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.

An Intimidating Fish They Call the Stingray

An Intimidating Fish They Call the Stingray

It is now late May and in recent weeks I, and several volunteers, have been surveying the area for terrapins, horseshoe crabs, and monitoring local seagrass beds. We see many creatures when we are out and about; one that has been quite common all over the bay has been the “stingray”.

The cownose ray is often mistaken for the manta ray. It lacks the palps (“horns”) found on the manta.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant

These are intimidating creatures… everyone knows how they can inflict a painful wound using the spine in their tail, but may are not aware that not all “stingrays” can actually use a spine to drive you off – actually, not all “rays” are “stingrays”.

 

So what is a ray?

First, they are fish – but differ from most fish in that they lack a bony skeleton. Rather it is cartilaginous, which makes them close cousins of the sharks.

 

So what is the difference between a shark and a ray?

You would immediately jump on the fact that rays are flat disked-shape fish, and that sharks are more tube-shaped and fish like. This is probably true in most cases, but not all.  The characteristics that separate the two groups are

  • The five gill slits of a shark are on the side of the head – they are on the ventral side (underside) of a ray
  • The pectoral fin begins behind the gill slits in sharks, in front of for the ray group

Not all rays have the whip-like tail that possess a sharp spine; some in fact have a tube-shaped body with a well-developed caudal fin for a tail.

 

There are eight families and 19 species of rays found in the Gulf of Mexico. Some are not common, but others are very much so.

 

Sawfish are large tube-shaped rays with a well-developed caudal fin.  They are easily recognized by their large rostrum possessing “teeth” giving them their common name.  Walking the halls of Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, you will see photos of fishermen posing next to monsters they have captured.  Sawfish can reach lengths of 18 feet… truly intimidating.  However, they are very slow and lethargic fish.  They spend their lives in estuaries, rarely going deeper than 30 feet.  They were easy targets for fishermen who displayed them as if they caught a true monster.  Today they are difficult to find and are protected.  There are still sightings in southwest Florida, and reports from our area, but I have never seen one here.  I sure hope to one day.  There are two species in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Guitarfish are tube-shaped rays that are very elongated.  They appear to be sharks, albeit their heads are pretty flat.  They more common in the Gulf than the bay and, at times, will congregate near our reefs and fishing piers to breed.  They are often confused with the electric rays called torpedo rays, but guitarfish lack the organs needed to deliver an electric shock.  They have rounded teeth and prefer crustaceans and mollusk to fish.  There is only one species in the Gulf.

 

Torpedo rays can deliver an electric shock – about 35 volts of one.  Though there are stories of these shocking folks to death, I am not aware of any fatalities.  Nonetheless, the shock can be serious and beach goers are warned to be cautious.  I once mistook one buried in the sand for a shell.  Let us just say the jolt got my attention and I may have had a few words for this fish before I returned to the beach.  We have two species of torpedo rays in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Skates look JUST like stingrays – but they lack the whip-like tail and the venomous spine that goes with it.  They are very common in the inshore waters of the Florida Panhandle and though they lack the terrifying spine we are all concerned about, they do possess a series of small thorn-like spine on the back that can be painful to the bare foot of a swimmer.  Skates are famous for producing the black egg case folks call the “mermaids’ purse”. These are often found dried up along the shore of both the Gulf and they bay and popular items to take home after a fun day at the beach.  There are four species of skates found in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Stingrays… this is the one… this is the one we are concerned about.  Stingrays can be found on both sides of our barrier islands and like to hide beneath the sand to ambush their prey.  More often than not, when we approach they detect this and leave.  However, sometimes they will remain in the sand hoping not to be detected.  The swimmer then steps on their backs forcing them to whip their long tail over and drive the serrated spine into your foot.  This usually makes you move off them – among other things.  The piercing is painful and spine (which is actually a modified tooth) possesses glands that contain a toxic substance.  It really is no fun to be stung by these guys.  Many people will do what is called the “stingray shuffle” as they move through the water.  This is basically sliding your feet across the sand reducing your chance of stepping on one.  They are no stranger to folks who visit St. Joe Bay.  The spines being modified teeth can be easily replaced after lodging in your foot.  Actually, it is not uncommon to find one with two or three spines in their tails ready to go.  Stingrays do not produce “mermaids’ purses” but rather give live birth.  There are five species in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Atlantic Stingray is one of the common members of the ray group who does possess a venomous spine.
Photo: Florida Museum of Natural History

Butterfly ray is a strange looking fish and easy to recognize.  The wide pectoral fins and small tail gives it the appearance of a butterfly.  Despite the small tail, it does possess a spine.  However, the small tail makes it difficult for the butterfly ray to pierce you with it.  There is only one species in the Gulf, the smooth butterfly ray.

 

Eagle rays are one of the few groups of rays that actually in the middle of the water column instead of sitting on the ocean floor.  They can get quite large and often mistaken for manta rays.  Eagle rays lack the palps (“horns”) that the manta ray possesses.  Rather they have a blunt shaped head and feed on mollusk.  They do have venomous spines but, as with the butterfly ray, their tails are too short to extend and use it the way stingrays do.  There are two species.  The eagle ray is brown and has spots all over its back.  The cownose ray is very common and almost every time I see one, I hear “there go manta rays”… again, they are not mantas.  They have a habit of swimming in the surf and literally body surfing.  Surfers, beachcombers, and fishermen frequently see them.

 

Last but not least is the very large Manta ray.  This large beast can reach 22 feet from wingtip to wing tip.  Like eagle rays, they swim through the ocean rather than sit on the bottom.  They have to large “horns” (called palps) that help funnel plankton into their mouths.  These horns give them one of their common names – the devilfish.  Mantas, like eagle and butterfly rays, do have whip-like tails and a venomous spine, but like the above, their tails are much shorter and so effective placement of the spine in your foot is difficult.

 

Many are concerned when they see rays – thinking that all can inflict a painful spine into your foot – but they are actually really neat animals, and many are very excited to see them.

 

References

 

Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M.  College Station, TX. pp. 327.

 

Shipp, R. L. 2012. Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. KME Seabooks. Mobile AL. pp. 250.

Sea Turtles of the Panhandle: 2016 Nesting Numbers and Notes

Sea Turtles of the Panhandle: 2016 Nesting Numbers and Notes

There are five species of sea turtles that nest from May through October on Florida beaches. The loggerhead, the green turtle and the leatherback all nest regularly in the Panhandle, with the loggerhead being the most frequent visitor.  Two other species, the hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley nest infrequently.  All five species are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Due to their threatened and endangered status, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/Fish and Wildlife Research Institute monitors sea turtle nesting activity on an annual basis. They conduct surveys using a network of permit holders specially trained to collect this type of information.  Managers then use the results to identify important nesting sites, provide enhanced protection and minimize the impacts of human activities.

Statewide, approximately 215 beaches are surveyed annually, representing about 825 miles. From 2011 to 2015, an average of 106,625 sea turtle nests (all species combined) were recorded annually on these monitored beaches.  This is not a true reflection of all of the sea turtle nests each year in Florida, as it doesn’t cover every beach, but it gives a good indication of nesting trends and distribution of species.

If you want to see a sea turtle in the Florida Panhandle, please visit one of the state-permitted captive sea turtle facilities listed below, admission fees may be charged. Please call the number listed for more information.

  1. Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, 222 Clark Dr, Panacea, FL 32346 850-984-5297 Admission Fee
  2. Gulf World Marine Park, 15412 Front Beach Rd, Panama City, FL 32413 850-234-5271 Admission Fee
  3. Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, 1010 Miracle Strip Parkway SE, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548 850-243-9046 or 800-247-8575 Admission Fee
  4. Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Center, 8740 Gulf Blvd, Navarre, FL 32566 850-499-6774

To watch a female loggerhead turtle nest on the beach, please join a permitted public turtle watch. During sea turtle nesting season, The Emerald Coast CVB/Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council offers Nighttime Educational Beach Walks. The walks are part of an effort to protect the sea turtle populations along the Emerald Coast, increase ecotourism in the area and provide additional family-friendly activities. For more information or to sign up, please email ECTurtleWatch@gmail.com. An event page may also be found on the Emerald Coast CVB’s Facebook page: facebook.com/FloridasEmeraldCoast.

Ready for Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Workshop Wednesday February 22

Ready for Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Workshop Wednesday February 22

Northwest Florida Workshop Attendees from 2013 in Niceville, FL. This year’s workshop will be held at the UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Office in Crestview, February 22, 2017. Direction and Contact Information can be found at this link http://directory.ifas.ufl.edu/Dir/searchdir?pageID=2&uid=A56 

Researchers from University of West Florida recently estimated the value of Artificial Reefs to Florida’s coastal economy. Bay County artificial reefs provide 49.02 million dollars annually in personal income to local residents.  Bay County ranks 8th in the state of Florida with 1,936 fishing and diving jobs. This important economic study gives updated guidance and insight for industry and government leaders. This same level of detailed insight is available for other Northwest Florida counties and counties throughout the state.

The UWF research team is one of several contributors scheduled to present at the Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Manager’s Workshop February 22. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and Florida Sea Grant are hosting the workshop. This meeting will bring together about fifty artificial reef managers, scientists, fishing and diving charter businesses, and others interested in artificial reefs to discuss new research, statewide initiatives and regional updates for Florida’s Northwest region. The meeting will be held at the UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Office in Crestview, FL.

Cost is $15.00 and includes conference handouts, light continental breakfast with coffee, lunch, and afternoon refreshments. Register now by visiting Eventbrite or short link url  https://goo.gl/VOLYkJ.

A limited number of exhibit tables/spaces will be available. For more information, please contact Laura Tiu, lgtiu@ufl.edu or 850-612-6197.

 

Super Reefs staged at the Panama City Marina, which were deployed in SAARS D, located 3 nautical miles south of Pier Park. Learn more about this reef project and others at the Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Manager’s Workshop in Crestview, February 22, 2017. (Photo by Scott Jackson).

 

Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Workshop Tentative Agenda

Date: February 22, 2017

Where: UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Office, 3098 Airport Road Crestview, FL 32539

8:15     Meet and Greet

9:00     Welcome and Introductions – Laura Tiu UF/IFAS Okaloosa Co and Keith Mille, FWC

9:25     Regional and National Artificial Reef Updates – Keith Mille

9:50     Invasive Lionfish Trends, Impacts, and Potential Mitigation on Panhandle Artificial Reefs – Kristen Dahl, University of Florida

10:20   Valuing Artificial Reefs in Northwest Florida – Bill Huth, University of West Florida

11:00   County Updates – Representatives will provide a brief overview of recent activities 12:00 LUNCH (included with registration)

12:00   LUNCH

1:00     NRDA NW Florida Artificial Reef Creation and Restoration Project Update – Alex Fogg, FWC

1:15     Goliath Grouper Preferences for Artificial Reefs: An Opportunity for Citizen Science – Angela Collins, FL, Sea Grant

1:45     Current Research and Perspectives on Artificial Reefs and Fisheries – Will Patterson, University of Florida

3:00     BREAK

3:30     Association between Habitat Quantity and Quality and Exploited Reef Fishes: Implications for Retrospective Analyses and Future Survey Improvements – Sean Keenan, FWRI

3:50     Innovations in Artificial Reef Design and Use – Robert Turpin, facilitator

4:10     Using Websites and Social Media to Promote Artificial Reef Program Engagement – Bob Cox, Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association & Scott Jackson, UF/IFAS Bay Co

4:40     Wrap Up and Next Steps – Keith Mille and Scott Jackson

5:00     Adjourn and Networking

 

Register now by visiting Eventbrite or short link url  https://goo.gl/VOLYkJ. Live Broadcast, workshop videos, and other information will be available on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/floridaartificialreefs/ (Florida Artificial Reefs) .

An Equal Opportunity Institution. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension, Nick T. Place, Dean.

Christmas”sea” Cheer!

Christmas”sea” Cheer!

The holiday season is a special time for most of us! There are many creatures that live under the sea that represent many of our holiday traditions.

cookie-cutter-shark

Photo Credit: Fl. Museum Of Natural  History, George Burgess

Small cookie cutter sharks are found in very deep water during the day, at night they migrate up the water column to feed. Cookie cutter sharks attract their prey with lighted photophores. Photophores are lighted organs located on the lower part of the shark. Small fish are attached to the glow, larger fish searching for prey get close enough to the shark and the shark bites the prey.  The cookie cutter shark has specialized sucking lips that attach to the victim. The shark then spins its body around and leaves a cookie cutter shaped hole in the fish.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ribbon Eels are found in the Indio Pacific. They have long slender bodies and move like ribbons in and through the crevices reefs. They eat live fish. To view a YouTube video of ribbon fish feeding, click here.

Photo credit: Chris Verlinde

Jingle shells get their name as a result of their shells that when shaken together make a jingle like sound. Jingle shells can be found along the beaches of NW Florida. The shiny iridescent shell is strong and very attractive. Many shell collectors use the shells to make jewelry and wind chimes.

Jingle shells are bivalves and live attached to hard surfaces, just like oysters.

Jingle shells are filter feeders, meaning water is filtered through their gills for plankton.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Christmas tree worms are Christmas tree shaped worms that form burrows corals. The tentacles, which form the tree-like structures are used for feeding on plankton and to breathe.  These plumed creatures are a type of polychaete worm.

Christmas tree worms come in many colors and can be found all over the world. They feed by using their feathery appendages, called radioles to capture phytoplankton that floats by the “feathers.”

Christmas tree worms are easily disturbed and will quickly vanish into their burrows as shadows or larger marine life pass by. They return quickly and continue with their sedimentary lifestyles in the coral.

 

“Marine snow” falls gently on to a coral-covered shipwreck explored in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012 by the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Photo Credit NOAA

Marine snow gets its name as a result of the fluffy materials that resemble snow falling from the sky. Marine snow is decaying material from plants and animals that have died in the oceans. Marine snow may also include sand, fecal matter and inorganic dust.

Just like snowflakes, marine snow grows as it floats to the ocean depths. Marine snow is consumed by scavengers that live along the deep-sea floor bottom. Check out the video below showing the beauty of marine snow.

There are many more festive creatures that live in the sea. Have a wonderful Holiday Season!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Autumn Journey of Red Drum

The Autumn Journey of Red Drum

Red Drum are easily identified by their false eyespot located on the tail. Often, the tail and false eyespot break the water surface when red drum feed in shallow water. Shrimp and crabs are favorite food items of hungry red drum. Photo courtesy of NOAA. http://www.photolib.noaa.gov

Red Drum are easily identified by their false eyespot located on the tail. Often, the tail and false eyespot break the water surface when red drum feed in shallow water. Shrimp and crabs are favorite food items of hungry red drum. Photo courtesy of NOAA. http://www.photolib.noaa.gov

Cool mornings this week reminded everyone fall is just around the corner. This subtle change in temperature inspires many of us to behave differently. It’s actually enjoyable to be outside again. Now, it’s easier to relax and drink a morning cup of pumpkin spice coffee on the porch or maybe take a brisk evening walk. These slightly cooler days not only announce the end of the dog days of summer but cue the natural world.

One of the most fascinating stories in nature unfolds this time of year. Red Drum or Redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus) are some of the most well-known and easily identified predators of the bay flats and marshes – But did you know these prized game fish can tell time? They don’t have calendars or watches but sense changes in water temperature and to the length of daylight : night time hours. Our calendar says September while their calendar says time to feed, migrate, and reproduce.

In the fish world, reproduction is known as spawning. It takes about three to four growing seasons for a red drum to mature and spawn. A mature four-year-old fish is about 28-inches in total length from head to tip of the tail. This size fish is critical to the continuation of the red drum population. This is one of the main reasons why fisheries managers regulate the number of 27 or 28-inch red drum caught. Limiting the number of this size redfish supports sustainable recruitment so there will be fish for years to come. Learn more about red drum fishing regulations by visiting Florida Fish and Wildlife at http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/red-drum

When mature, red drum leave the nursery grounds of back bays and bayous and move to inlets and passes. This time of year, groups of spawning red drum may occur in entrances of the bay.

Notable members of Sciaenid or drum fish family include red drum, black drum, Atlantic croaker, and seatrout. Males have muscle fibers they vibrate against their swim bladder. The swim bladder is a hollow air filled sac fish use for buoyancy or depth control. When the muscle “strikes” the hollow sac a drum or drumming noise is created. The larger the fish the greater potential for noise. Male red drum often drum while spawning which generally occurs from sunset to sunrise.

In red drum hatcheries, light and temperature mimic the outside world and control spawning to support stock enhancement programs. In the hatchery, the drumming noise is loud and sounds like a bass drum being struck in rapid succession for about 10 seconds and then repeated. In the natural environment, Sciaenid drumming is so distinctive that researchers use hydrophones to locate and study fish species like seatrout and red drum.

While some fish species take care of their young and produce a few nurtured offspring, red drum overwhelm the odds of survival through shear numbers. During the two month spawning season, red drum spawning aggregations can produce millions of eggs each night. According to Louisiana Sea Grant, one female red drum can produce 1.5 million eggs in one night or 20-40 million per female each spawning season!

Spawning also occurs at the height of tropical storm season. Red drum eggs float on a tiny droplet of biologically produced oil that can be carried long distances by wind, waves, and water. In successful recruitment years, eggs and hatching red drum larvae make a journey into the most protected and productive portions of the bay or estuary in less than a week. Seagrass and submerged shoreline grass provide cover and protection. After rain and storms, adjacent land provides nutrients that naturally fertilize the bay waters. In response, algae and zooplankton bloom just in time to create the perfect first fish food for hatching red drum. The timing of red drum reproduction and survival is precise and elegant!

Juvenile red drum spend their next three to four-years growing to spawning adults, before migrating and starting the reproduction cycle over again.

Quick Facts: According to Texas Parks and Wildlife the oldest red drum ever recorded is 37 years old. The state record in Florida for red drum landed is just over 52 pounds and was caught near Cocoa in Brevard County, FL. A red drum caught in 1984 off the North Carolina coast holds the world record for largest red drum ever caught, 94 pounds!

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.