we are having a big year for nesting. Mark Nicholas, GINS and permit holder for sea turtle work here, indicated there were 101 nests in our area this year… we have a chance to have a really big and successful sea turtle nesting season – with a little help from you.
Clean the beach before you head in for the night. Most panhandle counties actually have a “Leave No Trace” ordinance which requires the removal of chairs, tents, etc. – but be sure the holes are filled in and the trash is removed as well.
For inside lighting – turn down the lights and/or close the currents. Exterior lighting should be “turtle friendly” – meaning long wavelength – which means yellow/red. Most panhandle counties have an ordinance for exterior lighting. In Escambia County residents have until 2018 to comply – but we encourage you to make those changes as soon as you can to help the turtles hatching this season. “Turtle Friendly” would include the big three – KEEP IT LOW, KEEP IT LONG, AND KEEP IT SHIELDED. Keep it low meaning as low to the ground as you can. If that is not possible, place a shield on the fixture to direct the light down to where you are walking and not out to the beach. Keep it long refers to the wavelength, longer than 560 nanometers, which is in the yellow/red range of color. Studies show that hatchlings are attracted to the shortwaves (white/blue) end of the spectrum. Having long wave lighting will increase the chances of the hatchling finding the shortwaves from stars off of the Gulf. You will want to keep the illumination down as well. We recommend 25W bulbs, which is bright enough to see and reduces the chance of attracting a young turtle.
Keep a distance from the marked nests – remember that vibrations (even from your walking) can cause the hatchlings to wait – and waiting too long can cost them their lives. If you are lucky enough to see baby turtles crawling for the Gulf – do not use flash photography and do not use flash lights – unless they have a protective red film producing a low intensity red light.
If you find a group of hatchlings that are obviously disoriented, contact the local authority in your area. In Escambia County we recommend calling the sheriff substation on the island or the Gulf Breeze dispatch – who will contact the National Park.
If you have questions about turtle lighting options, the current county ordinances designed to help island wildlife, or the Turtle Friendly Beaches program, contact your County Extension Sea Grant Agent.
Many counties in the panhandle have lighting and barrier ordinances to protect wildlife and workers. Photo: Rick O’Connor
MAN do folks in the Florida panhandle like scallops. I recently visited boat ramps at Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach (in the Big Bend) and the parking lots were full of trucks and boat trailers belonging to people combing the grassbeds of the Gulf searching for this popular bivalve. Scalloping is a fun activity that gets the whole family outside snorkeling and finding all sorts of local marine life. And scallops taste good… their sweet meat broiled in butter is a real Florida panhandle treat. Many locals remember years ago collecting scallops with family and friends in Pensacola Bay area …. Good times!
Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/
But that was another time. Scallop populations have declined across Florida’s Gulf coast. Today commercial harvesting is banned and recreational harvest is limited to the Big Bend area between the Bay/Gulf and the Hernando/Pasco county lines (visit map). Within this area there is a seasonal limit, bag limit, and harvesting equipment limits. The season runs from Jun 25 – Sep 24 (except in Gulf County). Harvesters can collect 2 gallons whole (or 1 pint cleaned) / person / day. There is a maximum of 10 gallons whole / vessel / day. You can collect by hand or using a dip net. All harvesters are required to have a Florida saltwater fishing license unless (a) they are exempt from such a license, or (b) they are wading nearshore and their feet do not leave the bottom (no swimming or snorkeling). For 2016 the regulations for Gulf County have changed, please visit the above link at FWC for those changes. BUT wouldn’t it be great to be able to scallop in the Pensacola Bay area again?
County Extension Sea Grant Agents have been working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission surveying Gulf coast bays that once had scallop populations – including Pensacola Bay. The purpose is to determine the status of these animals at the moment. Scallops are mass spawners and need a relatively high density of individuals in order for reproduction to be successful. The state could easily “re-seed” these areas with scallops to increase the density but their populations declined for a reason. Was it water quality? Loss of habitat? Heavy predation (human or marine life)? Or a combination? We are not sure… but a re-seeding project will not be successful until it can be determined that the stresses that caused the reduction have improved enough that the scallop will survive.
A pile of cleaned scallops found in a parking lot on Pensacola Bay. Harvesting scallop in Pensacola Bay is illegal. Photo: Rick O’Connor
On that note, Santa Rosa and Escambia County Extension Sea Grant Agents recently held two scallop surveys; one in Santa Rosa Sound and one in Big Lagoon. The morning of our Santa Rosa Sound survey we found a pile of cleaned scallops in the parking lot of Shoreline Park (approximately 35 scallops). This is a good sign in that it suggests scallops are trying to make a comeback here. It is bad in that they were harvested. Many in our community are not aware that harvesting scallops in Pensacola Bay is illegal. No recreational or commercial harvest of bay scallop is allowed, even during scallop season, west of the Gulf County/Bay County line (Mexico Beach). If you are out paddling around our grass beds and find live scallop please let your county Sea Grant Agent know, but also remember that you are not allowed to harvest them. Hopefully one day we will be able to tell you that yes you can, but until then we need to give them a chance to spawn and see if our grassbeds, and water quality, are sufficient enough for them to return.
Earlier this year, Bay County completed an artificial reef project in Gulf waters approximately 3 nautical miles (nm) south of the Panama City Beach Pier (Pier Park) and 11 nm west of St Andrew Bay Pass in Small Area Artificial Reef Site D. On May 14, five Super Reefs were deployed, each weighing approximately 36,000 lbs and rising 18 feet from the ocean floor. Typical artificial reef modules are only about 8 feet tall. This was the first time Super Reefs were deployed in western Bay County in the Panama City Beach area. The project provides marine habitat comparable to sinking a large vessel.
Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA) supported Bay County and Walter Maine during the deployment efforts. MBARA provided this YouTube video documenting the deployment and post-deployment dive survey. During the survey, divers noted baitfish already utilizing the new habitat. The Super Reef module coordinates and details were verified as follows:
Patch Reef #
BC2015 Set 17 (1)
85° 54.607 W
BC2015 Set 18 (2)
30° 10.179 N
85° 54.567 W
BC2015 Set 19 (3)
30° 10.176 N
85° 54.603 W
BC2015 Set 20 (4)
85° 54.594 W
BC2015 Set 21 (5)
30° 10.138 N
85° 54.602 W
Previous monitoring and research suggest it takes 3 to 5 years for new reefs to reach full development of the associated marine ecosystem. Bay County will work with local anglers, divers, reef associations, and agencies to evaluate the performance of the new reef materials and the reef design.
Bay County artificial reef projects seek to use material that meets program goals and objectives. In this case, larger reef materials were selected to support larger reef fish such as amberjack, grouper, and snapper. Individual reef modules were spaced to support fish forage areas and accommodate multiple users including anglers and divers.
Walter Marine’s Maranatha deploying one of the five Super Reefs placed 3 nm south of Pier Park. The Super Reefs weigh more than 18 tons and are 18 feet tall. Photo by Bay County Artificial Reef Coordinator, Allen Golden.
The Florida Panhandle is fortunate to have an abundance of salt marsh habitat fringing many of our coastal environs. Although this habitat may not receive the appreciation it deserves by those seeking a white-sandy beach, it is intricately linked with many of the natural treasures we are blessed with. Salt marshes occur in the ecotone where the land connects with the salty water and they are occupied by a special assemblage of salt-tolerant, hydrophytic plants that provide benefits on many levels. Literally, levels that stretch vertically from the substrate to the tops of the grasses, and horizontally as the plant species are arranged into different zones depending on water depth. These habitats typically occur in coastal areas of lower wave energy, where the marsh plants can establish and thrive. Often this is in our bays and estuaries that are afforded some protection from storms that blow in from the open Gulf. Looking from the land outward, the classic salt marsh vegetation zones begin with the high-marsh which only gets inundated during extremely high tides. This area is dominated by a grass called marsh hay (or salt meadow) cordgrass (Spartina patens) that grows in wiry-leaved clumps. You can also find salt grass (Distichlis spicata) which has shorter, flat leaf blades that project from the stem at a distinctive angle. The mid-marsh zone is typically in and out of the water on daily tides and is usually dominated by a species of rush called black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus). The low-marsh grows in an area that stays under water much of the time and is inhabited primarily by smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) in our Gulf Coast marshes.
Ecologically speaking, you might deduce that salt marshes are not incredibly diverse, at least as far as plant species inhabiting them. However, the structure, cover and vegetative food components that are available here support a tremendous assortment of animals; some that we depend on for seafood, some that our seafood depends on in a complex food web, and others that are simply a pleasure to know about. Many utilize these grassy nearshore areas during the juvenile portion of their life cycle. Baby crabs, shrimp and fish find many of their needs met here. Just spend a few minutes quietly observing in this habitat and you’ll be amazed when you notice the baby mullet, spotted sea trout, redfish, killifish, fiddler crabs, and a host of other creatures going about their “marshy” business. It is also a special treat to conduct a nighttime investigation with a flashlight here. Just wear protective shoes as oysters often grow in these places.
Blue Crabs and Fiddler Crabs Both Grow Up in the Marshy World
One group of animals that depends on this habitat is our coastal bird life. In fact, there is a subset of birds here that has been dubbed with the title “secretive marsh birds,” because they rarely come into the open where people can see them. This group includes several species of rails, bitterns, gallinules and others. Scientists have been concerned about declines in many of these species so standardized methods have been developed to survey them using broadcast recordings to elicit vocalizations that can be counted by researchers. There are also many not-so-secretive marsh birds that find their needs met in our marshes. Harriers visit during the winter months, blackbirds and sparrows find nesting cover here, and egrets, herons and kingfishers dine on the fish and invertebrates that are abundantly plentiful during key stages of their nesting and chick raising cycles.
Last but not least (in my book) are a couple of reptiles that can be found in our saltmarshes. The gulf salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii) uses the marsh for cover and to find its preferred diet of small fish, crabs, shrimp and other invertebrates. They spend their days generally hiding under debris, being more active at night. They can be recognized by their four lengthwise yellowish stripes and the fact that you aren’t likely to find another snake in the saltmarsh. However, I have seen a cottonmouth or two spending time here, so be careful. The other unique reptile we can find in select areas of our marshy coastline is the ornate diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin macrospilota). These charismatic coastal turtles are sexually dimorphic, with males only reaching about five inches and females growing to around eight inches. The yellow centers on the dark scutes of the back are a definitive identification feature, along with very pale gray skin that may be speckled with black dots. Terrapins feed primarily on mollusks and crabs and use the adjacent upland areas for laying their eggs. Terrapins have suffered dramatic declines throughout their range because they are attracted to bait in crab traps and can be trapped and drowned. There is a simple conservation solution though. If you are in an area that terrapins frequent you can install a rectangular exclusion device in your trap funnels that will keep out terrapins but let crabs through. Awesome invention!
Ornate Diamondback Terrapins Depend on Coastal Marshes and Sea Grass Habitats
Take some time to visit our incredible coastal marshes and appreciate the diversity of life they provide us, along with the most profound serenity of any beautiful, wide-open vista that you’ll ever find anywhere.
Yea… should we? Probably your next question would be – can we?
The answer is… maybe
There was an interesting article in the June edition of the Smithsonian magazine. It discussed this question. Science is close to being able to eliminate mosquitos… sort of… there is more to it… but it brings up an interesting question – should man be allowed to eliminate a species from history? Some would say – “well, it’s not the first time we have done this… so why not?”. Others would say “this is not correct… we should not be the ones to decide which species are allowed to exist and which are not.” But there is more to the story…
There are about 3,500 species of mosquito known to science, about 100 of these are known vectors for human diseases. 725,000 human deaths are caused by mosquito borne diseases each year. The Smithsonian article quotes other wildlife induced human deaths for comparison. Between 20,000 and 200,000 die from parasites transmitted by freshwater snails, between 44,000 and 125,000 die from snake bite, between 55,000 and 60,000 from dog bites, and 6 from sharks (another testament that sharks are not the threat most people think they are), but almost three quarters of a million humans die each year to mosquito bites is significant… should we consider eliminating them?
Anopheles gambiae is the mosquito that transmits malaria. Photo: UF IFAS
Dr. Andrea Crisanti, research scientist at Imperial College in London, has spent most of his life trying to end malaria – he would like to see it eliminated. Malaria alone killed 400,000 people in sub-Sahara Africa in 2015. The protozoan that causes malaria is transmitted by the mosquito known as Anopheles gambiae. He, and other scientists, have developed independently – the different pieces of a method that may eliminate this species of mosquito. It is basically a gene therapy method. They insert a lethal gene into the DNA of the mosquito, release it into the environment, mating ensues, death occurs, species is illuminated.
Now comes the maybe part…
This type of technology has been used to develop a variety of corn that produces its own pesticide. However, the pollination part is done within a controlled lab and the plants are planted in the fields. This would require successful breeding within the environment… it might work. The other issue is that this method is species specific. Would another species adapt and begin to transmit the malaria protozoan? And, of course, there is the question of unforeseen consequences. Because mosquitos do not travel far from where they were born, most researchers do not think this method would eliminate a species on a global scale – but rather on a local one. Scientists have been able to sterilize mosquitos using gamma radiation. Reducing an entire population has had mixed results. They are currently working on a non-radiation method for the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus), one of the local vectors for Zika.
Researchers are currently targeting three species of mosquito for this project. Anopheles gambiae (the carrier of malaria), Aedes aegyptie (the carrier of yellow fever, and possibly Zika), and Culex (which carries west nile and others). But the questions still lie out there – (1) will it work?, (2) are there other consequences?, (3) is eliminating a species ethical?
There are many scientists who think it is okay. Dr. E.O. Wilson stated Anopheles gambiae can go. Many others are concerned about upsetting the ecology of a system by removing a food source. Ecologists state that it could impact the balance of the tundra ecosystem, where mosquitos are a major food source for many of the local birds. But in other locations, the mosquito predators will find other species of mosquitos (or other food in general), and that this would not impact the system. Other scientists say no… we should not. One mentioned he did not want to be part of eliminating a species from the planet, it is not our role. Others are concerned with which species would be next? Where will this stop? And there is always the chance that biological weapons can be developed with this technology.