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

Prescribed Fire: Habitat Management Tool Number One

Prescribed Fire: Habitat Management Tool Number One

bright yellow flower

Yellow asters such as sneezeweed bloom profusely during summertime in the flatwoods.

Our coastal habitats are some of the most beautiful on the planet. Where else can you have the breathtaking, wide open vistas of our salt marshes, the incredible productivity of our nearshore bays, and the expansive pinelands in the adjacent uplands. Year-round opportunities abound to be outside and enjoy the natural resources we are blessed with. Just go prepared for the inevitable encounter with some of our bloodsucking flies and midges that are part of the package deal. A pair of binoculars, snacks, water and proper clothing provide the makings of a great day out, but I would also recommend a picture-taking device of some sort. I’ve basically given up on the heavier camera gear and the notion of getting long-distance close-ups. I now rely on my cell phone or a small digital camera; mainly for taking photos of flowers, bugs, and anything else that doesn’t require stealth and patience to shoot.

One of the best habitats to explore during this time of year for capturing memorable images is the upland pine flatwoods that is so abundant in the Florida Panhandle. There is no shortage of public lands that display some of the most well-managed pineland landscapes in the nation. Pineland ecosystems in the Southeast have been intimately linked with a natural fire regime, long before Europeans came on the scene. Successional cycles of increasing shrubby growth over time and the ability of the landscape to carry a fire after a lightning strike, have allowed these areas to develop with the “park-like” vista of a pine tree savanna in many cases. When fire is excluded by people, these ecosystems gradually convert to more hardwood species that tend to shade-out herbaceous growth on the ground and reduce the opportunity for new pine seedlings to become established. Professional land managers who work hard to mimic natural fire cycles on the lands they manage produce some astounding results. I can attest, as many of the areas where I hunt turkeys each spring are chosen more for the beauty of the landscape than the abundance of gobblers. Although fewer gobblers is not typically the ideal hunting scenario, the silver lining comes in the form of less competition with other hunters.

This spring I hunted in part of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and had a nice mix of fairly recently burned pinelands to explore. Some were burned this spring, and was just starting to green-up with newly emerging grasses and forbs. Other areas were burned a year or two ago and you would never know it except for the charred bark on tree trunks. These areas recover to full greenery in a very short time. The foot-high wild blueberry bushes were loaded with green berries for summer wildlife feasts to come, and the photo opportunities for wildflowers abounded. Fire is so important in retaining a high species diversity in these habitats. Opening up the canopy allows sunlight to filter through to the forest floor and the recycling of nutrients in the ash supports many unique plants. There are several terrestrial orchids that bloom in the wetter soils (grass pink, colic root, lady’s tresses, etc.), and yellow flowers are prolific right now (St. John’s wort, sneeze weed, candy root and many more). I even saw some parrot pitcher plants in one wet spot, noticeable mainly by their tall maroon flowers. Fetterbush and staggerbush are also blooming with small flowers that look similar to blueberry blooms. The difference in scent of these two Lyonia shrubs is an easy way to tell them apart with fetterbush having a strong musky (not totally unpleasant) smell, while staggerbush (rusty Lyonia) has one of the sweetest, most pleasant smells of spring in the flatwoods.

So, while I did have the opportunity to chase around a gobbler this spring (who easily out-maneuvered me), I truly enjoyed my week of annual leave spent reconnecting with something that we too often take for granted. Take time to locate the state parks, national wildlife refuges, state forests and other public lands in your region. Then go outside. I mean it; none of us should miss the chance of a lifetime to see what we really have here.

white plume of flowers

Crow poison, also know as Osceola’s plume shows up in wet flatwoods, most noticeably after a fire.

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.

Farmers are doing their part to protect Florida’s Shoal Bass

Farmers are doing their part to protect Florida’s Shoal Bass

By Vance Crain and Andrea Albertin

Fisherman with a large Shoal Bass in the Apalachicola-Chattahootchee-Flint River Basin. Photo credit: S. Sammons

Along the Chipola River in Florida’s Panhandle, farmers are doing their part to protect critical Shoal Bass habitat by implementing agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) that reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, and help conserve water.

Florida’s Shoal Bass

Lurking in the clear spring-fed Chipola River among limerock shoals and eel grass, is a predatory powerhouse, perfectly camouflaged in green and olive with tiger stripes along its body. The Shoal Bass (a species of Black Bass) tips the scale at just under 6 lbs.  But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in power. Unlike any other bass, and found nowhere else in Florida, anglers travel long distances for a chance to pursue it. Floating along the swift current, rocks, and shoals will make you feel like you’ve been transported hundreds of miles away to the Georgia Piedmont, and it’s only the Live Oaks and palms overhanging the river that remind you that you’re still in Florida, and in a truly unique place.

Native to only one river basin in the world, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin, habitat loss is putting this species at risk. The Shoal Bass is a fluvial specialist, which means it can only survive in flowing water. Dams and reservoirs have eliminated habitat and isolated populations. Sediment runoff into waterways smothers habitat and prevents the species from reproducing.

In the Chipola River, the population is stable but its range is limited. Some of the most robust Shoal Bass numbers are found in a 6.5-mile section between the Peacock Bridge and Johnny Boy boat ramp. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has turned this section into a Shoal Bass catch and release only zone to protect the population. However, impacts from agricultural production and ranching, like erosion and nutrient runoff can degrade the habitat needed for the Shoal Bass to spawn.

Preferred Shoal Bass habitat, a shoal in the Chipola River. Photo credit: V. Crain

Shoal Bass habitat conservation and BMPs

In 2010, the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and a group of scientists (the Black Bass Committee) developed the Native Black Bass Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to increase research and the protection of three Black Bass species native to the Southeast, including the Shoal Bass. It also defined the Shoal Bass as a keystone species, meaning protection of this apex predators’ habitat benefits a host of other threatened and endangered species.

Along the Chipola River, farmers are teaming up with SARP and other partners to protect Shoal Bass habitat and improve farming operations through BMP implementation. A major goal is to protect the river’s riparian zones (the areas along the borders). When healthy, these areas act like sponges by absorbing nutrients and sediment runoff. Livestock often degrade riparian zones by trampling vegetation and destroying the streambank when they go down to a river to drink. Farmers are installing alternative water supplies, like water wells and troughs in fields, and fencing out cattle from waterways to protect these buffer areas and improve water quality. Row crop farmers are helping conserve water in the river basin by using advanced irrigation technologies like soil moisture sensors to better inform irrigation scheduling and variable rate irrigation to increase irrigation efficiency. Cost-share funding from SARP, the USDA-NRCS and FDACS provide resources and technical expertise for farmers to implement these BMPs.

Holstein drinking from a water trough in the field, instead of going down to the river to get water which can cause erosion and problems with water quality. Photo credit: V. Crain

By working together in the Chipola River Basin, farmers, fisheries scientists and resource managers  are helping ensure that critical habitat for Shoal Bass remains healthy. Not only is this important for the species and resource, but it will ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy this unique river and seeing one of these fish. So the next time you catch a Shoal Bass, thank a farmer.

For more information about BMPs and cost-share opportunities available for farmers and ranchers, contact your local FDACS field technician: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Agricultural-Water-Policy/Organization-Staff  and NRCS field office USDA-NRCS field office: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/fl/contact/local/ For questions regarding the Native Black Bass Initiative or Shoal Bass habitat conservation, contact Vance Crain at vance@southeastaquatics.net

Vance Crain is the Native Black Bass Initiative Coordinator for the Southeast Aquatic Resource Partnership (SARP).

 

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

Fall Color Without Popcorn Trees

Fall Color Without Popcorn Trees

As the trees begin to turn various shades of red, many people begin to inquire about the Popcorn trees. While their autumn coloration is one of the reasons they were introduced to the Florida environment, it took years for us to realize what a menace Popcorn trees have become. Triadica sebifera, the Chinese tallowtree or Popcorn tree, was introduced to Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1700s for oil production and use in making candles, earning it another common name, the Candleberry tree. Since then, it has spread to every coastal state from North Carolina to Texas, and inland to Arkansas. In Florida it occurs as far south as Tampa. It is most likely to spread to wildlands adjacent to or downstream from areas landscaped with Triadica sebifera, displacing other native plant species in those habitats. Therefore, Chinese tallowtree was listed as a noxious weed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Noxious Weed List (5b-57.007 FAC) in 1998, which means that possession with the intent to sell, transport, or plant is illegal in the state of Florida. The common name of Florida Aspen is sometimes used to market Popcorn tree in mail-order ads. Remember it’s still the same plant.

Although Florida is not known for the brilliant fall color enjoyed by other northern and western states, we do have a number of trees that provide some fall color for our North Florida landscapes. Red maple, Acer rubrum, provides brilliant red, orange and sometimes yellow leaves. The native Florida maple, Acer floridum, displays a combination of bright yellow and orange color during fall.  And there are many Trident and Japanese maples that provide striking fall color.  Another excellent native tree is Blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica. This tree is a little slow in its growth rate but can eventually grow to seventy-five feet in height. It provides the earliest show of red to deep purple fall foliage. Others include Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, Sumac, Rhus spp. and Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua. In cultivated trees that pose no threat to native ecosystems, Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia spp. offers varying degrees of orange, red and yellow in its leaves before they fall. There are many cultivars – some that grow several feet to others that reach nearly thirty feet in height. Also, Chinese pistache, Pistacia chinensis, can deliver a brilliant orange display.

                                                                  Young Trident maple with fall foliage. Photo credit: Larry Williams

There are a number of dependable oaks for fall color, too. Shumardi, Southern Red and Turkey are a few to consider. These oaks have dark green deeply lobed leaves during summer turning vivid red to orange in fall. Turkey oak holds onto its leaves all winter as they turn to brown and are pushed off by new spring growth. Our native Yellow poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, and hickories, Carya spp., provide bright yellow fall foliage. And it’s difficult to find a more crisp yellow than fallen Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, leaves. These trees represent just a few choices for fall color. Including one or several of these trees in your landscape, rather than allowing the Popcorn trees to grow, will enhance the season while protecting the ecosystem from invasive plant pests.

For more information on Chinese tallowtree, removal techniques and native alternative trees go to: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag148.