As I write this, we are in the middle of our 2023 Scallop Search, an event we do each year to assess whether the scallops in Pensacola Bay are trying to make a comeback on their own. Each year I am amazed at how popular this little mollusk is. On the day I am writing, I will be working with a marine science class from the University of Southern Mississippi driving over from Ocean Springs. This past weekend I worked with two families who trailered their boat from Enterprise Alabama to participate. Those on the eastern end of the panhandle are well aware of the popularity of this creature. Folks from all over the southeast travel there to go scalloping. Many of the locals in my area, when I am training them how to do a scallop search, tell me that they head east and go scalloping every year. Some even have condos for that week and it is a large part of their annual vacation plans. And many of the locals here would love to see them return to Pensacola Bay.
This is a creature that draws a lot of attention. But most know very little about it. They know it has small eyes and can swim – actually… I have recently found that not everyone knows they can swim. We know they like grassbeds and they can be harvested in the summer. They may have done this long enough to know the prime spots within the grassbeds to search for them – their “sweet spots”. But not much more.
So… let’s meet the bay scallop.
Its scientific name is Argopecten irradians. It is a mollusk in the class Bivalvia and the family Pectinidae. There are numerous species, and the group is found all over the world. The greatest variety of them are from the Indo-Pacific region, and in each case, they are a popular seafood. Most can swim, though erratically – they are not Michael Phelps – and they use this ability to avoid predators such as starfish, which they can see with the set of simple eyes.
There are five subspecies of A. irradians. A. irradians irradians, known as the bay scallop, or Atlantic Bay scallop (and from here is just “the scallop”) is our local variety. It is found from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico. They begin life as a microscopic egg produced during the mass spawning of the hermaphroditic parents (hermaphroditic meaning each parent can produce sperm and egg). The timing of the release of gametes is triggered by warming water and usually occurs in the late summer/early fall. This early egg stage sinks to the bottom where it remains for a few weeks before hatching.
The hatched larva remain microscopic, are transparent, resemble the parents, and are called spat. The spat become part of the plankton in local estuaries but eventually return to the grass in what is called “spatfall” where they attached to the seagrasses using byssal threads. They continue to grow, eventually release from the grass, and become the scallops we all know and love. Many species of scallops can live over 20 years, but our local one only lives for one.
As most know, adult scallops have two shells (bivalves) connected at the hinge on the dorsal side of the animal. Though they do add weight to the shell, a disadvantage for a swimmer, the “ribs” provide a sturdier shell. The two shells are connected by a single, large adductor muscle, which is used to open and close the valves during swimming. It is this adductor muscle we eat when consuming scallops.
Like all bivalves, scallops are filter feeders but unlike most bivalves they lack siphons to draw water in and out of the digestive tract. Rather they lie with their valves slightly gaped and allow water to pass over them. Plankton is collected by a mucous layer and then moved to the gut by cilia (small hair-like structures) where it is digested.
Like all bivalves, scallops lack a brain as we know it but rather function using a series of ganglia (groups of nerve cells) connected to a nerve ring. These ganglia can control movement of the muscle, gills, eyes, and are connected to a statocyst, which tells the scallop how it is oriented in the water column.
There are numerous eyes aligned along the edge of each valve that can detect movement and shadows. It is believed that they use their eyes to detect potential predators and possibly initiate the swimming behavior they are famous for.
Living only one year, and reaching maximum size in late summer during spawning, scallop harvesting is regulated to that time of year in Florida. Once common from Pensacola to Miami, they are now only found in large numbers in the Big Bend region. Due to the loss of scallops in other areas, many visit the Big Bend each year to go scalloping, putting heavy harvest pressure on those stocks. There have been efforts to try and enhance the existing populations as well as restore historic ones. Here in Pensacola Bay, Florida Sea Grant works with volunteers to monitor the water quality and seagrasses, as well as assess how the few existing scallops are doing.
For more information on panhandle scallops, contact your local Sea Grant Agent at the county extension office.
When snorkeling the grassbeds of the Florida panhandle encountering a reptile has a low probability, but it is not zero. Of all the reptiles that call this part of the state home, few enter marine waters and most of those are very mobile, moving up and down the coast heading from one habitat to another. In fact, there are no marine reptiles that would be considered residents of our seagrasses, only transients.
The one species that you might encounter is the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). This is the largest of the “shelled” sea turtles and has a vegetarian diet. With a serrated lower jaw, they can be found grazing in the seagrass beds feeding on both the grasses and the species of algae found there. The carapace length of these large reptiles can reach four feet and they can weigh up to 400 pounds. Their coloration is similar to that of the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) but their heads are smaller and there are only two large scutes between the eyes rather than the four found in the loggerheads. The colors of the skin and shell have shades of brown, yellow, orange, and some black and can be quite beautiful. The name “green” sea turtle comes from the color of their internal fatty tissue. Feeding on a diet of seagrasses, it becomes green in color, and this was discovered by early fishermen who hunted and consumed this species. It is the one used most often in what is called turtle soup and is actually farmed for this dish in other countries.
Like all sea turtle species, they are born on the Gulf side of our barrier islands. If they successfully hatch, they work their way to the open water and spend their early years in the open sea. Some have been associated with the mats of Sargassum weed floating offshore, feeding on the variety of small invertebrates that live out there. They will also nip at the Sargassum itself. As juveniles they will move back into the coastal estuaries where they begin their vegetarian lifestyle. As adults they will switch time between the open sea and the grass filled bays. Once unfortunate side effect of feeding in our grassbeds is the frequency of boat strikes. There are tens of thousands of motored vessels speeding through our grassbeds and the turtles surfacing for air can be targets for them. Our hope is that more mariners are aware of this problem and will be more vigilant when recreating there.
Another turtle who IS a resident of the estuary is the much smaller diamondback terrapin. Though terrapins much prefer salt marshes they will enter seagrass beds, and some spend quite a bit of time there. Terrapins prefer to feed on shellfish so, moving through the grassbeds it is the snails and bivalves they seek. Because of their size they feed on the smaller mollusk. A typical terrapin will have a carapace length of about 10 inches and may weigh two pounds. They will take small crabs and shrimps when the opportunity is there, and they are known to swim into submerged crab traps seeking the bait. Unfortunately, being air breathing reptiles, they will drown after becoming entrapped. It is now required that all recreational crab traps in Florida have bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) on each of the funnel openings to reduce this problem. Many studies, both here in Florida and elsewhere, have shown these BRDs do not significantly reduce crab catch and so you can still enjoy crabbing – just not while catching terrapins. Encountering one snorkeling would be a very rare event, but – particularly in the eastern panhandle – has happened.
A third reptile that has been seen in our grassbeds is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Preferring freshwater systems, encounters with alligators in an open seagrass bed are rare, but do happen. There are plenty of freshwater ponds on some of our barrier islands that the alligators will use. They have been seen swimming out into the seagrass beds and often will cross the bay, or Intracoastal Waterway, to mainland side. They have also been seen swimming near shore in the Gulf of Mexico. Though they can tolerate saltwater, they have a low tolerance for it and do not spend much time there.
Alligators are top level carnivores feeding on a variety of wildlife. Like most predators, they tend to seek and capture the easiest prey. Most often these are fish, reptiles, or small mammals. But they will take on large birds or deer if the opportunity presents itself. Despite their natural fear of humans, they have taken pets and also have attacked humans.
Having only canines in their mouths, they must grab the prey and swallow it. Lacking molars, they cannot chew. So, more often than not, they select prey they can swallow whole. If they do grab a larger animal, they are known to drown the creature in what has been termed the “death role” and cache it beneath the water under a log (or some structure) where it will soften to a point where they can cut small pieces and swallow it. All of the alligators I have seen in our grassbeds were definitely heading somewhere. They were not spending time there. After heavy rains the salinity may drop enough to where they can tolerate being out there longer and encounters could increase. But they are still rare.
I will mention here that there are several species of snakes that, like the alligator, are swimming from one suitable habitat to another – crossing the seagrass in route. All snakes can swim and encounters in brackish water are not unheard of. I have several photos of diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) swimming across the Intracoastal Waterway between the mainland and the islands.
Encounters with reptiles are rare in our seagrass beds but pretty exciting when they do occur. There is certainly no need to fear swimming or snorkeling in our bay because they are so rare. But maybe one day you will be one of the lucky ones who does see one.
One of the community science volunteer projects I oversee in the Pensacola area is the Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch. The first objective of this project is to determine whether horseshoe cabs exist in your bay – FYI, they do exist in Pensacola Bay. The second objective is to determine where they are nesting – we have not found that yet, but we have one location that looks promising. One of the things my volunteers frequently find are the molts of the horseshoe crabs. Many keep them and I have quite a few in my office as well. One volunteer was particularly interested in the fact that they even molted and that they could leave this amazing empty shell behind and yet still be crawling around out there. So, I decided to write an article explaining the process in a little more depth than I typically do.
I titled the article “The Molting of Crabs” but it could be the molting of any member of the Phylum Arthropoda – they all do this. The Phylum Arthropoda is the largest, most diverse, and successful group of animals on the planet. There are at least 750,000 species of them. This is three times the number of all other animal species combined. One thing unique to this group is the presence of an exoskeleton.
The exoskeleton is made of chiton and is secreted by the animal’s hypodermis in two layers. It provides the protection that the calcium carbonate shells of mollusk do but is much lighter in weight and allows for much more movement. Arthropods have jointed legs, hence their name “arthropod – jointed foot”, to enhance this movement even more. The entire body is covered by this exoskeleton.
The outer layer is thin and called the epicuticle. It is composed of proteins and, in many arthropods, wax. The inner layer is the thicker procuticle. The procuticle consists of an outer exocuticle and an inner endocuticle. These are composed of chiton and protein bound to form a complex glycoprotein. The exocuticle is absent at joints in the legs and along lines where the shell will rupture during molting. In the marine arthropods the procuticle includes salts and minerals. Where the epicuticle is not waxy and is thin, gases and water can pass into the animal’s body. The cuticle also has small pores that allow the release of compounds produced by glands within the animal. Not all of the cuticle is produced on the outside of the body. Some portions of it are produced around internal organs.
The colors of the crabs and other arthropods are produced by concentrations of brown, yellow, orange, and red melanin pigments within the cuticle. Iridescent greens, purples, and other colors are produced by striations of the epicuticle refracting light.
One disadvantage of the protective exoskeleton is the fact that it does not grow as fast as the interior soft tissue. They have solved this problem by periodic shedding, or molting, of the shell. Science calls this ecdysis, but we will continue to call it “molting”.
Step one is the detachment of the hypodermis from the skeleton. The hypodermis now secretes a new epicuticle. Step two, the hypodermis releases enzymes which pass through the new epicuticle and begin to erode the untanned endocuticle of the old skeleton. During this process the muscles and nerves are not affected and the animal can continue to move and feed. Step three, the old endocuticle is now completely digested. With the new procuticle produced by the hypodermis, the animal is now encased by both the old and new skeleton. Step four, the old skeleton now splits along predetermined lines, and the animal pulls out of the old skeleton. The new exoskeleton is soft – hence, the “soft-shelled blue crab” – and can be stretched to cover the increased size of the new animal. This stretching occurs due to tissue growth during steps 1-3, and from the uptake of air and water. The hardening of the new skeleton occurs due to the tanning of the new cuticle.
Stages between molts become longer as the animal grows older. Thus, there are numerous molts when the animal is young and as they age, they become fewer and farther between. Most insects have a finite number of molts they will go through. The marine arthropods seem to molt throughout their lives, though some species of crabs cease molting once they reach sexual maturity.
Molting is under hormonal control. Ecdyisone is secreted by certain endocrine glands, circulated through the blood stream, and acts directly on the epidermal cells. There are hormones that, if secreted, will inhibit the molting process. These are usually released if the animal senses trouble and that is not a good time.
During the period when the old shell is being digested many of the salts and minerals are absorbed by the tissue of the animal. Some people can eat crab but have allergic reactions when consuming soft shell crabs – most likely due to the increased salts and minerals in the tissue at this time. During step 3, many crustaceans will seek shelter and will remain there for a period of time after molting allowing the new shell to harden. The regeneration of lost limbs occurs during the molting process as well.
Molts of many species are hard to find because the “soft-shelled” animal can consume the molt to increase needed salts and minerals – or other marine animals may do so for the same reason. But horseshoe crab molts are pretty common and cool to collect. Another common molt found is that of the cicadids in the pine forest areas of our panhandle. The entire process is pretty amazing.
Barnes, R.D. 1980. Invertebrate Zoology. Saunders College Publishing. Philadelphia PA. pp. 1089.
“I can’t do what? – because of a mouse? – it’s only a mouse.”
This was a comment made by many who lived on Perdido Key when a small beach mouse found only there was added to the endangered species list. It is a comment heard often when many species are listed. A major reason most species begin to decline and become endangered is loss of habitat. We enter and change the habitat to suit our needs. Much of this includes construction of buildings and altering landscapes to a more artificial setting and much of the local wildlife is lost. So is the case with this little mouse.
The Perdido Key beach mouse (Peromyscus polionotus trissyllepsis) is one of seven subspecies of beach mice found in Florida, five of those found in the Florida panhandle. Beach mice are a subspecies of the Old-Field mouse (Peromyscus polionotus). They are small, about 5 inches long, with tails that have hair (which are an additional 2 inches). Beach mice typically have a brown/gray color on top and a lighter white underbelly allowing them to blend into their environment very well. The difference between the subspecies is the extent of the coloration.
The subspecies status, and genetic isolation, is part of the reason these mice are listed. Members of a population who are genetically isolated from others can undergo a process called speciation where the genetic changes that occur in one isolated group cannot/do not flow through the gene pool of the other isolated group. Over time, the genetics, and morphology, of one isolated group becomes different enough that a new subspecies, or even species, develops. This is the case with the Perdido Key beach mouse. It is isolated on Perdido Key, a barrier island, and does not interbreed with their closest neighbors – the Alabama beach mouse (P.p. ammobates) and the Santa Rosa beach mouse (P.p. leucocephalus). Because of this, ALL of the Perdido Key beach mice in the world live on Perdido Key. Their population is small and vulnerable.
These mice are dune dwellers living in small burrows. They prefer the primary dunes (closest to the Gulf) which are dominated by the grasses whose seeds they like to feed on. They forage at night (nocturnal) feeding on the seeds of the sea oat (Uniola paniculate), panic grass (Panicum amarum), and blue stem (Schizachrium maritimum) usually in the secondary dunes. Highly vegetated swales (low wet areas between the primary and secondary dunes) are used to move between these habitats, and they are also found in the tertiary dunes (on the backside of the island where trees can be found) where their burrows are more protected from storm surge during hurricanes. During periods when seeds are not available, beach mice will turn to small invertebrates to support their diet. Their foraging range averages around 50,000 ft2.
Breeding takes place in the winter, though can occur anytime of year if enough food is available. They are monogamous (males pairing with only one female for life) with the females giving birth after 23 days to four pups. New members of the family can move up to half a mile in search of a foraging range for themselves. It is understood that with limited available habitat on an isolated island, the carry capacity of the beach mouse would be low. Owls and snakes are some of the predators they face, but the beach mice have evolved to deal with few predator issues.
The increase of humans onto the barrier islands has negatively impacted them. The leveling of dunes for houses, condos, swimming pools, and shopping centers has significantly reduced suitable habitat for them as well as reduced the seed food source. Introduced feral and free roaming domestic cats have also been a large problem. Bridges connecting these islands to the mainland have allowed foxes and coyotes to reach, and increase pressure on, them. With these increased pressures, and small populations, these mice are now listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservation measures have included, predator control, building and landscaping restrictions, translocation (moving mice from large populations to those that are smaller), and reintroduction (releasing mice into areas where they once existed but no longer do). There has been success with the Choctawhatchee beach mouse in the Grayton Beach area, as well as the Perdido Key beach mouse in Gulf Islands National Seashore. Things that beach residents can do to help beach mice populations include keeping your pets inside at night, plant native grasses in your landscape, reduce night lighting, do not walk over dunes – use the cross walks.
Things seem to be improving for beach mice, but the development pressure is still there. Hopefully we will have these creatures as part of our panhandle barrier island communities for many years to come.
Beach Mouse Fun Facts. Gulf Islands National Seashore. U.S. Department of Interior.
When visiting and exploring seagrass beds, most are hoping, and expecting, to see fish. As we have seen in this series, there are a lot of creatures that can be found living within a seagrass meadow, but it is the fish that get our attention and what we talk most about afterwards.
According to Hoese and Moore’s Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters, there are 497 species of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico. In my surveys of Pensacola Bay over the years, I have logged 101 of those in the estuary. I am sure there are more, but I can confirm there are at least those. Many spend all or part of their time in our seagrasses. As you seine or snorkel in the grassbeds you will notice most of them are very small. Much of this is due to the fact that the seagrasses are nursery areas for many species, and it is the young that we find here. But many are also small as adults, and the grass provides food and shelter for them. There are far too many to mention in an article like this, but let’s look at some of them.
Sardines and Anchovies
As you snorkel through the grass, or even look at it from a boat or dock, you see numerous silver colored baitfish flashing as they dart in and out of the grass. There are all sorts of silver baitfish in the seagrasses with sardines and anchovies being two of them. In my experience seining for fish, they appear to be seasonal. I did not capture them all year but when I did, I would capture a lot. These species are famous for being the ones in small tins that people consume, though there is no fishery for them here locally. Anchovies have also been considered an indicator species; their presence suggests good water quality.
Also known as silversides and glass minnows, these are one of the most common fish collected in seine nets. They are abundant year-round and are an important food source for many of the larger predators living here. Small and transparent, you do not see them while snorkeling. Their huge presence is only discovered when you pull a seine net through the grass. There are several species of them, but they are not easily identified and more often are just logged as “silversides”. They are an important member of the seagrass community.
Seahorses and Pipefish
These two fish are highly specialized for living in seagrasses. They look like grass and move very little making them hard to detect. Like silverside minnows, it is rare to see them while snorkeling but make their presence known when seining. Their bodies are covered in armor-like scales, and they have tubed mouths for “vacuuming” small invertebrates from the water column. They are very slow swimmers and have to avoid detection by blending in with the environment. And yes, it is the males that carry the eggs in their brood pouches. These are amazing fish and always bring excitement when they are captured in the net. There are two species of seahorses and seven species of pipefish found in our waters.
Often called “bull minnows” by anglers, these small fish are, at times, very abundant. There are seven species of killifish in our bays but the Gulf Killifish, Longnose Killifish, and the Bayou Killifish are the ones we most often collected.
These are common, frequently seen, fish swimming at the surface of the water. Long and needle-shaped, these fish have long snouts full of sharp teeth indicating they are one of the predators of this system. There are four species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart. They are harmless to humans unless you capture them in your net at which time they will try to bite.
Another very common fish found year-round here. This species are the ones famous for jumping while you are fishing, paddling, or just watching from the beach. Those who do not visit the Gulf coast often always ask “I just saw a fish jump!” and the reply from a local (without even looking up to see what it was) will reply “It’s a mullet”. These schooling fish can get pretty large (average length is 30 inches) and it is common to see fishermen out with their cast nets trying to catch a few. It is a popular food fish for those along the Gulf coast. Mullet fries, with beans and grits, are a way of life here. The fish are easily seen swimming and darting over the grass as you paddle by, and their young are found seasonally in seine nets. They are bottom feeders, feeding mostly on algae from the grass blades. There are actually two species, the white and the striped mullet. The striped mullet, also known as the black mullet, is the one most often sold in the seafood markets.
Drums and Croakers
With 18 species within this family, this is the largest family of inshore fish in the Gulf. Growing up along the panhandle people learn quickly about croakers. Back in the day when gill nets were used to harvest mullet, croakers were a common catch as well, and often consumed. Today they are still sought by some shore-based anglers and juveniles are common in seine nets. The species I most often captured were the spot and Atlantic croaker. Spot croakers were common year-round, Atlantic croakers were more seasonal.
Drums are larger members of this family. There are several species more associated with sandy bottoms and the shoreline of the Gulf, many of these are called whiting, but the red drum (redfish) and black drum can be found in the grassbeds. Redfish are particularly common here and one of the reasons many anglers get out of bed in the morning. They are very popular sportfish across the region. Black drums are not found as often, and like being around pilings and structures that offer certain foods they prefer. Both species can get quite large. Redfish average 5 feet while black drums can reach an average of 3 feet.
All of the fish in this family are famous for their “croaking” “drum” sounds they make using their swim bladder, and it is rare not to capture at least one kind in a seine net.
Spotted Seatrout; Speckled Trout; “Specks”
There is no “trout family” in the fish world. Most freshwater trout are members of the salmon family while the marine versions are members of the drum/croaker family. This is the case with the famous speckled trout – or speck. There are white trout and silver seatrout in this family, and all are sought after by anglers, but it is the speckled trout that is most associated with seagrasses, most sought after by anglers, and is one of the top predators in this system. They reach an average length of 4 feet.
Pinfish and Sheepshead
From my experience both snorkeling and seining the grasses, I would say – hands down – that pinfish is the most common species found in our grasses. For many young anglers this is the first fish they ever catch. You can see them easily while snorkeling and they are the most numerous species in the nets throughout the year. Their huge numbers play an important role in the food web of this system. Feeding on a variety of small invertebrates in and around the grass blades, pinfish are a large part of the diet of the larger sportfish we target. Throwing cast nets and dropping pinfish traps is popular with anglers to collect this abundant baitfish for their life bait fishing efforts. They are called pinfish because of the sharp spines in their dorsal fins. These are also the fish that nip at your ankles while you are standing still in the water.
Sheepsheads are larger members of the porgy family (the ones these two species belong to). As adults sheepsheads prefer hard structure where they can use their incisors to chip away at barnacles and other shellfish, but they are sometimes found roaming the grassbeds and their young will spend their growing years hiding and feeding in the grass.
When first captured in the seine net, pigfish are often confused with pinfish – they look very similar. But a closer look at the striping/spotted pattern on their sides, and the position of their mouth, you realize you have something different. Being members of the grunt family, they also “croak” like croakers and drums – hence their common name “pigfish” – due to the grunting sounds. This helps with identifying which fish you have. Though common in the grasses, I did not catch these as frequently as pinfish and they were not as abundant.
This is a common silver baitfish that resembles the pinfish and is frequently collected in our seine nets. The mojarra is in a different family than pinfish. They lack sharp spines and incisor teeth, rather they have a sort of “vacuum” like mouth which they use to suck small invertebrates from the sand.
This is a popular sport and commercial fish from the wrecks and reefs of the Gulf of Mexico. But gags begin their lives in the seagrass beds, and we have collected medium sized individuals in our seine nets. This underscores the importance of these grassbeds to the fisheries so many love. We need to protect these systems from our activity both on land and in the water.
Another popular group with anglers, many species of jacks use these grasses as their nurseries. We most often collected juvenile lookdowns, pompano, and crevalle in our nets. At times we caught a small member of the family called a leatherjacket. These were seasonal and associated with breeding. Once again, underscoring the importance of having healthy seagrasses.
One of the creeper looking fish in the seagrass community is the Gulf toadfish (also known as the oyster dog). This monstrous looking bottom fish lives in burrows scattered around the grassbeds where they lie in wait to ambush prey. Their large mouths and sharp teeth can grab a variety of creatures, including the human finger. At times small toadfish will move into an empty can or bottle discarded by people instead of a burrow where they grow to a size they can no longer escape. It is said there may be a mild venom associated with their bite. Though no one has ever died, or been sent to the hospital, due their bite, it is painful and should be avoided.
Yes, barracuda can be found in seagrasses. But in our case, these have all been juveniles. There are three species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart. They also appeared to be seasonal in our collections. We never found them high numbers, usually one or two in a seine. But they are present.
This is another medium sized, sharp toothed, bottom dwelling predator of the grassbed community. There are seven species of them, and all have that “snake” “lizard” look to them having many sharp canine teeth. They spend their time buried in the sand waiting to ambush potential prey. Snorkelers may see them as they dart away tossing up sand when we get too close. I rarely see them snorkeling but occasionally capture them in the seine net to the delight of the students assisting.
Blennies and Gobies
These are very small fish that are almost impossible to find while snorkeling but are often collected in the seine net. They resemble the freshwater darters and, lacking a swim bladder, spend their time on the bottom. There are many species associated with rocks and artificial reefs but there are some who call the seagrasses home. They use their incisor teeth to feed on small invertebrates in and on the grasses. Being territorial, they can give a little nip to your hand. Gobies differ from blennies in that their two pelvic fins are fused together to form a sort of “cup” or “sucker disk”.
Another one of the more popular fish with students who help me seine. Everyone loves to see them inflate with either water or air into a “balloon” to make it very difficult for predators to consume them. There are eight species of puffers in the Gulf of Mexico, five of them have been captured in our seines. Most are small with little “bumps” on their bodies instead of spines. But there is the Burrfish, who is a member of a different family that is medium sized, has spines, and is very common in the grassbeds.
Our grassbeds are full of a small cousin to the triggerfish – the planehead filefish. Like triggerfish, filefish have a thick sharp spine that is found at the front of the dorsal fin – called a “trigger” on the triggerfish. The planehead filefish is a small species (nine inches average length), green to brown in color, and very common in the grassbeds; though you will probably not see one unless you catch it in a net.
Flounders and Soles
A favorite food fish for many locals, flounders spend a lot of time buried in the sand near grassbeds to ambush prey. Born with a typical fish design, early in development one of their eyes will move to the other side of the head, giving them two eyes on one side. By doing this, they have increased their binocular vision, improving their ability to judge accurate distance of the prey, and making hunting easier. They lose color on the side where the eye has left and have chromatophores (cells) on the side where the eyes are that, like octopus and squid, allow them to change colors and blend in. In our part of the Gulf, if the eyes move to the left side of the head, they are called flounders. If they move to the right, they are called soles. Soles in our part of the Gulf of small not of much interest to anglers. One small species is often collected by shrimpers who feed them to hogs. This sole can “cup” their body in defense making like a suction cup and they do this in the throat of the hogs sometimes killing them. They are called “hogchokers”. Flounders on the other hand are very popular with anglers. Some fish for them using rod and reel, others prefer gigging them at night using lanterns. There are 17 species of flounder, some reaching lengths of three feet.
Tonguefish are small flat fish with eyes on one side of their heads like flounder. They differ than that their tails come to a point and there is no caudal fin present, as there is in flounders. As mentioned, they are small – ranging from 3 to 8 inches in length. The Blackcheek tonguefish is particularly common in our grassbeds. But like so many, you will not see it unless you catch it in a net.
This is a very popular gamefish from south Florida associated with several habitats including grassbeds. Due to a process some call “tropicalization” – the movement of tropical species north due to climate change – snook are now, albeit in small numbers, reported in the Florida panhandle. This is a new species you may see while exploring or fishing out there.
There are many more species of fish found in our grassbeds we could talk about, but we will end it here. As we mentioned in the beginning, this is a group of animals that many come to the beach to find. Whether for fun or for food, finding fish makes for a good day. See how many different species you can find.
In 1973 the United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. Controversial at the time, and still is today, the law was designed to help protect, and possibly restore, species that were near extinction within the boundaries of the United States. At the time there was a lot of concern about what was happening to whale populations across the world. These majestic creatures were being hunted by humans for food and other products. The hunt had been going on for centuries but in the mid-20th century it moved to an industrial scale and many populations were on the verge of extinction. The backlash from many around the world was enough for regulators in the United States to take notice.
In the 1970s there was an estimated 1000 manatees in Florida. These animals suffered from the increase of humans in their environment altering the habitat and literally running over them with an increase in boating traffic. Many growing up in Pensacola at the time had never seen a brown pelican and had never heard of an osprey. And then there was the decline of our national symbol – the bald eagle, and other national icons like the bison, bears, alligators, and moose. The loss of wildlife was noticeable.
At the time, if you looked at what was happening from the “30,000 foot” level, you could see the impact. Our barriers islands, which supported dunes that reached 40-50 feet tall, were being cleared at an alarming rate. Being replaced by large concrete structures, parking lots, and amusement parks. This loss of habitat forced the decline of the diversity and abundance of wildlife and the carrying capacity of supported populations declined.
If you looked seaward into the Gulf of Mexico, you saw a change from smaller boats with 75-100 horsepower motors to large vessels with up to four 350 horsepower motors on each boat. The number of these vessels seeking fish increased from hundreds to thousands, to even tens of thousands in some locations. Just visit one of the passes into the Gulf one weekend and you will witness the number of fishing vessels heading out. These boats were heading to fishing sites that at one time supported a species’ carrying capacity that was high and could certainly sustain the human need for food. Today these systems are stressed due to overharvesting.
If you looked towards the estuary, you saw the increase growth on the island produce runoff that made the waters more turbid, creating conditions that stressed many species of fish, invertebrates, and plants. Most notably was the loss of seagrass, which supports at least 80% of the economically important finfish and shellfish we seek. We removed coastal salt marshes, which also support fisheries, and replaced them with piers, docks, seawalls, and manicured lawns. These alterations again supported the decline of needed habitat and the diversity and abundance of coastal species. Creatures that were once common in many locations like horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, and echninoderms were now hard to find in some bays. The prized bay scallop is all but gone in many locations along with the recreational fishery that loved them.
On the mainland side of the estuary, you find the large cities. These are the locations that both the early European colonists and the Native Americans sought. They were at the connection between the freshwater rivers and estuarine habitats that supported their way of life. In the mid-20th century, these communities witnessed massive growth of humans. These humans cleared land, built concrete buildings and roads, decreased suitable habitat for much of the life that existed there, and increased pollution in both the ground and surface waters. Oyster beds began to decline, seagrasses that had reached the upper portions of the bay declined, and salt marshes were removed for a different sort of waterfront.
Much of this had been noticed even in the 1960s. The species that spawned the Endangered Species Act were mostly the large vertebrates that people felt close to, or the need for. Species such as whales, dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles. People were concerned about species like bison, moose, and pelicans. But, as the draft of the law was formed, it included others that were not on their radars like alligators, frogs, and sturgeon. The focus of the effort was the large vertebrates we were concerned about. However, there were numerous small creatures that were being lost that became part of the movement such as river mussels, snails, even beach mice. Then there were the numerous small creatures that will still do not know about.
For decades scientists have written about the world of the tiny creatures that live within the sand grains, and on the surface of seagrass that play crucial roles in the over health of the ecosystem and support, directly or indirectly, the larger creatures we care about. Even with the decision as to which species would be listed as “endangered” we saw favoritism for the large vertebrates that we appreciate. When placed up for listing consideration species like spiders, sharks, and snakes were met with resistance. Though their populations may have needed this protection, we did not want to protect those.
Despite some opposition from the beginning, the Endangered Species Act has had many success stories. Several species of whales are now stable or increasing, manatee populations have more than doubled, pelicans are common, everyone knows what an osprey is now, and viewing a bald eagle in Pensacola – though still exciting – is becoming more common place. Another sign of success are species that have been de-listed from endangered to threatened or removed completely. Alligators, bison, manatees, several species of sea turtles, and even the bald eagle have had this honor.
Over the next few months, we will post articles about species that benefitted from the Endangered Species Act, and species who are still struggling and should benefit from it now. There is no doubt that some humans suffered economically with the passing of this law, but its intent of preserving, and increasing the fish, wildlife, and even plants – that we love and need, as worked.