Man What a Year for Natural Resources… 2018

Man What a Year for Natural Resources… 2018

It has been one crazy year in the world of natural resources in the Florida panhandle.  I guess the top stories would be the red tide and, of course, Hurricane Michael.  Both had an impact environmentally and economically in the area.

Dead fish line the beaches of the Florida Panhandle after a coast wide red tide event in October of 2015.
Photo: Randy Robinson

We did not see the red tide in the panhandle until late summer.  The folks in southwest Florida had been dealing with it since late winter.  Down there, large fish kills were driving away tourists and halting the charter fishing industry.  People began canceling their hotel reservations and moving to the east coast of the state, which eventually had red tide as well.  One report showed a 6% decrease in tourism for that region, may have been more.  It was certainly devastating and there is now a bill in U.S. congress to fund red tide research and monitoring.  They are wanting to be able to predict them better, and possibly reduce their impacts.

 

Here in the panhandle the economic impact was not as large.  One, it came later in the year – beyond our busy season, and two Hurricane Michael occurred, which had a far greater environmental and economic impact. That said, FWC will continue to monitor for red tide and hope it will not be a story this year.

 

Hurricane Michael was huge as far as environmental and economic impacts for the natural resources in the region.  Charter captains either had no boats, no crew, no marina, or no customers – in some cases, all of the above, and business suffered.  For some fishing interest, we were past the closed season but for divers, and other fishing interest, the loss was definitely felt.

 

It was no different for the commercial fishing industry.  In addition to boat, crew, and marina issues, oyster cages in the Apalach area were tossed up on beaches or lost all together.  Product leaving the area, if you could harvest, was okay – but for those looking for local seafood in the area you had the problem with closed restaurants and seafood markets.

Damage to marina docks and vessels after Hurricane Michael.

Here is an example of the damage to local marinas and vessels that service our local fisheries. Unseen is the economic damage to fishing crews and supporting shore base businesses such as seafood processors, bait and tackle shops, and tourism related businesses. (Photo by Allen Golden).

Above the coast, there were problems with downed trees – making commuting impossible and, in some cases, costing landowners a lot of money.  Pecan orchards were hit hard, as were some of the timber interest.  There were reports of livestock loose due to crushed fences from downed trees.  Those they could hold on to did not have barns to put them in and feed was in low supply.

 

Then you had to be concerned about the quality of the water.  Excessive rain equals high levels of bacteria, even in private wells there could be contamination.  With time all things tend to return.  Some local residents may be restoring their natural resources for some time, others may be back in business now.  It was a tough hit for the area this year.

 

Other natural resource notes for 2018 include bear sightings.  This continues to be an issue in the panhandle, particularly in Santa Rosa County.  There have been manatees visiting the Big Lagoon area of Pensacola Bay during the last two years – something they do not often see.  Also, in the Pensacola area has been an increase in calls about venomous snakes.  Hard to say if there are more snakes than there once were, or whether they are becoming more visible, but it was a story that we will continue to watch this year.

 

At the 2018 FWC lionfish summit it was mentioned that lionfish are harder to find in waters shallower than 120’, this is good news.  The story is not over yet but seems the harvesting we have been doing has helped.  We will be having a regional lionfish workshop February 19 in Ft. Walton Beach for those interested in learning more about this issue.  That will be followed the next day with a workshop on local artificial reefs.  Registration information will be posted soon.

Harvested lionfish. Photo Credit: Bryan Clark

As we now look at 2019 there will certainly be new natural resource stories.  There are a couple of bills recently introduced at the state level dealing with septic tank inspections, lawn fertilizer, maintaining our springs, and sewage spills designed to help improve water quality – we will see what happens with those.  There is much discussion on coastal resiliency and how to reduce the impacts of future hurricanes and we will continue to monitor changes in our area such as invasive species and mangrove distribution.

 

If you have a topic you would like to see an article about, please let us know.  We hope you had a great holiday season and we look forward to a good new year.

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.

Septic systems: What should you do when a flood occurs?

Special care needs to be taken with a septic system after a flood or heavy rains. Photo credit: Flooding in Deltona, FL after Hurricane Irma. P. Lynch/FEMA

Approximately 30% of Florida’s population relies on septic systems, or onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems (OSTDS), to treat and dispose of household wastewater. This includes all water from bathrooms and kitchens, and laundry machines.

When properly maintained, septic systems can last 25-30 years, and maintenance costs are relatively low. In a nutshell, the most important things you can do to maintain your system is to make sure nothing but toilet paper is flushed down toilets, reduce the amount of oils and fats that go down your kitchen sink, and have the system pumped every 3-5 years, depending on the size of your tank and number of people in your household.

During floods or heavy rains, the soil around the septic tank and in the drain field become saturated, or water-logged, and the effluent from the septic tank can’t properly drain though the soil. Special care needs to be taken with your septic system during and after a flood or heavy rains.

 

Image credit: wfeiden CC by SA 2.0

How does a traditional septic system work?

The most common type of OSTDS is a conventional septic system, made up of (1) a septic tank (above), which is a watertight container buried in the ground and (2) a drain field, or leach field. The effluent (liquid wastewater) from the tank flows into the drain field, which is usually a series of buried perforated pipes. The septic tank’s job is to separate out solids (which settle on the bottom as sludge), from oils and grease, which float to the top and form a scum layer. Bacteria break down the solids (the organic matter) in the tank. The effluent, which is in the middle layer of the tank, flows out of the tank and into the drain field where it then percolates down through the ground.

During floods or heavy rains, the soil around the septic tank and in the drain field become saturated, or water-logged, and the effluent from the septic tank can’t properly drain though the soil. Special care needs to be taken with your septic system during and after a flood or heavy rains.

What should you do after flooding occurs?

  • Relieve pressure on the septic system by using it less or not at all until floodwaters recede and the soil has drained. For your septic system to work properly, water needs to drain freely in the drain field. Under flooded conditions, water can’t drain properly and can back up in your system. Remember that in most homes all water sent down the pipes goes into the septic system. Clean up floodwater in the house without dumping it into the sinks or toilet.
  • Avoid digging around the septic tank and drain field while the soil is water logged. Don’t drive heavy vehicles or equipment over the drain field. By using heavy equipment or working under water-logged conditions, you can compact the soil in your drain field, and water won’t be able to drain properly.
  • Don’t open or pump out the septic tank if the soil is still saturated. Silt and mud can get into the tank if it is opened, and can end up in the drain field, reducing its drainage capability. Pumping under these conditions can also cause a tank to pop out of the ground. 
  • If you suspect your system has been damage, have the tank inspected and serviced by a professional. How can you tell if your system is damaged? Signs include: settling, wastewater backs up into household drains, the soil in the drain field remains soggy and never fully drains, and/or a foul odor persists around the tank and drain field.
  • Keep rainwater drainage systems away from the septic drain field. As a preventive measure, make sure that water from roof gutters doesn’t drain into your septic drain field – this adds an additional source of water that the drain field has to manage.

More information on septic system maintenance after flooding can be found on the EPA website publication https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/septic-systems-what-do-after-flood

By taking special care with your septic system after flooding, you can contribute to the health of your household, community and environment.

Panhandle Outdoors Water School – St. Joseph Bay

Panhandle Outdoors Water School – St. Joseph Bay

Our first POL program will happen this week – August 17 – at the Navarre Beach snorkel reef, and is sold out!  We are glad you all are interested in these programs.

 

Well!  We have another one for you.  The Natural Resource Extension Agents from UF IFAS Extension will be holding a two-day water school at St. Joseph Bay.  Participants will learn all about the coastal ecosystems surrounding St. Joe Bay in the classroom, snorkeling, and kayaking.  Kayaks and overnight accommodations are available for those interested.  This water school will be September 19-20.  For more information contact Extension Agent Ray Bodrey in Gulf County or Erik Lovestrand in Franklin.  Information and registration can be found at https://stjosephbay-waterschool.eventbrite.com.


Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Ecotourism in Northwest Florida

Wakulla Springs is home to some of the best wildlife watching in all of northwest Florida. It’s not unusual to see manatees, alligators, and dozens of species of birds in one boat trip. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

What do you imagine when the word “ecotourism” comes to mind? I know  I usually daydream about a trip my husband I took to Costa Rica several years ago, surrounded by lush tropical rainforests as we ziplined through the canopy. I might also think about visiting a National Park, following a neatly maintained trail and stopping at signs placed at just the right spot so visitors can read and understand the special features of the place. Ecotourism, done right, brings a visitor to a unique place, tells its story, and immerses the visitor in the sights and sounds in a way that treads lightly on the location. I always know I’ve been on a good ecotour when I’m tired, happy, and have learned or seen something new.

A colleague with The Conservation Fund has stated that sustainable tourism includes: “Authentic experiences that are unique and specialized to the place (its culture, heritage, and natural resources), emphasizes quality over quantity, focuses on distinctive destinations, unspoiled landscapes, and historic buildings, and differs from mass-market tourism by favoring locally-owned businesses, thereby increasing circulation of money in the local economy.” The truly wonderful thing about ecotourism is that local touch; it exists solely because of the place, so it cannot be outsourced. The best storytellers about those places are usually the people who have lived there for many years, so by its very nature, ecotourism provides jobs for local residents.

Northwest Florida has hundreds of unique locations for visitors and locals to explore…we have centuries-old forts, clear-blue springs, endless rivers and creeks to paddle, trails on the coast and up our modest hills. We have caves and underground caverns, waterfalls, pitcher plant prairies, fishing, wildlife watching, and reefs for snorkeling and SCUBA diving. While millions come here for our quartz-sand beaches, other options that highlight our natural ecosystems deserve more attention and notoriety.

A few years ago, several Extension Agents received funding for a project called Naturally EscaRosa. The idea behind that project was to help promote and create businesses that sustainably used our agricultural and natural resources. The website (www.naturallyescarosa.com) has a list of over 100 businesses and locations where locals and out-of-town visitors can explore the less well-traveled areas of Escambia and Santa Rosa County. As you move east down the coast, Walton Outdoors, the local Visit Florida affiliates, and other privately managed media groups have done similar work, providing a showcase for these treasures in our midst.

This summer, try one of the local ecotourism or agritourism venues near you! Moreover, when your friends and family visit from out of town, encourage them to do the same. We cannot have a successful economy without a healthy ecosystem, and supporting these local and regional businesses is good for both.  

For more information on sustainable ecotourism, visit the Society for Ethical Ecotourism (SEE), and for information on starting or visiting an agritourism business, try Visit Florida Farms. And as always, reach out to your local County Extension agents, and we will be more than happy to point you in the right direction to discover to places to explore with your family.