Seagrass Situation

Seagrass Situation

Imagine…

It is 1922 and you are rowing your wooden skiff from a small beach house near what will become the town of Gulf Breeze Florida across Santa Rosa Sound on your way to Santa Rosa Island.  The water is 10-15 feet deep, and you can see the bottom.  It is covered with a lush garden of seagrasses with numerous silver fish jutting in and out of the blades.  Most are there only for a moment before they are lost again.  You notice a brown colored puffer fish hovering over the grass as you past by.  Maybe a small sea turtle grazing, or a tannish colored stingray flying over the meadow.  As you get closer to the island, which is covered with sand dunes reaching 20-40 feet in height and shrubby live oak and magnolia trees, you begin to see Florida conchs and horseshoe crabs, maybe fields of bay scallops littering the grass in every direction.

An amazing meadow of underwater grass.
Photo: Virginia Sea Grant

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  And it was actually like this once.

What changed?

 

I asked this question of some ole timers who grew up on Bayou Texar in Pensacola decades ago.  You might be surprised to learn that Bayou Texar resembled this scene.  They described water that was between 10-15 feet deep, had sand and seagrass on the bottom, and you could catch shrimp the size of your hand by tossing out a cast net.  But Bayou Texar no longer looks like this.

 

Most told me the first thing they remember was a change in the water clarity.  The water became more and more turbid.  Then the shrimp went away, then some of the fish.  They mentioned several species of fish that no longer exist there.  The cause of the turbid water? … Development.  They were developing all around the Bayou after World War II and that was when things began to change.  They mentioned the road going in on the east side of the bayou as the point when turbidity issues began.  The houses came later.

With little rain over the last few days the water clarity was excellent and you could see the seagrass very well.

The city of Gulf Breeze was founded in 1935 and was originally called Casablanca because of a white house there that could be seen from Pensacola.  As the community grew the waters became more turbid as well, and the amazing underwater garden declined.  But this was not just happening in Gulf Breeze and Bayou Texar, it was happening everywhere.

 

But it was bound to happen.  As the human population grows more space is needed for homes, businesses, and schools.  More roads are needed to reach these locations and a bridge was placed to reach Santa Rosa Island, so you no longer had to paddle a skiff to reach it.  Once on the island, growth continued.  More homes, roads, and businesses.  With more run-off, turbidity, and the garden continued to decline.

Shoal grass. One of the common seagrasses in Florida.
Photo: Leroy Creswell

The thing was we did not know at the time that (a) we were causing this decline and (b) how much we really wanted that garden there.  I often hear the question “what happened to all of the blue crabs?”  I think they know the answer, but they remember a time when blue crabs were more abundant, can you imagine what it probably was like for our friend paddling across in 1922.  And there has been a noticeable difference in crab numbers in their life.  There are folks, including myself, who remember bay scallops in the Sound and horseshoe crabs on what they called “Horseshoe Crab Island” in Little Sabine.  This is one of the amazing things about this story – how fast the decline was.  Now we better understand how important these underwater meadows were to the function of a healthy estuary and there is interest in restoring them.

Bay scallops need turtle grass to survive.
Photo: UF IFAS

To restore seagrass, you first have to understand, and mitigate, what is causing the decline.  Seagrasses are vascular plants that possess roots, stems, and leaves.  They produce flowers and sexually reproduce using seed.  This is not the case with seaweeds, which are nonvascular and lack the above, but they often mistakenly called seaweeds.  There are three species that dominate our seagrass meadows in the Florida panhandle and a fourth one that is not as common.  The uncommon one has a round blade like a pine needle and is called manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme).

 

The three common species all have flat blades.  Widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima) has blades that branch.  It tolerates a wide range of salinity and is more abundant in the upper regions of our estuaries.  Shoal grass (Halodule wrightii) has a single flat, non-branching, blade that is very narrow (< 3mm) and resembles human hair.  Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) is also flat, non-branching, but wide (>3mm) and resembles St. Augustine grass.

 

Like other grasses, these plants require sunlight and nutrients to survive.  They also need to grow in the low energy locations of our estuaries.  Sunlight, of course, is key for photosynthesis and clear water is the key to getting enough of it.  15-25% of the sunlight reaching the surface of the water must also reach the bottom where the grasses are.  Nutrients can be obtained through the water column and sediments.  The stems run horizontal beneath the sand and are called rhizomes.  They help hold sediments in place increasing the much-needed water clarity as well as reduce shoreline erosion.  The blades extend from the substrate up into the water column bathing in the sunlight.  They are covered by microscopic plants and animals that resemble scum when you run fingers over them but provide mush of the food for the creatures that live there.

And live there they do.

It has been estimated that it least 80% of the commercial and recreational important shell and finfish spend at least part of their lives in the seagrass meadows.  Ducks, manatees, and sea turtles are some of the grazers on these plants and sea horses, pipefish, and pinfish are abundant.

Photo: NOAA

When humans began developing around the Sound in the 1940s and 1950s the sediment run-off decreased water clarity, cutting off the much-needed sunlight, and in some locations covered the grasses.  Excessive nutrients from our fertilizers, and detergents increased phytoplankton growth which in turn decreased water clarity more and enhanced the growth of macroalgae which smothered the meadow like a blanket.  Hot water discharges from industrial processing along the shores stressed the grasses as did prop and anchor scars from power boat plowing through and anchoring in them.  These same boats and jet skis increase wave energy with their wake, as do seawalls when waves reflect off of them.  Marinas, bridges, and docks all required dredging in the meadow which not only removed the grasses but increased turbidity even further.  All of this triggered the decline of these amazing gardens.  And with them the decline of the cherished fisheries as well.

The scarring of seagrass but a propeller.

In recent years the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) conducted surveys across the state to assess the status of our seagrass beds.  They estimated that there was a little over 2 million acres of seagrasses in Florida waters, 39,000 in the western panhandle.  Though much of these beds appeared to be stable, or even increasing acreage, those in the panhandle were still in decline and all of Florida’s seagrass gardens were less than the acreage in the 1950s.

 

In this study they found the Perdido Bay had primarily shoal grass.  Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound were a mix of shoal and turtle grass, with some manatee grass reported from Santa Rosa Sound.  Aerial imagery found –

 

Perdido Bay had 642 acres of seagrass in 1987; 125 acres in 2002 for a net loss of 5.4% / year

Pensacola Bay had 892 acres in 1992; 511 acres in 2003 for a net loss of 3.9% / year

Big Lagoon had 538 acres in 1992; 544 acres in 2003 for a net gain of 0.1% / year

Santa Rosa Sound had 2,760 acres in 1992; 3,032 acres in 2003 for a net gain of 0.9% / year

 

The numbers in the lower portion of the bay are encouraging and suggest some behavior changes we made in recent decades have helped.  Both development and monitoring continue.  We will see.

 

What can be done to help restore the garden?

  1. First, reduce run-off into the bay. This can be done by engineering designs with green infrastructure methods but can also be done by the private homeowner as well.  Using native plants in your landscape reduces the need to irrigate your property and landscape designs which include rain gardens and rain barrels will also help reduce run-off.
  2. The reduction of nutrients begins with the reduction of fertilizers on the landscape. Using Florida Friendly Landscaping principals can lead to a beautiful landscape that does not require fertilizers.  If you choose to use nonnative plants that do require fertilizers, use only what the plant needs – do not over do it.
  3. If you live along the waterfront, you can further reduce nutrients by planting a living shoreline. The plants used in living shorelines are known to remove nutrients from run-off from your property, as well as reduce erosion and provide more habitat for fisheries.  One living shoreline project in Bayou Grande has seen an increase in shoal grass beds since they planted it.
  4. When boating, be aware where seagrasses exist. Lift your motor when moving through them to avoid prop scarring and anchor in open sandy locations.  You can also follow the principals of a Florida Clean Boater to reduce your impact on water quality that could impact the seagrasses.

With a little effort on our part, we can enhance some of the positive numbers we have seen in seagrass assessments and hopefully turn the current negative trends into positives.  Maybe the garden will return.  For more information on how you can apply any of these principals contact your county Extension office.

Lionfish Meet Their Match

Lionfish Meet Their Match

The northwest Florida area has been identified as having the highest concentration of invasive lionfish in the world.  Lionfish pose a significant threat to our native wildlife and habitat with spearfishing the primary means of control.  Lionfish tournaments are one way to increase harvest of these invaders and help keep populations down.  Not only that, but lionfish are a delicious tasting fish and tournaments help supply the local seafood markets with this unique offering.

Since 2019, Destin, Florida has been the site of the Emerald Coast Open (ECO), the largest lionfish tournament in the world.  While the tournament was canceled in 2020, due to the pandemic, the 2021 tournament and the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day festival returned to the Destin Harbor and led to the removal of over 10,000 invasive lionfish.

This weekend, May 14 and 15, 2022, the tournament and festival will be in back in full force at HarborWalk Village in Destin Harbor. A record number of teams will be on the water competing for cash prizes and other loot.  Florida Sea Grant will be on hand to support the two-day festival that will include lionfish tasting and fillet demonstrations, conservation and art booths, interactive kids zone, shopping, and lionfish viewing! Bring your family and friends out to support this unique event and do your part to help fight invasive lionfish.

For more information on the tournament, visit EmeraldCoastOpen.com or Facebook.com/EmeraldCoastOpen.

For information about Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, visit FWCReefRangers.com

The Invasive Lionfish

“An Equal Opportunity Institution”

Wildlife on the Beach in May

Wildlife on the Beach in May

It is mid-spring and time of nesting for much of the wildlife in the area.  It is also noticeably warmer than our previous hikes.  Due to my work schedule, and the surveys for other nesting activity, I did this hike earlier in the month and later in the day, than I typically would have.  I began my hike at 1:00pm – near the hottest part of the day, and not the best time to see wildlife, but I definitely wanted to get a hike in this month and so this is when I could.

The Gulf was relatively calm on this early afternoon in spring.

It was warm.  On this day it was 83°F and there was a light breeze from the southeast.  On the previous hikes I needed my fleece.  Though I had it in my backpack, I did not need it today.  My hike was at Big Sabine and as usual, I began on the Gulf of Mexico.  The first thing I noticed when I crossed over the boardwalk was the number of people.  I usually hike in the early morning or late afternoon and see few humans.  But at mid-day the beach was full of people, and I probably looked strange walking among them with my long pants, long sleeved shirt, and boots.  The second thing I noticed was mats of Sargassum on the beach.

 

Sargassum is a floating brown algae we see in the warmer months in our part of the Gulf.  It is first an algae, not a true plant.  Algae lack roots, stems, and leaves.  They produce no cones, fruit nor flowers with seeds.  They are nonvascular, meaning they lack a system of vein-like tubes that move water around the plant.  Plants usually do have these tubes.  They are not called arteries and veins as they are in animals, but rather xylem and phloem.  Because algae lack this circulation system, they live emersed in the water.  Since they lack true roots they anchor to hard substrate, like rocks and coral, using a suction type apparatus called a holdfast.  The flexible, herbaceous stipe, analogous to the stem, flows in the current extending their blades (analogous to leaves) into the light.  Like plants, algae require water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to photosynthesize their food.  Because of this they need to live in relatively shallow water, and they need a rocky bottom to attach their holdfast to.  We have little hard bottom and therefore less of the classic algae you read about in other parts of the world.

Notice the small air bladders on this Sargassum weed. These are used by the algae to remain near the sunlit waters of the open Gulf.

 

Sargassum has a different plan to deal with this problem.  They float.  When you look at this seaweed on the beach you will notice they have numerous small circular air bladders called pneumatophores.  These air bladders allow Sargassum to float in the sunlit waters of the Gulf and not worry about how, or where, they would attach their holdfast.

 

Large mats of Sargassum can be found floating out in the open Gulf and these mats provide a fantastic habitat for many small and large marine creatures.  There are sargassum crabs, sargassum shrimp, and even a sargassum sea horse.  There is a small filefish and a frogfish known as the sargassum fish.  It is the target for baby sea turtles that successfully made it from the beach, through the surf, and into the open Gulf without being consumed.  Here they will live and feed for many months at which time they are large enough to venture back out.  Larger fish often seek out these mats searching for food, and fishermen seek the mats knowing that larger fish are probably in the area.

 

These mats of Sargassum get caught in the large ocean currents and find their way to the middle of the Atlantic.  Here the ocean is calm, like the eye of a hurricane, and huge mats of Sargassum can be found piled up.  Christopher Columbus found this massive expanse of Sargassum while crossing the Atlantic.  Because it was calm here, and the Sargassum so thick, his ships became becalmed and he noted in his log to avoid this place, which was then called the “Sargasso Sea”.

 

On today’s hike there was quite a bit of this seaweed washed ashore.  Most of the marine life living in the seaweed sense the waves and the impending beaching, and jettison for mats further offshore.  So, you usually do not find many creatures in the seaweed washed ashore, but sometimes you do.  You can take a small dip net out deeper and grab some still floating and you may have better luck.  Today, I explored what was washed ashore and did not find much.  I did find a lot of plastic, and those who study Sargassum ecology will tell there is a lot of plastic debris caught up in the Sargassum mats.  Today I noticed a lot of bottle caps.  Not many bottles, but lots of bottle caps.  As many others do, we encourage everyone to dispose of the garbage properly.  I read this week of a manatee found near Mobile Bay earlier this year who died of cold stress but had swallowed a plastic bag, which was caught in his throat.  Marine debris kills.  Please dispose of your trash properly.

This crab pot float was one of several debris items washed in with the sargassum.

 

Heading inland to the dune field I heard sirens.  The beach patrol was answering a call.  I am not sure where, nor what the issue was, but these again are sounds I do not usually hear when hiking early and late in the day.  There are currents in the Gulf that can suck you out to sea, and each year we have visitors drown not knowing where these currents are, or how to get out of them if they are caught in one.  Pay attention to the colored flags and be careful.  I never saw, nor heard, an ambulance follow the beach patrol.  So, I am guessing everyone was okay on this call.

 

The dune field on this May afternoon was warm.  There was a light breeze from the southeast that kept things from getting too warm, but it was warm none the less.  As we move closer the hot days of summer the wildlife will move more at dawn and dusk, as well as in the evening.  I was not expecting to see a lot on this hike.

 

This flat area of the dune field was quite warm on this afternoon and made me think of crossing a desert.

This was an unusual site, a pigeon walking in the open dune field.

 

 

As always you can see what has been moving by searching for tracks and tracks, I did find.  Many of them were human, indicating the tourist season is upon us, but there were tracks of animals as well.  There were plenty from our friends the raccoon and armadillo.  I did notice more raccoon tracks this month.  I and my volunteers who survey nesting beaches notice more raccoon tracks this time of year looking for eggs.  I also noticed more snake tracks on this hike, they too are mating and moving much more.  The lizard tracks were fresh, and I have noticed these moving during the warmer parts of the day and their tracks running across the dune face told me they were very busy that day.

This straight line the sign of a tail drag by a lizard, most likely the six-lined skink.

Many who visit the dunes of our barriers find these burrow looking trails. These are made by beetles.

I followed this snake track until I found this – what appears to be a “tussle” the snake had with a possible prey.

 

Being spring you would expect flowers, and there were some, just not as many as you might expect.  Most of them were white and were blooming on plants near the boggy areas of the swales.  The conradina that blooms more in the winter, was done and the blossoms were gone.  I did see the early stages of the magnolia flowers trying to come up, but the bright green shoots of new growth on the pines were not visible.  There were bees, lots of bees.

The lavender blossoms of the false rosemary, which appeared in winter, are now gone.

White flowers were common on this spring afternoon. Such as this one on the spiny bull nettle.

Another white flower is seen on this Sagittaria growing in one of the swales between dunes.

 

I hiked through a small pine scrub area thinking I might someone in the shade avoiding the heat of the day but did not find anything.  I went along the edge of the tertiary dunes where they meet the maritime forest looking for the same thing.  Nothing, but there were tracks.  The cactus seemed to be more abundant this month.

 

The pine scrub offered one of the few places with shade.

The dune field of a Florida panhandle barrier island.

From atop of one of the higher dunes you can see the steep drop towards the marsh.

 

 

Along the ridge between the maritime forest and the salt marsh is where I found the otter slide last month.  I did not see any evidence of otters today.  The bird action was slower today as well.  Maybe because of the heat they too had settled somewhere.  I did not see an osprey, which is unusual.

Big Sabine as seen from atop one of the larger dunes.

 

As I reached the beach of the Sound, I did notice a LOT of digging by armadillos.  They had been very active.  There were no snakes or marsh rats.  There were again people, these were on jet skis.  There were a few fishing from small boats.  With no rain over the last week or so the visibility in the Sound was amazing, but I only saw one small blue crab.  No hermit crabs and not any fish.  However, the lagoon of the marsh the killifish, also known as bull minnows, were abundant and the males all aglow with their iridescent blue colors of breeding season.  The males were chasing each other all over the tidal pools and open water of the lagoon designating their territories for current breeding that would follow.  I did notice more crows than I usually do and what made me catch their attention was the constant calling at me and the hovering over me suggesting they too were breeding, and an active nest was nearby.

A blue heron is seen sitting in a pine overlooking Santa Rosa Sound.

A small Seserma crab is seen hiding under grass along the beach of the Sound.

The crows were numerous and active on this spring afternoon.

 

I was not expecting much hiking in the middle of the afternoon, but it is always good to do these just to see what is moving.  I hope to do another hike this month either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  Maybe we will see more.

It may be hard to see, but there was a small duck enjoying the Sound.

With little rain over the last few days the water clarity was excellent and you could see the seagrass very well.

Wildlife on the Beach in April

Wildlife on the Beach in April

It is now spring, and wildlife is beginning to stir more.  However, on this April day another cold front had just past the area and the morning temperature was 59°F.  To add to this, there was a strong west wind that made it feel colder.  Despite the fact it was an early spring morning in Florida, I had my fleece on and was dubious that I would see any reptiles.

 

This month’s hike was out at Big Sabine near Park East.  The Gulf of Mexico was churning like a washing machine due to the passing front and the beach had a sharp scarp to it.  There were a few plovers out trying to probe the sand for food, but not much else.  Usually after hard winds you will find an assortment of things washed up on the beach but there was little really, possibly removed by the storm.  There were however signs of digging by humans.  It is now sea turtle nesting season, and we remind folks that these large holes can be a real problem for the mothers trying to nest.  Please fill them in before you leave the beach.

Diopatra are segmented worms similar to earthworms who build tubes to live in. These tubes are often found washed up on the beach.

Large holes like this can be problematic for many island wildlife species – like nesting sea turtles. Please fill them in when you leave for the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Blow outs” are formed by people walking over the dunes. They will increase the erosion of these dunes and enhance flooding during storms. Please cross over on boardwalks.

The Gulf of Mexico was churned up due to the passing cold front.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beach scarps are formed during heavy surf changing the dynamics of the beach for creatures living there.

“Sea Beans” are seeds of tropical plants that wash ashore this time of year. Most do not germinate and those that do are usually on a high energy beach and do not survive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you head north into the dune fields the wind typically slows, but this morning it was blowing plenty hard, and I was getting “sand blasted” at some points.  Not the best day to find wildlife.  The sun was out and I decided to check the leeward side of shrubs and bushes, but had no luck.

 

One thing I did find was the sandhill milkweed in bloom.  This plant is host to the monarch butterfly caterpillars and produces a mildly toxic “milk” which the caterpillars accumulate making them toxic to birds.  This toxin is carried on to the adult butterfly stage and many birds learn to avoid butterflies with the monarch coloration because of the bad taste.  Though I saw lots of milkweed, it was too windy for the butterflies.

 

The blooms of the false rosemary, which appear in late winter, had all fallen but it was obvious that the pine trees had release their pollen.  Most of the scrubby pines in the dunes had new growth on them.

 

There were several ephemeral ponds scattered amongst the dunes.  All had water in them from the recent rains and I was hoping to maybe find a basking snake or singing frog.  No luck on either.  There were damp areas where water had recently been, and the carnivorous sundews and spore producing club moss, known as ground pines, were doing very well.

The path used by wildlife to reach the ponds of the dune field.

Two invasive Chinese tallow trees were found growing in the dune field. These will be removed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devil’s Joint is a common cactus in the dunes. Wear shoes when exploring!

The high winds of the beach can form some interesting dunes. This one resembles the mesa’s of the American southwest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are numerous freshwater ponds in the low areas of the dune field. Many of them are ephemeral.

Freshwater ephemeral pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ground pine is a type of club moss found in the wet-damp areas of the dunes.

The sandhill milkweed is bloom this time of year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pine scrub areas like this are found in the dune fields and are great places to find snakes and lizards.

Since some of our snakes are venomous, it is recommended you wear good boots and have a hiking stick to move logs and high grass before stepping in or over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seaside rosemary produces a wonderful smell that reminds many of the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I moved from the dunes into the maritime forest, I was expecting to see birds.  I did, but not many.  Most were small woodland birds I could not identify, and there was an osprey flying over briefly, but for the most part the bird action was slow today – again, probably due to the high winds.  I was again hoping to maybe find a basking snake on the sunny leeward side of a bush or fallen tree but had none.  I did find a common parasitic plant that was becoming more common this time of year.  It is called “love-vine” or dodder.  This yellow-colored string looking vine lacks chlorophyll and wraps around host plants to remove much needed nutrients.  It begins to appear this time of year and is not restricted to the beaches.  I have seen it 10 miles inland.

 

One thing that was very evident in the maritime forest was sign of armadillos.  Their tracks and digs were found everywhere.  I did locate a few burrows and found even more along the beach of the Sound.  These animals are very abundant on this island I am curious as to what predators they have and how their populations are controlled.  They can be found day or night and dig frequently looking for grubs and other invertebrates to eat.  Whether they seek out turtle or bird eggs I do not know.  More on this guy next month.

 

I will add that I did see tracks of raccoons who do eat turtle eggs and also what I think was a “slide” of an otter.  The number of otter encounters has increased in recent years.  Individuals have been seen not only on the beach but around Bayou Texar and Project Greenshores.  These are very elusive animals and produce a high pitched “chirp” or “bark” when approached.  I have seen them near Ft. Pickens on a couple of occasions in the ponds.  There are the old hatchery ponds at Big Sabine, and it was there that I found the “slide”.  These slides are used by the otters to slide into the water.  I have seen video of them exiting the water, sliding back in, only to repeat this as if they were playing like kids – and I think that is what they are doing… playing.  Otters are the largest members of the weasel family, mustelids, and pretty cool.

Many creatures use the same trails we do. This is a good place to look for tracks.

Armadillos are all over the island. This is a burrow of one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The digging of armadillos can be found everywhere as well.

Dodder (or “love vine”) is a parasitic plant that begins to appear this time of year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what I think to be an otter slide. Though I could not find tracks to confirm, I have seen them build and use these before.

Raccoons are common all over the island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The marsh of Big Sabine was pretty quiet on this windy day.  I did see two Canadian geese walking along the shore.  I recently saw several nesting on an island in Okaloosa County and was told they were now year-round residents.  I am not sure whether these were residents to Big Sabine or not, I had not seen them before, but will note this as this series continues this year.

Canadian geese are becoming residents on some islands along the panhandle.

Wood piles like these can be good habitat for some beach wildlife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The beach of Santa Rosa Sound was quiet as well.  Again, I probed around to seeking a basking snake, a nesting terrapin, or maybe a nesting horseshoe crab (it was a spring tide day) but found nothing.  There are piles of wood gathered by locals cleaning the beach and these actually make good habitat for some wildlife.  I poked around in them but did not find anyone today.  This was also where I found most of the armadillo burrows.  Why they preferred this over the forested areas I am not sure.  There may be many more in the forest that I just did not see.  The spring tide was rising and much of the beach was exposed but I saw no fiddler crabs or other creatures and there was nothing swimming nearshore in the grass beds.  Again, the lower temperatures and high winds I am sure had everyone in a warmer calmer place.

 

Despite little wildlife today it was a great walk and despite the high winds, the weather was actually nice.  It is spring and nesting should be going on across the island.  We will visit Ft. Pickens in May and see what is going on then.

Santa Rosa Sound.

New Regulations for Diamondback Terrapins Will Eventually Impact Recreational Crab Traps

New Regulations for Diamondback Terrapins Will Eventually Impact Recreational Crab Traps

In December of 2021 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) passed new regulations concerning the diamondback terrapin.  One will make it illegal to possess a terrapin without a permit beginning March 1, 2022.  The other will impact recreational crab trap design in early 2023.  A number of people have begun to ask questions ab

The diamond in the marsh. The diamondback terrapin.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

ut this new ruling so, we will explain it.

 

 

WHAT IS A DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN?

We will start there.  Most Floridians have never heard of this animal, and if they have, they know it from the Chesapeake Bay area.  Diamondback terrapins are turtles in the Family Emydidae.  This family includes many of the pond turtles Floridians are familiar with – cooters, sliders, red-belly, and others.  The big difference between terrapins and pond turtles is the coloration of their skin, and their preference for brackish water – they like estuaries over ponds and lakes.  They do have lachrymal glands in their eyes to help excrete salt from water, but they are not as efficient as those of sea turtles so, they cannot live in sea water for more than about a month – it is the bays and bayous they like to call home.

 

There are seven recognized subspecies which range from Cape Cod MA., to Brownsville TX.  Five of them are found in Florida and three are only found in Florida.  But few Floridians have ever heard of them and even fewer have seen one.  Their cousins the pond turtles are quite common.  We see their heads in ponds and lakes, several of them basking on logs near shore of ponds, lakes, and rivers, and frequently see dead ones along our highways.  We don’t see terrapins.  We do not see their heads in the marsh, basking on logs, or dead carcasses along our coastal highways.  Again, this is an unknown turtle to us.

 

WHY ARE THERE NEW REGULATIONS ON A TURTLE MANY HAVE NEVER SEEN?

The question sort of explains the answer – we do not see them – their population in our state may deem some action by the FWC.  In the Chesapeake region they are quite common, and people see them frequently.  It is the mascot of the University of Maryland.  Along the roads to the barrier islands in Georgia hundreds of terrapins can be found trying to nest and many are hit by cars.  In most of these mid-Atlantic states there is some form of protection for them.  They either list them as threatened or a species of concern.  One state has it listed as endangered.  Again, these are states where encounters are much more common.

 

Florida has a rich diversity of turtles, maybe the richest in the country, and we have been the target for turtle harvest.  Turtles are sought after for food and as pets.  The harvest of some species has been heavy and FWC has listed them as “no take”.  For a variety of reasons, harvest being one of them, Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii), the Suwannee Cooter (Pseudemys suwanniensis), and the Barbour’s Map Turtle (Graptemys barbouri) are illegal to possess without a permit.  This includes their eggs.  Because other species look very similar to these, they have also been added to the no-take list.  This would include all species of cooters and snapping turtles, the Escambia Map Turtle (Graptemys ernsti) and the Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii) – which is a small riverine turtle that resembles a small snapping turtle.  Note: the regulation on the striped mud turtle is for the lower Florida Keys only.  You could take diamondback terrapins but only one and you could have no more than two in your possession.  You could not possess their eggs.  But with the 2021 ruling – this has changed.

 

As mentioned, terrapin encounters are rare in our state.  There has been concern about their population status here.  I got involved with them in 2005 primarily to answer the question “Do terrapins even exist in the Florida panhandle?”.  The answer is yes, they do.  Since 2005 myself, and trained volunteers, have conducted 859 surveys searching for them between Escambia and Franklin counties.  We have encountered terrapins, or terrapin sign (tracks, shells, depredated nests) 215 of those – 25% of the surveys; most of those encounters were terrapin sign – they are hard creatures to find.  Because of the low encounter rate across the state, it is believed that the populations here are low and in need for conservation measures.

 

Then comes the crab traps…

 

Researchers with the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group have identified several stressors to terrapin populations.  Loss of habitat, depredated nests by predators (particularly the raccoon), road mortality, and… crab traps.  Terrapins feed primarily on shellfish but will eat other things if given the opportunity.  They do have a tendency to enter crab traps.  Though they feed on small juvenile crabs it is the bait we think they are after in this scenario.  Once in, like blue crabs, they find it hard to escape.  Unlike blue crabs, turtles have lungs, and the terrapins eventually drown.  In the Chesapeake Bay region blue crabs are ”king” – a major commercial and recreational fishery.  Terrapins entering crab traps means crabs are not.  There have been as many as 40 dead terrapins found in one trap.  This was a major concern for all.  Dr. Roger Woods of the Wetlands Institute in New Jersey began working on a device that would keep terrapins out but allow blue crabs in.  Data shows that in most cases, the larger females are the ones entering and the smaller males would follow.  If you could keep the female out it was believed that most males would not enter.  So, the device was designed to keep the large females out.  A 6×2” rectangle seemed to work best.  Field studies showed that these By-Catch Reduction Devices (BRDs) kept 80-90% of the terrapins out and did not significantly impact the crab catch.  We had a design that seemed to work.

This orange plastic rectangle is a Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) used to keep terrapins out of crab traps – but not crabs.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

BRDs are designed to keep terrapins out but allow crabs to enter.
Photo: Virginia Sea Grant

 

These BRDs have been required in the Mid-Atlantic states for a few years now.  With the concern in Florida populations, it is now coming to Florida.  By March 1, 2023, all recreational crab traps in Florida will be required to have a fixed funnel size no larger than 6×2”.  Either the funnel must be this size, or you can attach one of the plastic orange BRDs to the opening (see photo).  Currently bait and tackle shops do not have the BRDs but will be acquiring over the next year.  FWC will be working on providing sources between now and March of 2023.  If you are in the Pensacola area you can contact me, I have a case of them in my office.

 

As far as having one on your possession – it is now a no-take species.  This rule began March 1, 2022.  If you have had a terrapin in your possession you can apply for a no-cost permit to keep it (visit the FWC link below to obtain information on applying for this permit).  If you are an education facility that houses terrapins for educational purposes – the same, you can apply for a no-cost education permit to keep your terrapins.  You must have this permit by May 31, 2022.

 

If you have any questions concerning this ruling or how to comply with it, you can contact FWC or your county Sea Grant Extension Agent.  The FWC link for more information on this, and other turtle regulations, can be found at https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/freshwater-turtles/?redirect=freshwaterturtles&utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=campaign.

Salt Marshes – The Land of the Wet and Muddy

Salt Marshes – The Land of the Wet and Muddy

When exploring local coastal environments, the salt marsh is one not frequently visited by residents.  When first seen, the large field of grass appears inviting.  But when you reach it appears impenetrable, full of bugs and snakes, and there must be an easier way around.

The Salt Marsh – the land of the wet and Muddy
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

There are three ways to access a salt marsh.  One, to just begin walking into the field of grass, pushing your way through like a boat on the ocean.  Second, using a trail cut but someone else, that meanders its way to the high ground or open water.  And third, from the open water following a creek.  This can be done on foot or by a paddle craft.

Entering the salt marsh can be tricky.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

If entering by foot into the field of grass, the explorer is first met with a tall grass with a pointed end – black needlerush.  This rather stiff, thin, cylinder-shaped grass has a good name, the pointed end is sharp and hurts as you begin to move it out of the way with your forearms.  When in college I was told “you might want to wear jeans”.  I did not see wearing jeans in the summer heat as a good idea so, chose not to, but understood quickly why they recommended it.  Honestly, I am not sure it would have helped anyway.  Needlerush pokes your arms, legs, and care must be taken and avoid bending over to pick something up, else you will get a poke in the face or eye.

Black Needlerush is one of the two dominant plants of our salt marshes. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

After quickly meeting black needlerush you meet the mud.  They do not call it the land of the wet and muddy for nothing.  They mud is like pudding and some sections feel like there is no solid ground.  This mud is a slate gray color, smells like rotten eggs, and you can sink into it up to your knees in places.  Shoe selection in a place like this is important.  Many an explorer has placed their shoe covered foot into the mud only to bring up a shoeless foot the next step.  Shoes that can tied or synched to the foot are best.  They need a good thick bottom to protect the foot from shells, like oysters.  I will tell you “crocs” are not what you want.

 

 

 

The sediment in a marsh is not always as solid as it looks.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

 

The rotten egg smell is the gas hydrogen sulfide, produced by bacteria breaking down organic material trapped within the marsh.  And much becomes trapped here.  By definition a marsh is a wetland that is dominated by grasses rather than trees.  Being a wetland, it is low in elevation and holds water either from rainwater run-off or from the incoming tide.  As the water recedes, leaf litter, animal carcasses, and other debris become trapped in the marsh.  In fact, the ability of the marsh to hold this decaying layer of mud plays an important role in keeping the open water clear.

 

As you labor your way across the marsh, pulling each footstep through the mud while moving the sharp grass, you may see signs of life.  Most animals have trouble walking through the grass and mud as well and choose another route.  But the density and biomass of the open marsh is impressive.  Trying to count the blades of grass would be like trying to count the stars in the sky.  It is a very biologically productive place.  One creature you may encounter is the bird known as the clapper rail.  This brownish bird blends in well in the sea of grass and often builds their nest here.  When you come upon them, they will let out a loud squawking sound that will honestly terrify you at first.  Sometimes they fly, sometimes they move to a new location, sometimes they hold their position and continue to try and scare you away.

The marsh periwinkle is one of the more common mollusk found in our salt marsh. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

Another common creature seen is the marsh periwinkle.  This small white snail is often seen on the blades of needlerush.  As the tides rises, so does the periwinkle, crawling up the grass to avoid predators like the blue crab and diamondback terrapin.  At low tide they are on the surface of the organic mud feeding on bits of decaying material.  Again, caution if you are going to bend over to look for them.  You may get a needlerush in the eye!

 

There are times as you are crossing you will come to an open area with little or no grass.  These are known as salt pans and are areas with lower elevation that the surrounding marsh.  Saltwater lies here during high tide and low.  As the pool of water evaporates the salinity of the remaining water increases and becomes too salty for most plants to grow.  It becomes a “dead zone” within the marsh.  There are a few salt tolerant plants that do grow here.  You may see the tracks of other creatures exploring, like raccoons, but otherwise it is a break for you from the constant shoving of needlerush and you step in there.

 

Occasionally you will cross the opposite in elevation.  A high ridge of quartz sand where small shrubs like salt bush or even a small oak can be found.  These little oasis’s can be places where other travelers of the marsh will rest.  Fiddler crabs, cactus, and maybe even a basking snake could be found here.

A finger of a salt marsh on Santa Rosa Island. The water here is saline, particularly during high tide. Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

There are times when you will cross a creek.  These creeks meander their way through the marsh and to the open water.  Many travelers, for obvious reasons, choose to follow these routes.  Some creeks are shallow and full of mud where you may sink above your knee.  Others are a bit deeper and have more solid bottoms of sand.  Walking through the water can give some relief from the needlerush.  Here you will see several species of fish.  Most are killifish or mullet, but as you get closer to the open water you might find redfish or flounder.  It is much easier to see the periwinkles here.  You will also notice the ribbed mussels anchored near the base of the needlerush.  There are oyster clumps scattered here and there and huge colonies of fiddler crabs.  The creeks are good hunting grounds for the stilted legged birds such as the great blue heron and American egret.  Clapper rails often nest along the creek edges and there is a lot of sign of raccoons and sometimes otters.

The “snorkel” is called a siphon and is used by the snail to draw water into the mantle cavity. Here it can extract oxygen and detect the scent of prey.
Photo: Franklin County Extension

 

The crown conch is a frequent visitor to the creeks.  This predatory snail moves slowly across the sand and mud seeking other mollusks to feed on.  Often you will find their shells not inhabited by them but rather the striped hermit crab, a scavenger in this world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The nonvenomous Gulf Salt marsh Snake.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

 

Many fear the marsh due to its reptile community.  Over the years of leading hikes here I have heard “are there any snakes here?”.  There is only one resident of the salt marsh – the Gulf salt marsh snake.  This is a nonvenomous member of the watersnake group known as Neroidia and are more nocturnal in habit.  That said, the venomous cottonmouth has been seen here.  They are most often seen on one of the high sandy banks, coiled and waiting for potential prey to swim by.

 

Alligator
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

 

Alligators will venture into salt marshes, but I have only seen few in my years of exploring them in the Pensacola area.  They tend to be afraid of people and want to avoid us.  Once I saw one in a sandy area before I entered the marsh.  It was pointing left with one foot off the ground and not moving – it was frozen in space.  I had learned that animals tend to go through what I call the “3 Fs” when they detect a predator.  Freeze – Flight – Fight.  This one was at F1 – freeze.  It thought I was a predator and just as well.  If I tried to approach it, theoretically it would have moved to F2 – flight, and would have made a hasty escape.  But I chose not to test that.

Mississippi Diamondback Terrapin (photo: Molly O’Connor)

 

There is a resident turtle here known as the diamondback terrapin.  However, it is very elusive and difficult to find.  It is the only resident brackish water turtle in North America.  Though I have seen terrapins in the water, and more rarely on the beach, I do find evidence of their presence by tracks on the beach and nests that have been predated by raccoons.  I did once see one basking on a log.

 

Smooth cordgrass
Photo: FDEP

 

 

If you follow the creek, you will eventually reach open water.  Here the marsh converts from a sea of black needlerush to a zone of shorter, greener, more flexible smooth cordgrass.  The cordgrass is home to many of the creatures we have mentioned.  Killifish, crabs, and snails are abundant.  The silt birds frequently this zone hunting for their prey, and you might find additional clams and snails.  You might find more open water species as well, like gulls, sand pipers and plovers, and maybe a horseshoe crab.

 

Though the road is tough, the experience is unique and worth the trip.  Many prefer to enter the marsh using a known trail or a paddle craft in the creek.  There is a lot less needlerush to poke and mud to sink in doing it this way.  However you visit, it is an amazing place.  The land of the wet and muddy.