Walton County’s Rare Coastal Dune Lakes

Walton County’s Rare Coastal Dune Lakes

October is Dune Lake Awareness month and as part of the celebration, Walton and Okaloosa County UF/IFAS Extension Agents are joining together to host a Coastal Dune Lake Tour at Western Lake in Grayton Beach State Park.  This free event will include a brief lecture and guided tour of the nature trail surrounding the lake.  Laura Tiu, Marine Science Agent, will start the tour with a history of the lakes, the unique ecology and some of the local protections.  Sheila Dunning, Horticulture Agent, will share information on the unique flora in the dunes including which plants have been used by native Americans and pioneers for food and medicine and the trees we find in the dune landscape surrounding the dune lakes and their adaptations to this sometimes-harsh environment.  If you have an interest in our local dune lakes or the tour, you may visit the Walton County Dune Lake website at https://www.co.walton.fl.us/97/Coastal-Dune-Lakes.  If you would like to register for this free tour go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoor-live-2023-coastal-dune-lake-lecture-and-trail-tour-tickets-722764316527?aff=oddtdtcreator or use our Facebook event link https://www.facebook.com/events/811943803961304.  Feel free to call our office, 850-892-8172, with any questions.

Western Dune Lake Tour
Whale I’ll Be!

Whale I’ll Be!

We are fortunate to have several whale species that have been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico including humpback whales, Rice whales, fin whales, sperm whales, sei whales, and orca whales. Recently, however, we have seen multiple reports of whale sharks near shore in Destin and Panama City Beach. 

Whale sharks, however, are not whales, but the largest shark species and the largest fish alive today.  Whale sharks aren’t even closely related to whales.   They have gills, not blow holes.  They are huge, up to 46 feet in length and weigh up to 22,000 lbs., the weight of two African elephants.  Despite their large size, they are filter feeders with plankton being their main food, although they are also known to eat squid, krill, and small baitfish. They glide through the water at speeds of less than 3 m/hr, gently swinging their bodies side to side. They are not aggressive and pose no threats to humans.

Whale sharks prefer warm water, which is why they can be found in tropical areas and are often attracted to coastal areas due to a higher abundance of food. It’s no surprise, then, that they have been spotted in the Gulf. June to October is whale shark season in the Gulf, with Destin sightings being reported previously in 2013 and 2020. They are also found in many other countries around the world including Mozambique, Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, Australia, Belize, Thailand, Egypt, Mexico, Seychelles, and the Maldives.

Unsurprisingly, many ocean lovers are desperate to get a glimpse of these majestic creatures in the water. However, experts recommend a hands-off policy for these gentle sea creatures.  The Okaloosa Coastal Resource Team has been collaborating with NOAA scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi to tag 10 of this year’s visitors to gain valuable insights into their migratory patterns and habitat use. You can follow their Facebook page for updates on current locations and tracking data. https://www.facebook.com/whalesharkresearch

Dotty, a 25 foot female whale shark tagged off Destin, Florida in July 2023 (Alex Fogg).
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023: Combating an Invasive Species Through Sport

The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023: Combating an Invasive Species Through Sport

The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament May 20-21, 2023, at HarborWalk Village in Destin, FL, is gearing up to tackle a pressing ecological challenge while showcasing the power of sport to make a positive impact. This unique tournament, held along the picturesque shores of the Emerald Coast, focuses on combating the invasive lionfish population in the region’s waters.

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have become a significant threat to the delicate balance of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. With their voracious appetite and rapid reproduction, these invasive species pose a grave danger to native marine life. The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament aims to address this issue by encouraging divers and fishermen to actively hunt and remove lionfish from the waters.

Participants in the tournament will compete to catch the most lionfish, utilizing their skills in underwater navigation, spearfishing, and conservation. Sponsors provide cash and prizes for multiple categories including most caught, largest and smallest lionfish. The event provides an exciting platform for experienced divers and newcomers alike to contribute to the preservation of the marine environment.

Beyond the ecological significance, the tournament also offers a thrilling experience for both participants and spectators. Divers equipped with their spears dive into the depths, searching for lionfish while showcasing their prowess and bravery. The tournament fosters a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among the participants, creating a community dedicated to the cause of protecting marine ecosystems.

In addition to the competitive aspect, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament promotes education and awareness about the invasive species. Participants and attendees have the opportunity to learn about the impact of lionfish on local marine life and explore sustainable solutions to combat the issue at the free Lionfish Awareness Festival from 10:00-5:00 each day. Sign up to volunteer at the event if you want to join the fun. The week prior to the tournament is dedicated to Lionfish restaurant week where local restaurants practice the “eat ‘um to beat ‘um” philosophy and cook up the tasty fish using a variety of innovative recipes. 

The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023 represents a unique fusion of sport, environmental conservation, and community engagement. By bringing together individuals passionate about marine conservation, this event serves as a powerful catalyst for change and a shining example of how sport can contribute to the preservation of our natural world.  Learn more at https://emeraldcoastopen.com.

A Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival volunteer sorts lionfish for weighing. (L. Tiu)

Written with assistance from ChatGPT

Offshore Aquaculture: Siting Tools

Offshore Aquaculture: Siting Tools

Aquaculture is growing faster than any other animal food-production sector.  The development of new technologies, stagnation of wild capture fisheries, and the increase in seafood demand are all contributing to a 5.3% increase in aquaculture production within the last two decades (FAO, 2020). While global aquaculture production continues to expand, the U.S. is experiencing a seafood trade deficit of $14 billion.  The U.S. is clearly in urgent need of more domestic seafood production.

Aquaculture is a growing industry in Florida and one of the best opportunities for expanding seafood production is in offshore or open-ocean marine aquaculture. Offshore aquaculture production has the potential to help meet the protein requirements for a burgeoning population and provide seafood security.  Additionally, it can help support working waterfront communities and even enhance recreational dive tourism and recreational fishing.  However, the complexity of offshore production is not fully understood by the public.  In fact, there is a small, but vocal, anti-aquaculture activist groups that often uses false or outdated information to undermine public confidence and resists even low-impact or environmentally responsible operations.  Identified concerns include that the expansion of marine aquaculture will adversely impact fishing, harm coastal communities, and degrade the oceans for other recreational users.

Proper siting of offshore aquaculture farms can address many of the identified concerns.  In response, NOAA scientists have developed a tool, Ocean Reports, that can instantaneously analyze more than 100 ocean datasets to develop maps, graphics, and other details of selected areas in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.  Users can get detailed information about habitats and species, industries in the area, potential hazards (such as undersea cables or shipwrecks), the economic value of ocean commerce, and other detailed oceanographic information.

Ocean reports has data useful to industry and science, but is user-friendly enough for other stakeholders, including students.  Recently, students studying aquaculture at Freeport High School in Freeport, FL used the tool to search for potential offshore aquaculture sites off the coast of Florida.  The tool is fun and easy to use, so feel free to visit the website to give it a try.  https://www.marinecadastre.gov/oceanreports

Offshore Aquaculture Netpen
Freeport High School Students exploring Ocean Reports tool.
Recreate Responsibly

Recreate Responsibly

Spring break is upon us and this often includes trips to the beach. Encountering dolphins and other marine life in the wild can be a once-in-a lifetime experience.  There are a few simple guidelines that you can follow to prevent human/wildlife conflict while promoting a positive and memorable experience.  These tips from NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries can serve as a guide to recreating responsibly.  

  1. Keep my pets home or on a leash: Before you take your pet on an outdoor adventure, make sure they are permitted to be there, and if they are, keep them on a leash at all times! When pets get too close to wildlife, especially marine mammals, all animals are at risk of harm, stress, and even disease.
  2. Lead by example: What are some ways you can lead by example while enjoying the outdoors? By helping others to become responsible wildlife watchers, we protect both people and animals. Show respect for wildlife and other visitors, speak up about wildlife viewing violations, and choose businesses who recreate responsibly.
  3. Report wildlife that seems sick or abandoned: Plenty of marine animals love to spend time on the beach to rest or eat, just like us! Seeing wildlife on the shore is not always cause for concern, but if you see an animal that appears sick or abandoned, make sure to give it plenty of space and contact your local wildlife authorities. Contact the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-3922 in Florida.
  4. Keep snacks to yourself: Sharing is caring, but not when it comes to sharing food with animals! Wildlife are perfectly capable of finding their own food. Feeding wildlife often does more harm than good and is actually illegal for many species, so keep those snacks to yourself!
  5. Lend a hand with trash removal: Each year, billions of pounds of waste enter our ocean. This debris can be ingested by wildlife causing them harm or even death. To do your part try reusing and even refusing plastics. Make sure to properly dispose of your garbage and recycle whenever possible as well pick up any debris you see!
  6. Keep my hands to myself: You might be tempted to pet a seal basking in the sun but getting too close or startling them can evoke aggressive behavior and seriously injure them as well as you. Be sure to stand at a safe distance to get that perfect photo as touching, feeding, or harassing wild animals is often illegal and can ruin both yours and the animals’ day.
  7. Hang back and enjoy the view: Giving wildlife their space is SO important! Getting too close to wildlife exerts the precious energy they rely on for hunting, attracting mates, and raising their young. By hanging back from our wildlife, we can help to keep them healthy and stress-free.

Finally, we encourage the public to show their support for wildlife on social media by taking the pledge and share this information with a friend. https://go.usa.gov/xH385.

Cited: https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/wildlife-viewing/tool-kit.html