New Artificial Reefs for the Florida Panhandle

New Artificial Reefs for the Florida Panhandle

Deployment of the El Dorado as an Artificial Reef

Panama City Dive Center’s Island Diver pulls alongside of the El Dorado supporting the vessel deployment by Hondo Enterprises. Florida Fish and Wildlife crews also are pictured and assisted with the project from recovery through deployment. The 144 foot El Dorado reef is located 12 nautical miles south of St Andrew Pass at 29° 58.568 N, 85° 50.487 W. Photo by L. Scott Jackson.

In the past month, Bay County worked with fishing and diving groups as well as numerous volunteers to deploy two artificial reef projects; the El Dorado and the first of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) reefs.

These sites are in Florida waters but additional opportunities for red snapper fishing are available this year to anglers that book for hire charters with captains holding federal licenses. Federal licensed Gulf of Mexico charters started Red Snapper season June 1st and continue through August 1st. Recreational Red Snapper fishing for other vessels in State and Federal waters is June 11th – July 12th. So booking a federally licensed charter can add a few extra fish to your catch this year.

The conversion of the El Dorado from a storm impacted vessel to prized artificial reef is compelling. Hurricane Michael left the vessel aground in shallow waters. This was in a highly visible location close to Carl Grey Park and the Hathaway Bridge. The Bay County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) acquired the El Dorado, January 14, 2019 through negotiations with vessel owner and agencies responsible for recovery of storm impacted vessels post Hurricane Michael.

The El Dorado was righted and stabilized, then transported to Panama City’s St Andrews Marina by Global Diving with support from the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife. Hondo Enterprises, was awarded a contract to complete the preparation and deployment of the vessel for use as an artificial reef.

Reefing the El Dorado provides new recreational opportunities for our residents and tourists. The new reef delivers support for Bay County’s fishing and diving charters continuing to recover after Hurricane Michael. Several local dive charter captains assisted in the towing and sinking of the El Dorado.

The El Dorado was deployed approximately 12 nm south of St. Andrew Bay near the DuPont Bridge Spans May 2, 2019. Ocean depth in this area is 102 feet, meaning the deployed vessel is accessible to divers at 60 feet below the surface.

The Bay County Board of County Commissioners continues to invest in the county’s artificial reef program just as before Hurricane Michael. Additional reef projects are planned for 2019 – 2020 utilizing Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) and Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act) funds. These additional projects total over 1.3 million dollars utilizing fines as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Deployments will occur in state waters in sites located to both the east and west of St. Andrew Bay Pass.

Large Crane Deploying Artificial Reef Concrete Module

Walter Marine deploys one of nine super reefs deployed in Bay County’s NRDA Phase I project located approximately 12 nautical miles southeast of the St. Andrew Pass. Each massive super reef weighs over 36,000 lbs and is 15 ft tall. Multiple modules deployed in tandem provides equivalent tonnage and structure similar to a medium to large sized scuttled vessel. Photo by Bob Cox, Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.

The first of these NRDA deployments for Bay County BOCC was completed May 21, 2019 in partnership with Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection using a $120,000 portion of the total funding. The deployment site in the Sherman Artificial Reef Permit Area is approximately 12 nm south east of St Andrew Bay Pass at a depth of 78 – 80ft.

Patch Reef # Latitude Longitude
BC2018 Set 1

(6 Super Reefs and  4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 40.202 W
BC2018 Set 2

(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 39.739 W
BC2018 Set 3

(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 39.273 W
BC2018 Set 4

(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)

29° 55.384 N 85° 38,787 W

In 2014, Dr. Bill Huth from the University of West Florida, estimated in Bay County the total artificial reef related fishing and diving economic impact was 1,936 jobs, $131.98 million in economic output and provided $49.02 million in income. Bay County ranked #8 statewide in artificial reef jobs from fishing and diving. Bay County ranked #3 in scuba diving economy and scuba diving was 48.4 % of the total jobs related to artificial reefs. Dr. Huth also determine that large vessels were the preferred type of artificial reef for fishing and diving, with bridge spans and material the next most popular. Scuba diving and fishing on artificial reefs contributes significantly to the county’s economic health.

For more information and assistance, contact UF/IFAS Extension Bay County at 850-784-6105 or Bay@ifas.ufl.edu. Follow us on Facebook at http://faceboook.com/bayifas .

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.

This article is also available through the the Panama City New Herald

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

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.

The 2019 Emerald Coast Open: The Largest Lionfish Tournament in History

The 2019 Emerald Coast Open: The Largest Lionfish Tournament in History

The northwest Florida area has been identified as having the highest concentration of invasive lionfish in the world. Lionfish pose a significant threat to our native wildlife and habitat with spearfishing the primary means of control.  Lionfish tournaments are one way to increase harvest of these invaders and help keep populations down.

Located in Destin FL, and hosted by the Gulf Coast Lionfish Tournaments and the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Emerald Coast Open (ECO) is projected to be the largest lionfish tournament in history. The ECO, with large cash payouts, more gear and other prizes, and better competition, will attract professional and recreational divers, lionfish hunters and the general public.

You do not need to be on a team, or shoot hundreds of lionfish to win. Get rewarded for doing your part! The task is simple, remove lionfish and win cash and prizes! The pretournament runs from February 1 through May 15 with final weigh-in dockside at AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar on Destin Harbor May 16-19.  Entry Fee is $75 per participant through April 1, 2019. After April 1, 2019, the entry fee is $100 per participant. You can learn more at the website http://emeraldcoastopen.com/, or follow the Tournament on Facebook.

The Emerald Coast Open will be held in conjunction with FWC’s Lionfish Removal & Awareness Day Festival (LRAD), May 18-19 at AJ’s and HarborWalk Village in Destin. The Festival will be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m each day. Bring your friends and family for an amazing festival and learn about lionfish, taste lionfish, check out lionfish products! There will be many family-friendly activities including art, diving and marine conservation booths.  Learn how to safely fillet a lionfish and try a lionfish dish at a local restaurant.  Have fun listening to live music and watching the Tournament weigh-in and awards.  Learn why lionfish are such a big problem and what you can do to help! Follow the Festival on Facebook!

 

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2019 Northwest Florida Regional Artificial Reef Conference

2019 Northwest Florida Regional Artificial Reef Conference

Artificial Reef Pyramid (Photo: L. Tiu)

The Northwest Florida Regional Artificial Reef Workshop was held February 20 at the Emerald Coast Convention Center in Fort Walton Beach Florida. It followed the Northwest Florida Regional Lionfish Workshop held the day before as many in the audience have interest in both lionfish and artificial reefs. Okaloosa County Commissioner, Captain Kelly Windes, gave the welcome, sharing his experiences as a lifelong local and a 3rd generation charter boat captain operating for over 30 years.

Keith Mille, Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Artificial Reef Program gave the state updates. In the state of Florida, a total of 3,534 patch reefs have been deployed.  In 2018, 187 new patch reefs were added to the mix.  These reefs are made from concrete, formed modules, vessels, barges, metal and rock.  The Atlantic side received 33 new patch reefs, while the Gulf side deployed 154.  Many of the Gulf reefs are funded using Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) monies intended to compensate anglers and divers for loss of use during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. According to a recent economic evaluation of artificial reefs by the University of West Florida’s Dr. Bill Huth, fishing and diving on Escambia County’s artificial reefs support 2,348 jobs and account for more than $150 million in economic activity each year.

County updates for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, City of Mexico Beach, Franklin, and Wakulla followed with Victor Blanco, Florida Sea Grant Agent from Taylor County, sharing his process for developing and training a volunteer research dive team to monitor the reefs.

University of Florida researchers provided a reef fish communities update highlighting the response of gray trigger fish and red snapper populations near the reefs, as well as the impact of lionfish on these communities. They also provided answers to the question of how artificial reefs function ecologically versus as fishing habitat.  This research hopes to enhance future assessments concerning siting and function of artificial reefs.  An anthropologist from Florida State University described his role in conducting cultural resource surveys for artificial reefs. The day ended with a report on the assessment of artificial reefs impacted by Hurricane Michael and a demonstration of updated software used to create side scan mosaics for monitoring.

Presentations were recorded and are available on the Florida Artificial Reefs Facebook page.  A statewide Artificial Reef Summit is being organized for February 2020 and will be a great opportunity to learn more about Florida reefs.

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The Nesting Bald Eagles are Back

The Nesting Bald Eagles are Back

On a recent trip to Santa Rosa Island, my wife saw two bald eagles flying down the shore of Santa Rosa Sound.  Wanting photos of the nest, we searched and found two individuals in a small nest (for an eagle) in a tall pine.  One individual was an adult, the other a juvenile.

Bald eagle nest on Santa Rosa Island.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Seeing bald eagles is like seeing bottlenose dolphins.  I do not care how many times you have seen them over the course of your life, it is always exciting.  Growing up here, I do not remember these animals in our area.  Of course, their numbers suffered greatly during the DDT period, and poaching was (and still can be) a problem.  But both the banning of DDT and the listing on the Endangered Species List did wonders for this majestic bird.  They now estimate over 250,000 breeding populations in North America and 88% of those within the United States.  Florida has some of the highest densities of nests in the lower 48 states.  Though the bird is no longer listed as an endangered species, it is still protected by the Florida Eagle Rule, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty, and the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

 

It was shortly after Hurricane Ivan that someone told me they had seen a bald eagle in the area.  My first reaction was “yea… right… bald eagle”.  Then one afternoon on my back porch, my wife and I glanced up to see two flying over.  Now we see them every year.  The 2016 state report had 12 nesting pairs in the Pensacola Bay area.  They were in the Perdido Bay area, Escambia Bay area, Holly-Navarre area, and Pensacola Beach area.  Many locals now see these birds flying over our coastlines searching for food and nesting materials on a regular basis.

An adult and juvenile bald eagle on nest in Montana.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Bald eagles are raptors with a thing for fish.  However, they are opportunistic hunters feeding on amphibians, reptiles, crabs, small mammals, and other birds.  They are also notorious “raiders” stealing fish from osprey, other raptors, and even mammals.  They are also known scavengers feeding on carrion and visiting dumps looking for scraps.  Benjamin Franklin was in favor of the turkey for our national emblem because the bald eagle was of such low moral character – referring their stealing and scavenging habit.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology list the bald eagle as a year-round resident along the Gulf coast, but most of us see them in the cooler months.  Their nesting period is from October through May.  They select tall trees near water and build their nest just below the crown of the canopy.  One local ecotourism operator has noticed their preference for live trees over the dead ones selected by osprey.  Eagle nest are huge.  A typical one will be 5-6 feet in diameter and 2-4 feet tall.  The record was a nest found in St. Pete FL that was 10 feet in diameter and over 20 feet tall!  The inside of the nest is lined with lichen, small sticks, and down feathers.  One to three eggs are typically laid each season, and these take about 35 days to hatch.  Both parents participate in nest building and raising of the young.

 

Viewing bald eagles is amazing, but approaching nests with eggs, or hatchlings, can be stressful for the parents.  Hikers and motorized vehicles should stay 330 feet from the nests when viewing.  Bring a distance lens for photos and be mindful of your presence.

An adult and juvenile bald eagle are perched in a dead tree near their nest.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

No matter how times you see these birds, it is still amazing.  Enjoy them.

 

 

References

 

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Bald Eagle Management. 2018. https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/bald-eagle/.

 

Jimbo Meador, personal communication. 2017.

 

Williams, K. 2017. All About Birds, the Bald Eagle.  Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/overview.