“The Gulf of Mexico provides food, shelter, protection, security, energy, habitat, recreation, transportation, and navigation – playing an important role in our communities, states, region, and nation. To highlight the value and the vitality of the Gulf of Mexico region, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance conceived an awareness campaign “Embrace the Gulf” for the entire year 2020. The awareness campaign will culminate in a multi-stakeholder, cross-sector celebration of the importance of the Gulf of Mexico throughout the year 2020.” (https://embracethegulf.org/about/)
Join the Gulf of Mexico Alliance as we celebrate the importance of the Gulf of Mexico during the year 2020. The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a regional partnership that works to “sustain the resources of the Gulf of Mexico. Led by the five Gulf States, the broad partner network includes federal agencies, academic organizations, businesses, and other non-profits in the region. Our goal is to significantly increase regional collaboration to enhance the environmental and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico.” (https://gulfofmexicoalliance.org/about-us/organization/).
The Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) was established in 2004 by the Governors of the Gulf states, as a response to the President’s Ocean Action Plan. It began as a network of state partnerships that worked together on various strategies related to the GOMA priority issues identified by the Governors of each state. It had strong support from the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. Today GOMA is led by the EPA and NOAA, with 13 federal agencies support the effort. Learn more.
A great blue heron enjoying the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: Chris Verlinde
To celebrate the year 2020 and the importance of Gulf of Mexico, the Embrace the Gulf campaign was created by the Education and Engagement Priority team. The GOMA leadership supports the idea and the campaign has gathered support from the other priority areas.
There are many ways for you and or your organization to get involved. You can plan an event to celebrate the Gulf of Mexico. You can utilize GOMA marketing resources to promote the campaign. Click here to learn about the available marketing resources.
The E& E team is collecting 365 facts to promote the Gulf of Mexico. You can support this effort by submitting Gulf of Mexico facts using the online form that is located here. Facts will be used on social media, the GOMA website and more. Please support this effort by submitting today!!
Check out this You Tube video GOMA produced to promote the beauty and importance of the Gulf of Mexico. Join us as we celebrate 2020 to Embrace the Gulf!!
They say that dreams don’t work unless you take action. In the case of some Walton County Florida dreamers, their actions have transpired into the first Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) installation in the United States. In 2017, the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA) partnered to solicit sculpture designs for permanent exhibit in a one-acre patch of sand approximately .7-miles from the shore of Grayton Beach State Park at a depth of 50-60 feet. The Museum gained immediate notoriety and has recently named by TIME Magazine as one of 100 “World’s Greatest Places.” It has also been featured in online and print publications including National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Travel & Leisure, Newsweek, The New York Times, and more.
Seven designs were selected for the initial installation in summer of 2018 including: “Propeller in Motion” by Marek Anthony, “Self Portrait” by Justin Gaffrey, “The Grayt Pineapple” by Rachel Herring, “JYC’s Dream” by Kevin Reilly in collaboration with students from South Walton Montessori School, “SWARA Skull” by Vince Tatum, “Concrete Rope Reef Spheres” by Evelyn Tickle, and “Anamorphous Octopus” by Allison Wickey. Proposals for a second installation in the summer of 2019 are currently being evaluated.
The sculptures themselves are important not only for their artistic value, but also serve as a boon to eco-tourism in the area. While too deep for snorkeling, except perhaps on the clearest of days, the UMA is easily accessible by SCUBA divers. The sculptures are set in concrete and contain no plastics or toxic materials. They are specifically designed to become living reefs, attracting encrusting sea life like corals, sponges and oysters as well large numbers and varieties of fish, turtles and dolphins. This fulfills SWARA’s mission of “creating marine habitat and expanding fishery populations while providing enhanced creative, cultural, economic and educational opportunities for the benefit, education and enjoyment of residents, students and visitors in South Walton.”
The UMA is a diver’s dream and is in close proximity to other Walton County artificial reefs. There are currently four near-shore snorkel reefs available for snorkeling and nine reefs within one mile of the shore in approximately 50-60 feet of water for additional SCUBA opportunities. All reefs are public and free of charge for all visitors with coordinates available on the SWARA website (https://swarareefs.org/). Several SCUBA businesses in the area offer excursions to UMA and the other reefs of Walton County.
For more information, please visit the UMA website at https://umafl.org/ or connect via social media at https://www.facebook.com/umaflorida/.
Schools of fish swim by the turtle reef off of Grayton Beach, Florida. Photo credit: University of Florida / Bernard Brzezinski
Most everyone knows the importance of submerged seagrass in our coastal estuaries. It has been estimated that 80% of the commercial and recreational important marine species depend on seagrasses for at least part of their life cycle. One acre of submerged seagrass can produce 10 tons of leaves, support 40,000 fish, and 50 million invertebrate species. Not everyone in the panhandle lives on the coast, but many who live inland enjoy fishing there, so the concern for the health of our grassbeds does extend inland.
Shoal grass. One of the common seagrasses in Florida.
Photo: Leroy Creswell
In the Pensacola Bay area, the decline of seagrass was first reported in the 1950s. A 95% decline occurred between 1950 and 1980. The decline in local bay scallop and shrimp over the years has been attributed to the decline of these grassbeds. Aerial surveys have shown steady decreases in acres until 2003. From 2003 until 2010, there was an 8.4% increase in seagrass acreage in the Pensacola Bay System. All bodies of water showed increases except Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon, which had slight losses in seagrass coverage. The most recent reports from an FWC study (2010-2015), suggest the seagrasses in the Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound area have increased 13%.
Despite these recent gains, and anecdotal reports of “healthy seagrass”, many of the historic beds have not recovered. Historically, seagrass restoration efforts have not been very successful. Natural restoration seems to be the best target at the moment. To do this, you will need to reduce the stressors that caused the declines in the first place. Some of the possible stressors include: dredging, trawling, decreased water clarity, prop scarring, dock shading, and armored shorelines – to name a few.
To this end, a citizen science project was developed by a partnership with the University of West Florida and the Florida Sea Grant Extension Programs in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties. Volunteers who live on, or near, these bodies of water were trained to monitor the seagrass beds near their homes. Eleven 1-nautical mile square grids were set up in Big Lagoon and 55 were marked for Santa Rosa Sound. Volunteers selected beaches within one of these grids to survey. In 2018, five of the Big Lagoon and six of the Santa Rosa Sound grids were monitored. Within their grids, volunteers selected four locations to monitor once a month between May and October. Using snorkels, volunteers placed a 0.25m2 PVC square (quadrat) on the bottom over the grass. The percent coverage was estimated and species of grass within identified and recorded. Volunteers recorded whether drift algae was present on the grasses (these could be a problem for them) and a list of any marine animals they may have found. They also collected a water sample to be analyzed for total suspended solids and nutrients by students at the University of West Florida. UWF students also visited sites during the year to collect data on salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, nitrites, nitrates, ammonia, total phosphorus, and pH.
The darker areas in the water are seagrasses. Photo: Rick O’Connor
So how did the first year go?
The average percent coverage of seagrass for all locations was between 60-70%, some locations in Santa Rosa Sound were 100% coverage for their stations. The percent coverage of the epiphytic drift algae was between 2-8%. There was no real difference between Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon in seagrass coverage however there was for the epiphytic drift algae – Big Lagoon had more. The UWF environmental data also found a higher concentration of chlorophyll a in Big Lagoon. This suggest either more runoff into Big Lagoon, or the runoff has more nutrients in it. Overall nutrients were relatively low. There was a decrease in salinity as the rain increased. The more common species of seagrass are not fans of low salinity, but Widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) is – and we did see increases in this species as we moved into September, again – probably due to lower salinities.
We will continue to monitor these grassbeds for several years and really hope we see signs of natural restoration.
Caffrey, J. 2018. Unpublished report on seagrass monitoring.
Lewis, M. J.T. Kirschenfeld, T. Goodheart. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
Understanding Florida’s Red Tide – Betty Staugler, Florida Sea Grant
Watching and Waiting: Uncertainty About When the Algal Blooms Will End – Dr. Karl Haven, Florida Sea Grant
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.