Summertime and swimming at the beach just go together naturally in Florida with our state’s more than 1,000 miles of coastline. Many fond memories are created along these salty margins and the Panhandle region of the state has some of the top-rated beaches in the world. It is a great place to experience a relaxing, cool dip in the Gulf of Mexico on a balmy summer day. One thing to be aware of though is the possibility of an encounter with one of the Gulf’s “stinging” inhabitants and what to do if this occurs.
The Moon Jelly is a Common Inhabitant Along Panhandle Shores. Photo courtesy Florida Sea Grant
There are actually several different organisms that have the capability to sting. This is primarily their mechanism for capturing food but it may also serve to deter predators. Most belong to a group of organisms called “Cnidarians,” which includes the jellyfish. Most jellyfish are harmless to us and are important food sources for many other marine creatures, including some sea turtles, fish and even other jellies! Some species are even dried, shredded and eaten by humans. However, there are several types of jellyfish that will inflict a sting when brushed against and some that are actually a serious hazard. Keep in mind that people also react differently to most venoms, exhibiting varying degrees of sensitivity. The most dangerous types include some of the box jellyfish species (visit HERE for general map of worldwide jellyfish fatalities), and the blue-colored Portuguese man-o-war, which is sometimes common on our shores after sustained southerly winds during summer. A few of our locally common species that cause pain but of a generally less-severe nature include the moon jelly, sea nettle, and cannonball jellyfish. We even have some species of hydroids that look very much like a bushy brown or red algae. They are usually attached to the bottom substrate but when pieces break off and drift into the surf they can provide a painful encounter.
If you are stung there are a couple of things you can do to help and a couple of things you should not do. First, move away from the location by getting out of the water so you don’t encounter more tentacles. Carefully remove any visible tentacle pieces but not with your fingers. You should also change out of swimwear that may have trapped pieces of tentacles or tiny larval jellyfish against the skin. Do not rinse the area with fresh water as this causes the remaining stinging cells to fire their venomous harpoons. If symptoms go beyond a painful sting to having difficulty breathing or chest pain you should immediately call the Poison Information Center Network at 1-800-222-1222 or call 911.
Another thing to watch for in areas where public beaches display the beach warning flag system is a purple flag. This flag color at the beach indicates dangerous marine life and quite often it is flown when jellyfish numbers are at high levels. All of this is being written, not to scare you away from our beaches, but to help you enjoy our beautiful coastline with a little better understanding of what is out there and what to do if you happen to have a brush with a jellyfish. The vast majority of encounters are a minor irritation in an otherwise pleasant experience.
An Update on the Lionfish Situation in the Panhandle
In the past couple of years, we have posted articles about the lionfish during NISAW week. A question we hear more now is – “how is lionfish management going?”
First, they are still here…
Wish I could say otherwise, but they are here and probably always will be. Since the time of the first sighting in 2010 their numbers have increased. In 2013 Dauphin Island Sea Lab reported densities on artificial reefs at 14.7 lionfish / 100m2; which was among the highest recorded in the western Atlantic and the time. At some point all populations reach carrying capacity and begin to level out; we do not know if this has begun to happen yet.
Scientists have suggested that effective management would require a minimum 25% of the population to be removed during removal events. We are not sure how many are out there but FWC does maintain records on how many have been removed.
In 2014 there were 28 derbies held in Florida; 10 of those in the panhandle (36%). 17,246 lionfish were removed; 8,643 (50%) were from the panhandle. This could be because of a stronger effort (we had 2 more derbies than the west coast of peninsular Florida) or we just have more lionfish here.
In 2015 there were again 28 derbies; 6 of those in the panhandle (21%). But only 10,953 lionfish were removed; 2,106 in the panhandle (19%). We did have a decrease in effort locally.
So why the decrease in effort?
Speaking with members of the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition – time and money. Coordinating and hosting derbies is time-consuming, and those who were volunteering their time were charter captains who forwent charters to do this… money. Everyone who has worked on lionfish since the 1980’s has commented that derbies have a lifespan. They are effective at removing large numbers of lionfish, especially if repeated often, but that they alone will not solve the problem.
So what now?
Well, here in Escambia county we are looking at the possibility of lionfish as a seafood product. At the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day in Pensacola several local chefs’ tried different recipes with the public; one restaurant even offered smoked lionfish dip! The public seemed to like the fish but the cost of a fillet can be quite high. Publix offers a program called “Reel Variety” where you can order any fish you are interested in – lionfish is one, but the price ranges from $20-$30 / lb. Local divers in the Pensacola area are currently selling lionfish at prices bit lower but for the dip; fillets are still pricy. We will continue to experiment with this idea and see, if a low by-catch lionfish trap, can be developed and whether that will bring prices down. We are also monitoring for lionfish inside of our bays. In 2015 we can confirm two lionfish found inside Pensacola Pass in Big Lagoon; we will continue to monitor in 2016.
In Okaloosa County the Emerald Coast Reef Associationis working on a proposal that would reward those removing lionfish with permission to catch other regulated species out of season. We will see where 2016 takes us. The 2016 Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day will again be in downtown Pensacola May 14-15.
Red Lionfish are a predatory reef fish that are non-native invasive species and have spread throughout Florida Waters. They are members of the family Scorpaenidae whose members are venomous and the lionfish is no exception. This fish is relatively small ranging from 10-12 inches in length and have a zebra-like appearance with long, showy pectoral fins. They have a row of long dorsal spines that contain venom glands. Their native range is the South Pacific and Indian Oceans and preferred habitat is on offshore reef structures. These fish are considered to be voracious eaters feeding on native fish, reducing vital native populations, and competing for food with native fish such as grouper and snapper.
With few predators, these fish are thriving in Florida waters, even in the northern Gulf of Mexico. They reproduce often, under good conditions as often as every 3-4 days, with eggs hatching after about two days. They also consume a variety of local species. Research has found in some cases there has been an 80% decline in reef fish recruitment and loss of some economically important species. These fish are able to expand their stomachs for large meals and can survive starvation for over 12 weeks. Lionfish are an invasive species in our local waters and removal is encouraged.
The most effective control of this species is removal by spearfishing; though some recent reports of hook and line capture using live bait have occurred. Lionfish are cryptic and nocturnal but local divers have found them hovering near reefs at midday. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) changed regulations to increase harvesting opportunities. Such changes include no requirement for a recreational fishing license when using spearing devices (pole spear, a Hawaiian Sling, handheld net, or spearing devices marked for use on lionfish), and no recreational or commercial bag limit; though recreational fishing license is required for other fishing methods. Check the FWC regulations before fishing or diving for these species.
Lionfish are venomous, must be handled carefully, venom glands occur on the dorsal, pelvic and anal spines. Lionfish sightings can be reported at 877.786.7267, the newly released FWC lionfish app,or (if in the Pensacola area) the lionfish map. If stung the wound can be treated with warm (but not scalding) water. You may need to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Rarely are stings fatal unless the person has an allergic reaction. The Poison Help Hotline can be reached at 800.222.1222. Inshore sighting information is being collected by Florida Sea Grant in Escambia County to track the movement of these species. You can fill out the online report on the USGS website or the REEF website and stay up to date on research as it pertains to this species at the new NOAA lionfish portal and Florida Sea Grant.
For more information contact the author Rick O’Connor, UF/IFAS Escambia County Extension – Sea Grant and Marine Science Extension Agent, 850-475-5230.
White Shark (Carcharhinus carcharias). Credit: Florida Sea Grant Stock Photo
From Fear to Fascination: White Sharks in the Florida Panhandle
UF/IFAS Extension – Florida Sea Grant
By Rick O’Connor (Escambia County) and L. Scott Jackson (Bay County)
Recently, I was walking on our local Gulf fishing pier checking fishing line recycle bins. You can’t walk on a Gulf pier without looking over to possibly catch a glimpse of a sea turtle or a shark, and I was not disappointed. It was hard to tell which species of shark but it was about 6 feet in length. It swam south along the edge of the pier and then east to make a large arching circle through the emerald water, past bathers at the surf break, and back to the pier only to swim the pattern again. Onlookers from out-of-town were giggling with delight to see the animal while a couple of local fishermen tried tossing bait at it, but most ignored it and went on with their fishing.
Bob Shipp’s book, Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, lists 29 species of shark found locally. Most are members of the requiem shark family, such as blacktips and bulls, and hammerheads. Though these sharks are certainly capable of attacking humans, their presence usually does not interrupt water activities. Divers who encounter sharks may be startled at first but rarely do they end their dive or have problems with them. Even in 2005, remembered as the “summer of the shark attack”, few people stopped diving or surfing. Individuals have become educated regarding shark behavior and are not as startled when they see one. However, in 2015 there were several encounters with White Sharks.
Sightings in the Gulf of Mexico are rare but usually occur in the cooler months. Is the increased interaction with White Sharks unusual or something to worry about?
Burgess assured me that White Sharks do occur in the Gulf of Mexico usually during cooler months and are transients, as opposed to residents. Their movement in and out of the Gulf is temperature driven. As late spring Gulf waters continue to warm into early summer, sighting a White Shark is less likely to occur. According to Burgess, White Sharks use deep water when traveling but prefer shallow water when hunting fish, turtles, and marine mammals. So, inshore encounters especially in cooler months would not be unusual.
Why is there a sudden increase in the numbers of encounters?
One part of the answer lies with the increased number of White Sharks. Conservation of sharks has been effective. Additionally, with the passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, there are more marine mammals, thus an increase in their predators, White Sharks. The other part is the number of humans visiting the northern Gulf has increased. There are more more visitors to marine waters, especially since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Everyone has a camera. Beachgoers, Swimmers, Divers, and Anglers all have improved technology to record their adventures.
Is Northwest Florida a “hot spot” for White Sharks? Burgess indicated that the northern Gulf of Mexico is more productive than the peninsular Florida due to the number of nutrient rich rivers in the region. Seeing more White Sharks here would not be any more unusual than finding more snapper, lionfish, or other species of shark. As far as worrying, there have been no records of White Shark attacks in the northern Gulf of Mexico since they began keeping records in 1872.
Finally, what does one do if they encounter a White Shark?
In a recent video, recorded near Apalachicola, a diver was on an anchor line on a decompression stop when he saw a White Shark approaching from depth. What should a diver do in this situation? Should they swim for the surface and risk decompression sickness, remain still, or return to the bottom?
The answer has a lot to do with what the shark is actually doing. Is the shark interested in the diver or acting aggressively? Burgess suggests, you assess the situation and the shark’s behavior. All options are on the table and have to be weighed against the consequences given in this scenario. As a last resort, a diver may need to make a quick but graceful exit out of the water, past the shark, and depend on their diving partners to render aid as needed. The lesson is for divers to be prepared for a variety of potential issues on every dive.
March 7th: Eurasian Milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), Tiger Prawn (Penaeus monodon), The Cuban Tree Frog (Osteopilus septentrionalis)
Eurasian water-milfoil Myriophyllum spicatum photo by Alison Fox, University of Florida, Bugwood.org
Eurasian Water Milfoil:Eurasian water milfoil is a submerged aquatic plant that can be found in northwest Florida in lakes, rivers, and coastal marshes. Water milfoil forms a dense mat of vegetation that can block sunlight and habitat for native plants. These mats can increase water temperatures and interfere with boat traffic, fish habitat, and native aquatic plant species.
Eurasian milfoil was first documented in Florida in 1964. It was reportedly planted by aquarium plant dealers. It is still used today in the aquarium industry and obtained through suppliers and through internet sales. This plant is listed as a category II on the Florida Exotic Species Pest Plant Council List, which means it has the potential to overtake native submerged plant communities.
The spread of Eurasian milfoil can be caused by the breaking of stems and roots, which can be carried by boats, engines and trailers to other lakes and coastal marshes. To help prevent spread of Eurasian water milfoil to Florida’s waters, always clean off your boat, motor and trailer at the ramp to avoid transporting vegetative stems to other areas. In addition, never release or dispose of aquarium plants or animals into local waterways.
For more information, contact the author Chris Verlinde, Marine Science Agent 850-623-3868.
Giant Tiger Prawn Photo Credit: FWC photo by Michelle Sempsrott
Giant Tiger Prawn:This large shrimp, also known as the Asian Tiger Shrimp and the Black Tiger Shrimp, can reach lengths between 8-12 inches. It resembles are native edible penaid shrimp but differs in that it has distinct black and yellow stripes. It was brought to the U.S. from the Indo-Pacific region as an aquaculture product. There was an accidental release of 2,000 animals from a South Carolina farm in 1988. Reports of this shrimp in the wild have increased over time. They have been found in all Gulf coast states and there has been at least 1 record in each of the Florida panhandle counties. The impact of this shrimp to our area is still unknown but they have a high tolerance for salinity change and consume many types of benthic invertebrates. It is thought that they could become serious competition for our native penaid shrimp and could possible transmit diseases. If you think you have found one of these shrimp, record size location (GPS preferred) and email information to ExoticReports@MyFWC.com. To learn more about this species view the USGS factsheet.
For more information, contact the author Rick O’Connor, Sea Grant/Marine Sciences Agent 850-475-5230.
Image by Dr. Steve A Johnson 2005.
The Cuban Tree Frog: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 Tree frogs have larger toepads and eyes than any of the native species. Being larger in size, the Cuban Tree frog out-competes other tree frogs for resources, to the point that they are predators of Florida’s tree frogs and inhibitors of native tadpoles. Juvenile Cuban Tree frogs 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 tree frog species. Should Cubans be found, they should be reported and euthanized. For additional details visit: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw259.
For more information contact the author Sheila Dunning, Commercial Horticulture Agent 850-689-5850.
March 6th: Climbing Ferns (Lygodium sp.) & Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense)
Japanese Climbing Fern (Lygodium japonicum) and Old World Climbing Ferns (Lygodium microphyllum): are presently the only non-native invasive ferns in Florida. Both ferns reproduce and spread readily by wind-blown spores. A single fertile leaflet can produce 28,600 spores. Animals, equipment, and even people that move through an area with climbing ferns are very likely to pick up spores and move them to other locations on the property or even to other properties. In 2005, they covered 122,787 acres of Florida.
Japanese Climbing Fern Lygodium japonicum photo by Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org
Japanese climbing fern is a delicate looking perennial climbing vine. It is capable of forming a dense mat-like thatch capable of covering trees and shrubs. Initially, it was introduced from Japan as an ornamental. It is scattered throughout the lower portions of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and south into central Florida. Further planting or cultivation of this vine is prohibited by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It climbs very quickly to the crowns of pine trees, which can move fire into the growth points during controlled burns, making it a concern on forested lands.
Old World climbing fern has been a problem for many years in central and south Florida but it is currently moving north. The first plant was documented in 1958 by a nursery in Delray Beach. By 1965, it
was found in natural areas of Marion County. The northern edge of its advance by 2012 was Hernando County on the Gulf side and Duval County on the Atlantic coast.
Adequate control of both climbing ferns has been achieved with multiple applications of glyphosate and/or metsulfuron. Other herbicides, such as triclopyr and imazapic have also been used to control
Old World Climbing Fern Lygodium microphyllum photo by Ken A. Langeland, University of Florida, Bugwood.org
Japanese climbing fern. However, when the plant is growing in areas adjacent to wetlands or water, fewer herbicides are registered for those sites. Hand digging is also an option, except when the fern is producing spore covered leaflets. Disturbing it then would propagate more plants.
As with most invasive plants, repeated and correctly timed treatments are likely to be necessary. For more information about climbing ferns contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office and read the following publications: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fr133 and http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss-agr-21.
For more information contact Les Harrison, Agriculture & Natural Resources Extension Agent by phone at 850-926-3931.
Chinese Privet Ligustrum sinense photo by James H. Miller & Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society, Bugwood.org
Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense): Chinese Privet is a non-native shrubby tree commonly found in forested areas in northern Florida. This eastern invader thrives in low-lying, wet areas near forest openings and fence rows. Other species of the Ligustrum genus are commonly grown in landscapes. Chinese Privet can be identified in the spring by its small white flowers which omit a foul odor. Birds easily spread this weed by feeding on and excreting the fruit which contain many seeds. Additionally, Chinese Privet can spread by underground plant structures called rhizomes which allow new shoots to sprout up from the ground from a mother plant.