Hurricane Michael Devastates Regional Seafood Industry

Hurricane Michael Devastates Regional Seafood Industry

Floating mesh oyster grow bag hanging in a tree

Oyster grow bag left hanging by Michael’s storm surge.
Erik Lovestrand, UF/IFAS Franklin County Extension

It may be a long time before the memories of Hurricane Michael begin to fade in the mind’s eye for residents of the Florida Panhandle. A record-breaking tropical cyclone in many respects, Michael caught a lot of people in the region off guard as it continued to gain strength on its rapid path through the Northern Gulf of Mexico. When many people went to bed the night before landfall, they had no idea what terrifying news would greet them upon hearing that a still-strengthening category 4 hurricane was about to rumble ashore.

It was not long after the wind slackened that folks began looking around and realizing the devastation left behind. Cotton crops in the path of the storm in North Florida and South Georgia suffered near 100% losses. Peanut crops were also severely impacted just at the time that harvest was beginning. The estimated damage to timber harvests alone were coming in around 1.3 billion dollars for Florida as virtually entire forests had been leveled. Even more damage was realized near the coastline where storm surge across the region ranged from 8 to 14 feet above normal water levels; smashing or flooding structures near the coast and carving new inlets across St. Joseph Peninsula near Cape San Blas.

Another industry that took a hard hit in much of the area was the seafood industry; everything from the producers to the dealers, processors, retail markets, restaurants, fueling and ice house facilities that service fishing vessels. Governor Scott requested a fisheries disaster declaration from the Federal Government and on November 1 the Secretary of the Department of Commerce granted the request. This determination provides an opportunity for Congress to appropriate fishery disaster assistance for the new fiscal year, which began in October. To further facilitate recovery efforts in Florida and beyond, the Department of Commerce can look to the Economic Development Administration, which spearheads the Federal government’s efforts to deliver economic assistance and support long-term growth after natural disasters.

Oyster growers in the region who had equipment and a crop of shellfish in the water took some losses as well. For those who were able to scramble to their leases before the storm and sink their floating baskets or cages to the bay bottoms, losses of gear were minimal as storm waves above the submerged gear had less impact. Gear that was unable to be submerged was more prone to break loose and drift away. However, even the growers that sunk gear experienced some significant oyster mortality due to sediments from churned up water smothering the shellfish in a layer of mud. Shellfish leases in Alligator Harbor were dealt another blow by an incredible field of debris that was washed off Alligator Point and blown through the lease area. Everything from boats to large sections of docks, structural walls, refrigerators and freezers was in the mix. These items were caught up in oyster long-lines and broke some while pulling up anchor poles on others, leaving quite a mess for growers to untangle.

Marinas, docks and vessels were also not immune to Hurricane Michael’s wrath in Gulf and Bay Counties. Government agencies estimate the number of damaged vessels in both Gulf and Bay counties to exceed 400. It will take some time for charter boat and commercial fishing operations to rebound. Scallop restoration projects in both St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrews Bay have suffered setbacks, as well. The hurricane has not only devastated coastal Gulf county economically and ecologically, but also geographically. There are two sizable inlets that have now been carved into the St. Joseph Peninsula. T.H. Stone State Park is closed until further notice.

Overall, the impacts from this storm will take a long time to recover from for many segments of our regional economy. Lessons learned by industries as well as individuals should improve our chances to reduce the loss of life and property in the future. The name of the game is “resiliency,” both in the spirit of the people who call this place home and in the way we learn to better adapt to what Mother Nature throws at us. Hang in there. Day by day.

What’s Up with the Red Tide in the Panhandle?

What’s Up with the Red Tide in the Panhandle?

Red Tide has been a persistent presence in the Panhandle since September and responsible for many reported fish kills and respiratory distress in some people.  Over the past week, red tide was still present in low to medium concentrations in or offshore of Escambia County to Bay County.

This is a picture of a dead 4-inch striped Jack-knife fish, killed by red tide, laying next to a clump of sargassum on the beach in Miramar Beach, Florida.

Jack-knife fish killed by red tide Miramar Beach, Florida

Red tide is a natural occurrence and Florida experienced red tides long before humans settled here.  The tides originate 10-40 miles off shore and winds and currents bring them inshore.  Red tide is fueled by nutrient typically stemming from land-based runoff.

During winter, the northerly winds and southbound currents will push the tide back offshore.  There was hope that Hurricane Michael might help carry the red tide back out to sea. Unfortunately, it seems the nutrient run-off from the storm’s heavy rain or retreating storm surge may have contributed to the intensity and duration of the bloom.

In our economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, the red tide is continuing to take a toll, especially on waterfront businesses.  According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, store-bought and restaurant served shellfish are safe to eat during a red tide bloom because shellfish are monitored for safety and tested for red tide toxins before they are sold. The edible parts of crabs, shrimp and fish are not affected by the red tide organism and can be eaten, but guts should be discarded.

Many remember the local red tide bloom in 2015.  The longest red tide bloom ever recorded lasted 30 months from 1994 to 1997.  Warmer water due to climate change is predicted to cause algae to bloom more often, more intensely, and in more water bodies. It is imperative that we reduce nutrient inputs to our lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal ocean waters today.

Who is the Creature That Causes Red Tide: Information on Karenia brevis

Who is the Creature That Causes Red Tide: Information on Karenia brevis

When I was in high school we were required to take a semester of communism during our senior year – the idea was to “know the enemy”. That is what we plan to do here… But, the enemy is a microscopic plant.

 

Its name is Karenia brevis.  It is one of about 10 species of Karenia found in the ocean but it is the dominant form in the Gulf of Mexico. Karenia is referred to as “phytoplankton”, which suggests it is a microscopic plant.  But in fact, it is in the Kingdom Protisita, not Plantae.

The dinoflagellate Karenia brevis.
Photo: Smithsonian Marine Station-Ft. Pierce FL

It is “plant-like” in that it has chlorophyll and can produce its own food. It differs in that it is a single cell.  They are a type of phytoplankton called “dinoflagellates” because they have two flagella.  The next question of course is what is flagella?  It is a hair-like structure used by the cells for location.  Though they can swim, they cannot out swim a current and so drift in the ocean – using their flagella to move up and down within the current and orient themselves.

 

The cell is covered with a protective shell called a theca, which as grooves, known as girdles, in which the flagella lie – one running east-west, the other north-south. They are between 18-45 microns long with the north-south flagella extending to look like a tail.  They are members of the Gulf of Mexico community.  Always out there, always have been.  Typically, a plankton sample might find 1000 cells / liter.  At these concentrations there does not seem to be a problem.

 

A problem?

What’s the problem?

 

The problem is that in its defense, K. brevis will release toxins.  The toxin is a cocktail of lipophilic polyether compounds called brevotoxins.  At low, or background concentrations, the levels of brevotoxins does not seem to effect marine organisms much at all.  However, when the population of cells increases, to say 2 million / liter, fish kills can occur.  The state of Florida will close shellfish harvesting if the concentrations reach 5000 / liter.

 

This brevotoxin is pretty strong stuff. It effects the nervous and immune systems, and effects the respiratory system.  For marine vertebrates, it is deadly.  At concentrations over 1,000,000 cells / liter, it can cause death for fish, dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees.  Shellfish are filter feeders.  During large blooms of K. brevis shellfish can consume enough to make humans very sick if they consume the shellfish.

 

So what causes their numbers to increase from 1000 to 1,000,000 cells / liter?

 

Summer…

Though K. brevis is not a plant, it is plant-like.  Plants like sunlight and fertilizers.  Warm shallow seas of southwest Florida are perfect.  Nutrients are available in the environment and growth begins.  Most blooms (large growth spurts) occur offshore.  They love high salinities and not as common in our estuaries.  However, they are plankton – wind and currents can move them closer to shore.  During the raining season (summer) run-off from land brings with it nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients) which can enhance a bloom.  The fish kills begin, the respiratory problems for humans are annoying, and the tourist become concerned.  Red tide can certainly have an impact on the local economy.

 

Globally, algal blooms seem to be increasing. Red tide can last a few days or a few months, each year varies.  These are not exotic species; they are local Gulf residents who are finding warmer, saltier seas that they love.  Algal blooms typically occur from September to February and though are common in southwest Florida, can extend across the Gulf to Texas – which the Florida panhandle is experiencing currently.

 

As Dr. Karl Havens mentions in his article attached, we cannot control the weather, but we can control the amount of nutrients we allow into our waterways. We should consider management practices that do just this to reduce the effects of these naturally occurring blooms.

 

Below are other articles from Sea Grant on this topic.

 

Frequently Asked Questions About the 2018 Red Tide Bloom – Betty Staugler, Florida Sea Grant

http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/charlotteco/2018/08/14/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-2018-red-tide-bloom/.

 

Understanding Florida’s Red Tide – Betty Staugler, Florida Sea Grant

https://www.flseagrant.org/news/2018/08/understanding-the-florida-red-tide/.

 

Watching and Waiting: Uncertainty About When the Algal Blooms Will End – Dr. Karl Haven, Florida Sea Grant

https://www.flseagrant.org/news/2018/07/watching-and-waiting-uncertainty-about-when-algae-blooms-will-end/.

 

 

REFERENCES

 

About Florida Red Tides. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. http://myfwc.com/research/redtide/general/about/.

 

Indian River Lagoon Species Inventory. Karenia brevis. Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce.  http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Kareni_brevis.htm.

 

Pierce, R.H., M.S. Henry. 2008. Harmful Algal Toxins of the Florida Red Tide (Karenia brevis): natural chemical stressors in South Florida coastal ecosystems. Ecotoxicology. 17(7). Pp. 623-631. http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Kareni_brevis.htm.

Florida’s Water Quality Woes

Florida’s Water Quality Woes

Being in the panhandle of Florida you may, or may not, have heard about the water quality issues hindering the southern part of the state. Water discharged from Lake Okeechobee is full of nutrients.  These nutrients are coming from agriculture, unmaintained septic tanks, and developed landscaping – among other things.  The discharges that head east lead to the Indian River Lagoon and other Intracoastal Waterways.  Those heading west, head towards the estuaries of Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor.

 

A large bloom of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in south Florida waters.
Photo: NOAA

Those heading east have created large algal blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). The blooms are so thick the water has become a slime green color and, in some locations, difficult to wade.  Some of developed skin rashes from contacting this water.  These algal blooms block needed sunlight for seagrasses, slow water movement, and in the evenings – decrease needed dissolved oxygen.  When the algae die, they begin to decompose – thus lower the dissolved oxygen and triggering fish kills.  It is a mess – both environmentally and economically.

 

On the west coast, there are red tides. These naturally occurring events happen most years in southwest Florida.  They form offshore and vary in intensity from year to year.  Some years beachcombers and fishermen barely notice them, other years it is difficult for people to walk the beaches.  This year is one of the worst in recent memories.  The increase in intensity is believed to be triggered by the increase in nutrient-filled waters being discharged towards their area.

Dead fish line the beaches of Panama City during a red tide event in the past.
Photo: Randy Robinson

On both coasts, the economic impact has been huge and the quality of life for local residents has diminished. Many are pointing the finger at the federal government who, through the Army Corp of Engineers, controls flow in the lake.  Others are pointing the finger at shortsighted state government, who have not done enough to provide a reserve to discharge this water, not enforced nutrient loads being discharged by those entities mentioned above.  Either way, it is a big problem that has been coming for some time.

 

As bad as all of this is, how does this impact us here in the Florida panhandle?

 

Though we are not seeing the impacts central and south Florida are currently experiencing, we are not without our nutrient discharge issues. Most of Florida’s world-class springs are in our part of the state.  In recent years, the water within these springs have seen an increase in nutrients.  This clouds the water, changing the ecology of these systems and has already affected glass bottom boat tours at some of the classic springs.  There has also been a decline in water entering the springs due to excessive withdrawals from neighboring communities.  The increase in nutrients are generally from the same sources as those affecting south Florida.

 

Florida’s springs are world famous. They attracted native Americans and settlers; as well as tourists and locals today.
Photo: Erik Lovestrand

Though we are not seeing large algal blooms in our local estuaries, there are some problems. St. Joe Bay has experienced some algal blooms, and a red tide event, in recent years that has forced the state to shorten the scallop season there – this obviously hurts the local economy.  Due to stormwater runoff issues and septic tanks maintenance problems, health advisories are being issued due to high fecal bacteria loads in the water.  Some locations in the Pensacola area have levels high enough that advisories must be issued 30% of the time they are sampled – some as often as 40%.  Health advisories obviously keep tourists out of those waterways and hurt neighboring businesses as well as lower the quality of life for those living there.

 

Then of course, there is the Apalachicola River issue. Here, water that normally flows from Georgia into the river, and eventually to the bay, has been held back for water needs in Georgia.  This has changed flow and salinity within the bay, which has altered the ecology of the system, and has negatively impacted one of the more successful seafood industries in the state.  The entire community of Apalachicola has felt the impact from the decision to hold the water back.  Though the impacts may not be as dramatic as those of our cousins in south Florida, we do have our problems.

Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

What can we do about it?

 

The quick answer is reduce our nutrient input.

 

The state has adopted Best Management Practices (BMPs) for farmers and ranchers to help them reduce their impact on ground water and surface water contamination from their lands. Many panhandle farmers and ranchers are already implementing these BMPs and others can.  We encourage them to participate.  Read more at Florida’s Rangeland Agriculture and the Environment: A Natural Partnership http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2015/07/18/floridas-rangeland-agriculture-and-the-environment-a-natural-partnership/.  

 

As development continues to increase across the state, and in the panhandle, sewage infrastructure is having trouble keeping up. This forces developments to use septic tanks.  Many of these septic systems are placed in low-lying areas or in soils where they should not be.  Others still are not being maintained property.  All of this leads to septic leaks and nutrients entering local waterways.  We would encourage local communities to work with new developments to be on municipal sewer lines, and the conversion of septic to sewer in as many existing septic systems as possible.  Read more at Maintaining Your Septic Tank http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/04/29/maintain-your-septic-system-to-save-money-and-reduce-water-pollution/.

 

And then there are the lawns. We all enjoy nice looking lawns.  However, many of the landscaping plans include designs that encourage plants that need to be watered and fertilized frequently as well as elevations that encourage runoff from our properties.  Following the BMPs of the Florida Friendly Landscaping ProgramTM can help reduce the impact your lawn has on the nutrient loads of neighboring waterways.  Read more at Florida Friendly Yards – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2018/06/08/restoring-the-health-of-pensacola-bay-what-can-you-do-to-help-a-florida-friendly-yard/.

 

For those who have boats, there is the Clean Boater Program. This program gives advice on how boaters can reduce their impacts on local waterways.  Read more at Clean Boaterhttps://floridadep.gov/fco/cva/content/clean-boater-program.

 

One last snippet, those who live along the waterways themselves. There is a living shoreline program.  The idea is return your shoreline to a more natural state (similar to the concept of Florida Friendly LandscapingTM).  Doing so will reduce erosion of your property, enhance local fisheries, as well as reduce the amount of nutrients reaching the waterways from surrounding land.  Installing a living shoreline will take some help from your local extension office.  The state actually owns the land below the mean high tide line and, thus, you will need permission (a permit) to do so.  Like the principals of a Florida Friendly Yard, there are specific plants you should use and they should be planted in a specific zone.  Again, your county extension office can help with this.  Read more at The Benefits of a Living Shoreline http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/10/06/the-benefits-of-a-living-shoreline/.

 

Though we may not be experiencing the dramatic problems that our friends in south Florida are currently experiencing, we do have our own problems here in the panhandle – and there is plenty we can do to keep the problems from getting worse. Please consider some of them.  You can always contact your local county extension office for more information.

After Shark Week; What Visitors Should Know About Sharks

After Shark Week; What Visitors Should Know About Sharks

In recent weeks, the country has heard about shark attacks off the Carolina coast and great whites off the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico – then of course, we just completed “Shark Week”. This sometimes makes visitors to our beaches a bit unnerved about swimming.  Each year we hear about how other activities we engage in are much more dangerous than swimming in the Gulf where there are sharks – and this is true – but we may still have a concern in the back of our minds.  So – we will give you some information that will hopefully enlighten you on the issue of sharks.

 

First, what kind of sharks are in the Gulf and how common are they?

 

According to Dr. Hoese and Dr. Moore from Texas A&M, there are 30 species of sharks who have been found in the Gulf of Mexico – and this includes the great white. They range in size from the Cuban Dogfish (3 ft.) to the whale shark (60 ft. in length).  Each has their own niche.  Some, like the large whale sharks, are plankton feeders.  Others, like the blue and mako, are open ocean travelers covering large stretches of water hunting prey.  Others, like the blacktip and spinner, are more common near shore – close to estuary outfalls where food is plentiful.  And others still, like nurses sharks, are bottom dwellers feeding on slow fish and crustaceans.

The Bull Shark is considered one of the more dangerous sharks in the Gulf. This fish can enter freshwater but rarely swims far upstream. Photo: Florida Sea Grant

As far as how common they are – I was involved in shark tagging in the early 1980’s and we tagged several species. Blacktips and spinner sharks were very common.  We also tagged a lot of bull and dusky sharks – though dusky sharks are declining.  Tiger sharks were not as common at the time.  It was believed this was due to an increase in shark rodeos in the 1970’s – which were popular during the “Jaws” films.  However, those events stopped for several years and recent shark events have once again captured tigers.  There are five species of hammerheads that were tagged – the scalloped and bonnethead were the most common.  White sharks and makos are in the Gulf but were never tagged.  It was believed they spent more time offshore (where we were not sampling).  Both species have been seen closer to shore in recent years, but there are no reports of any problems from this.  It is possible they have been doing this all along and were just undetected.  Blacknose, finetooth, and silky sharks were also frequently tagged.

 

People are probably not surprised to hear that sharks frequent the bays. Many of the species mentioned above do so.  The small (3 ft.) Atlantic sharpnose shark is one of the most common.  Sawfish were once common in the estuaries but have declined significantly across the region to do over harvesting in the early 20th century.  They are currently protected.

 

You have probably also read that bull sharks have been found in freshwater rivers – and this is the case. Some have been found several miles up river systems.

 

What type of prey do sharks prefer and how to do they select and hunt for them?

 

This, of course, varies from species to species. Plankton feeding whale sharks generally cruise slowly through the water column filtering small fish and crustaceans – the same as the great whales.  They do tend to feeding in deeper water during the day and closer to the surface at night.  They are following what is known as the Deep Scattering Layer. This is a large layer of zooplankton (animal plankton) that migrates each day – deeper (600 feet or so) during the daylight hours and closer to the surface in the evenings.

 

Bottom dwelling sharks feed on benthic creatures like flounder and crabs. Many have the ability to detect their prey buried beneath the sand using electric perception they have.

 

Many species of sharks are what we call “ram-jetters”. This means they do not have a pump system to pump water over their gills.  So, in order to breath, they must swim forward.  Swimming continuously requires a lot of energy.  Most of them are what we call opportunistic feeders – meaning they will grab what they can.  Stomach analysis of such sharks find primarily fish and squid, but other creatures have been found – such as birds and even other sharks.  The general rule here is seek prey that is “easy”.  If your objective in feeding were to obtain energy – it would not make since to chase prey that would require a lot of energy to catch.  Simple first, and take opportunities when you can.  It is the ram-jetter species that people are most concerned.  Swimming and taking opportunities.  However, evidence suggest that we are not a prey of choice, not good opportunities.  More on this in a minute.

 

Tiger sharks are interesting. It is in their stomachs we find such things as hubcaps, metal, and other sorts of garbage.  Because of their tooth design, they are also capable of eating sea turtles.

 

How often do shark attacks on humans actually occur and what were the people doing that may have enticed it to happen?

 

Records on human shark attacks are kept at the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, FL.  This data set only logs unprovoked attacks – those where the people were doing their thing and all of a sudden… Not those where humans were pulling them into their boats after fishing or grabbing their tails while diving.

Blacktip sharks are one of the smaller sharks in our area reaching a length of 59 inches. They are known to leap from the water. Photo: Florida Sea Grant

Based on this data – there have been 3031 unprovoked shark attacks reported worldwide since 1580 A.D. This equates to seven attacks / year.  Granted… not all attacks are reported, particularly from the undeveloped regions of the world – and from early history, but it does give us something to look at.

 

Currently, we are averaging between 70 and 100 shark attacks worldwide and between 5-15 of these are fatal. Honestly, this is very low when compared to other activities in which humans participate.

 

Year Deaths from Other Deaths from Shark Attacks
1959 – 2010 Lightning strikes – 1970 26
2004 – 2013 Rip Currents – 361 8
2001 – 2013 Dog bites – 364 11
2000 – 2007 Hunting accidents – 441 7
2002 – 2013 (Florida only) Boating accidents – 782 2

 

As you can see… the risk is much lower.

 

It is true that most of the shark attacks worldwide are in the United States (46%) and that most in the U.S. are in Florida (56%). However, it is believed that this is due to the number of Americans (and Floridians) who enjoy water activities.  In Florida, most of the encounters have been on the east coast – 89% of them!  There have only been 65 attacks reported from the west coast – only 37 from the Florida panhandle – since 1580 A.D.  There have only been six reported from Escambia County and one from Santa Rosa in that time.

 

As far as what people were doing when a shark attack occurred – most were surfing, but swimming has increased in recent years. This is believed to be connected to the increase in the number of humans swimming.  The human population visiting beaches, particularly in the U.S., has increased significantly.  Most shark attacks occur in near shore waters – which would make sense… that is where we are.  Most are the “hit & run” version – meaning the shark hits the person and runs… not returning.  Based on Florida reports, it is believed most of these are blacktips, spinners, and blacknose sharks.  These rarely end in a fatality.  “Bump & Bite” – meaning the shark circles, bumps the person, and then bites, are not as common.  It is believed most of these are from great whites, tigers, and bull sharks.  The few fatalities that happen are usually from this form of encounter.

 

Summary

 

When assessing “risk” in an activity you have to consider “control”. This means that the more you are in control of the situation, the less risky the activity seems to be.  Most feel that in the water, the shark is in control – this increases our fear and risk concern.  However, as mentioned in this article, many of the other activities we are involved – where we think we are in control – are far more risker than swimming on the open Gulf of Mexico.

 

However, shark attacks do occur and there are a few things swimmers can do to reduce their risk.

  • Do not swim alone – all predators will try and isolate an individual from a group before they attack – much easier to attack an individual than a group
  • Do not swim near dusk or after dark – to increase their chance of hunting success, sharks are more actively hunting in low light conditions
  • Remove shiny objectives like jewelry – sunlight hitting metal objectives can appear to be baitfish to a shark
  • Avoid blood in the water – it is true they have an excellent sense of smell – small amounts of blood in the water can be detected as far away as 100 feet suggesting easy prey nearby. Avoid swimming near fishing activity where bait and fish blood may be discharged into the water

I have been swimming in the Gulf all of my life. It is too much fun to worry about a low risk encounter with a shark.  Follow the simple rules suggested by the ISAF and you should not have any problems.

 

Resources

 

The International Shark Attack File – https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks/.

 

Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana & Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX. pp. 327.

Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What Can You Do to Help?  – Fecal Bacteria

Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What Can You Do to Help? – Fecal Bacteria

Of all the issues facing our local estuaries, high levels of fecal bacteria is the one that hinders commercial and recreational use the most. When bacteria levels increase and health advisories are issued, people become leery of swimming, paddling, or consuming seafood from these waterways.

Closed due to bacteria.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

I have been following the fecal bacteria situation in the Pensacola Bay system for several decades. Cheryl Bunch (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) has done an excellent job monitoring and reporting the bacteria levels, along with other parameters, for years – she has been fantastic.

 

The organisms used for monitoring have changed, so comparing numbers now and 30 years ago is somewhat difficult – but those changes came with good reason.

 

Fecal bacteria are organisms found in the large intestine of birds and mammals. They assist with digestion and are not a real threat to our health.  Understanding that both birds and mammals in and near our estuaries must defecate, it is understandable that some levels of these bacteria are in the waterways.  However, when levels are high there is a concern there are high levels of waste in the water.  This waste can carry other organisms that can cause health problems for humans – such as hepatitis and cholera.  So fecal bacteria monitoring is used as a proxy for other potential harmful organisms.  No one wants to swim in sewage.

E. coli is a classic proxy for this type of monitoring and has been used for years. Recently it was found that saline water could kill some of the fecal bacteria – giving monitors’ low readings in estuarine systems – suggesting that there is little sewage in the water – when in fact there may be high levels of sewage undetected. They have found Enterococcus a better proxy for marine waters, particularly Enterococcus faecalis. Researchers have determined that a single sample of bay water should have more than 35 colonies of Enterococcus (ENT).  If they find 35 or more colonies – a second sample is taken.  If the counts are again high – a health advisory will be issued.

 

Over the last 30 years of monitoring FDEP’s reports on the Pensacola Bay area – there have been patterns. Most of the “hot spots” have been bayous and locations where rivers are discharging into an estuary.  In addition, the periods of high fecal counts correspond well with periods of high rainfall.  Locally, in the Pensacola Bay area, sampling has been reduced due to budget issues and some bodies of water are not sampled as often as others.  Today both FDEP and the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) monitor and post their data via the Healthy Beaches Program.  In this program, the sample stations are commonly used swimming areas – meaning some other locations are rarely, if ever, sampled. Based on these data, 30-40% of the samples from local bayous annually require a health advisory to be issued.

 

Health advisories can reduce interest in human related recreation activities, such as wakeboarding, paddling, or even fishing – and certainly impacts interest in swimming. Decades ago, swimming and skiing were very popular in local bayous.  Today it is rare to see anyone doing so – most are motoring through heading to open bodies of water to spend their day.  It may also be effecting property purchases.  I have been contacted more than once with the question “would you buy on a house on XXX Bayou?”

 

Several local waterways are listed as impaired, and one is a BMAP area, due to high levels of bacteria. A BMAP (Basin Management Action Plan – read more at the link below) is a state designated body of water that is impaired (for some reason) and is required to make annual improvements to reduce the problem.

The spherical cells of the “coccus” bacteria Enterococcus.
Photo: National Institute of Health

 

So What Can We Do to Reduce This Problem?

 

In the Pensacola area, both the city and county have made efforts to modify and improve stormwater problems. Baffle boxes in east Pensacola have helped to reduce the amount of runoff entering the bayous and bays, thus reducing the frequency health advisories are being issued.  That said, during heavy events the counts still increase – and rainfall seems to be increasing in the area in recent years.  We will continue to monitor the frequency of advisories and post these on Sea Grant Notes through the Escambia County extension office each week.

 

From our side of the story (you and me) – anything you can do to reduce runoff will certainly help. Florida Friendly Landscaping techniques are a good start (see article on FFL posted below).  Clean up after your pet, both in your yard and after walks – most people do… but not all.  Septic systems have been a point of concern.  If you have a septic system, maintain it (see article below on how).  If the opportunity presents itself, you can move from septic to a sewer system.  At many public places along the waterfront have signs asking everyone not to feed the birds.  Congregating birds equals congregating bird feces and this can be a health issue.

 

Local and state governments are working to reduce the stormwater impacts on our local estuaries – which trigger other problems as well as high bacteria counts. Local residents and businesses can do the same.

 

 

References

 

Lewis, M.J., J.T. Kirschenfeld, T. Goodhart. 2016. Environmental Quality of the Pensacola Bay System: Retrospective Review for Future Resource Management and Rehabilitation. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Gulf Breeze FL. EPA/600/R-16/169.

 

BMAP

https://floridadep.gov/dear/water-quality-restoration/content/basin-management-action-plans-bmaps.

 

Florida Friendly Landscaping

Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What You Can Do to Help? – Florida Friendly Landscaping

http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/escambiaco/2018/06/08/restoring-the-health-of-pensacola-bay-what-can-you-do-to-help-a-florida-friendly-yard/.

 

Septic Systems

Maintain Your Septic Tank System to Save Money and Reduce Water Pollution

http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/04/29/maintain-your-septic-system-to-save-money-and-reduce-water-pollution/.

 

Septic Tanks: What You Should Do When a Flood Occurs

http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2018/05/04/septic-systems-what-should-you-do-when-a-flood-occurs/.