Divers Spearheading the Fight Against Invasive Lionfish

Divers Spearheading the Fight Against Invasive Lionfish

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

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, hosted by Destin-Fort Walton Beach and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC).  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 May 14-16 with over 145 tournament participants from around Florida, the US, and even Canada.  The windy weekend facilitated some sporty conditions keeping boats and teams from maximizing their time on the water, but ultimately 2,505 lionfish were removed during the pre-tournament and 7,745 lionfish were removed during the two-day event for a total of 10,250 invasive lionfish removed. Florida Sea Grant and FWC recruited over 50 volunteers from organizations such as Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Navarre Beach Marine Science Station and Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center to man the tournament and surrounding festival.

Lionfish hunters competed for over $48,000 in cash prizes and $25,000 in gear prizes. Florida Man, a Destin-based dive charter on the DreadKnot, won $10,000 for harvesting the most lionfish, 1,371, in 2 days.  Team Bottom Time secured the largest lionfish prize of $5,000 with a 17.32 inch fish.  Team Into the Clouds wrapped up the $5,000 prize for smallest lionfish with a 1.61 inch fish, the smallest lionfish caught in Emerald Coast Open History.

It is never too early to start preparing for the 2022 tournament. For more information, visit EmeraldCoastOpen.com or Facebook.com/EmeraldCoastOpen. For information about Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day, visit FWCReefRangers.com

“An Equal Opportunity Institution”

Connecting With Youth Through the Love of the Outdoors

Connecting With Youth Through the Love of the Outdoors

Article by Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

Article by Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

By Rachel Mathes

My only brother and his family live in Appleton, Wisconsin. Though I’m only able to see my niece and nephews one or two times a year, we have a deep connection through our love of the outdoors.

Zach discovering the joy of nature. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Zach discovering the joy of nature. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Their middle son, Zachary, is a budding naturalist at just four years old. When I visit them, Zach, his brother Connor, sister Cecilia, and I, load up the wagon and go for walks on the edge of the prairie in their neighborhood. We start our walks looking for scat and signs of wildlife. Because the kids are so close to the ground, they often spot wildlife trails before I do. We talk about what animals may be there, what they eat, and how we can help them.

After each walk, we wind down at home with an iNaturalist session. Zach and his siblings help me choose what animal or plant we think we saw with the help of the app’s nearby suggestions tool. A favorite game we play after all our photos are entered into the app is a game we’ve coined, “where’s that animal?” We use the iNaturalist explore feature to find sightings of exciting creatures like wolves and beavers near their home. The kids have learned that even scientists often don’t see the animals they study, just signs of them.

At age three, Zach learned to identify milkweed with impressive accuracy. I pointed out the plant on a previous trip more than six months earlier and he remembered how to find them. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is a large leafed species that prefers winters a bit colder than we get here in the Florida Panhandle, but is native in northern states across the Eastern US, including Wisconsin. Zach is often stopping the wagon to scout for monarch caterpillars, finding even the smallest instars and eggs.

Zach learned to identify common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, at the age of three. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Zach learned to identify common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, at the age of three. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

When I video call the kids from Florida, Zach is often asking to see my fruit trees, vines, and bushes. He knows that we have very different seasons than Wisconsin when I am eating blueberries in May and he’s still knocking frost off his snow boots. In July, he tells me about the raspberries they find in the woods with their dad. We both get a bit of seasonal berry jealousy. On my last trip we planted thornless blackberries in their garden together. It remains to be seen whether the birds will let the kids have a harvest, but the kids will be excited either way.

Though we may live a thousand miles apart, I know my relationship with my niece and nephews will continue to thrive as they explore the natural world around them. One day, I hope to introduce them to the awe of Florida manatees and alligators. Until then, I will relish the time we get to spend together outdoors in nature and on the phone together. I know that Zachary and his siblings will grow up having respect for the natural world and I hope he always exclaims, “Monarch! Look auntie Rachel, a monarch caterpillar!” on our walks together.

Author: Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

Team True Blue Provides Shark Data to increase NOAA Research on the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier

Team True Blue Provides Shark Data to increase NOAA Research on the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier

On most days, if you walk to the end of the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier, you will find a group of shark anglers that provide valuable data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Cooperative Volunteer Shark Tagging program. Led by Earnie Polk, 50-60 team members have participated in the cooperative tagging program in the twenty-five years he has been involved.

This group not only provides research data to NOAA, but are also stewards of pier etiquette, Navarre Beach and the  surrounding area. Tourists and locals alike are treated to stories of local history, fish tales and general information about the area from Earnie and Team True Blue members. In addition, visitors may see a shark tagged and released or the group catching large fish to be used for shark bait     

 

         

 

Photo Credit Earnie Polk

                          

The NOAA Cooperative Shark Tagging program has been in existence since 1962. Today thousands of anglers along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast have tagged more than 295,000 sharks representing 52 different species. More than 17,500 sharks have been recaptured! This program provides information on shark migration patterns, numbers, locations, migrations, age and growth rates, behavior and mortality.

 

Earnie estimates he has tagged more than one-thousand sharks for the program. He has refined handling methods to have the least impact on the animal to ensure the survival of the shark after release. The team brings the shark to shore to measure the length and tag the shark just behind the dorsal fin.   

Earnie shared an interesting story about tagging at least eighty Dusky sharks during a red tide event during the late fall of 2015. He noticed as the north winds blew the red tide out, an open area was created along the coast. This allowed clear water for the sharks to travel closer to shore and within distance of the tag and release team.

Today, the tiger shark is the most common shark the team tags and releases. Recently, the team tagged and released a 12’6” tiger shark. Randy Meredith, of the Navarre Newspaper agreed to share the video he edited of the Navarre Fishing Pier and the tag and release of the tiger shark in February 2021.

The team uses heavy gear, 200-pound test line and Everol reels that have drag pressure for a shorter fight to reduce stress on the animal for a better survival rate. Gear is spread along the rails at the end of the pier. Baited lines range from approximately 75 to 400 yards off the end of the pier. You probably wonder how they get their line 400 yards off the pier. Earnie has modified a fiberglass kayak with a battery powered motor. It is lowered to the surface of the water; team members drop their lines onto the kayak and Earnie pilots the kayak out to deeper water. 

Their strategy is that by dropping more lines, at different depths and locations a shark is bound to trip over one of the lines. They use bait they catch on the pier or other fishing trips. Something big had hit on a cow nose ray over the weekend, so most members were using rays for bait. One team member said, “if the fish had hit on a watermelon, we all would be using watermelon for bait.” These guys have a great sense of humor!!

 

 

Make sure that the next time you visit Navarre Beach, you take time to walk out to the end of the fishing pier to learn about local sharks, history and the area from these interesting, funny and helpful anglers. On clear days you may see sharks, rays, sea turtles and other types of marine life as you venture out.

Be sure to stop at the pier store to pay the $1.00 per-person fee to enjoy the view!

 

Groundhog or Gopher?

Groundhog or Gopher?

Groundhog

Groundhog Day is celebrated every year on February 2, and in 2021, it falls on Tuesday. It’s a day when townsfolk in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, gather in Gobbler’s Knob to watch as an unsuspecting furry marmot is plucked from his burrow to predict the weather for the rest of the winter. If Phil does see his shadow (meaning the Sun is shining), winter will not end early, and we’ll have another 6 weeks left of it.  If Phil doesn’t see his shadow (cloudy) we’ll have an early spring.  Since Punxsutawney Phil first began prognosticating the weather back in 1887, he has predicted an early end to winter

only 18 times.  However, his accuracy rate is only 39%.  In the south, we call also defer to General Beauregard Lee in Atlanta, Georgia or Pardon Me Pete in Tampa, Florida.

But, what is a groundhog? Are gophers and groundhogs the same animal?  Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don’t have a whole lot in common—they don’t even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers, kangaroo rats, and pocket mice. Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels. There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about. In the spring, gophers make what is called eskers, or winding mounds of soil. The southeastern pocket gopher, Geomys pinetis, is also known as the sandy-mounder in Florida.

Southeastern Pocket Gopher

The southeastern pocket gopher is tan to gray-brown in color. The feet and naked tail are light colored. The southeastern pocket gopher requires deep, well-drained sandy soils. It is most abundant in longleaf pine/turkey oak sandhill habitats, but it is also found in coastal strand, sand pine scrub, and upland hammock habitats.

Gophers dig extensive tunnel systems and are rarely seen on the surface. The average tunnel length is 145 feet (44 m) and at least one tunnel was followed for 525 feet (159 m). The soil gophers remove while digging their tunnels is pushed to the surface to form the characteristic rows of sand mounds. Mound building seems to be more intense during the cooler months, especially spring and fall, and slower in the summer. In the spring, pocket gophers push up 1-3 mounds per day. Based on mound construction, gophers seem to be more active at night and around dusk and dawn, but they may be active at any time of day.

Pocket Gopher Mounds

Many amphibians and reptiles use pocket gopher mounds as homes, including Florida’s unique mole skinks. The pocket gopher tunnels themselves serve as habitat for many unique invertebrates found nowhere else.

So, groundhogs for guesses on the arrival of spring.  But, when the pocket gophers are making lots of mounds, spring is truly here.  Happy Groundhog’s Day.

Meet the Author:  Dr. Pat Williams

Meet the Author: Dr. Pat Williams

Pat is the County Extension Director and the Agriculture/Horticulture/Natural Resources agent for UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County while also serving as the Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator for both Franklin and Wakulla counties.

Meet the Agent_Williams 2020Final

Pat by their outdoor mural at the Extension office.

He earned his doctorate from Texas A&M University in horticulture, a M.S. degree from Kansas State University in horticultural therapy, a B.S. degree in ornamental horticulture/floriculture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an A.S. degree in ornamental horticulture from Crafton Hills College.

Over his horticulture career that started at age 13 working for Chrysanthemum Gardens in Crestline, CA, he has resided in 10 different states with a wide range of environmental influences (CA, KS, NJ, ME, NY, WA, TX, KY, TN and FL).  He has held various positions in his career from teaching adults with developmental disabilities in NJ and ME, designing, installing and maintaining landscapes, landscape construction, being a horticultural therapist in New York City, working for the USDA in WA, teaching in a TX federal prison for his Extension appointment, teaching horticulture in a TN high school and was an university horticulture professor for 14 years in KY after teaching at Kansas State University, Washington State University and Texas A&M University as a teaching assistant.  He started with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in April 2017 as the Sarasota County Residential Horticulture Agent/Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator and transitioned to the Wakulla County Extension office in June 2020.

Kayak POL

Kayaking the Myakka River, FL.

Teaching and greenhouse growing are his professional joys.  Florida is the first state where there has not been a greenhouse to play in and he misses it greatly, however Extension does offer many opportunities to share his passion for plants and outdoors with a new group of learners.  Otherwise Pat grew up on the beaches and ski resort areas of southern CA and still finds solace today relaxing on the beach or kayaking.  He has traveled a bit visiting 49 states with only Hawaii to go.  When indoors he would rather be baking or cooking in the kitchen as his second career choice would have been a chef.  There is usually a yard full of flowers, herbs and vegetables and he is an extremely proud FSU Seminole Dad to Tara, a 2020 graduate.

Pat wears many hats at the Wakulla office and handles topics other than 4-H Youth Development or Family and Consumer Sciences.  Once again he finds himself in a transition adapting to the new horticultural environment of Florida’s panhandle and developing more programs in agriculture and natural resources.  Please feel free to reach out to see how the UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County can be of assistance.

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?

That’s the question from a recent group exploring what washed up on the beach after Hurricane Sally.

long, round brownish invertebrate

Sea Cucumber
Photo by: Amy Leath

They have no eyes, nose or antenna.  Yet, they move with tiny little legs and have openings on each end.  Though scientists refer to them as sea cucumbers, they are obviously animals.  Sea cucumbers get their name because of their overall body shape, but they are not vegetables.

There are over 1,200 species of sea cucumbers, ranging in size from ¾“ to more than 6‘ long, living throughout the world’s ocean bottoms.  They are part of a larger animal group called echinoderms, which includes starfish, urchins and sand dollars. Echinoderms have five identical parts to their bodies.  In the case of sea cucumber, they have 5 elongated body segments separated by tiny bones running from the tube feet at the mouth to the opening of the anus.  These squishy invertebrates spend their entire life scavenging off the seafloor.  Those tiny legs are actually tube feet that surround their mouth, directing algae, aquatic invertebrates, and waste particles found in the sand into their digestive tract.  What goes in, must come out.  That’s where it becomes interesting.

Sea cucumbers breathe by dilating their anal sphincter to allow water into the rectum, where specialized organs referred to as respiratory trees (or butt lungs) extract the oxygen from the water before discharging it back into the sea.  Several commensal and symbiotic creatures (including a fish that lives in the anus, as well as crabs and shrimp on its skin) hang out on this end of the sea cucumber collecting any “leftovers”.

But, the ecosystem also benefits.  Not only is excess organic matter being removed from the seafloor, but the water environment is being enriched.  Sea cucumbers’ natural digestion process gives their feces a relatively high pH from the excretion of ammonia, protecting the water surrounding the sea cucumber habitats from ocean acidification and providing fertilizer that promotes coral growth.  Also, the tiny bones within the sea cucumber form from the excretion of calcium carbonate, which is the primary ingredient in coral formation. The living and dying of sea cucumbers aids in the survival of coral beds.

When disturbed, sea cucumbers can expose their bony hook-like structures through their skin, making them more pickle than cucumber in appearance.  Sea cucumbers can also use their digestive system to ward of predators.  To confuse or harm predators, the sea cucumber propels its toxic internal organs from its body in the direction of the attacker.  No worries though.  They can grow them back again.

Hurricane Sally washed the sea cucumbers ashore so you could learn more about the creatures on the ocean floor.  Continue to explore the Florida panhandle outdoor.