So, What’s Up with the Lionfish?  Comments from the Recent Regional Workshop

So, What’s Up with the Lionfish? Comments from the Recent Regional Workshop

The vast majority of you reading this are aware of the lionfish, but for those who are not, this is a non-native invasive fish that has caused great concern within the economic and environmental communities.  Lionfish were first reported in the waters off southeast Florida in the late 1980s.  They dispersed north along the east coast of the state, over to Bermuda, throughout the Caribbean, and were first reported here in the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010.  It has been reported as the greatest invasion of an invasive species ever.  In 2014, it was also reported that the highest densities of lionfish within the south Atlantic region were right here in the northern Gulf.

Lionfish at Pensacola Beach Snorkel Reef. Photo Credit: Robert Turpin

The creature is a voracious predator, consuming at least 70 species of small reef fish.  For what ever reason, they prefer artificial reefs over natural ones and studies show that red snapper are further away, and higher above, artificial reefs that lionfish inhabit.  All of this points to an economic and environmental problem with native fisheries in area waters.

 

So, what has been going on with lionfish in recent years?

What is the new science?

 

In 2018 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held its second statewide lionfish summit, and in 2019 Sea Grant held a panhandle regional lionfish workshop to get answers to these questions.  There were sessions on recent research, impacts of the commercial harvest, and current regulations on harvesting the animals.

 

From the researchers we heard that the densities in the northern Gulf of Mexico have decreased over the last five years, at least in the shallow waters less than 120 feet.  This is most probably due to the heavy harvest efforts from locals and from tournaments.  They found that lionfish still prefer artificial over natural reefs but that their overall body condition on artificial reefs is poorer than those found on natural bottom.  They have found evidence of some consumption of juvenile red snapper, but juvenile vermillion snapper have become a favorite.  Another interesting discovery, they are feeding on other lionfish.  Consumed lionfish are not as common as other species, but it is happening.  They are also finding lionfish with ulcers on the skin.  They are not sure of the cause, or whether this is impacting their population, but they will continue to study.

Deep water lionfish traps being tested by the University of Florida offshore Destin, FL. [ALEX FOGG/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

Another area of research everyone was interested in was the effectiveness of traps.  As numbers of lionfish decline in shallow waters (<120 feet) there will be a need to begin harvesting from deeper.  This will be problematic using SCUBA so the focus turns to trapping.  There are issues with trapping.

 

Can traps be found easily?

Will tethered buoys impact migrating species in the area?

Will the traps move between time of deployment and recovery?

How much by-catch will they harvest?

 

These are all concerns but there was some good news.  Several different designs have been tried but one in particular, being studied by NOAA and the University of Florida, has had some success.  The trap unfolds as hits the bottom, stays in the same location (even during recent storms), and only has about 10% by-catch – 90% of what it catches is lionfish.  These traps are un-baited as well, using structure to attract them.  However, these were not tethered to buoys (so there are questions there) and there is a larger issue… federal regulations.

 

Currently trapping for finfish in federal waters (9 miles out) is illegal in the Gulf of Mexico.  Another issue is based on the Magnuson Act, all commercial harvest in federal waters needs to be sustainable.  You cannot overharvest your target species, which is exactly what we want to do with lionfish.  So, these regulatory hurdles will have to be dealt with before deep-water commercial harvest with traps could begin.

Harvested lionfish. Photo Credit: Bryan Clark

The current method of commercial harvest is with spearfishing SCUBA divers.  The sale of salt water products license to do so soared between 2014 and 2016, but since there has been a declined.  At the recent workshop the commercial harvesters and restaurants were there to discuss this problem.

 

First, the divers feel they need to be paid more in order to cover the cost of their harvest.  This has become even harder in lieu of the decline in shallow, safe diving depth, waters.  However, the restaurants feel the price needs to drop in order for them to offer the dish at a reasonable price to their customers.  Most of the commercially harvested fish are currently going to markets outside the area where the current price is acceptable.  The workshop suggested that this trend will probably continue and fewer harvesters will stay in the business.  That said, the dive charters indicated they are making money taking charters out to specifically shoot lionfish for private consumption.  This venture will probably increase.

 

So, after 10 years of lionfish in local waters, it appears that we have made a dent in their shallow water populations but must keep the pressure on.  Several researchers indicated that frequent removals do make an impact, but infrequent does little – so the pressure needs to stay on.  Deep water populations… we will have to see where the trap story goes.

 

If you have further questions on the current state of lionfish in our area, contact me at the Escambia County Extension Office.  (850) 475-5230 ext. 111.

Selected Exotic Pets No Longer Allowed in Florida

Selected Exotic Pets No Longer Allowed in Florida

I am a pro and con guy.

When our family has a big decision to make, they usually ask me to list pros and cons before we make such a decision, it is something I have done since I can remember.  It is not that different from the seven-year rule.  When faced with a big decision, some native American cultures discuss how this decision will impact their families and the community seven years down the road.

A large boa constrictor escaped in a neighborhood in Pensacola.
Photo Courtesy of Escambia County Animal Control

When I first saw the new Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s prohibited exotic species list, I thought of this pro-con / seven-year rule idea.  For example, the Meerkat is on the list.  A meerkat.  Is this a good pet to start off with?  Are they easy to maintain?  To feed?  Are they pets (as in… can you PET them)?

As I thought through my pro/con-seven-year idea, I thought not – but others obviously do.  There are a lot of strange exotic pets in the United States and around the world.  A species of turtle that I monitor is a pet trade target.  The largest markets are China and the United States.  I am guessing status is one reason why people chose pro over con.  Maybe they do not think of the cons before making this decision, or maybe the pros are more important to them, so they are willing to overcome the cons – I am not sure.

 

Either way, FWC’s decision to prohibit this new list of species is not because they might make bad pets, rather it is their high risk of becoming invasive.  Florida knows all too well how many of these exotic pets become problems in our local ecosystems.  Lionfish, pythons, tegus to name a few.  By definition, invasive species cause either environmental or economic problems for the communities where they become established – sometimes both.  In 2014, the United States spent over 180 million dollars battling invasive species.  We just completed our first statewide Weed Wrangle Event where volunteers went into the community and removed as many invasive plants as they could on a single day.  The statewide numbers are not out yet, but locally the Six Rivers CISMA spent the morning removing Chinese Privet, Camphor trees, and Japanese Climbing Fern from a popular biking trail in a state park.  And we all know, we will have to do it again.

A group of volunteers from the Florida Park Service and Americorp helped to remove invasive plants during a recent Weed Wrangle event.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Some say that spending time and money trying to control these invasive is a waste.  Others know that not doing so could lead to a serious environmental or economic problem – so the weeds must be pulled, and the animals captured.  All scientists and resource managers who deal with invasive species understand their best chance of eradicating them is when they FIRST appear on the scene – Early Detection, Rapid Response (EDRR).  This is also the most cost-effective point in the invasion to work on them.  However, most citizens do not know about certain invasive species until they are common in the landscape, and many times it is now too late for eradication – time to go into control mode.

 

One local species we hope we have begun working on soon enough to eradicate is Beach Vitex (Vitex rotundifolia).  This plant is not that common statewide and is a potential target for eradication.  Many along our barrier islands know of the plant now and, hopefully, will manage it on their property before it becomes widespread and problematic.

 

It was in this light that the FWC decided to approve a rule that would prohibit selected exotic animals as pets in Florida.  These were considered high risk for becoming invasive if they were to escape or were released.  This includes:

 

Mammals:  Meerkats, Mongoose, Raccoon dogs, Dholes, Bushtail possums, and Flying foxes

Birds:  Diochs, Red-whiskered Bul-Bul, Java sparrow, and Pink starling

Reptiles:  Brown tree snake, Yellow anaconda, Beni anaconda, and Deschauensee’s anaconda

 

It is the hope that through this rule it will be harder to obtain these animals as pets and possible release into Florida’s landscapes.  It is also a hope that people will reconsider having such creatures as pets in the first place.  The pro-con / seven-year plan should be considered before buying any pet, particularly exotic ones.

 

To learn more about local invasive species and what you can do to help manage them on your property, you can visit the FWC page https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/, or contact your county extension office.

Getting Ready for Invasive Species Week

Getting Ready for Invasive Species Week

The last week of February is National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISAW).  Each year we post several articles about invasive species that are established in the panhandle, and those that are potential threats.

As most of you know, invasive species can be quite problematic.  By definition, they are non-native creatures that arrived in Florida via human transportation.  Whether intentional or non-intentional, their arrival has caused either an environmental problem, an economic one, or both.  Research shows that the most effective method (both with eradication and cost) is detect and treat them early – what we call EDRR species (Early Detection Rapid Response).  However, many of these invasives that “hover” just outside of our area do not make our radar until they have become established.  It is at this time we begin to recognize their harmful impacts and demand action to battle them.  In many cases, it is too late, and you find yourself in a management mode trying to keep the current population under control.

 

Though south Florida is ground zero for many invasive species problems, the panhandle is not without its issues.  The articles will begin posting Feb 25 and run the rest of the week.  For those in the Santa Rosa and Escambia County, we will end the week with an invasive species workday – the Weed Wrangle.  For this years’ Weed Wrangle, we will be assisting the Florida state park service by removing the invasive Chinese Privet from the Blackwater Heritage Trail in Milton.  The Weed Wrangle will be Mar 2 from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM.  We will meet at the Heritage Trail Visitors Center for a brief orientation and then begin to remove privet.  The address is 5533 Alabama Street in Milton FL.  You can park next to the library or the playground.  Please wear closed toed shoes, bring gloves, loppers, and a water bottle.

Members of the Six Rivers CISMA remove Chinese tallow from a city park in Pensacola.
Photo: Kristal Walsh.

Remember if you ever have questions concerning local invasive species, you can contact your county extension office for more information.

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.

 

A Pretty Problem: Invasives Which Bloom in Autumn

A Pretty Problem: Invasives Which Bloom in Autumn

Lantana and Mexican Petunia blooms

Lantana, on the left, and Mexican Petunia, on the right, are both exotic invasive plants which can displace many native species and disrupt the natural balance.

Autumn is usually considered the season of colors in the natural parts of north Florida, and other locations in North America. This tonal attribute is commonly credited to the foliage changes as the growing season ends.

Maples, sweet gums, hickory and many others make their contributions to the natural palette of shades and hues which have existed since long before human habitation in the area. Even some of the native plants add to the display.

Goldenrod and dogfennel add highlights to the brilliant display as winter, believe it or not, approaches. Unfortunately there are some attractive shades in the exhibition which are an indication of exotic invasive plants which have pushed out native.

Both lantana and Mexican petunias are currently blooming, but an indication of problem species. Both were introduces as ornamental plants, but quickly escaped into the wild where they could colonize unchecked.

Lantana (Lantana camara) is a woody shrub native to tropical zones of North and South America. It flowers profusely throughout much of the growing season.

Because of the plant’s ornamental nature, many different flower colors exist, but the most frequent color combinations are red and yellow along with purple and white. Lantana is now commonly found in naturalized populations throughout the southeastern United States from Florida to Texas.

It is currently ranked as one of the top ten most troublesome weeds in Florida and has documented occurrences in 58 of 67 counties. Curiously, despite the bad reputation it is still found in home and commercial landscapes.

As part of its arsenal of conquest, Lantana produces allelochemicals, or plant toxins, in its roots and stems. These allelochemicals have been shown to either slow the growth of other plants or totally remove them.

Some of these same chemicals give lantana an acrid taste and deter insects or other animals from consuming the leaves. Of importance to pet and livestock owners, these leaf toxins are damaging to animals.

If animals consume the leaves, they often begin to show symptoms of skin peeling or cracking. Once animals show these symptoms, there is little or no treatment that can reverse the process.

Although lantana’s leaves are poisonous, its berries are not. Birds readily consume the fruit and are responsible for much of the seed’s distribution over wide areas.

Mexican petunia (Ruellia simplex) is a native of Mexico, but also the Antilles and parts of South America. Its tolerance of varying landscape conditions makes it a common choice for difficult to plant areas and has contributed to it popularity and wide use.

Mexican petunia tolerates shade, sun, wet, dry, and poor soil conditions. It is a prolific bloomer with flowers in shades of purple and pink peaking in the summer, but with the potential to also bloom in spring and fall in some parts of Florida.

Environmental tolerance, abundant seed production, and an ability to easily grow from plant cuttings have all promoted the spread into natural areas bordering developments. The Mexican petunia has been credited with “altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives” according to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council in 2011.

Given the continued popularity of both species, plant breeders have developed sterile, non-reproducing cultivars which do not have the negative characteristics of these problem plants. It is recommended using only the sterile type so autumn’s colors continue to be natural.

To learn more about north Florida’s colorful invasive plants, contact the local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.

Now is the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots

Now is the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots

A buck chases a doe through plots of wildlife forages being evaluated at the University of Florida’s North Florida Research and Education Center. Photo Courtesy of Holly Ober

I know it feels too hot outside to talk about hunting season or cool-season food plots, but planting time will be here before you know it and now’s the time to start preparing. The recommended planting date for practically all cool-season forage crops in Northwest Florida is October 1 – November 15. Assuming adequate soil moisture, planting during the first half of the range is preferred. Between now and planting time there are several factors that need to be considered and addressed.

Invasive and/or Perennial Weed Control – Deer and other wildlife species utilize many soft/annual “weeds” as forage so controlling them is usually not a major concern. But from time to time unwanted perennials (grasses and woody shrubs) need to be controlled. An unfortunate and all too common example of and unwanted perennial is cogongrass – a highly invasive grass that should always be controlled if found. Effective control of perennial weeds, like cogongrass generally involves the use of herbicides. Late summer/early fall is a very effective time to treat unwanted perennials. Fortunately, this coincides well with the transition between warm-season and cool-season forages. If you have unwanted, perennial weeds in your food plots get them identified now and controlled before you plant your cool-season forages.

Cogongrass shown here with seedheads – more typically seen in the spring. If you suspect you have cogongrass in or around your food plots please consult your UF/IFAS Extension Agent how control options.
Photo credit: Mark Mauldin

Soil Fertility Management – In my experience, the most common cause for poor plant performance in food plots is inadequate soil fertility. Before planting time collect and submit soil samples from each of your food plots. Laboratory analysis of the samples will let you know the fertilizer and lime requirements of the upcoming cool-season crop. It is very important to have the analysis performed prior to planting so performance hindering issues can be prevented. Otherwise, during the growing season, by the time you realize something is wrong, it will likely be too late to effectively address the problem. This is particularly true if the issue is related to soil pH. To affect soil pH in a timely manner lime needs to be incorporated into the soil. Incorporation is impossible after the new crop has been planted. Soil analysis performed at the University of Florida’s Extension Soil Testing Lab cost $7 per sample. Your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Agent can assist you with the collection and submission process as well as help you interpret the results.

Variety Selection & Seed Sourcing – Sometimes it takes some time to find the best products/varieties. Just because forage seeds are sold locally doesn’t mean that the crop or specific variety is well suited to this area. The high temperatures and disease pressure associated with Florida, even in the “cool-season” mean that many products that do very well in other parts of the country may struggle here. Below are some specific forages that are favored by wildlife (specifically white-tailed deer) and generally well adapted to Florida. You may discover that these varieties are not sitting on the shelf at the local feed & seed. Often local suppliers can get specific varieties, but they must be special ordered, which adds time to the process. Hence the need to start planning and sourcing seed early.

If you are debating trying food plots on your property for the first time, please carefully consider the following. Food plots are not easy – Making productive food plots that provide a measurable, positive impact to the wildlife on your property takes considerable time, effort, and money. Considering this, food plots really only make sense when viewed as habitat improvements that provide long term benefits to multiple wildlife species. If you are looking for nothing more than a deer attractant during hunting season food plots are not a very practical option. For more information on getting started with food plots contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office and check out the reference below.