We are still trying to remove this invasive plant from our area. For those who are not familiar with it, beach vitex (Vitex rotundifolia) is a category I invasive plant in Florida. It is current listed as “invasive, not recommended”. This means you can still purchase it but recommend you do not.
Vitex growing at Gulf Islands National Seashore that has been removed. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor
Why is that?
Well, being an invasive species, it reproduces at a high rate, has few consumers, and causes an environmental issue wherever it grows. It has the potential to cause economic issues as well. Beach vitex is from Asia and was brought to the United States as an ornamental plant. In upland landscapes, it does not seem to be a problem. However, when first used in coastal dunes it began to show its ugly head. Vitex begins as a low growing vine and becomes a shrub over time. It produced a beautiful lavender blossom in spring but then produces millions of seeds in late summer and fall. The seeds are spread by birds and are viable in seawater for several months. Dispersed in this way, the plant spreads across coastal beaches of our barrier islands.
Once established it forms a taproot with above ground rhizomes extending as far as 20 feet. It is allelopathic, meaning it produces chemical compounds that kill nearby plants and spreads to cover this new territory. This includes the common sea oat. Sea oats have a fibrous root system which are good at trapping sand and forming dunes. These dunes can protect properties during storm surge. Beach vitex, having a taproot system, are not as effective. Though we are not aware of any beach vitex growing on the fore dune in the panhandle, if it does it could impact sea turtle nesting. We are also not sure whether the local beach mice will eat these seeds. Thus, displacing sea oats could impact beach mice.
Beach Vitex Blossom. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor
We currently know of one site in Ft. Pickens, two properties in Gulf Breeze, two in Navarre, four on Perdido Key and Perdido Bay, 24 within Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze, and 38 on Pensacola Beach; 70 properties total in the Pensacola Bay area. One of the properties in Gulf Breeze, and nine on Pensacola Beach (14%) have been removed or treated and have not returned. One property in Gulf Breeze, one in Ft. Pickens, two on Perdido Key and Perdido Bay, 20 on Pensacola Beach, and 24 in Naval Live Oaks (68%) have been removed or treated but have returned; re-treatments are required and are being conducted. And one property in Gulf Breeze, two in Navarre, two on Perdido Key or Perdido Bay, and nine on Pensacola Bay (20%) have not been removed or treated at all. In each of these cases, the plants are on private property. We hope that these property owners would consider removing the plant and replacing with native dune plants from this area.
Elsewhere in the panhandle we are aware of only two locations, one in Okaloosa County and one in Franklin. We believe the property in Okaloosa has been treated and are not sure of the status in Franklin. If is very possible that this plant is in the coastal areas of other counties in the panhandle.
Recently, volunteers from the Pensacola Beach Advocates and Americorp removed 315 m2 of beach vitex from public land on Pensacola Beach. That now means all beach vitex on public lands in Escambia County have been removed or treated. Research shows that repeated treatments may be required for up to five years to completely eradicate the plant from that property, but PBA and Americorp plan to assist Sea Grant with removing this plant from the area.
If you believe you have this plant and would like to learn how to manage it. Contact Rick O’Connor at the Escambia County Extension Office. (850) 475-5230 ext.111.
Vitex beginning to take over bike path on Pensacola Beach. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor
This is becoming an annual summer encounter – manatees in (near) the Intracoastal Waterway of Pensacola Bay area. They have been before, it is not uncommon for them to be seen at Palafox Pier Marina, but in the last few years groups of five to nine manatees have been spotted drifting along the shorelines and hanging around docks in Gulf Breeze and the Perdido Key area.
Manatee swimming in Big Lagoon near Pensacola.
Photo: Marsha Stanton
I cannot say what this means but we are not alone with these new visitors along the Gulf coast. There are enough manatee sightings in the lower portions of Mobile Bay that manatee signs have been placed along Magnolia River and a manatee watch hotline has been set up at Dauphin Island Sea Lab. There are at least 40 resident manatees in the Wakulla River. And now, at least in the last two years, small groups have been seen in our area. Concerned whether these manatees were returning to southwest Florida for the winter during the red tide, there were plans to tag some of them – I am not sure if that was done or not.
So, what does this mean for us?
Well, your first thought is the concern over boat strikes. The manatee has actually been protected by Florida law since 1893. Their numbers have increased to 6600 animals and so their status has been changed from endangered to threatened. That said, they are still protected by both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
According to an FWC report, in 2018, 824 manatees died in Florida. The top five causes were (1) Natural causes – 27%, (2) Undetermined – 20%, (3) Watercraft – 15%, (4) Perinatal death – 14%, and (5) Unrecovered – 13%.
There were 17 deaths reported from the Florida panhandle. Wakulla (7), Franklin and Escambia (3), Bay, Gulf, Okaloosa, and Walton (1).
Cold stress was the #1 cause of death (7) – Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Okaloosa, and Walton
Followed by boat strikes (4) – Wakulla (2), Escambia (2)
Unrecovered (3) – Franklin, Gulf, and Wakulla
Undetermined (2) – Wakulla
Perinatal (1) – Wakulla
Natural (1) – Wakulla
So far, in 2019 there have been 259 manatee fatalities. The top five causes were (1) Watercraft – 25%, (2) Undetermined – 24%, (3) Cold stress – 15%, (4) Unrecovered – 13%, and (5) Natural – 13%
In the Florida panhandle there have been four deaths so far. Bay County has had two due to cold stress and Wakulla has had two – one was unrecovered and the other was “other” but human related.
Manatees hanging out in Wakulla Springs.
Photo provided by Scott Jackson
So, statewide watercraft are still a big concern. Two of the three deaths in Escambia were boat related. The manatees tend to stay out of the boat channels, so it is recommend boaters remain in the navigable channels while heading to a destination and, when leaving the channel to reach that destination, go idle speed and have a lookout.
Manatees have actually benefitted the management of invasive hydrilla in the Wakulla River. FWC no longer has to treat it – the manatees are eating it all. Pensacola Bay is currently experiencing a bloom of epiphytic (attached) drift algae on the seagrass beds. Maybe, just maybe, the few manatees we see will consume as much algae they can.
I can understand the concern some boaters may have with manatees in the area. However, they do provide some benefits and are the highlight of the day for any local or visitor who may see them. We should welcome them and do what we can, within the law, to keep them safe. If you spot a manatee, please report it to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab hotline: 1-866-493-5803. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am writing about this animal because, though it is rare to see them, our terrapin volunteers saw two this past week; and maybe you will too.
The round pupil and vertical jaw stripes indicate this is the nonvenomous Nerodia. Photo: Carole Tebay
The Gulf salt marsh snake is one of those, like the eastern coral snake, that is actually common – just rare to see. It is rare to see because (a) it lives in muddy salt marshes, where we rarely venture, and (b) it is mostly nocturnal – and even fewer of us venture into muddy salt marshes at night.
It is in the genus Nerodia, which includes the common water snakes like the banded water snake (Nerodia fasicata). It is a harmless nonvenomous snake. However, because of where it lives, it is often confused with a cottonmouth and is killed. A common name for this snake in Alabama is “bay moccasin”.
Their name is Nerodia clarkii, but it is a subspecies of this group – so the actual name is Nerodia clarkii clarkii. The other two subspecies are found in Florida. The Mangrove salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) is found from central Gulf coast of Florida, around the Keys to Indian River County on the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii taeniata) has a very small range. Originally reported in Volusia, Brevard, and Indian River counties – due to the northern expansion of mangroves, it is believed to only be in Volusia County now. It is listed as THREATENED both federally and with the state. Our Gulf salt marsh snake is found from central Florida to Texas.
The nonvenomous Gulf Salt marsh Snake.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
It is a relatively small snake, only reaching a length of around 15-20 inches, though some have been reported at 30 inches. They possess two long yellowish-tan stripes running laterally the length of its body, the only species of Nerodia to do so. Again, they move at night feeding on small crabs, shrimp, frogs, and small fish. During daylight hours they hide beneath the wrack or other vegetation avoiding herons, egrets, and larger blue crabs. Lacking the needed glands, they cannot desalinate seawater the way sea turtles and terrapins can. All of their freshwater comes from their food and from rainfall.
They breed in the spring, possibly why we are seeing them now, and give live birth to about 10 young in midsummer. They are of moderate conservation concern in Alabama due to the loss of salt marsh. The loss of salt marsh habitat and rise of sea level are their major concerns at this point.
I do need to warn you, though it is a small, nonvenomous snake, they will bite. If bitten, soap and water will do the job. For me, and others, it is actually exciting to see them because of their reclusive nature. If you see one while exploring our intracoastal waters, know that you are not in any danger but rather lucky to see this “mystery of the marsh”.
The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake swimming in a local marsh.
Photo: Carole Tebay
Gulf Salt Marsh Snake – Texas Parks and Recreation – https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/gulfsnake/.
iNaturalist – https://www.inaturalist.org/guide_taxa/776612.
Outdoor Alabama – Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – https://www.outdooralabama.com/non-venomous-snakes/gulf-saltmarsh-snake.
Atlantic Salt Marsh Snake – N.c.taeniata – U.S. Fish and Wildlife – https://www.fws.gov/northflorida/Species-Accounts/Atl-Salt-Marsh-Snake-2005.htm.
BY: ARIEL BLANTON, RESIDENT DIRECTOR 4-H CAMP TIMPOOCHEE
Have a love for exploring the mysteries beneath the ocean’s surface? Join us this summer for one of 4-H Camp Timpoochee’s Marine Camps! These weeks are full of aquatic learning and other fun activities such as snorkeling, swimming, recreational games, campfires, camp dance, evening activities and more. Sport-fishing sessions will help youth learn about local fish and how to catch them. Marine education activities will be lead by specialists with the University of Florida’s Sea Grant Program and State 4-H Staff, making this week an exciting and hands on outdoor adventure.
Camp Timpoochee Counselors make summer camp a blast.
Photo: Ariel Blanton
Friends you make at camp, you make for life.
Photo: Ariel Blanton
4-H Camp Timpoochee is located on the Choctawhatchee Bay in Niceville, Florida. This premium location offers campers a first-hand experience with Florida’s marine environment from above and below the waterline. You don’t want to miss out one on this camp and spots are filling fast! Our Junior Marine Camps (youth ages 8-13) are being offered July 15-19, 2019 and July 22-26, 2019. Our Senior Marine Camp (ages 14-17) is being offered June 24-28, 2019. To find out more information or to register, visit our website at http://florida4h.org/camps_/specialty-camps/marine/. We hope to see you this summer!
The joys of summer camp!
Photo: Ariel Blanton
Can’t get enough fishing
Photo: Ariel Blanton
Oysters are like snakes… you either like them or you hate them. You rarely hear someone say – “yea, their okay”. It’s either I can’t get enough of them, or they are the most disgusting thing in the sea.
Courtesy of Florida Sea Grant
That said, they are part of our culture. Growing up here in the Florida panhandle, there were oyster houses everywhere. They are as common on menus as French fries or coleslaw. Some like them raw, some like them in gumbo or stews, others are fried oyster fans. But whether you eat them or not, you are aware of them. They are part of being in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
In recent decades the historic oyster beds that supported so many families over the years have declined in production. There are a variety of stressors triggering this. Increased sedimentation, decreased salinity, overharvesting, not returning old shell to produce new reefs, and many more. The capitol of northwest Florida’s oyster coast is Apalachicola. Many are aware of the decline of harvest there. Certainly, impacted by the “water wars” between our state and Georgia, there are other reasons why this fishery has declined. I had a recent conversation with a local in Apalachicola who mentioned they had one of their worst harvest on record this past year. Things are really bad there.
An oysterman uses his 11 foot long tongs to collect oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay
Photo: Sea Grant
Despite the loss of oysters and oyster habitat, there has not been a decline in the demand for them at local restaurants. There have been efforts by Florida Sea Grant and others to help restore the historic beds, improve water quality, and assist some with the culture of oysters in the panhandle.
Enter the Bream Fisherman’s Association of Pensacola.
This group has been together for a long time and have worked hard to educate and monitor our local waterways. In 2018 they worked with a local oyster grower and the University of West Florida’s Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation to develop an oyster garden project called Project Oyster Pensacola. Volunteers were recruited to purchase needed supplies and grow young oysters in cages hanging from their docks. Participants lived on Perdido, Blackwater, East, and Escambia Bays. Bayous Texar, and Grande. As well as Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound. The small, young oysters (spat) were provided by the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company. The volunteers would measure spat growth over an eight-month period beginning in the spring of 2018. In addition, they collected data on temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen at their location.
After the first year, the data suggests where the salinity was higher, the oysters grew better. Actually, low salinity proved to be lethal to many of them. This is a bit concerning when considering the increase rainfall our community has witnessed over the last two years. Despite an interest in doing so, the volunteers were not allowed to keep their oysters for consumption. Permits required that the oysters be placed on permitted living shoreline projects throughout the Pensacola Bay area.
Oyster bags used in a bulkhead restoration project.
Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection
We all know how important oysters are to the commercial seafood industry, but it turns out they are as important to the overall health to the bays ecology. A single oyster has been reported to filter as much as 50 gallons of seawater an hour. This removes sediments and provides improved water clarity for the growth of seagrasses. It has been estimated that seagrasses are vital to at least 80% of the commercially important seafood species. It is well known that seagrasses and salt marshes are full of life. However, studies show that biodiversity and biological production are actually higher in oyster reefs. Again, supporting a booming local recreational fishing industry.
This project proved to be very interesting in it’s first year. BFA will be publishing a final report soon and plan to do a second round. For the oyster lovers in the area, increasing local oysters would be nothing short of wonderful.