Underwater Dreaming

Underwater Dreaming

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

Man What a Year for Natural Resources… 2018

Man What a Year for Natural Resources… 2018

It has been one crazy year in the world of natural resources in the Florida panhandle.  I guess the top stories would be the red tide and, of course, Hurricane Michael.  Both had an impact environmentally and economically in the area.

Dead fish line the beaches of the Florida Panhandle after a coast wide red tide event in October of 2015.
Photo: Randy Robinson

We did not see the red tide in the panhandle until late summer.  The folks in southwest Florida had been dealing with it since late winter.  Down there, large fish kills were driving away tourists and halting the charter fishing industry.  People began canceling their hotel reservations and moving to the east coast of the state, which eventually had red tide as well.  One report showed a 6% decrease in tourism for that region, may have been more.  It was certainly devastating and there is now a bill in U.S. congress to fund red tide research and monitoring.  They are wanting to be able to predict them better, and possibly reduce their impacts.

 

Here in the panhandle the economic impact was not as large.  One, it came later in the year – beyond our busy season, and two Hurricane Michael occurred, which had a far greater environmental and economic impact. That said, FWC will continue to monitor for red tide and hope it will not be a story this year.

 

Hurricane Michael was huge as far as environmental and economic impacts for the natural resources in the region.  Charter captains either had no boats, no crew, no marina, or no customers – in some cases, all of the above, and business suffered.  For some fishing interest, we were past the closed season but for divers, and other fishing interest, the loss was definitely felt.

 

It was no different for the commercial fishing industry.  In addition to boat, crew, and marina issues, oyster cages in the Apalach area were tossed up on beaches or lost all together.  Product leaving the area, if you could harvest, was okay – but for those looking for local seafood in the area you had the problem with closed restaurants and seafood markets.

Damage to marina docks and vessels after Hurricane Michael.

Here is an example of the damage to local marinas and vessels that service our local fisheries. Unseen is the economic damage to fishing crews and supporting shore base businesses such as seafood processors, bait and tackle shops, and tourism related businesses. (Photo by Allen Golden).

Above the coast, there were problems with downed trees – making commuting impossible and, in some cases, costing landowners a lot of money.  Pecan orchards were hit hard, as were some of the timber interest.  There were reports of livestock loose due to crushed fences from downed trees.  Those they could hold on to did not have barns to put them in and feed was in low supply.

 

Then you had to be concerned about the quality of the water.  Excessive rain equals high levels of bacteria, even in private wells there could be contamination.  With time all things tend to return.  Some local residents may be restoring their natural resources for some time, others may be back in business now.  It was a tough hit for the area this year.

 

Other natural resource notes for 2018 include bear sightings.  This continues to be an issue in the panhandle, particularly in Santa Rosa County.  There have been manatees visiting the Big Lagoon area of Pensacola Bay during the last two years – something they do not often see.  Also, in the Pensacola area has been an increase in calls about venomous snakes.  Hard to say if there are more snakes than there once were, or whether they are becoming more visible, but it was a story that we will continue to watch this year.

 

At the 2018 FWC lionfish summit it was mentioned that lionfish are harder to find in waters shallower than 120’, this is good news.  The story is not over yet but seems the harvesting we have been doing has helped.  We will be having a regional lionfish workshop February 19 in Ft. Walton Beach for those interested in learning more about this issue.  That will be followed the next day with a workshop on local artificial reefs.  Registration information will be posted soon.

Harvested lionfish. Photo Credit: Bryan Clark

As we now look at 2019 there will certainly be new natural resource stories.  There are a couple of bills recently introduced at the state level dealing with septic tank inspections, lawn fertilizer, maintaining our springs, and sewage spills designed to help improve water quality – we will see what happens with those.  There is much discussion on coastal resiliency and how to reduce the impacts of future hurricanes and we will continue to monitor changes in our area such as invasive species and mangrove distribution.

 

If you have a topic you would like to see an article about, please let us know.  We hope you had a great holiday season and we look forward to a good new year.

Wakulla Springs Offers The Biggest, And The Best, Natural Florida Experience

Florida’s park system has many unique and quality experiences to offer visitors, but few stand out as much as The Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. It is home of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs.

The brisk water is home to manatees, alligators and a host of diverse wildlife which can be viewed from the shore or a boat. Each season delivers a different selection of birds passing through and offering birdwatchers a prime destination to see the avian residents and visitors in a natural setting.

The bracing, some say chilly, 70 degree waters are sure to refresh bathers even during the hottest summer days. For some human visitors ankle deep is enough to experience.

Wakulla Springs’ history extends back thousands of years with evidence of varied use by people and animals, some long gone. Early residents lived in shoreline villages and took advantage of the plentiful natural resources to support their idyllic existence.

One novel use of the area was by filmmakers who appreciated the primeval quality of the park’s swamps and wildlife as a backdrop for cinematic productions. Hollywood films such as Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) were shot at this location.

The historic lodge is an elegant remnant of old Florida, and set among the ancient cypress trees which surround the swamps. The Spanish style lodge with its period furniture, original elevators and colorful painted ceilings that depicts wildlife and Old Florida scenes still takes lodgers.

For the adventurous, there are several hiking trails requiring varying degrees of exertion. For more information about the park’s amenities visit their website: https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/edward-ball-wakulla-springs-state-park

Native Evergreen Christmas Trees to Rebuild the Panhandle

Native Evergreen Christmas Trees to Rebuild the Panhandle

Pyramid shaped conifer treeThroughout history the evergreen tree has been a symbol of life. “Not only green when summer’s here, but also when it’s cold and dreary” as the Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” says. After such devastating tree losses in the Panhandle this year, this winter is a prime time for installing more native evergreens.

While supporting the cut Christmas tree industry does create jobs and puts money into local economics, every few years considering adding to the urban forest by purchasing a living tree. Native evergreen trees such as Redcedar make a nice Christmas tree that can be planted following the holidays. The dense growth and attractive foliage make Redcedar a favorite for windbreaks, screens and wildlife cover. The heavy berry production provides a favorite food source for migrating Cedar Waxwing birds. Its high salt-tolerance makes it ideal for coastal locations. Their natural pyramidal-shape creates the traditional Christmas tree form, but can be easily pruned as a street tree.

Two species, Juniperus virginiana and Juniperus silicicola are native to Northwest Florida. Many botanists do not separate the two, but as they mature, Juniperus silicicola takes on a softer, more informal look. For those interested in creating a different look, maybe a Holly (Ilex,sp.) or Magnolia with full-to-the-ground branches could be your Christmas tree.

When planning for using a live Christmas tree there are a few things to consider. The tree needs sunlight, so restrict its inside time to less than a week. Make sure there is a catch basin for water under the tree, but never allow water to remain in the tray and don’t add fertilizer. Locate your tree in the coolest part of the room and away from heating ducts and fireplaces. After Christmas, install the new tree in an open, sunny part of the yard. After a few years you will be able to admire the living fence with all the wonderful memories of many years of holiday celebrations. Don’t forget to watch for the Cedar Waxwings in the Redcedar.Brownish-gray bird with yellow belly and black eye streak perched on a branch

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.