Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve – Choctawhatchee Bay, Niceville, Florida – Photo by Laura Tiu
September 17-24, 2016 was the nation’s 28th time to celebrate America’s coasts and estuaries during National Estuaries Week. This week helps us to remember to appreciate the challenges these coastal ecosystems face, along with their beauty and utility.
Estuaries, semi-enclosed bodies of water with both fresh and saltwater, dot the Gulf Coast of the United States from Brownsville Texas to Key West, Florida. These estuaries are important as they serve as drainage basins for many of the large river systems, and play a significant role in the nation’s seafood industry.
Florida’s six major Panhandle estuaries, which includes Perdido Bay, Pensacola Bay (including Escambia Bay), Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrew Bay, St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay, are unique ecosystems teeming with life and diversity. Critical habitat includes important seagrass beds that support both the larval and adult stages of fish and invertebrates. In Choctawhatchee Bay, there is also critical foraging habitat for the federally protected Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) and stream habitat for the endangered Okaloosa darter.
Choctawhatchee Bay is in Okaloosa and Walton counties in the Florida Panhandle. It is approximately 30 miles long and from three and a half to six miles wide, with a total area of 129 square miles. It is relatively shallow varying from 10 to 40 feet deep. Large portions of the western half of Choctawhatchee Bay are militarily restricted (Eglin Airforce Base). The Bay is fed by the Choctawhatchee River and numerous small creeks that feed into several bayous. The only opening to the Gulf of Mexico is the East Pass, which ironically is at the Western end of the Bay in Destin, Florida. This is where the saltwater and freshwater mix.
Continued industrial and residential development in the watershed regions that drain into many of these estuaries has impacted them in a number of ways. Pollution comes from storm water runoff, lawns, industry and farms. The shorelines are impacted by development, which causes sedimentation and in turn loss of vegetation. This reduces water clarity and habitat for wildlife.
Many organizations work to protect this estuary and reach out to others through education, restoration, and recreation events. Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) is one such organization committed to ensuring sustainable utilization of the Choctawhatchee River and Bay. They, working with their partners, provide leadership for the stewardship of the Bay. Alison McDowell, director of the CBA, notes that 75-85% of commercially and recreationally important species that are caught in the Gulf spend part of their lifecycle in the Bay. McDowell says a key factor in the Bay’s health is monitoring the water quality and reducing erosion, and the Oyster Reef Restoration program started in 2006 does just that.
There are often opportunities for the general public to join in some of the conservation efforts taking place in the Bay. For more information, like the Okaloosa or Walton County Extension Facebook page.
On “project day” students share their knowledge with the class. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson
The Florida Master Naturalist Program is a 40-hour experiential learning course offered by UF IFAS Extension. While we spend time in class with presentations, by far everyone’s favorite aspects of the course are field trips and “project day.” As part of the course, each participant produces an educational tool—a display, presentation, skit, or lesson—that delves deeper into a topic of interest. The students and instructors are able to use these tools again and again to teach others.
Master Naturalist students walk “The Way” boardwalk in Perdido Key. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson
One example of a multi-year student project is “The Way” nature trail, located at Perdido Bay United Methodist Church. Master Naturalist Jerry Patee worked with volunteers from his church and community to design and permit a boardwalk and nature trail leading to Bayou Garcon. The unique trail is less than a mile, but traverses upland, freshwater wetland, and coastal habitats, making it a perfect ecological teaching tool. The trail is open to the public and maintained as a place of quiet contemplation. The project is ongoing, with educational signage planned, but it is an excellent new resource for the community.
“The Way” is just one of many positive contributions made by Master Naturalist students over the years. To enroll in a Florida Master Naturalist course near you, visit the FMNP page or talk with an instructor at your local county Extension office.
The Panhandle Outdoors LIVE team, with Extension Agents from eight counties, hosted an outdoor field day on August 26, 2015. Twenty-three participants from over eight counties in Florida attended the event and traveled to three local springs: Vortex, Ponce de Leon, and Morrison Springs. The goal of the day was to learn about spring characteristics, history, biodiversity and management issues. These popular springs in the western Panhandle are managed by three different entities – the private sector, local government and a state agency.
The day began at Vortex Springs. Three generations of the same family have owned and managed this popular dive resort in the Panhandle. The current owners shared the history of the spring along with a family photo album highlighting the growth and development over the years.
Vortex Springs Dive Resort
Vortex Spring produces 28 million gallons of crystal clear water daily at a year-round temperature of 68 degrees. Depths in the spring basin range from about 50 feet for a cavern dive and up to 115 feet for a cave dive. The bottom of the spring bowl is sandy, with limestone near the vent. Vortex waters flow out of the 225-foot-diameter spring pool to form Blue Creek, which flows over a half-mile before entering the Choctawhatchee River. Fish at the spring are tame, coming right up to visitors, and include bluegills, channel catfish, American freshwater eels, gar, redhorse suckers, shadow bass, and exotic species such as koi and goldfish (floridasprings.org). One of the biggest environmental challenges the owners face is controlling an invasive aquatic plant, hydrilla, which rings the basin.
The next stop was Ponce de Leon Springs State Park where participants learned about the springs and had lectures on water quality, Florida Friendly landscapes and storm water management. Managed by a state agency, this beautiful spring is named for Juan Ponce de León, who led the first Spanish expedition to Florida in 1513 – as legend has it – in search of the “Fountain of Youth”. Visitors might well regain their youth by taking a dip in the clear waters where the temperature is a shocking 68 degrees F. year-round.
Leon County Extension Agent, William Sheftall, shares information on watershed management
The main spring produces 14 million gallons of water daily into a crescent-shaped basin with depths averaging five feet but increasing to 16 feet over the vents. The bottom is sand and limestone and gives the popular swimming area a light greenish blue appearance. The spring-run is approximately 350 feet in length and flows into Sandy Creek, a blackwater stream, which subsequently flows out of the park and into the Choctawhatchee River (floridasprings.org).
The spring run at Ponce de Leon Springs flowing into Sandy Creek
Our final destination was Morrison Springs. Morrison Springs is managed by Walton County, whose Commissioner and Habitat Conservation Plan Coordinator shared the history of the springs and the development work that has been completed. The large, sandy-bottomed spring is surrounded by a 161-acre park and is a popular spot for swimming, snorkeling, diving, birding, photography and nature walks . Morrison Spring discharges an average of 48 million gallons of crystal-clear water each day to create a 250-foot-diameter spring pool and a spring run that flows into the Choctawhatchee River (floridasprings.org). The springs are home to a healthy fish population with largemouth bass, bluegill, carp, white mullet, and pickerel all being seen that day.
Beautiful cypress trees and knees ring Morrison Springs
Field day participants (86%) reported an increase in knowledge of the springs after the event with 59% indicating that they would change their behavior based on the information presented. Behavior changes mentioned were cleaning up trash, controlling personal fertilizer applications, making sure their lawn care company was certified, controlling erosion, conserving water and planting native plants. All of the participants (100%) reported being interested in attending future Panhandle Outdoor Live events. That is just the kind of encouragement the team needed, so be sure to watch our website for future event announcements.
Welcome to National Estuaries Week! Each year in the fall NOAA and other agencies try to educate residents about estuaries. The vast majority of humans on our planet live on, or near, an estuary – many not realizing the importance those bodies of water have on our economy and quality of life. We live on them, consume food from them, swim in them, recreate on them, and maybe make your living from them. They are an integral part of our lives and many are under stress. Over the next seven days we will post articles discussing some of the benefits and problems our local estuaries are having. Let’s begin with What is an Estuary?
An estuary… where rivers meet the sea. Photo: University of California.Berkley
Estuaries are defined as semi-enclosed bodies of water where fresh and salt water mix. Typically freshwater enters at the head of the bay. In the Florida panhandle most of our estuaries are fed by one of two types of rivers; alluvial and tannic. Alluvial rivers are large, fast flowing streams that begin far up in the watershed (Georgia or Alabama) and typically are quite muddy; Escambia, Choctawhatchee, and Apalachicola Rivers are examples.
Tannic rivers are generally smaller in size, flow slower over coastal flatwoods, and build up tannins from the decomposition of leaf litter that settles to the bottom due to the slow currents. Due to the high levels of tannin, these rivers general have a lower pH and “blackwater” “ice tea” coloration to them; Blackwaterand PerdidoRivers are examples.
Freshwater from these rivers is less dense than seawater and tends to flow across the surface of the bay towards the mouth of the bay; where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. There are several types of estuaries found around the world and the ones in our area are drowned river valleys. They formed when ice from the last glacial period melted and flowed towards the sea. As they reached the coast areas of “low land” filled with water and became bays. Drowned river valleys typically are very wide and very shallow.Mobile Bay is 35 miles long, 10 miles wide, and not much deeper than 11 feet across its area. I remember as a kid scalloping in St. Joe Bayand being able to stand up at distance from shore that I could barely make out my car!
The Escambia River. One of the alluvial rivers of the Florida panhandle. Photo: Molly O’Connor
As seawater enters the bay it tends to remain near the bottom and will “finger” it’s way towards the head forming two layers of water within the bay; freshwater on top – seawater on the bottom. This “fingering” movement is called a salt wedgeand forms a halocline which impacts the distribution and diversity of aquatic species. On windy days the top and bottom layers will mix and the salinity of the bay becomes more brackish with no noticeable halocline; this too will impact the diversity and distribution of aquatic life. Creatures who live in estuaries must be hardy and prepared for drastic environmental change over the course of the day.
In the Florida panhandle our estuaries experience diurnal tides; 1 high and 1 low tide each day. The incoming tides are generally weaker than the outgoing ones; I have, more than once, been caught in an outgoing tide in Pensacola Bay… VERY difficult to swim out of.
A salt wedge. Graphic: NOAA
We have seven estuarine systems along the Florida panhandle; Perdido, Pensacola, Choctawhatchee, St. Andrew’s, St. Joseph, Apalachicola, and the Apalachee. Each is unique and important to their communities and provide benefits that are truly priceless. Enjoy the other articles we will post during National Estuaries Week and GO OUT AND ENJOY YOUR ESTUARY! It’s the perfect time of year for it.
The Cuban Treefrog:was introduced into Florida as a stowaway on vehicles and plants in the 1920’s. As of 2013, breeding populations have been recorded as far north as Georgia. Cuban Treefrogs have larger toepads and eyes than any of the native species. Being larger in size, the Cuban Treefrog out-competes other treefrogs for resources, to the point that they are predators of Florida’s treefrogs and inhibitors of native tadpoles.
Juvenile Cuban Treefrogs can be distinguished from natives by their red eyes and hind legs with blue bones. Three-foot-long sections of 1.5 inch diameter PVC pipe can be placed in the landscape to monitor for treefrog species. Should Cubans be found, they should be reported and euthanized. For additional details visit: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw259.
Would you like to be a Citizen Scientist? You can help Dr. Steve Johnson at the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation by reporting suspected Cuban Treefrog sightings. For more information on how you can become a Citizen Scientist, visit The Cuban Treefrog Citizen Scientist Project.
For more information contact the author Sheila Dunning, UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Commercial Horticulture Agent 850-689-5850.
Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata):
Hydrilla is a perennial submerged plant that grows in dense mats up to the surface of freshwater habitats, including ponds, lakes, springs, and rivers. Growing at the rapid rate of an inch a day and up to 25 feet long, hydrilla shades out beneficial native plants and clogs waterways, preventing flood control, boating, and fishing. In dense populations, the plant can alter oxygen levels and water chemistry and survive in a wide variety of nutrient conditions, sunlight availability, and temperatures.
Hydrilla Photo Credit: Vic Ramey, UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants.
Originating in Asia, it was introduced to Florida (likely through Tampa and Miami) in the 1950’s as part of the worldwide aquarium trade. Hydrilla has become a very expensive problem for the state. Millions are spent annually on chemical and mechanical treatment simply to maintain the plant. Adding to the problem is the fact that it is still available commercially, even though it has been placed on the US Federal Noxious Weed List. In the United States, the plant is found as far north as Connecticut and west to California and Washington.
Methods of control include mechanical harvesters and chopping machines (although fragments of hydrilla left in the water can regrow), introduced insects and fish (particularly the Chinese grass carp), aquatic herbicides, and lake drawdowns. Hydrilla is often transported from one body of water to the other by unknowing boaters moving fragments of the plant left on boats, trailers, or live wells, so learning to identify the plant and cleaning boats before leaving the ramp are helpful in prevention. Visit the Extension Hydrilla IPM site for more helpful tips.
For more information contact the author Carrie Stevenson, UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County Coastal Sustainability Agent at 850-475-5230.
Many plants and animals have been introduced to new regions for centuries, as people have discovered new lands. These transient species are known as non-natives, and can become invasive. Invasive species occur throughout the world and may blend in, be nondescript or highly attractive; they can be plant or animal; terrestrial or aquatic; they may resemble or remind the viewer of something familiar; they may be very good at adapting to our climate and conditions which is how many invasive species get their foothold in an area. And because they have not evolved alongside our native species, when introduced to areas lacking their natural predators, they can adapt and take off.
Conditions in the SE US are ripe for many invasive contenders. Some species have been intentionally introduced and other species have been accidentally introduced. Some common invasive species include red imported fire ants, Kudzu, Privet, Chinese tallow, Japanese climbing fern, Chinaberry, and cogongrass, just to name a few on the tip of the iceberg. These species are now out-of-control, and it is unlikely they will ever be eradicated from their new home.
In 2011 alone, the Department of the Interior spent more than $100 million on invasive species prevention, early detection and rapid response, control and management, research, outreach, international cooperation and habitat restoration in the US. (USFWS) This is a drop in the bucket when you consider in FY 1999-2000, nine Florida agencies spent $90.8 million on prevention, monitoring, control, and restoration efforts. It is estimated that the annual cost of invasive plants, animals and diseases in losses to Florida’s agriculture is estimated at $179 million annually (www.defenders.org).
Much like a cancer can spread in the body, so too, when conditions are favorable can invasive species spread across the landscape. Once established in the landscape eradication is expensive; ideally early monitoring is critical to understanding its movement and dispersal, coverage, and containment. Like cancers, early detection provides better opportunity to address the situation. Within the landscape, an aggressive invasive can impact the entire ecosystem – causing a serious imbalance; followed by a cascade of impact via unforeseen collateral damage.
Take the newest aquatic threat of Lionfish. The trophic impacts of lionfish could alter the structure of native reef fish communities and potentially hamper stock rebuilding efforts of the Snapper –Grouper Complex. Additional effects of the lionfish invasion are far-reaching and could increase coral reef ecosystem stress, threaten human health, and ultimately impact the marine aquarium industry. Control strategies for lionfish are needed to mitigate impacts.