Another Mystery in the Marsh – The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake

Another Mystery in the Marsh – The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake

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

 

References

 

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.

Sea Turtle Nesting Season Begins

Sea Turtle Nesting Season Begins

 

There are five species of sea turtles that nest from May through August on Florida beaches, with hatching stretching out until October.  The loggerhead, the green turtle, and the leatherback all nest regularly in the Panhandle, with the loggerhead being the most frequent visitor.  Two other species, the hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley nest infrequently.  All five species are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Due to their threatened and endangered status, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/Fish and Wildlife Research Institute monitors sea turtle nesting activity on an annual basis.

A group checks out a recently hatched sea turtle nest on the dunes in south Walton county in Florida.

Annual total nest counts for loggerhead sea turtles on Florida’s index beaches fluctuate widely and scientists do not yet understand fully what drives these changes. From 2011 to 2018, an average of 106,625 sea turtle nests (all species combined) were recorded annually on these monitored beaches.  In 2018, there was a slight decrease in nests with only 96,945 nests recorded statewide.  This is not a true reflection of all of the sea turtle nests each year in Florida, as it doesn’t cover every beach, but it gives a good indication of nesting trends and distribution of species.

 

 

 

2015-2018 Florida Panhandle turtle nesting totals for all species.

If you want to see a sea turtle in the Florida Panhandle, please visit one of the state-permitted captive sea turtle facilities listed below, admission fees may be charged. Please call the number listed for more information.

  1. Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory
    222 Clark Dr
    Panacea, FL 32346
    850-984-5297
    Admission Fee
  2. Gulf World Marine Park
    15412 Front Beach Rd
    Panama City, FL 32413
    850-234-5271
    Admission Fee
  3. Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
    1010 Miracle Strip Parkway SE
    Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
    850-243-9046 or 800-247-8575
    Admission Fee
  4. Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Center
    8740 Gulf Blvd
    Navarre, FL 32566
    850-499-6774

 

The Foundation for The Gator Nation. An Equal Opportunity Institution

Exploring with Oyster Cultivation

Exploring with Oyster Cultivation

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.

Oysters on the half shell

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.

Diamondback Terrapin & Mangrove Surveys Kicking Off in Gulf County

Diamondback Terrapin & Mangrove Surveys Kicking Off in Gulf County

Soon, two important ecological surveys will begin in Gulf County, concerning both diamondback terrapins and mangroves.

Florida is home to five subspecies of diamondback terrapin, three of which occur exclusively in Florida. Diamondback terrapins live in coastal marshes, tidal creeks, mangroves, and other brackish or estuarine habitats.  However, the diamondback terrapin is currently listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN).

Diamondback terrapin populations, unfortunately, are nationally in decline. Human activities, such as pollution, land development and crabbing without by-catch reduction devices are often reasons for the decline, but decades ago they were almost hunted to extinction for their tasty meat. The recent decline has raised concern of not only federal agencies, but also organizations and community groups on the state and local levels. Diamondback Terrapin range is thought to have once been all of coastal Florida, including the Keys.

Figure 1: Diamondback Terrapin.

Credit: Rick O’Connor, UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant, Escambia County.

Mangroves, a shoreline plant species of south Florida, are migrating north and are now being found in the Panhandle. Both red and black mangroves have been found in St. Joseph Bay. Mangroves establishment could be an important key to a healthy bay ecosystem, as a factor in shoreline restoration and critical aquatic life habitat.

Currently there is a significant data gap for both diamondback terrapin and mangrove populations. Therefore, there is a great need to conduct assessments to learn more about their geographic distribution.

Figure 2. Black Mangrove in St. Joseph Bay.

Credit: Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant, Gulf County.

The Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center is partnering with UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant to assist in surveying and monitoring diamondback terrapins and mangroves in St. Joseph Bay, and we need your help! UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant Agent’s Rick O’Connor and Ray Bodrey are providing a training workshop for volunteers and coordinating surveys for St. Joseph Bay. Terrapin surveys require visiting an estuarine location where terrapin nesting sites and mangrove plants are highly probable. Volunteers will visit their assigned locations at least once a week during the months of May and June and complete data sheets for each trip. Each survey takes about two hours, and some locations may require a kayak to reach.

If you are interested in volunteering for these important projects, we will hold a training session on Monday, April 22nd at 1:00 p.m. ET at the Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center (located at 1001 10th Street, Port St. Joe).

For more information, please contact:

Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County, Extension Director

rbodrey@ufl.edu

(850) 639-3200

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

Mystery in the Marsh – The Diamondback Terrapin

Mystery in the Marsh – The Diamondback Terrapin

We have a lot of really cool and interesting creatures that live in our bay, but one many may not know about is a small turtle known as a diamondback terrapin.  Terrapins are usually associated with the Chesapeake Bay area, but actually they are found along the entire eastern and Gulf coast of the United States.  It is the only resident turtle of brackish-estuarine environments, and they are really cool looking.

The diamond in the marsh. The diamondback terrapin.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Terrapins are usually between five and 10 inches in length (this is the shell measurement) and have a grayish-white colored skin, as opposed to the dark green-black found on most small riverine turtles in Florida.  The scutes (scales) of the shell are slightly raised and ridged to look like diamonds (hence their name).  They are not migratory like sea turtles, but rather spend their entire lives in the marshes near where they were born.  They meander around the shorelines and creeks of these habitats, sometimes venturing out into the seagrass beds, searching for shellfish – their favorite prey.  Females do come up on beaches to lay their eggs but unlike sea turtles, they prefer to do this during daylight hours and usually close to high tide.

 

Most folks living here along the Gulf coast have not heard of this turtle, let alone seen one.  They are very cryptic and difficult to find.  Unlike sea turtles, we usually do not give them a second thought.  However, they are one of the top predators in the marsh ecosystem and control plant grazing snails and small crabs.  During the 19th century they were prized for their meat in the Chesapeake area.  As commonly happens, we over harvested the animal and their numbers declined.  As numbers declined the price went up and the popularity of the dish went down.  There was an attempt to raise the turtles on farms here in the south for markets up north.  One such farm was found at the lower end of Mobile Bay.

 

Early 20th century still found terrapin on some menus, but the popularity began to wane, and the farms slowly closed.  Afterwards, the population terrapins began to rebound – that was until the development of the wire meshed crab trap.  Developed for the commercial and recreational blue crab fishery, terrapins made a habitat of swimming into these traps, where they would drown.  In the Chesapeake Bay area, the problem was so bad that excluder devices were developed and required on all crab traps.  They are not required here in Florida, where the issue is not as bad, but we do have these excluders at the extension office if any crabber has been plagued with capturing terrapins.  Studies conducted in New Jersey and Florida found these excluder devices were effective at keeping terrapins out of crab traps but did not affect the crab catch itself.  Crabs can turn sideways and still enter the traps.

This orange plastic rectangle is a Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) used to keep terrapins out of crab traps – but not crabs.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Another 20th century issue has been nesting predation by raccoons.  As we began to build roads and bridges to isolated marsh islands in our bays, we unknowingly provided a highway for these predators to reach the islands as well.  On some islands, raccoons depredated 90% of the terrapin nests.  Today, these turtles are protected in every state they inhabit except Florida.  Though there is currently no protection for the terrapin itself in our state, they do fall under the general protection for all riverine turtles; you may only possess two at any time and may not possess their eggs.

 

Some scientists have discussed identifying terrapins as a sentinel species for the health of estuaries.  Not having terrapin in the bay does not necessarily mean the bay is unhealthy, but the decline of this turtle (or the blue crab) could increase the population of smaller plant grazing invertebrates they eat throwing off the balance within the system.

 

Sea Grant trains local volunteers to survey for these creatures within our bay area.  Trainings usually take place in April and surveys are conducted during May and June.  This year we will be training volunteers in the Perdido area on April 10 at the Southwest Branch of the Pensacola Library on Gulf Beach Highway.  That training will begin at 10:00 AM.  For Pensacola Beach the training will be on April 15 at the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center on Navarre Beach.  That training will begin at 9:00 AM.  A third training will take place on April 22 at the Port St. Joe Sea Turtle Center in Port St. Joe.  For more information on diamondback terrapins contact me at the Escambia County Extension Office – (850) 475-5230 ext. 111.

Strategies for Avoiding Seasickness

Strategies for Avoiding Seasickness

Boats at dock in harbor

Boats at a calm rest in Massalina Bayou, Bay County, Florida.

Wow! I was so excited to hear the news. Dad had just called to invite me on a deep sea trip out of Galveston. I had grown up fishing but had never been to sea. My mind raced – surely the fish would be bigger than any bass or catfish we ever caught. I day dreamed for a few moments of being in the newspaper with the headline, “Local Teen Catches World Record Red Snapper”.

It seemed more like a Christmas Morning when dad woke me up for our 100-mile car trip to the coast. We hurried to breakfast just a few hours before sunrise. I had the best fluffy pancakes with a lot of syrup, washed down with coffee with extra cream and sugar. I was wide awake and ready for the fishing adventure of a lifetime!

The crew welcomed us all aboard and helped us settle in. Dad was still tired and went to nap below deck. I was outside taking in all the sights of a busy head boat, including the smell of diesel fuel, bait, and dressed fish. About an hour into my great fishing adventure things started to change. I grew queasy and tired. I went to find my dad and he was already sick. I looked at him and then turned around to go out the ship’s door. My eyes saw the horizon twist sideways and my brain said “WRONG!!!” – this was my first encounter with seasickness.

The crew quickly moved both of us back outside. I was issued a pair of elastic pressure wristbands – the elastic holds a small ball into the underside of your wrist. The attention and sympathy might have made me feel a little better but there was really no recovery until we got back into the bay an excruciating 6 hours later. There were no headlines to write this day, only the chance to watch others catch fish while my stomach and head churned – often in opposite directions.

Fast forward to today, decades later. I often make trips into Gulf to help deploy artificial reefs without any problems with motion sickness. Some of my success in avoiding seasickness are lessons I learned from that dreadful introduction to deep sea fishing long ago.

  1. Be flexible with your schedule to maximize good weather and sea conditions. If you are susceptible to motion sickness in a car or plane this is an important indicator. Sticking to an exact time and date could set you up for a horrible experience. Charter companies want your repeat business and to enjoy the experience over and over again.
  2. Get plenty of rest before your fishing adventure. Come visit and if necessary spend the night. Start your day close to where you will be boarding the boat.
  3. Eat the right foods. You don’t need much food to start the day, keep it light and avoid fatty or sugary diet items. As the day goes by, eat snacks and lunch if you get hungry.
  4. Stay hydrated and in balance. Take in small sips when you are queasy or have thrown up. You need to drink but consuming several bottles of water in a short time period can create nausea.
  5. Avoid the smell zone. When possible, position yourself on the vessel to avoid intense odors like boat exhaust or fish waste in order to keep your stomach settled. It is best to stay away from other seasick individuals as their actions can influence your nausea.
  6. Mind over matter – Have confidence. Knowing you have prepared yourself to be on the water with sleep, diet, and hydration is often enough to avoid seasickness. However, if you routinely face motion or seasickness then a visit with your doctor can provide the best options to make your days at sea a blessing. Their help could be the final ingredient in your personal recipe for great times on the water with friends and family.

For more information, contact Scott Jackson at the UF/IFAS Extension Bay County Office at 850-784-6105.