Photo: Chris Verlinde
Photo: Chris Verlinde
The diversity and natural beauty of the Escribano Point Wildlife Management area is breathtaking. These six square miles of conservation lands provides many types of outdoor recreation including: birdwatching, kayaking, camping, swimming, fishing and hiking. The bays, estuaries, river swamps and other coastal habitats are managed to preserve native plants and animals. Visit Escribano Point Wildlife Management Area (WMA) soon and discover this piece of old Florida.
The Escribano Point WMA is part of state-owned conservation lands that provide habitat for rare plants and animals and promote water quality in Blackwater Bay, East Bay and the Yellow River. The diverse habitats found in Escribano Point WMA provide home to many types of wildlife including, deer, turkey, Florida Black Bears, birds, reptiles amphibians and fish.
As part of the Florida Master Naturalist Program’s 20th Anniversary, a small but mighty group hit the water just as the air temperature broke 60 degrees on Saturday. We kayaked up Fundy Bayou and out to Fundy Cove located along the southeast side of Blackwater Bay in Santa Rosa County, Fl.
We traveled through freshwater and saltwater marshes, along scrubby flat woods, beach and mesic hammock habitats. Ospreys, a kingfisher, and red-headed woodpecker entertained the group. The air temperature warmed as we paddled. When we arrived at the junction of Fundy Creek and Blackwater Bay, Blackwater Bay was rough. We paddled to the campground for lunch and enjoyed the peaceful beauty around us.
Thanks to Kayak Dave, one member of the group checked an action on her bucket list to paddle again.
Escribano Point WMA is a treasure located in Santa Rosa County, FL., approximately 20 south of Milton, FL . Take some and visit for a day or two, there are 2 campgrounds located at this WMA. Enjoy!
There are a lot of fish found along the Florida panhandle that many are not aware of, but catfish are not one of them. Whether a saltwater angler who captures one of those slimy hardhead catfish to a lover of freshwater fried catfish – this is a creature most have encountered and are well aware of.
Growing up fishing along the Gulf of Mexico, the “catfish” was one of our nemesis. Slinging your cut-bait out on a line, if you were fishing near the bottom, you were likely to catch one of these. Reeling in a slimy barb-invested creature, they would swallow your bait well beyond the lip of their mouths and it would begin a long ordeal on how to de-hooked this bottom feeder that was too greasy to eat. Many surf fishermen would toss their bodies up on the beach with the idea that removing it would somehow reduce their population. Obviously, that plan did not work but ghost crabs will drag their carcasses over to their burrows where they would consume them and leave the head skull that gives this species of catfish it’s common name “hardhead” catfish, or “steelhead” catfish. This hard skull has bones whose shape remind you of Jesus being crucified and was sold in novelty stores as the “crucifix fish”.
The bones in the skull of the hardhead catfish resemble the crucifixion of Christ and are sold as “crucifix fish”.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
When I attended college in southeast Alabama a group of friends wanted to go out for fried catfish. I, knowing the above about saltwater catfish, replied “why?… no…, you don’t eat catfish”. They assured me you did and so off we went to a local restaurant who sold them. Fried catfish quickly became one of my favorites. A fried catfish sandwich with slaw and beans is something I always look forward to. At that time, I was not aware of the freshwater catfish, nor the catfish farms that produce much of the fish for my sandwiches. I now have also become aware of the method of catching freshwater catfish called “noodling” – which is not something I plan to take up.
Worldwide, there are 36 families and about 3000 species of what are called catfish1. Most are bottom feeders with flatten heads to burrow through the substrate gulping their prey instead of biting it. Most possess “whiskers” – called barbels, which are appendages that can detect chemicals in the environment (smell or taste) helping them to detect prey that is buried or hard to find in murky waters. These barbels resemble whiskers and give them their common name “catfish”.
The serrated spines and large barbels of the sea catfish. Image: Louisiana Sea Grant
They lack scales, giving them the slimy feel when removing them from your hook, and also have a reduced swim bladder causing them to sink in the water – thus they spend much of their time on the bottom. The mucous of their skin helps in absorbing dissolved oxygen through the skin allowing them to live in water where dissolved oxygen may be too low for other types of fish1.
They are also famous for their serrated spines. Usually found on the dorsal and pectoral fins, these spines can be quite painful if stepped on, or handled incorrectly. Some species can produce a venom introduced when these spines penetrate a potential predator which have put some folks in the hospital1.
The size range of catfish is large; from about five inches to almost six feet. In North America, the largest captured was a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) at 130 pounds. The largest flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) was 123 pounds. But the monster of this group is the Mekong catfish of southeast Asia weighing in at over 600 pounds.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lists six species of catfish in the Florida panhandle area. However, they are focusing on species that people like to catch2.
The Blue Catfish
Photo: University of Florida
This large blue catfish is being weighed by FWC researchers. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
The Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) is found throughout Florida and also in many river systems of the eastern United States. It has found few barriers dispersing through these river systems. They are not typically bottom feeders having a more carnivorous diet.
The Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) are relatively new to Florida and are currently reported in the Escambia and Apalachicola rivers. They prefer these slow-moving alluvial rivers.
The Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) were first reported in the Escambia and Yellow Rivers, there are now records of them in the Apalachicola. These catfish prefer faster moving rivers with sand/gravel bottoms and seem to concentrate towards the lower ends of major tributaries.
The White Catfish (Amerius catus) is found in rivers and streams statewide, and even in some brackish systems.
The Yellow Bullhead (Amerius natalis) are most often found in slow moving heavily vegetated systems like ponds, lakes, and reservoirs. It is reported to be more tolerant of poor water conditions.
The Brown Bullhead (Amerius nebulosus) live in similar conditions to the Yellow Bullhead.
The dispersal of freshwater catfish is interesting. How do they get from the Escambia to the Apalachicola Rivers without swimming into the Gulf and up new rivers? The answer most probably comes from small tributaries further upstream that can, eventually, connect them to a new river system. Scientists know that eggs deposited on the bottom can be moved by birds who feed in each of the systems carrying the eggs with them as they do. And you cannot rule out movement by humans, whether intentionally or accidentally.
On the saltwater side of things, there are two species – though the blue catfish has been reported in the upper portions of some estuaries in low salinities in the western Gulf of Mexico. The marine species are the hardhead catfish (Arius felis), sometimes known as the “steelhead” or the “sea catfish” – and the gafftop (Bagre marinus), also known as the gafftopsail catfish3.
The hardhead catfish is very familiar with anglers along the Gulf coast. This is the one I was referring to at the beginning of this article. It is considered inedible and a nuisance by most. They are common in estuaries and the shallow portions of the open sea from Massachusetts to Mexico. They are reported to have an average length of two feet, though most I have captured are smaller. Like many catfish, they possess serrated spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins. Their distribution seems to be limited by salinity.
The gafftop is also reported to have a mean length of two feet, and most that I have captured are closer to that. At one point in time, we were longlining for juvenile sharks in Pensacola Bay and caught numerous of these thinking they were small bull sharks as we pulled the lines in, until we saw the long barbels extending from them. I remember this being a very slimy fish, covered with mucous, and not fun to take off the hooks. It is reported to have good food value, though I have not eaten one. They differ from the hardheads mainly in their extended rays from the dorsal and pectoral fins. The habitat and range are similar to hardheads, though they have been reported as far south as Panama.
The extended rays of the gafftop catfish.
Photo: University of Florida.
The diversity of freshwater catfish in the U.S. goes beyond what has been reported here. This group has been found on most continents and have been very successful. There are plenty of local catfish farms where you can try your luck, have them cleaned, and enjoy a good meal.
1 Catfish. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catfish.
2 Catfish. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. https://myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/sites-forecasts/catfish/.
3 Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press. College Station TX. Pp. 327.
Scott Jackson, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County & Florida Sea Grant
Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County & Florida Sea Grant
Erik Lovestrand, UF/IFAS Extension Franklin County & Florida Sea Grant
Can you remember where you were one year ago last April? The uncertainty of each day seemed to go on forever. At this time last year, we were planning several education programs that eventually had to be canceled or migrated to online events. Scallop Sitters was one of our cooperative volunteer programs with Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) that was postponed during the pandemic in 2020. Thankfully, FWC biologists continued restoration work last year in the region with good results and steps forward. However, there was something painfully absent in these efforts – you!
One of the lessons last year taught us, is to appreciate our opportunities – whether it is to be with your family, friends, or serve your community freely through volunteer service. Some new service opportunities appeared while others were placed on hold. Thankfully, we are excited to announce the Scallop Sitters Citizen Scientist Restoration Program is returning to our area in St. Andrew, St. Joe, and Apalachicola Bays this summer!
Historically, populations of bay scallops were in large numbers and able to support fisheries across many North Florida bays, including St Andrew Bay. Consecutive years of poor environmental conditions, habitat loss, and general “bad luck” resulted in poor annual scallop production and caused the scallop fishery to close. Bay scallops are a short-lived species growing from babies to spawning adults and dying in about a year. Populations can recover quickly when growing conditions are good and can be decimated when conditions are bad.
An opportunity to jump start restoration of North Florida’s bay scallops came in 2011. Using funding as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, a multi-county scallop restoration program was proposed and eventually established in 2016. Scientists with FWC use hatchery reared scallops obtained from parents or broodstock from local bays to grow them in mass to help increase the number of spawning adults near critical seagrass habitat.
FWC also created another program where volunteers can help with restoration called “Scallop Sitters” in 2018 and invited UF/IFAS Extension to help manage the volunteer portion of the program in 2019 which led to targeted efforts in Gulf and Bay Counties.
After a year’s hiatus, UF/IFAS Extension is partnering with FWC again in Bay and Gulf Counties and expanding the program into Franklin County. Despite initial challenges with rainfall, stormwater runoff, and low salinity, our Scallop Sitter volunteers have provided valuable information to researchers and restoration efforts, especially in these beginning years of the program.
Volunteers manage predator exclusion cages of scallops, which are either placed in the bay or by a dock. The cages provide a safe environment for the scallops to live and reproduce, and in turn repopulate the bays. Volunteers make monthly visits from June until January to their assigned cages where they clean scallops removing attached barnacles and other potential problem organisms. Scallop Sitters monitor the mortality rate and collect salinity data which determines restoration goals and success in targeted areas.
You are invited! Become a Scallop Sitter
1.Register on Eventbrite
2.Take the Pre-Survey (link will be sent to your email address upon Eventbrite Registration)
3.View a Virtual Workshop in May
4.Attend a Zoom virtual Q & A session in May or June with multiple dates / times available
5.Pick up supplies & scallops on June 17 with an alternate pick-up date to be announced
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
Santa Rosa Portion of the Oyster Mapping and Assessment Project
Santa Rosa County R.E.S.T.O.R.E. has funded the SRC Oyster shell recycling program and the Pensacola, East and Blackwater Bays Intertidal and Subtidal Oyster Reef mapping and Assessment projects. The Nature Conservancy is managing the oyster reef mapping and assessment project and has contracted with MREC Environmental, LLC to get the work done.
The purpose of the project is to map and assess the condition of known and potential intertidal and subtidal oyster reef resources in the Santa Rosa County portion of the Pensacola Bay system. Results of this mapping project will establish a baseline of the existing locations and condition of oyster resources in SRC. This information will help to guide future restoration projects.
Subtidal oysters are harvested in clumps and are culled using a large knife or hatchet. Photo credit: Calvin Sullivan
Intertidal reefs are typically exposed at low tides and found along the shoreline of our bay system. Sub-tidal reefs are found under water. Gabe Johnson, owner of MREC Environmental has verified existing intertidal reefs using a jet-ski in the fall of 2020. Our bay system does not have as many natural intertidal reefs as in other parts of Florida. There are existing intertidal reefs that have been installed for shoreline protection and habitat enhancement.
Gabe Johnson and the crew of MREC Environmental are working to complete the initial bottom survey in early 2021. He has set up grids based on historic locations of oyster reefs throughout the Santa Rosa County portion of the Pensacola Bay system. He will then verify his findings by diving sites where oyster shell was found during the bottom survey.
From left to right: Dale, Gabe and Reese of MREC Environmental. Phot credit: Chris Verlinde
Side scan sonar and echosounder along the side of the boat. Photo Credit: Chris Verlinde
Gabe and his crew are using one Side Scan Sonar, an Edgetech 4125i to map images of the bottom. The other instrument they are using is a Singlebeam Hydrographic Echosounder (Teledyne Odom Echotrac CV100). The echosounder is used to collect water depth data and contours of the water bottom. The echosounder is connected to a transducer. The side scan sonar and the transducer from the ecosounder are placed along the side of the boat and submerged while the boat travels over the transects to collect the underwater images and parameters.
The pink lines are the transect lines of grid #25. Photo credit: Chris Verlinde
About two thirds of grid #25 are completed. Photo credit: Chris Verlinde
Dale dropping the pole to assess bottom characteristics. Photo credit: Chris Verlinde
On a cold day in December 2020, Gabe and his crew covered 149.3 acres in grid #25, just west of the power lines in East Bay. Grid 25 included 32 parallel transect lines (2468 feet long), spaced 100 feet apart. This grid was completed in approximately three and a half hours by running the boat along each transect and recording data. In addition to the electronic data, one of the crew members used a fiberglass pole to assess bottom conditions. Approximately, every 10 feet or so, the pole guy would lower the pole and shout the condition of the bottom, either sand, mud, or shell. Gabe then recorded the point and code on his mapping software.
Image from the side scan sonar showing a sand bottom. Photo credit: Chris Verlinde
Side scan image of bottom with showing potential shell (the darker scatter area). Photo credit: Chris Verlinde
The raw data will be compiled into maps and a report that will be used to based future oyster fishery and habitat enhancement restoration efforts in East, West and parts of Escambia Bay.
Carrie Stevenson is the Coastal Sustainability Agent for the UF/IFAS Escambia County Extension Office, and has been with the organization almost 17 years. Her educational outreach programs focus on living sustainably within a vulnerable coastal ecosystem. She helps clientele better understand how to protect and preserve local ecosystems and water resources, wisely use our abundant rainfall and sunlight, and prepare and mitigate for flooding, coastal storms and climate impacts.
Growing up an avid reader and science junkie, a young Carrie aspired to find a career that allowed her to “be outdoors and wear jeans,” and in college sought to become a science writer. When National Geographic didn’t come calling, she found a position as a field-based environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. There, she handled compliance and enforcement cases related to stormwater and wetlands, spending days tromping through the swamps, wet prairies, and newly built subdivisions of northwest Florida. After joining UF IFAS Extension, she spent 6 years as a Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Agent before switching to Coastal Sustainability. Her expertise and articles focus on climate issues, stormwater, hurricanes, native plants, and wetlands.
A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, she enjoys biking, standup paddleboarding, and traveling to national parks with her family. She also has many favorite international outdoor experiences, ranging from hiking glaciers in Canada to snorkeling coral reefs in Belize and watching elephants drink from a South African river. A native of Mississippi, Carrie has lived with her husband in Pensacola since 1999. Carrie earned her master’s degree in Biology/Coastal Zone Studies from the University of West Florida in Pensacola and an undergraduate degree in Marine Science from Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama). She is the proud mom of an Eagle Scout and leads her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She is a Fellow in the Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI), past president of the Florida Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals (FANREP), and member of IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay.
Recently there was a report of high fecal bacteria in a portion of Perdido Bay. I received a few concerned emails about the possible source. Follow up sampling from several agencies in both Florida and Alabama confirmed the bacteria was there, the levels were below both federal and state guidelines (so no advisory issued), and a small algal bloom was also found. It was thought the cause was excessive nutrients and lack of rain.
We hear this a lot.
Excessive nutrients and poor water quality.
What is the connection?
Many people understand the connection, others understand some of it, others still do not understand it. UF IFAS has a program called LAKEWATCH where citizen science volunteers monitor nutrients in some of lakes and estuaries within the state. Here in Escambia County, we have six such volunteers. Some of the six bodies of water have been monitored for many years, others are just starting now, but the data we have shows some interesting issues – many have problems with nitrogen. Let’s look closer.
The nitrogen cycle.
Image: University of Florida IFAS
We have all heard of nitrogen. Many will remember from school that it makes up 78% of the air we breathe. In the atmosphere nitrogen is present as a gas (N2). It is very common element found in living creatures – as a matter of fact, we need it. Nitrogen is used to build amnio acids – which builds proteins – which is needed to produce tissue, bone, blood, and more. it is one of the elements found in our DNA and can be used to produce energy. However, it cannot do these in the atmospheric gas form (N2) – it needs to be “converted” or “fixed”.
One method of conversion is the weather. Nitrogen gas are two molecules of nitrogen held together by strong chemical bonds (N2). However, lightning provides enough energy to separate N2 and oxidize it with oxygen in the atmosphere forming nitrogen dioxide (NO2). This NO2 combines with water in the atmosphere to form nitric acid (HNO3). Which can form nitrates (NO3) with the release of the hydrogen and nitrate (NO3) is usable by plants as a fertilizer… a needed nutrient.
But much of the usable nitrates do not come from the atmospheric “fixing” of nitrogen via lightning. It comes from biological “fixing” from microbes. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” into ammonia (NH3) by bacteria. Another group of bacteria can convert ammonia into nitrite (NO2), and a third group can convert it from nitrite to the usable form we know as nitrate (NO3). Ammonia can also be found in the environment as a waste product of life. As we use nitrogen within bodies it can be converted into ammonia – which can be toxic to us. Our bodies remove this ammonia via urine, and many times we can smell this when we go to the restroom. Nitrogen fixing bacteria can convert this ammonia to nitrites as well and complete the nitrogen cycle.
Once nitrogen has been fixed to the usable nitrate it can be taken up by plants and used within. Animals obtain their needed nitrogen by eating the plants or eating the animals that ate the plants. In both cases, nitrogen is used for protein synthesis in our bodies and unused nitrogen is released into the environment to continue the cycle.
So, what is the connection to water quality?
You might think that excessive nitrogen (nutrients) in the water would be a good thing. Released ammonia, though toxic, could be “fixed” into nitrite and eventually nitrate and recycled back into life. And you would right. Excessive amounts of ammonia though, may not be converted quick enough and a toxic state could occur. We see this in aquaculture ponds and home aquaria a lot.
Members of the herring family are ones who are most often found during a fish kill triggered by hypoxia.
But what about excessive nitrates? Shouldn’t that be good for the plants?
The concept makes sense, but what we see with increase plant growth in aquatic systems is problematic. Excessive plant growth can cause several problems.
1) Too much plant growth at the surface (algae, leafy vegetated material) can block sunlight to the other plants living on the bottom of the waterway. This can cause die off of those plants and a mucky bottom – but there is more.
2) Excessive plant growth at the surface and the middle of the water column can slow water flow. Reduced water flow can negatively impact feeding and reproductive methods for some members of the community, cause stagnation, and decrease dissolved oxygen – but there is more.
3) Plants produce oxygen, which is a good thing, so more plants are better right? Well, they do produce oxygen when the sun is up. When it sets, they begin to respirate just as the animals do. Here excessive plants can remove large amounts of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water column at night. If the DO levels reach 3.0 µg/L many aquatic organisms begin to stress. We say the water is hypoxic (oxygen starving). When a system becomes hypoxic the animals will (a) come to the surface gasping, (b) some even approach the beach (the famous crab jubilee of Mobile Bay), (c) leave the water body for more open water, (d) die (a fish kill). This is in fact what we call a dead zone. Not always is everything dead, in many cases there is not much alive left – they have moved elsewhere so we say the bottom is “dead”. Here is something else… as the dead fish and (eventually) dead plants settle to the bottom they are decomposed by bacteria. This decomposition process requires dissolved oxygen – you guessed it – the DO drops even further enhancing the problem. In some cases, the DO may drop to 0.0 µg/L. We say the water is now anoxic (NO oxygen). I have only seen this twice. Once in Mobile Bay, and once in Bayou Texar. But I am sure it happens more often. The local environment can enhance (or even cause) this problem as well. Warm water holds less oxygen and much of the oxygen dissolved in water comes from the atmosphere – by way of wave action. So, on hot summer days when the wind is not moving much, and excessive nutrients (nitrogen) is entering the water, you have the perfect storm for a DO problem and possible fish kill.
4) Oh, and there is one other issue… some of the algae that produces these blooms release toxins into the water as a defense. These are known as harmful algal blooms (HABs). Red tide is one of the more famous ones, but blue-green blooms are becoming more familiar. So now you have a possible hypoxic situation with additional toxins in the water that can trigger large fish kills. Some of these HABs situations have killed marine mammals and sea turtles as well.
Though this process can occur naturally (and does) excessive nutrients certainly enhance them, and in some cases, initiate them. So, too much nitrogen in the system can be bad.
So, what does the LAKEWATCH data tell us about the Pensacola Bay system?
Well, first, we have not had volunteers on all bodies of water for the same amount of time. We currently have volunteers monitoring (1) northern Pensacola Bay, (2) Bayou Texar, (3) Bayou Chico, (4) Bayou Grande, (5) Big Lagoon, and (6) lower Perdido Bay. Pensacola Bay has JUST started, and Big Lagoon has not even started yet (COVID-19 issues) – so we only have data from the other four. Bayou Texar has the longest sample period at 13 years.
Lakewatch is a citizen science volunteer supported by the University of Florida IFAS
Second, this program does not sample for just nitrogen, but another key nutrient as well – phosphorus. When you look at a bag of fertilizer you will see a series of numbers looking like: 30-28-14. This would be nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. People adding fertilizer to their lawns should know which nutrient they need the most and can by a fertilizer with a numerical concentration that is best for their lawn. You can have your soil tested at the county extension office. But the point here is that there is more than nitrogen to look at and, as we have learned, more than one form of nitrogen out there. So, what we do at LAKEWATCH is monitor for total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP).
Another parameter monitored is total chlorophyll a (TC). The idea is… if there are excessive amounts of nutrients in the water there will be excessive amounts of algae. You could collect a sample of water and count the number of algal cells in the water – but another way is to measure the amount of chlorophyll in the water as a proxy for the amount of algae. Chlorophyll, of course, is the compound within plants that allows photosynthesis to happen. There is a chemical process used to release the chlorophyll within the cells and you can then use an instrument to measure the amount of chlorophyll in the water.
LAKEWATCH volunteers also monitor water clarity. It is true that clarity can be impacted by sediments in the water as much as an algal bloom, but anything that contributes to less sunlight reaching the bottom can be problematic for some bodies of water. This is done by lowering a disk into the water and measuring the depth at which it “disappears”.
For those not familiar with the term salinity, it is the measure of the amount of dissolved solids in the water – what most people say, “how salty is it?”. For reference, the Gulf of Mexico is usually around
35‰, most open estuaries are between 20-30‰.
Below is a table of the LAKEWATCH data we have as of the spring 2020.
|Year of Sampling
||Body of Water
||Total Phosphorus (µg/L)
||Total Nitrogen (µg/L)
||Total Chlorophyll (µg/L)
||Water Clarity (feet)
|2014 – 2018
||350 – 600
||10 – 30
||2.6 – 4.2
||7.0 – 8.2
|2012 – 2017
||16 – 19
||320 – 340
||4.0 – 5.2
||17 – 18
|2007 – 2018
||17 – 18
||600 – 800
||6 – 8
||3.4 – 3.8
||8 – 10
|2014 – 2018
||350 – 360
||5.3 – 6.1
There are a couple of things that stand out right away
(keep in mind some water bodies have not been monitored very long by LAKEWATCH).
1) Phosphorus is not as big a problem in our part of the state. In the peninsula part of Florida there is a lot of phosphorus in the sediments and much of it is mined. You can see this in the average value for the state. Actually, because of this, many of the central and south Florida lakes are naturally high in phosphorus and this is not considered “polluted”. All that said, there are higher levels of phosphorus in Bayou Chico. Which is interesting. More on solutions in a moment.
2) We have a lot of nitrogen in our waters. Bayou Texar in particular is much higher than the state average. More on this in a moment.
3) We have a little more chlorophyll than the state average, but not alarming.
4) Bayou Grande and lower Perdido are clearer than Bayou’s Texar and Chico.
5) All these bodies of water are less than 20‰. More on this as well.
1) We already discussed the phosphorus issue (or non-issue), but what about Bayou Chico? Phosphorus is NOT introduced to the system from the atmosphere as nitrogen is – rather, it comes from the sediments. High levels of TP would suggest high levels of sediments in the water column (the water clarity data supports this) – which suggest high levels of run-off. The watershed for Bayou Chico is highly urbanized and run-off has historically been a problem.
2) Nitrogen can come from many sources, but when numbers get high – many will hypothesize they are most likely from lawn run-off (fertilizers), or sewage (septic leakage, sanitary sewage overflows, animal waste). There are certainly other possibilities, but this is where most resource managers and agencies begin.
3) Elevated chlorophyll indicates elevated primary production. This is not unusual for an estuary. They are known for their high productivity. Bayou Chico seems have more algae than the others. Most probably due to the increase levels of nutrients entering the watershed.
4) Bayou Grande and lower Perdido Bay have better water clarity than Bayou’s Chico and Texar. Though all four bodies of water have significant coastal and watershed development, Bayou’s Chico and Texar and completely developed as well as their “feeder creeks”. Again, indication of a run-off problem.
5) All four bodies of water have several sources of freshwater input as well as stormwater run-off that has contributed to the lower salinities found here. It is possible that the salinities here were less than 20‰ prior to heavy development.
There is a common theme with each of these – stormwater run-off. Rain that historically fell on the land and percolated into the ground water, now flows off impervious surfaces (streets, driveways, parking lots, even buildings) into drainage pipes and discharges into the waterways. This stormwater carries with it much more than just fertilizers and animal waste, it carries pesticides, oil, grease, solid waste, leaf litter, and much more.
How do you reduce stormwater?
Well, there is not much you can do with impervious surfaces now, but the community should consider alternative materials and plans for future development – what we call “Green Infrastructure”. Green roofs, pervious streets and parking lots, there are a lot of methods that have been developed to help reduce this problem.
Another consideration is Florida Friendly Landscaping. This is landscaping with native plants that require little (or no) water and fertilizer. It also includes plants that can slow run-off and capture nutrients before they reach the waterways and methods of trapping run-off onto your property.
If you happen to live along a waterway, you might consider landscaping your property by restoring some of the natural vegetation along the shoreline – what we call a living shoreline. Studies have shown that these coastal plants can remove a significant amount of nitrogen from the run-off of your property as well as reduce coastal erosion and enhance fisheries by providing habitat.
Closed due to bacteria.
Photo: Rick O’Connor
What about sewage issues?
Unfortunately, most septic systems were not designed to remove nitrogen – so leaks occur and will continue. The only options you have there are (a) maintain your septic by pumping once every five years, (b) consider taping into a nearby sewage line.
Sewers systems are not without their problems. Sanitary sewage overflows do occur and can increase nitrogen in waterways. These are usually caused by cracks in old lines (which need to be replaced), are because we flush things down drains that eventually “clog the arties” and cause overflows. Things such as “flushable wipes”, which are flushable – they go down the drains – but they do not breakdown as toilet paper does and clog lines. Cooking grease and oil, and even milk have been known to clog systems.
Our LAKEWATCH volunteers will continue to sample three stations in each of their bodies of water. We are looking for a volunteer to monitor Escambia Bay. If interested contact me.
If you are interested learning more about green infrastructure, Florida Friendly Landscaping, or living shorelines lines contact your county extension office (850-475-5230 for Escambia County). If interested in issues concerning sanitary sewage overflows or septic issues, contact your county extension office, or (if in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties) visit ECUAs FOG website (Fats, Oils, and Grease) https://ecua.fl.gov/live-green/fats-oils-grease.