Upcoming Event: Panhandle Outdoors Live at St. Joseph Bay on June 21st!

Upcoming Event: Panhandle Outdoors Live at St. Joseph Bay on June 21st!

The University of Florida/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series on St. Joseph Bay. This ecosystem is home to some of the richest concentrations of flora and fauna on the Northern Gulf Coast. This area supports an amazing diversity of fish, aquatic invertebrates, turtles and other species of the marsh and pine flatwoods. Come learn about the important roles of ecosystem!

Registration fee is $40. You must pre-register to attend.

Registration link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoors-live-st-joseph-bay-by-land-sea-tickets-906983109897

or use the QR code:

Meals: Lunch, drinks & snacks provided (you may bring your own)

Attire: outdoor wear, water shoes, bug spray and sunscreen

*If afternoon rain is in forecast, outdoor activities may be switched to the morning schedule

Held at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Lodge: 3915 State Road 30-A, Port St. Joe

8:30 – 8:35 Welcome & Introduction – Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension (5 min)
8:35 – 9:20 Diamondback Terrapin Ecology – Rick O’Connor, Escambia County Extension
9:20 – 10:05 Exploring Snakes, Lizards & the Cuban Tree Frog – Erik Lovestrand, Franklin County Extension
10:05 – 10:15 Break
10:15 – 11:00 The Bay Scallop & Habitat – Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension
11:00 – 11:45 The Hard Structures: Artificial Reefs & Derelict Vessel Program – Scott Jackson, Bay County Extension
11:45 – Noon Question & Answer Session – All Agents
Noon – 1:00 Pizza & Salad!
1:00 – 1:20 Introduction to the Buffer & History – Buffer Preserve Staff
1:20 – 2:20 Tram Tour – Buffer Preserve Staff
2:20 – 2:30 Break
2:30 – 3:00 A Walk in the Mangroves – All Agents
3:00 – 3:15 Wrap up & Adjourn – All
Oyster Predators in the Florida Panhandle

Oyster Predators in the Florida Panhandle

Even though oysters have a hard shell that even humans have a hard time opening, they do have natural predators in our waters that can easily slurp up a couple dozen. Your usual oyster slurping suspects include oyster drills, blue crabs, and fish (such as the black drum).  In this article, we will focus on the 3 major predators that contribute the most toward natural mortality in oysters here in the Florida Panhandle.

The Oyster Drill

When it comes to the marine snail world, oyster drills would win an oyster-eating contest. Oyster drills (Urosalpinx cinerea) are marine gastropods that grow to sizes of 0.5 – 1 inch. Oyster drills can be found all along the Atlantic coast of North America and the Gulf of Mexico, and they have been accidentally introduced into Northern Europe and the West Coast of North America. These small but mighty snails have become specialized in consuming oysters. Using chemotaxis, they locate their prey oyster. Once they find it, they secrete an enzyme to soften a portion of the oyster shell. Once softened, they drill into the shell and siphon out oyster meat. Oyster drills have been known to occur in great numbers when the environmental conditions are prime and can wipe out not only entire oyster beds but also clam beds. Oyster drills do have natural predators as well, but these predators also consume oysters.

Oyster Drill
An Oyster Drill (Urosalpinx cinerea) – Barnegat Bay Shellfish

The Blue Crab

Most of us know about the very tasty blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), but many do not know that it is a major consumer of oysters, especially on an oyster farm. Blue crabs are a decapod crab (meaning 10 legs) of the swimming crab family Portunidae. Blue crabs can indeed swim and their last leg on each side has developed into what are called paddle fins.  Juvenile oysters are the main target for blue crabs, but they have been observed eating adult oysters when given the opportunity. On an oyster farm, blue crabs can get into an oyster bag when they are very small. Once inside, they have an all-you-can-eat buffet of oysters, and can quickly wipe out a bag of oysters. Oyster farmers have to be very cautious and must either remove the blue crabs manually or dry their bags out in hopes of destroying any blue crabs. Blue crabs can easily break open a juvenile oyster, but for them to consume an adult oyster, they will wait for it to open to feed before shoving a claw inside of the shell to keep the oyster open. Once they have their claw in the shell, they will use their other claw to consume the oyster.

Blue Crabs on a table
Blue Crabs (Callinectes sapidus) Pulled Out Of Oyster Bags – Thomas Derbes II

The Fish

Even though oyster-eating fish like black drum (Pogonias cromis) and sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) are much bigger than snails and crabs, they tend to contribute less to oyster mortality on oyster farms. However, during certain seasons wild oysters and other shelled invertebrates can contribute up to 33% of a black drum’s diet (more here). Fish will usually congregate around oyster beds and farms, but they are more interested in consuming oyster predators like crabs and snails. The black drum is a fish that was built for oyster consumption. While black drum lack sharp teeth, they have crushing plates in their throat that can crush an oyster shell which allows the drum to eat the oyster meat. Many oyster farmers welcome these fish on their farms as a free source of anti-fouling and predator deterrent (in the form of consumption).

Black Drum
Black Drum (Pogonias cromis) Caught On A Whole Oyster – Thomas Derbes II

There are many more oyster predators, but these are the top 3 in terms of threat and ability to consume/do detriment to oyster beds and farms in the Florida Panhandle. While oyster drills rank up towards the top, crabs and fish can also greatly contribute to natural mortality.

References

Flimlin, G., & F Beal, B. (n.d.). Major Predators of Cultured Shellfish. https://shellfish.ifas.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/Major-Predators-of-Cultured-Shellfish.pdf

Floating Oasis in the Bays; Oyster Farms and Their Ecological Benefit

Floating Oasis in the Bays; Oyster Farms and Their Ecological Benefit

You might have seen a floating oyster farm while driving over Garcon Point Bridge or along Scenic Highway. Many people know them for the beautiful, tasty oysters they produce, but those farms have a major ecological benefit that many aren’t aware of. First, the oysters in those cages act as a very efficient water filter, filtering upwards of 30 gallons per day. The floating farms also act as an oasis for other marine creatures, from crustaceans to finfish, and can help increase the biodiversity in the area. Oysters are also great at sequestering carbon into their shells. Today, we will go over these ecological benefits and proper etiquette when maneuvering around the farms to enjoy some of the ecological benefits of the oyster farm.

Pompano on an oyster farm
Florida Pompano Caught Off an Oyster Farm – Thomas Derbes II

Besides being tasty, oysters are very well known for their ability to filter massive amounts of water in a single day. Research has shown rates of up to 50 gallons per day in a laboratory setting, but they filter upwards of 30 gallons per day in the wild. With most oyster farms in the area having more than 500,000 oysters on their farm, that’s more than 15,000,000 gallons of water per day per farm! Oysters can filter out any excess sediments from the water, forming them into small packets and depositing the sediment on the bottom of the bay, keeping the sediments from being re-suspended. This is very beneficial to any bay or estuary as eutrophication (More Here on Eutrophication) has been an issue in almost every bay in the southern United States.

Another benefit to oyster farms is that it is a floating oasis for all types of marine creatures. Blue crabs and stone crabs are a common threat to oysters, and they love to congregate around oyster farms waiting for an easy meal from a dropped oyster or oyster spat on cages. Common bay fish, like the Spotted Seatrout, Sheepshead, and Red Drum, have been known to hang out under the cages consuming smaller finfish and crabs, but some uncommon fish like Tripletail and Florida Pompano also patrol the cages looking for a meal. Because of its ability to hold all types of fish, fishermen love to fish around the oyster farms. Fishing around oyster farms is allowed, but most farmers want the boats to stay on the boundary of the farm and not inside of it. This is due to there being lines under the surface of the water that could potentially damage any lower unit and can cut free a line of cages. Also, it is against state law to be within the boundary of the farm if you are not an authorized harvester of that lease, and I have personally seen FWC enforce those rules. As a seasoned oyster farmer once told me “We know our farm holds fish and it is okay for them to fish the farm, heck put out some blue crab traps around it, but do not mess with the cages and stay outside of the boundary and we can all live in harmony.”

Oyster Farmer holding a Tripletail fish
Tripletail Caught Off An Oyster Farm – Brandon Smith

Last but not least is the ability of oysters to sequester carbon and excess nitrogen into their shells and pseudofaeces (aka bio-deposits). Carbon and nitrogen sequestration is a crucial service provided by oysters that helps battle global climate change. Just as they do with excess sediments, they deposit excess carbon and nitrogen into bio-deposits that accumulate on the bottom, keeping them from being re-suspended into the waters. Oyster reefs are currently on the decline around the world, and their decline has “resulted in a forfeiture of several ecosystem services” including carbon and nitrogen sequestration and water filtration. (More Here on Carbon Sequestration)

While oysters might be tasty, we have learned about some of the ecological services oysters provide to an estuarine environment. From water filtration to increasing biodiversity to carbon/nitrogen sequestration, oysters are a major benefit to any estuary and can help fight climate change and eutrophication. Next time you see an oyster farm or reef, give oysters (and farmers) a little appreciation for their hard work in helping make the world a healthier place!

Pompano! The Silver Surfers of the Emerald Coast

Pompano! The Silver Surfers of the Emerald Coast

Pompano?! More like Pompa-YES! Growing up in the Panhandle of Florida, I was exposed to many great fishing seasons and opportunities, from the Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) run in the spring to the “Bull” Red Drum (Sciaenops occelatus) run of the fall, but my absolute favorite season was the Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus) run on the beaches. While I enjoyed being on the boat scouring the beaches with a small bucktail jig, casting at sliver flashes in the cuts of the sandbar, I had my most memorable trips on the beach with a few rods, sand spikes, and a “flea rake.” There were no bad days on the beach (as they say, it’s better than a day in the office), and when you happen upon a honey hole, it makes for an incredible day with very little effort and usually an incredible dinner to follow. Since we are rapidly approaching peak pompano season, I will pay homage to the “Silver Surfers of the Emerald Coast” with a little overview of the life of a Florida Pompano.

Kids catching Pompano off the beach
Beach Fishing for Florida Pompano is for Everyone, Young and Old – Thomas Derbes II

Florida Pompano have a very wide range, from Massachusetts to Brazil, and are a member of the family Carangidae (aka the Jack Family). It is a very popular sport and commercial fishery, and its rapid growth rate makes it a prime candidate for aquaculture. Florida Pompano are highly migratory fish, and they can run from the Florida Keys all the way to Texas and back in a season. In the Florida Panhandle, the Florida Pompano run starts in April/May lasting until July, with a bonus fall run in October/November when they are returning south.  When fishing off the sandy beaches of the Florida Panhandle, you can run into its cousins the Permit (Trachinotus falcatus) and Palometa (Trachinotus goodei) who often get mistaken for a Florida Pompano. Another thing they have in common with Florida Pompano is their love of crustaceans including the Mole Crab (aka Sand Fleas) (Emerita portoricensis) and Atlantic White Shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus).

Just like most members of the family Carangidae, Florida Pompano are considered “batch spawners.” A batch spawner is when a female releases her eggs into the water column and a male simultaneously releases his sperm into the water column. Female Florida Pompano can release upwards of 800,000 eggs per spawning season, and Florida Pompano typically head offshore in early spring to October in the Gulf of Mexico to spawn, and their juveniles return to the beach to grow along the shoreline. Florida Pompano can reach an aquaculture harvest size of 12 inches within one year, and males reach maturity in 1 year whereas females mature after 2 to 3 years.

Fertilized pompano eggs
Florida Pompano Eggs 12 Hours Post Fertilization – Thomas Derbes II

When it comes to table fare, Florida Pompano ranks very high on my personal fish list, and many chefs love serving pompano at their restaurants due to the great, mild taste and fillets that are of even thickness. Their diet of crustaceans helps yield a buttery, almost crab flavor and the meat is very flaky and white. There are many preparation techniques for Florida Pompano, from grilled whole to pan-fried, and pompano have even inspired their own cooking technique, “Pompano en Papillote,” or baking pompano in parchment paper.

Florida Pompano on the beach
Beautiful Florida Pompano Caught Off Pensacola Beach, Florida – Thomas Derbes II

When fishing for Florida Pompano off the beach, most anglers employ a large rod (usually a 10ft rod) with a 20lb fluorocarbon double drop loop rig and pyramid weight. The larger rod allows for maximum casting distance from the beach, giving beach anglers a chance to reach behind the first sandbar. Most anglers will bring either fresh dead shrimp or a flea rake with them to catch the prized bait, mole crabs. Pro tip, when casting out the rods, make sure you have a bait close to the shore in the “trough” and not just past the sandbar. (Learn More About Rigging Here!) If you plan to harvest a Florida Pompano, make sure you check your local regulations. In the Florida Panhandle, Florida Pompano must be 11 inches (fork-length) or larger with a daily limit of 6 per angler.

Kid with Pompano
My nephew showing off his prized Florida Pompano – Zach Saway

I hope you have enjoyed this profile for the Florida Pompano. Now is the time to get your rods out of storage and ready to hit the beach!

References

Main, K., Rhody, N., Nystrom, M., & Resley, M. (2007). Species Profile – Florida Pompano. Southern Regional Aquaculture Center Fact Sheets. https://fisheries.tamu.edu/files/2013/09/SRAC-Publication-No.-7206-Species-Profile-Florida-Pompano.pdf

October Seafood – Flounder

October Seafood – Flounder

For many who grew up in the Pensacola area October meant flounder gigging season.  This once popular past time involved going out at night along the shores of Santa Rosa Sound with flounder lights and gigs seeking a local favorite flounder.  Everyone has their favorite recipe for this fish but in this article, we are going to focus on the fish – maybe something you did not know about it. 

In the northern Gulf of Mexico, flounder are flatfish with the two eyes on the left side of the head.  Locally, flatfish with eyes on the right side are called soles.  We do have native soles, but all species are too small to be a food option.  If you are not familiar with the “two eyes on one side of the head” idea, yes – flounder hatch from the egg looking like a normal fish, an eye on each side of the head.  But earlier in development one eye slides across to the other side.  This is a weird transformation and there are probably videos online, so you see how this happens – check them out.  The reason for this transformation is to improve depth perception.  Eyes close together give the animal binocular vision.  Binocular vision does not have a wide viewing range, can basically see what is in front of it but not so much what is behind it, but it does give the animal good depth perception, it can tell how far away the prey actually is, and this is important when hunting. 

Once the eyes have shifted to the left side of the head, flounders lose the pigments on the side without eyes, which becomes white, and the fish lays on its side – white side down.  The cells on the “eye side” have chromatophores that allow the fish to change color to match the sand on the bottom.  Another important feature of being a successful hunter.  Most of know they will bury themselves in this sand as well.  With their binocular vision, camouflaged body, and sharp teeth, they lie in wait to ambush predators. 

You may also be surprised at how many different kinds of flounder are found in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  There are 21 species listed, and they range in size from the small Spiny Flounder which can reach an average length of 3 inches, to the Southern Flounder which attains a length of 3 feet.  The Gulf flounder and Southern flounder are two species that are popular seafood targets, but any decent sized flounder will do. 

Flounder are found in a variety of habitats ranging from shallow seagrass beds nearshore, near structure just offshore, to artificial reefs and the base of bridges, to depths of 1200 feet in the Gulf of Mexico.  Many species spend the warmer months in the estuaries moving offshore when the weather cools down to spawn.  Hard northerners can trigger a mass migration and a great time for commercial and recreational fishermen alike.    

It is flounder season.  Whether you prefer to catch your own or buy from the local seafood market I think will enjoy one of the variety of ways to prepare this fish. 

A flounder scurrying across the seafoor. Photo: NOAA
Whale I’ll Be!

Whale I’ll Be!

We are fortunate to have several whale species that have been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico including humpback whales, Rice whales, fin whales, sperm whales, sei whales, and orca whales. Recently, however, we have seen multiple reports of whale sharks near shore in Destin and Panama City Beach. 

Whale sharks, however, are not whales, but the largest shark species and the largest fish alive today.  Whale sharks aren’t even closely related to whales.   They have gills, not blow holes.  They are huge, up to 46 feet in length and weigh up to 22,000 lbs., the weight of two African elephants.  Despite their large size, they are filter feeders with plankton being their main food, although they are also known to eat squid, krill, and small baitfish. They glide through the water at speeds of less than 3 m/hr, gently swinging their bodies side to side. They are not aggressive and pose no threats to humans.

Whale sharks prefer warm water, which is why they can be found in tropical areas and are often attracted to coastal areas due to a higher abundance of food. It’s no surprise, then, that they have been spotted in the Gulf. June to October is whale shark season in the Gulf, with Destin sightings being reported previously in 2013 and 2020. They are also found in many other countries around the world including Mozambique, Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, Australia, Belize, Thailand, Egypt, Mexico, Seychelles, and the Maldives.

Unsurprisingly, many ocean lovers are desperate to get a glimpse of these majestic creatures in the water. However, experts recommend a hands-off policy for these gentle sea creatures.  The Okaloosa Coastal Resource Team has been collaborating with NOAA scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi to tag 10 of this year’s visitors to gain valuable insights into their migratory patterns and habitat use. You can follow their Facebook page for updates on current locations and tracking data. https://www.facebook.com/whalesharkresearch

Dotty, a 25 foot female whale shark tagged off Destin, Florida in July 2023 (Alex Fogg).