The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

The Panhandle of Florida is home to many estuaries along the coast, from the Escambia Bay System in the west to the Apalachicola Bay System in the east. These estuaries are very important and are the intersection where rivers (fed from their respective watersheds) meet the Gulf of Mexico and contain many different organisms that help filter the waters before they reach the Gulf. These organisms include oysters, marsh plants, seagrasses, scallops, tunicates, and other invertebrates. In this two-part article, we will explore marsh plants, seagrasses, oysters, and scallops.

Marsh Plants

Marsh Plants is a broad term for a family of grasses that lines the shore and contain grasses like Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and Gulf Cordgrass (Spartina spartinae). These plants help trap sediments before they enter the estuary and are excellent at erosion prevention. When the water encounters the plants, it slows the flow, and this allows for sediments to collect. Marsh Plants are a great tool for shoreline restoration and are a major part of the Living Shorelines Program. The roots of the plants are also very efficient at removing nutrient pollutants like excess nitrogen and phosphorus which are major influencers in eutrophication. Marsh Plants also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and have been tabbed as “superstars of CO2 capture and storage.” (CO2 and Marsh Plants)

marsh grass

Marsh Grass and Oyster Reef in Apalachicola, Florida – Thomas Derbes II


Seagrasses are different than Marsh Grasses (seagrasses are ALWAYS submerged underwater), but they offer some of the same ecological services as Marsh Grasses. The term seagrasses include Turtle Grass (Thalassia testudinum), Shoal Grass (Halodule wrightii), Widgeon Grass (Ruppia maritima), and Manatee Grass (Syringodium filiforme) to name a few. Seagrasses help maintain water clarity by trapping suspended sediments and particles with their leaves and uptake excess nutrients in their roots. Seagrasses are very efficient at capturing carbon, capturing it at rates up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. (Carbon Capture and Seagrasses) They also provide habitat for crustaceans, fish, and shellfish (which can filter the water too) and food for other organisms like turtles and manatees.

Grassbeds are also full of life, albeit small creatures.
Photo: Virginia Sea Grant


Crassostrea virginica (or as we know them, the Eastern oyster) is a native species of oyster that is commonly found along the eastern coast of the USA, from the upper New England states all the way to the southernmost tip of Texas. Eastern oysters are prolific filter feeders and can filter between 30-50 gallons of water per day. As filter feeders, they trap nutrients like plankton and algae from the environment. In areas of high eutrophication, oysters can be very beneficial in clearing the waters by trapping and consuming the excess nutrients and sediments and depositing them on the bottom as pseudo-feces. With oyster farms popping up all over the Gulf Coast, the filtering potential of estuaries is on the rise. (Between the Hinge)


Oysters, The Powerful Filterers of the Estuary – Thomas Derbes II


Bay Scallops (Agropecten irradians) were common along the whole Florida Gulf Coast, but their numbers have taken a recent decline and can only be found in abundance in the estuaries to the east of St. Andrews Bay in Panama City, Florida. Scallops make their home in seagrass beds and are filter feeders. While scallops do not contain the filtering potential of an oyster (scallops filter 3 gallons of water per day as an adult), they are still a key part of filtering the estuary. Just like oysters, scallops feed off of the suspended particles and plankton in the water column and deposit them as pseudo-feces on the bottom. The pseudo-feces also help provide nutrients to the seagrasses below.

Bay Scallop.
Photo: FWC

I hope you enjoyed this first article on filterers in the estuary system. While oysters are known as the filterers of the estuary, I hope this has opened your eyes to the many different filterers that call our estuary home. Stay tuned for Part 2!

A Day at the Beach

A Day at the Beach

I might shock a few people when I say this, but I’d rather be out in the bay somewhere rather than the beach. I just feel like I always bring a gallon of sand back on me even after washing down before getting in the car. However, there is one activity that will always get me out on the beach, and it just so happens to be the right time of the year for it. Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus), aka Pompa-Yes, have started to cruise the white, sandy beaches in search of food as they migrate west to their breeding grounds. While out on a fishing trip this past weekend, the Pompano (and every other fish) eluded me, but I was blessed with an amazing array of wildlife.

When I first arrived at my spot just to the east of Portofino Towers, I was greeted with a pair of Sanderlings (Calidris alba) playing the “water is lava” game while taking breaks between waves to argue with each other and probe the sand with their beaks from marine invertebrates. When I was doing more research on sanderlings, one comment I saw was that they ran like wind-up toys, and that’s the truth! They were pretty brave too, not a single footprint of mine in the wet sand didn’t go un-probed. Sanderlings are “extremely long-distance” migratory birds that breed on the arctic tundra close to the North Pole and winter on most of the sandy beaches in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world. Non-breeding sanderlings will often stay on sandy beaches throughout the summer to save energy. They were great entertainment for the whole fishing trip.


Sanderlings in the Tide Pool – Thomas Derbes II

Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) were out in numbers that day. I am not the best photographer, but I was very proud to capture a Pelican mid-flight. These birds are residents of the Florida Panhandle year-round. If you’ve ever been to Pensacola, you might have bumped into one of the many Pelican Statues around the area, and they’re pretty much the unofficial mascot of the area. I am always amazed at how these seemingly big, clumsy birds can effortlessly glide over the waves and water as if they are the Blue Angels doing a low-pass. Pelicans were almost wiped out by pesticide pollution in the 1960’s, but they have made an incredible comeback.

Pelican Flying Over The Waves

Brown Pelican – Thomas Derbes II

While I was waiting for a Pompano to bite, I had a visit from a small Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina) that was caught in the tidepool that was running along the beach. He didn’t seem injured or sick, so I quickly grabbed a glove and released him into the gulf. Stingrays are pretty incredible creatures and can get to massive sizes, but they do contain a large, venomous spine on their tail that poses a threat to beach goers. They are not aggressive however, and a simple remedy to make sure you don’t get hit is to do the “Stingray Shuffle” by shuffling your feet while you move in the water to scare up the stingrays.


Atlantic Stingray Cruising the Tide Pool- Thomas Derbes II

As I was getting ready to pack up, I noticed a new shorebird flying in to investigate the seaweed that had washed up on shore. I had a hard time identifying this bird, but once I was able to see it in flight with its white stripe down the back, I realized it was a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres). Turnstones get their name from their foraging behavior of turning over stones and pebbles to find food. Even though we do not have pebbles, the turnstone was looking through the seaweed for any insects or crustaceans that might be an easy meal. Turnstones are also “extremely long-distance” migratory birds breeding in the arctic tundra with non-breeding populations typically staying on sandy beaches during the summer. The turnstone made sure to stay away from me, but I was able to get a good photo of it as it ran from seaweed clump to clump.


Ruddy Turnstone – Thomas Derbes II

While I didn’t catch anything to bring home for dinner, I did get to enjoy the beautiful day and playful wildlife that I wouldn’t have experienced sitting on a couch. You can turn any bad fishing day into an enjoyable day if you pay attention to the wildlife around you!

Silvopasture 101 Workshop and Farm Tour Recap

Silvopasture 101 Workshop and Farm Tour Recap

Forestry Agent Ian Stone Starts the Meeting and Teaches Participants about the Nuances of Timber Management in Silvopasture vs Traditional Timber Systems – Kacey Aukema

The UF/IFAS Extension Northwest District hosted a well-attended Silvopasture workshop and farm tour in Chipley on Friday April 26th. What exactly is silvopasture you may wonder? Ian Stone, the multi-county Forestry agent based in Walton County, did a great job in introducing the topic and overviewing how forestry management in silvopasture systems differ from more conventional timber systems in the first talk of the meeting. Silvopasture combines timber production and pasture production in the same area to allow for grazing animals to utilize the space in between tree and underneath tree rows for foraging. Silvopasture stands are much less dense than traditional stands of planted pines, to allow for adequate space for forage to grow and adequate sunlight to support forage growth. Implementing this kind of system can be achieved through thinning of an existing conventional timber stand “sIlvopasture by subtraction”, or intentionally planted in a density that would be conducive to forage production from the get-go. Ian’s presentation highlighted the attractive aspects of silvopasture production systems on how they facilitate multiple enterprises on one piece of property to diversify potential income streams, as well as the inherent constraints that these systems have when compared to timber or pasture/cattle production separately.

Okaloosa County Agriculture Agent Jennifer Bearden followed up Ian’s talk with a presentation on soils and soil management for silvopasture production. Depending on the tree species and forage species or variety optimal soil pH levels and fertilization needs may not line up perfectly for the grass vs. trees. Thus, proper soil testing to match the site with appropriate varieties and/or to guide how to amend the soil is important to balance the needs of the tree and forage crops being grown concurrently in these systems.

Cattle On The George And Pat Owens Property Are Rotated Between Conventional Pasture And Silvopasture Paddocks. – Kacey Aukema

Mark Mauldin, Washington County Interim Extension Director, and Nick Simmons Escambia County Extension Director also contributed with talks focusing on the interconnected topics of forage and livestock management in silovpasture systems. Not all forage varieties are well suited for the partial shaded environment and soil conditions that would be expected under silvopasture production. Therefore, picking the right species/variety for a particular site is important. Forage and livestock production in silvopasture systems often benefit from rotational grazing, therefore it is important to keep that in mind for pasture fencing and facilities planning to facilitate ease for rotating animals in and out of paddocks. One advantage of silvopasture systems for livestock and forages is from the partial shade provided by the trees. Shade reduces heat stress on the animals and can extend growth of some forages. For warm-season forages the partial cover provides a degree of frost protection, and for cool-season forages the shade provides cooler temps later into the spring.

A ~5 Year-Old Stand Of Pines Planted For Silvopasture Following Damage From Hurricane Michael Currently Being Grazed (Left), And A 20+ Year Old Silvopasture Stand (Right) – Kacey Aukema.

Following the speaker program the attendees visited several different sites in silvopasture on the property of Geroge Owens–a local farmer and respected expert in silvopasture in the Southeast. Mr. and Mrs. Owens presented the site history at various stands of different ages of timber, and expounded on the strategies and experience they had gained over the years in managing the trees, pasture, and cattle on their operation. This included the impact of Hurricane Michael on their farm in 2018 and recovery since then. George and his wife Pat shared a wealth of experience during the tour and answered questions that attendees had about implementing these kinds of systems on their own properties.

We thank The Owens’ for hosting us on their property. Also we are grateful for The Florida Land Steward Program and Farm Credit of NW FL for sponsoring this event organized by Ian Stone, Mark Mauldin, and Chris Demers (Florida Land Steward Program Coordinator). We hope to continue to offer more educational programs related to silvopasture into the future.

George and Pat Owens Share Their Wealth of Experience with a Group Touring Their Property – Kacey Aukema

To learn more about Silvopasture Systems for the Southeast see this great article from Mississippi State:

Silvopasture: Grazing Systems Can Add Value to Trees


Written By: Kacey Aukema, Agriculture Extension Agent in Walton County

Master Naturalists Visit The Springs

Master Naturalists Visit The Springs

Imagine you’re out on a kayak in a pristine Florida freshwater spring, surrounded by wildlife, beautiful trees, and natural formations. You have all the knowledge of what to expect and get excited to call out the different species of plants and animals you can spot. You’re surrounded by 10-15 like-minded nature enthusiasts who celebrate every species found and share tips and tricks on how to identify species more efficiently (Watersnakes vs Cottonmouths… Very Important!) If this sounds like a great time, then the Florida Master Naturalist Program might be right for you!

A Great Group of Master Naturalist Students Hiking Around Ponce De Leon Springs

A Great Group of Master Naturalist Students Hiking Around Ponce De Leon Springs- Thomas Derbes II

Since I am a fairly new Extension Agent, I am getting to experience the course from a unique perspective. The Freshwater Course was my first time being an instructor, but it was also my first time going through the course. We started in March and are about to do our graduation next week, but this previous Tuesday was by far the best experience I have had in the course. We started the day at Ponce De Leon Springs State Park with a hike along a tannic creek. Once you reach the end of the trail, you can take the route back that is along the crystal-clear waters that flow from the springs. Largemouth Bass and Bluegill were abundant, and we even spotted a Mountain Laurel Tree. There is a beautiful picnic and viewing area along the springs, and you can even take a dip right in the springs. Even though this isn’t the famed “Fountain of Youth” springs, I think Ponce De Leon himself would’ve had a long soak in these waters.

Mountain Laurel Flower

A Flowering Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) at Ponce De Leon Springs – Thomas Derbes II

We then took a detour to a Pitcher Plant bog that was along the route to Morrison Springs. After a quick hike, we made it down to a bog that was filled with multiple types of Pitcher Plants, Sundews, and my favorite, Orange Milkwort. We also found a creek and found some slimy friends like a cute tiny frog and an unknown larvae/creepy crawly. We then loaded back up and made the very short trek to Morrison Springs, kayaks in tow.

Orange Milkwort

An Orange Milkwort (Polygala lutea) Near a Pitcher Plant Bog – Thomas Derbes II

When we arrived at Morrison Springs, we had a quick lunch and learn from Dr. Laura Tui about the springs and headed over to the boat launch. We launched our kayaks in the almost crystal-clear waters and set out to find the connection to the Choctawhatchee River. We had our own kayak flotilla, and we were able to talk about all the potential species we would spot. Along our nice, relaxing paddle, we spotted many different birds, turtles, and a Green Watersnake (which I missed out on)! We finished the paddle with a trip around the springs and the vent and slowly loaded up the kayaks to call it a day.

Kayaking on a spring

FMNP Instructor Rick O’Connor Leading the Kayak Brigade – Thomas Derbes II

If this sounds like something you want to be apart of, you can check out what Master Naturalist Courses are available in your area by Clicking Here!


Live From Oyster South Pt. 2

Live From Oyster South Pt. 2

Day 2 of the Oyster South Symposium was the final day of presentations and the trade show, but it is also the day of the Shuck and Tell closing ceremonies. Another grey sky day greeted us, but the symposium was still full of oyster enthusiasts and farmers. Day 2’s talks focused more on marketing and the future of oyster farming, including discussion of a new program for Federal Crop Insurance and a panel of chefs discussing “What Chefs Want” when it comes to an oyster. The oyster disco ball also made an appearance, and I was finally able to snap a photo of that beauty!

Disco Oyster Ball
The Famous Oyster Disco Ball! – Thomas Derbes II

Saturday’s talks started with a reflection of what Oyster South is and what it could be. Oyster South is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that strives to connect communities and provide resources to support oyster farmers, cultivate thriving communities, and promote healthy waters (Oyster South’s Mission Statement Here). While South is in its name, the scope of Oyster South has become national with visitors and farmers from both coasts coming to collaborate and share stories of their oyster farms. I was able to talk with farmers from all over the USA, from California, Washington State to New Jersey, North Carolina and even Texas where oyster farming is still in its infancy.

After the reflection, we were treated to two awesome panels, one discussing what chefs look for in an oyster and another on making the most out of social media. Every chef has a different view of what they want in an oyster, but consistency and a certain salty yet umami taste came up as something they strive to serve. Social media also plays a major role in oyster farming and distribution. I remember when I was an oyster farmer, I quickly had to learn how to do social media as this was the best way to advertise and promote your product. Most people have Instagram or Facebook now-a-days, so being able to post your story and availability was always helpful in increasing your following and sales.

oyster extension talk
Talking About What Extension Can Do For You at Oyster South Symposium – Thomas Derbes II

After the lunch break, we had a Three-Minute Tech Talk Session. We heard from graduate students that needed input from the oyster community on their research topics, oyster farm innovators discussing their newest and greatest creations to help oyster farmers, and I was even given the opportunity to talk about what extension can do for oyster farmers. After the tech talks, we heard about the federal crop insurance program for oyster farmers, as well as a great talk from Julie Qiu (a well-known oyster blogger, advocate, writer, and founder of the Oyster Master Guild) on oyster stewardship and how important it is to oyster consumers and the oyster industry. Beth Walton, executive director of Oyster South, closed out the talks with Oyster South Looking Forward, and the future of Oyster South and oyster farming is very, very bright.

Before the Shuck and Tell, I was able to grab a quick “linner” at an incredible restaurant named Cochon. I had previously worked with a chef that came from Cochon, and his stories were the reason I made a reservation. The food in New Orleans is top notch, and Cochon was the cherry on top of a great gastronomy tour.

When it comes to oyster parties, the Shuck and Tell is the ultimate oyster experience. Farmers from all over got together to shuck their product and tell their story of why they oyster farm and the story of the oyster being shucked at the wonderful Southern Food and Beverage Museum (aka SOFAB). I was blessed enough to jump in and help shuck for some passionate oyster farmers and learn more about their farms and history. A relatively new oyster farmer at Salt Revival Oyster Company arranged for a second line to come through SOFAB, and it was an incredible way to cap off a great Oyster South weekend. The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana was there to make sure all shells were recycled and used for future restoration projects.

shucking oysters salt revival oyster co
Shucking With Salt Revival Oyster Company at the Shuck and Tell at SOFAB – Thomas Derbes II

The 2024 Oyster South Symposium was definitely one for the record books. The turnout was fantastic, and the camaraderie and collaboration between oyster farmers, researchers, and enthusiasts was a sight to behold. A major thank you to Bill and Beth Walton for always putting on an incredible symposium, and a big thank you to all the farmers who took time out of their busy schedule to share their oysters and stories. The Oyster South Symposium is an annual event, so keep your eyes peeled for the next symposium. I hope to see you at the next one in 2025!

second line
The Second Line To Close Out Oyster South Symposium – Thomas Derbes II