I am writing about this animal because, though it is rare to see them, our terrapin volunteers saw two this past week; and maybe you will too.
The round pupil and vertical jaw stripes indicate this is the nonvenomous Nerodia. Photo: Carole Tebay
The Gulf salt marsh snake is one of those, like the eastern coral snake, that is actually common – just rare to see. It is rare to see because (a) it lives in muddy salt marshes, where we rarely venture, and (b) it is mostly nocturnal – and even fewer of us venture into muddy salt marshes at night.
It is in the genus Nerodia, which includes the common water snakes like the banded water snake (Nerodia fasicata). It is a harmless nonvenomous snake. However, because of where it lives, it is often confused with a cottonmouth and is killed. A common name for this snake in Alabama is “bay moccasin”.
Their name is Nerodia clarkii, but it is a subspecies of this group – so the actual name is Nerodia clarkii clarkii. The other two subspecies are found in Florida. The Mangrove salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) is found from central Gulf coast of Florida, around the Keys to Indian River County on the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii taeniata) has a very small range. Originally reported in Volusia, Brevard, and Indian River counties – due to the northern expansion of mangroves, it is believed to only be in Volusia County now. It is listed as THREATENED both federally and with the state. Our Gulf salt marsh snake is found from central Florida to Texas.
The nonvenomous Gulf Salt marsh Snake.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
It is a relatively small snake, only reaching a length of around 15-20 inches, though some have been reported at 30 inches. They possess two long yellowish-tan stripes running laterally the length of its body, the only species of Nerodia to do so. Again, they move at night feeding on small crabs, shrimp, frogs, and small fish. During daylight hours they hide beneath the wrack or other vegetation avoiding herons, egrets, and larger blue crabs. Lacking the needed glands, they cannot desalinate seawater the way sea turtles and terrapins can. All of their freshwater comes from their food and from rainfall.
They breed in the spring, possibly why we are seeing them now, and give live birth to about 10 young in midsummer. They are of moderate conservation concern in Alabama due to the loss of salt marsh. The loss of salt marsh habitat and rise of sea level are their major concerns at this point.
I do need to warn you, though it is a small, nonvenomous snake, they will bite. If bitten, soap and water will do the job. For me, and others, it is actually exciting to see them because of their reclusive nature. If you see one while exploring our intracoastal waters, know that you are not in any danger but rather lucky to see this “mystery of the marsh”.
The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake swimming in a local marsh.
Photo: Carole Tebay
Gulf Salt Marsh Snake – Texas Parks and Recreation – https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/gulfsnake/.
iNaturalist – https://www.inaturalist.org/guide_taxa/776612.
Outdoor Alabama – Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – https://www.outdooralabama.com/non-venomous-snakes/gulf-saltmarsh-snake.
Atlantic Salt Marsh Snake – N.c.taeniata – U.S. Fish and Wildlife – https://www.fws.gov/northflorida/Species-Accounts/Atl-Salt-Marsh-Snake-2005.htm.
Oysters are like snakes… you either like them or you hate them. You rarely hear someone say – “yea, their okay”. It’s either I can’t get enough of them, or they are the most disgusting thing in the sea.
Courtesy of Florida Sea Grant
That said, they are part of our culture. Growing up here in the Florida panhandle, there were oyster houses everywhere. They are as common on menus as French fries or coleslaw. Some like them raw, some like them in gumbo or stews, others are fried oyster fans. But whether you eat them or not, you are aware of them. They are part of being in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
In recent decades the historic oyster beds that supported so many families over the years have declined in production. There are a variety of stressors triggering this. Increased sedimentation, decreased salinity, overharvesting, not returning old shell to produce new reefs, and many more. The capitol of northwest Florida’s oyster coast is Apalachicola. Many are aware of the decline of harvest there. Certainly, impacted by the “water wars” between our state and Georgia, there are other reasons why this fishery has declined. I had a recent conversation with a local in Apalachicola who mentioned they had one of their worst harvest on record this past year. Things are really bad there.
An oysterman uses his 11 foot long tongs to collect oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay
Photo: Sea Grant
Despite the loss of oysters and oyster habitat, there has not been a decline in the demand for them at local restaurants. There have been efforts by Florida Sea Grant and others to help restore the historic beds, improve water quality, and assist some with the culture of oysters in the panhandle.
Enter the Bream Fisherman’s Association of Pensacola.
This group has been together for a long time and have worked hard to educate and monitor our local waterways. In 2018 they worked with a local oyster grower and the University of West Florida’s Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation to develop an oyster garden project called Project Oyster Pensacola. Volunteers were recruited to purchase needed supplies and grow young oysters in cages hanging from their docks. Participants lived on Perdido, Blackwater, East, and Escambia Bays. Bayous Texar, and Grande. As well as Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound. The small, young oysters (spat) were provided by the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company. The volunteers would measure spat growth over an eight-month period beginning in the spring of 2018. In addition, they collected data on temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen at their location.
After the first year, the data suggests where the salinity was higher, the oysters grew better. Actually, low salinity proved to be lethal to many of them. This is a bit concerning when considering the increase rainfall our community has witnessed over the last two years. Despite an interest in doing so, the volunteers were not allowed to keep their oysters for consumption. Permits required that the oysters be placed on permitted living shoreline projects throughout the Pensacola Bay area.
Oyster bags used in a bulkhead restoration project.
Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection
We all know how important oysters are to the commercial seafood industry, but it turns out they are as important to the overall health to the bays ecology. A single oyster has been reported to filter as much as 50 gallons of seawater an hour. This removes sediments and provides improved water clarity for the growth of seagrasses. It has been estimated that seagrasses are vital to at least 80% of the commercially important seafood species. It is well known that seagrasses and salt marshes are full of life. However, studies show that biodiversity and biological production are actually higher in oyster reefs. Again, supporting a booming local recreational fishing industry.
This project proved to be very interesting in it’s first year. BFA will be publishing a final report soon and plan to do a second round. For the oyster lovers in the area, increasing local oysters would be nothing short of wonderful.
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
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
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.
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.
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
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 Boater – https://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.
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.
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.
Florida Friendly Landscaping
Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What You Can Do to Help? – Florida Friendly Landscaping
Maintain Your Septic Tank System to Save Money and Reduce Water Pollution
Septic Tanks: What You Should Do When a Flood Occurs