Crawfish boils are popular in the springtime. Crawfish are generally harvested from aquaculture operations. Photo credit: Libbie Johnson, UF IFAS Extension
“You get a line, I’ll get a pole, we’ll go down to the crawdad hole, honey, baby, mine“…there are lots of great zydeco songs singing the praises of crawfish (aka crayfish, crawdads, mudbugs). They are in season now, and while crawfish festivals all around the southeast are canceled due to concerns over COVID-19, they are still available and make for great eating. Most of us would recognize a cooked one alongside a feast of corn and potatoes, but would you know an actual crawfish hole if you came up on it?
Last fall, our office welcomed about 500 kids (over several days) to the 4-H camp in Barrineau Park for a field trip. I showed every single one of them a small muddy mound with an opening in the top, and asked if anyone could tell me what it was. Not a single kid knew! Now, I make sure I point crawfish mounds out to anyone I happen to be walking with, as they are fascinating little structures. Also referred to as crawfish chimneys due to their upright, open construction, they are built by a crawfish in a muddy area, often near a creek or other water source.
Crawfish mounds are constructed using small pellets of mud, and the opening connects down to a burrow. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The industrious invertebrate uses its legs and mouth to create pellets of mud as it digs its burrow. It places mud up above the ground, using the mud balls like small bricks. Bricking up the entrance to its burrow (as opposed to placing discarded mud elsewhere) also protects a crawfish from exposure to predators on open soil. The crawfish chimneys can be 6 inches tall (or more!) and connect down to a burrow that may reach 3 feet deep, some straight down and others with side tunnels extending different directions.
Since the crawfish lives in wetland areas, it is theorized that these chimneys extending above the soil allow for better oxygen flow in the burrow. During a drought, crawfish will plug the opening of their mounds with mud, to keep water in the burrow from evaporating.
Crawfish in the wild are rarely harvested, although some folks do fish for them like the song referenced earlier. For the vast majority of crawfish harvested in commercial production, two species are the most popular–the white river crawfish (Procambarus zonangulus) and red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii). They are typically farmed in coordination with rice, as both commodities thrive in flooded conditions. Most aquaculture operations are associated with Louisiana, but at least five other southern U.S. states farm crawfish. To learn more about this industry, check out LSU AgCenter’s informative video.
Florida Sea Grant is maintaining a curated list of disaster assistance options for Florida’s coastal businesses disrupted by COVID-19.
Boats at calmly at rest in Massalina Bayou, Bay County, Florida.
The list contains links to details about well- and lesser-known options and includes “quick takeaway” overviews of each assistance program. Well-funded and widely available programs are prioritized on the list. The page also houses a collection of links to additional useful resources, including materials in Spanish.
“There is a lot of information floating around out there,” says Andrew Ropicki, Florida Sea Grant natural resources economist and one of the project leaders. “We are trying to provide a timely and accurate collection of resources that will be useful for Florida coastal businesses.”
Ropicki and others on the project team stress that the best place to start an application for disaster aid is to visit with your bank or lender and the Florida Small Business Development Center (SBDC). They also suggest contacting local representatives by telephone or email and not to just rely on internet-based applications.
Overview of Selected Disaster Assistance Programs Benefiting Florida Small Businesses including Agriculture, Aquaculture, and Fisheries (COVID-19)
The project team — which includes experts from Florida Sea Grant, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension, and the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education — reviews the page regularly for accuracy and to include new options.
Commercial seafood is a large part of Florida’s economy and culture.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
“[I] really appreciate the outstanding work that you and FSG have done on consolidating the various types of aid available to fishermen due to the virus,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, in a recent email. “I’ve been searching for a comprehensive listing and you just provided it.”
I recently had the fortunate opportunity to observe a commercial longline vessel being unloaded at a landing near Perdido Key. 10,000 pounds of fish, mostly grouper and tilefish, were being unloaded for markets in Atlanta, Canada, and locally. When I heard 10,000 pounds two things popped into my head right way…
1) That is a lot of fish
2) It is great to know that fresh local seafood can still be had.
It is a lot of fish, and this concerns some about the future of wild caught seafood. Humans have been harvesting wild caught seafood since the beginning of time, or at least as far back as boats go. What has changed today is better technology and more fishermen on the water. With these issues in mind, you have to either (a) reduce the number of fishermen on the sea, or (b) reduce the number of fish harvested. Though not always popular, this is where fisheries management comes in.
Commercial seafood is a large part of Florida’s economy and culture.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
The basic idea is to allow each species a chance to breed at least once before they are harvested. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, passed in 1996, requires that commercial fisheries within U.S. territorial waters be sustainable – meaning viable into perpetuity. To do this you need to know the life cycles of your target species. At what age do they become sexually mature and begin breeding? The age of a fish can be determined by rings in the otolith (ear bone) and there is a correlation between the number of rings and the length of the fish; hence the length regulations many species have. You need to know at what age they reach maturity, you allow one (sometimes more) years beyond this age allowing them to breed.
The next metric is how many of the mature adults can you allow to be harvested and remain sustainable. This obviously takes a lot of fisheries biology, and there are researchers at the federal, state, and university levels who work on these questions. When you know the answer to some of the biology questions, you can now input this into a computer model and determine what is known as the maximum sustainable yield, or how many fish (or the number of pounds) can be removed and still be sustainable.
Computer models are only as good as the programs that are developed for them. These can be hard to test. Hurricane computer models have become pretty good. Everyone remembers when Michael was approaching the Pensacola area and the modelers were sure it would make an eastward turn; and it eventually did. The thing about hurricane models is that if they are not working well, you know relatively quickly. Hurricane approaches shore – computer predicts where it will go – it makes landfall somewhere else – you correct the model – we get better. With fisheries, and other issues, we do not always get feedback as quickly as this. Stock assessments for selected species have to be made to see how the models are working, and this takes time.
Though it may not be an exact science, fisheries management certainly has helped hold on to some species that would have been harvested out otherwise.
There are about 80 species of commercial seafood products that come from Florida.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant
As far as knowing local seafood is still available, this is good news for many. Checking in with your local seafood markets you can find a variety of species at different times of the year. Some provide information as to which local restaurants they sell to. Many locals, and visitors, are willing to pay a higher price for these sought-after seafood species. It is good to know you can still get them in our area.
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.
Most kids who grew up on the Gulf Coast grew up catching blue crabs. These animals are common along our shorelines, relatively easy to catch, and adventurous because they may bite you. I caught my first one in 1965 and we proudly displayed the boiled shell over the kitchen bar for many years. This is also a popular seafood target with an estimated commercial landing value of $56,950 in the Pensacola Bay area in 2017.
Blue crabs are one of the few crabs with swimming appendages.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
But who is this crab that we enjoy so much? What do we know about it?
As you probably already know, it is one of an estimated 30,000 species of arthropods we call crustaceans. Crustaceans differ from insects and arachnids in that they have five pairs of legs and two sets of antenna. Insects typically have a head, thorax, and abdomen – however, in the crustaceans the head and thorax are fused into what is called a cephlathorax and covered with a section of the shell called the carapace. Like all arthropods, their body are completely covered in a chitinous shell that serves as their exoskeleton. This exoskeleton must be periodically shed (molting) so they can continue to grow. Crustaceans tend to molt about 10-11 times each year and typically in the summer months. To molt, crustaceans will remove some of the salts and minerals from the shell into their tissue, this weakens the shell enough to separate it. The crack is usually between the cephlathorax and abdomen. When they emerge, they are completely soft and about 30% larger than before – it is amazing to see this large crab emerge from the small shell it once lived in. Because of the softness of the body after molting, this is usually done under the cover of darkness for protection. The salts and minerals it removed during pre-molting are now used to harden the new shell – which can take a couple of days. It is at this stage we call them “soft shells”.
The crustaceans include many different kinds of arthropods – most notably are the crabs, shrimps, and lobsters. There are over 4500 species of crabs and they differ from shrimps and lobsters in the fact their abdomen flexes beneath their body – you do not see the “tail” you see in a lobster or shrimp – but its there. Crabs can also move very well laterally, which their cousins are not so good. Blue crabs differ from other crabs in that their last pair of legs are modified as paddles and the animal can swim. They can swim forwards, backwards, and laterally – and they are often seen swimming at the surface. There are other crabs who have these swimming paddles and they are all called protunid crabs.
Blue crabs perceive their world through their eyes, antenna, and sensory cells on their body. They are very good at burying in the sand – eyes and antenna exposed – and sensory cells all working – seeking prey and avoiding predators. Their eyes differ from ours in that they have numerous lenses, compared to our single one, and are called compound eyes. Each lens does not provide them with an image of you or me however. Rather each lenses provides them with a single pixel of light. It is much like the image you see on television when they are trying to block out a brand name, or someone’s face. The more pixels (lenses) you have, the clearer the image. Those this type of eye does not give as clear an image as ours; it is very good at detecting motion and has served the arthropods very well over the years.
For blue crabs, food can be just about anything. They are active hunters – usually using the ambush method of capture (buried in the sand), but are also known scavengers – eating any bits of food they can find. Those enjoy crabbing know this – you can put just about anything as bait in a crab trap and it works. They have numerous predators including fish, birds, mammals, and sea turtles.
Male and female blue crabs.
Blue crabs can be found in a variety of salinities (euryhaline). Males are typically found in the lower salinities of the upper bay. Females join them during mating season – which is in late spring and summer. Males cradle the females beneath his legs for several days waiting for the right location and moment to breed. Fishermen refer to them as “doublers” during this time. The females will molt and the male will then deposit his sperm into a sac called a spermatophore – which he then deposits to the female. She will then migrate to the more saline lower portions of the lower bay, while he remains and seeks another female. This may be the only spermatophore she receives her entire life – which can be up to five years, though most do not live beyond three years. She will use sperm from this spermatophore over that time to fertilize eggs.
The eggs develop in a sponge mass that develops beneath her abdomen. This egg mass is orange when in early development and becomes a darker brown with age as the larvae consume the yolk. There can be between 750,000 and 2,000,000 developing eggs within this mass. The females are called gravid at this stage and it is illegal to harvest gravid crabs in Florida.
The eggs hatch in about two weeks and a small microscopic mosquito looking larvae emerges – at this stage, they are called zoea. The zoea drift into the Gulf of Mexico where they feed and molt. Eventually they return to the estuary and become a microscopic crab with a tail – this stage is called a megalops. The megalops will feed and molt. The tail will eventually flex beneath and the crab becomes sexually mature. The entire process from hatching to sexual maturity is about 12-18 months.
These are fascinating animals. They are very common and a large part of the coastal culture of the Florida panhandle. Kids will have great fun catching them with a hand net, letting them swim in their beach buckets, but be sure to let them go before you head home and watch those claws – they do know how to use them. It is a great animal.
The famous blue crab.
Recreational Blue Crab Harvest Regulations in Florida
No size limit
10 gallons whole / harvester / day
Harvesting gravid females is prohibited
Five crab traps / person – cannot be placed in navigation channels
Trap closed season in Florida panhandle – Jan 5-14 in odd years.
Barnes, R.D. 1980. Invertebrate Zoology. Saunders College Press. Philadelphia PA. pp. 1089.
Blue Crab. Callinectes sapidus. Chesapeake Bay Program. 2018. https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/blue_crab.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Commercial Landings in Florida. 2017-2018. http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/fishstats/commercial-fisheries/landings-in-florida/.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Recreational Blue Crabbing. http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/blue-crab/.
Being in the panhandle of Florida you may, or may not, have heard about the water quality issues hindering the southern part of the state. Water discharged from Lake Okeechobee is full of nutrients. These nutrients are coming from agriculture, unmaintained septic tanks, and developed landscaping – among other things. The discharges that head east lead to the Indian River Lagoon and other Intracoastal Waterways. Those heading west, head towards the estuaries of Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
A large bloom of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in south Florida waters.
Those heading east have created large algal blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). The blooms are so thick the water has become a slime green color and, in some locations, difficult to wade. Some of developed skin rashes from contacting this water. These algal blooms block needed sunlight for seagrasses, slow water movement, and in the evenings – decrease needed dissolved oxygen. When the algae die, they begin to decompose – thus lower the dissolved oxygen and triggering fish kills. It is a mess – both environmentally and economically.
On the west coast, there are red tides. These naturally occurring events happen most years in southwest Florida. They form offshore and vary in intensity from year to year. Some years beachcombers and fishermen barely notice them, other years it is difficult for people to walk the beaches. This year is one of the worst in recent memories. The increase in intensity is believed to be triggered by the increase in nutrient-filled waters being discharged towards their area.
Dead fish line the beaches of Panama City during a red tide event in the past.
Photo: Randy Robinson
On both coasts, the economic impact has been huge and the quality of life for local residents has diminished. Many are pointing the finger at the federal government who, through the Army Corp of Engineers, controls flow in the lake. Others are pointing the finger at shortsighted state government, who have not done enough to provide a reserve to discharge this water, not enforced nutrient loads being discharged by those entities mentioned above. Either way, it is a big problem that has been coming for some time.
As bad as all of this is, how does this impact us here in the Florida panhandle?
Though we are not seeing the impacts central and south Florida are currently experiencing, we are not without our nutrient discharge issues. Most of Florida’s world-class springs are in our part of the state. In recent years, the water within these springs have seen an increase in nutrients. This clouds the water, changing the ecology of these systems and has already affected glass bottom boat tours at some of the classic springs. There has also been a decline in water entering the springs due to excessive withdrawals from neighboring communities. The increase in nutrients are generally from the same sources as those affecting south Florida.
Florida’s springs are world famous. They attracted native Americans and settlers; as well as tourists and locals today.
Photo: Erik Lovestrand
Though we are not seeing large algal blooms in our local estuaries, there are some problems. St. Joe Bay has experienced some algal blooms, and a red tide event, in recent years that has forced the state to shorten the scallop season there – this obviously hurts the local economy. Due to stormwater runoff issues and septic tanks maintenance problems, health advisories are being issued due to high fecal bacteria loads in the water. Some locations in the Pensacola area have levels high enough that advisories must be issued 30% of the time they are sampled – some as often as 40%. Health advisories obviously keep tourists out of those waterways and hurt neighboring businesses as well as lower the quality of life for those living there.
Then of course, there is the Apalachicola River issue. Here, water that normally flows from Georgia into the river, and eventually to the bay, has been held back for water needs in Georgia. This has changed flow and salinity within the bay, which has altered the ecology of the system, and has negatively impacted one of the more successful seafood industries in the state. The entire community of Apalachicola has felt the impact from the decision to hold the water back. Though the impacts may not be as dramatic as those of our cousins in south Florida, we do have our problems.
Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians
What can we do about it?
The quick answer is reduce our nutrient input.
The state has adopted Best Management Practices (BMPs) for farmers and ranchers to help them reduce their impact on ground water and surface water contamination from their lands. Many panhandle farmers and ranchers are already implementing these BMPs and others can. We encourage them to participate. Read more at Florida’s Rangeland Agriculture and the Environment: A Natural Partnership – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2015/07/18/floridas-rangeland-agriculture-and-the-environment-a-natural-partnership/.
As development continues to increase across the state, and in the panhandle, sewage infrastructure is having trouble keeping up. This forces developments to use septic tanks. Many of these septic systems are placed in low-lying areas or in soils where they should not be. Others still are not being maintained property. All of this leads to septic leaks and nutrients entering local waterways. We would encourage local communities to work with new developments to be on municipal sewer lines, and the conversion of septic to sewer in as many existing septic systems as possible. Read more at Maintaining Your Septic Tank – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/04/29/maintain-your-septic-system-to-save-money-and-reduce-water-pollution/.
And then there are the lawns. We all enjoy nice looking lawns. However, many of the landscaping plans include designs that encourage plants that need to be watered and fertilized frequently as well as elevations that encourage runoff from our properties. Following the BMPs of the Florida Friendly Landscaping ProgramTM can help reduce the impact your lawn has on the nutrient loads of neighboring waterways. Read more at Florida Friendly Yards – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2018/06/08/restoring-the-health-of-pensacola-bay-what-can-you-do-to-help-a-florida-friendly-yard/.
For those who have boats, there is the Clean Boater Program. This program gives advice on how boaters can reduce their impacts on local waterways. Read more at Clean Boater – https://floridadep.gov/fco/cva/content/clean-boater-program.
One last snippet, those who live along the waterways themselves. There is a living shoreline program. The idea is return your shoreline to a more natural state (similar to the concept of Florida Friendly LandscapingTM). Doing so will reduce erosion of your property, enhance local fisheries, as well as reduce the amount of nutrients reaching the waterways from surrounding land. Installing a living shoreline will take some help from your local extension office. The state actually owns the land below the mean high tide line and, thus, you will need permission (a permit) to do so. Like the principals of a Florida Friendly Yard, there are specific plants you should use and they should be planted in a specific zone. Again, your county extension office can help with this. Read more at The Benefits of a Living Shoreline – http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/nat/2017/10/06/the-benefits-of-a-living-shoreline/.
Though we may not be experiencing the dramatic problems that our friends in south Florida are currently experiencing, we do have our own problems here in the panhandle – and there is plenty we can do to keep the problems from getting worse. Please consider some of them. You can always contact your local county extension office for more information.