Mark Twain once said – “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” A similar statement could be made about the Gulf Sturgeon – “Everyone talks about the Gulf sturgeon, but on one has actually seen one.” Those along the coast who have a dock, pier, seawall, or have placed a marina, artificial reef, or oyster farm over state submerged lands, have certainly heard about this fish. It is a portion of the permit in each case. Heck, maybe they have seen one. But it is a fish that many know about but seems elusive to encounter.
The Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchis desotoi) is one of 27 species of sturgeon found worldwide. It is a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon. These are ancient fish, and they look it. Sturgeons are large, reaching lengths of up to eight feet and 300 pounds. They have armored looking scutes embedded into their skin, giving them a “dinosaur” appearance. They have a heterocercal caudal fin that resembles a shark. And like sharks, they have a cartilaginous skeleton and a spiral valve within their digestive tract. Their head has a pointed snout with whisker-like structures called barbels, which are used for detecting food buried in the sand, and they lack teeth. They have been swimming in our oceans since the era of the dinosaurs, about 225 million years.
Sturgeons are anadromous fish, meaning they (like salmon) spend their adult lives in salt water, traveling miles upriver to their location of their birth to lay eggs. The Gulf sturgeon spends the colder months (November through February) inhabiting our bays and the nearshore Gulf of Mexico in waters less than 100 feet. Now is the time when you may encounter one near the coast. Because they eat very little while in the river systems, they gorge on benthic invertebrates during the winter. They spend most of their time over sand flats and sand bars, using their barbels to detect a variety of buried invertebrates. When sturgeon sense warmer months coming, they begin their long migrations up the inland rivers seeking the area where they were born. At this time, they leap from the water like mullet and make splashes that can be heard from a long distance. They are famous for this in the Suwannee River and have, at times, been a concern for boaters and jet skiers. Many boaters have had to go to the hospital due to collisions with leaping sturgeon.
Once they reach the spawning grounds, if conditions are right – temperature, water flow, and pH – the female will lay between 250,000 – 1,000,000 eggs which will become fertilized by the smaller males. Most eggs will not survive, but for those that do, the cycle will begin again with the trek back towards the Gulf of Mexico beginning in September.
Why are they declining?
Early in the 20th century they were sought after for their meat and fertilized eggs (caviar). Most of the rivers within their range (which is between the Mississippi and Suwannee Rivers) have been damned, dredged, or both. Dams impede their ability to reach their nursery grounds and dredging can reduce the required conditions to stimulate breeding, or literally bury their eggs. Between these human activities, their numbers declined drastically. In 1991 they were listed both as a federally and state threatened species and have been protected and monitored ever since. The best population, and best chance to encounter one, is in the Suwannee River. This river has been left basically pristine and has not had the habitat altering activities of the others. Locally, they are found in the Escambia, Blackwater, and Yellow Rivers.
Winter is the time to see them in the lower parts of our bay. Maybe you will be lucky enough to encounter one.
The Gulf Sturgeon. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
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.
Growing up in the South, I was exposed to many “Old Wives’ Tales,” ranging from not cleaning your house or clothes on New Year’s Day to the one that everyone, including the northern states, knows, “don’t consume oysters in months without an R.” While most “tales” are full of superstition, the “R” tale was one of biosecurity, and was mainly truthful until two new types of “R” came about; Regulations and Refrigeration. The tale came about due to the rise in food poisonings from shellfish in the warmer summer months that do not contain a “R,” such as June and July. The rise in food poisoning came about from the practices used by the oyster “tongers” at the time. Commercial harvest of wild oysters is a very labor-intensive job that requires long days on the water and constant tonging, measuring, and sorting of oysters as they come off the bottom. During the summer, the oysters would sit on the deck of the boat for hours in the heat, causing microorganisms and bacteria to flourish inside the closed oyster. Bacteria, like Vibrio, would replicate to harmful levels inside of the oysters and when consumed by a human, could cause life-threatening illnesses.
That was then, and this is now. While the consumption of wild Florida oysters during the summer is not allowed (closed harvest season for wild oysters during the summer in Florida), you can still find oysters from all over the US, and farmed oysters from Florida are still allowed to be consumed during the summer. Biosecurity is a major factor involving food production and aquaculture, and without biosecurity, the consumption of Florida-farmed oysters would be prohibited. Oyster farmers in Florida must follow a very rigorous biosecurity plan that includes State-issued harvest times, water-to-refrigeration requirements, reporting of harvest and planting, and twice-daily temperature monitoring requirements. The regulations for harvest times and refrigeration requirements have scientific backing, showing a statistical difference in Vibrio concentrations between properly handled oysters and neglected oysters, with properly handled oysters having little to no concentrations of Vibrio. For instance, during the summer months, oyster farmers must have oysters harvested and in the cooler before 11am and down to 45°F within 2 hours of storing in cooler.
While there is an increased concentration of harmful bacteria during these warmer months, properly cared-for oysters help limit the growth and proliferation of the bacteria. Another myth is that Vibrio doesn’t exist in cold, winter waters. Vibrio can exist year-round, and people with health risks, including immune-suppressed patients and those with diabetes, should exercise extreme caution when consuming raw seafood. When purchasing seafood for personal consumption, make sure to bring a cooler with ice and place your seafood above the ice, making sure to not allow any fresh water to touch the seafood. When storing seafood at home, make sure they are in a container that can breathe, and cover with a moist paper towel to keep their gills wet. Oysters are typically good for 10-14 days after the harvest date, so make sure you check the tags and consume within time.
Next summer, when you see farmed oysters on the menu, remember the new R’s and order a couple dozen for the table. The need for support from your local oyster farmer is most needed during those months without R, so slurp them down all summer and thank your local oystermen and women!
Easy French Mignonette Recipe
Recipe for 2doz Oysters
¼ cup Red Wine Vinegar
¼ cup Champagne Vinegar
1 tablespoon of Finely Chopped Shallot
1 teaspoon of Fresh Crushed Black Pepper
Juice of ½ Lemon
Combine all ingredients together. Spoon over shucked, chilled raw oysters.
For Florida recreational anglers in state waters, the season started a few days later on June 16. While the summer season ends on July 31, 2023, fishing enthusiasts can look forward to 3-day fishing weekends in Florida State waters later in October and November 2023. This means there are still additional days of red snapper fishing opportunities in 2023, giving you ample time to plan exciting fishing adventures.
Here, we present Bay County’s recent artificial reefs, which serve as prime fishing locations for this year’s seasons. This select collection includes three distinct areas: east (State), south (Federal), and west (State). These sites have had the opportunity to grow and mature, with over 290 reef modules deployed between May 2019 and December 2020.
East Location – Sherman Site
Walter Marine deploys one of nine super reefs deployed in Bay County’s NRDA Phase I project located approximately 12 nautical miles southeast of the St. Andrew Pass. Each massive super reef weighs over 36,000 lbs and is 15 ft tall. Multiple modules deployed in tandem provides equivalent tonnage and structure similar to a medium to large sized scuttled vessel. Photo by Bob Cox, Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.
This project was completed in May 2019 in partnership with the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The deployment site in the Sherman Artificial Reef Permit Area is approximately 12 nm southeast of St. Andrew Bay Pass at a depth of approximately 80 feet. A total of twenty-five modules were deployed, including nine 18-ton reefs and sixteen 3-ton reefs.
South Location – Large Area Artificial Reef Site (LAARS) A
Large 45,000 lbs. concrete modules staged for deployment. These were placed by HG Harders and Son in July of 2019.
This project was completed in July 2019 in partnership with the Bay County Artificial Reef Association and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The deployment site in LAARS A is approximately 12 nm south of the pass, with reef modules located around the center of the permitted area. The reefs are situated in about 105 feet of water. There are seventeen reef modules, including five 22-ton reefs with a height of 18 feet and twelve 2.5-ton reefs with a height of 5 feet.
West Location – SAARS E – L
This area has the largest number of reef modules and permit sites. It includes 154 small pyramids that are 8 ft tall and weigh about 10 tons. There are also 26 large pyramids that are 18 ft tall and weigh about 18 tons. Additionally, 25 concrete disk reefs, weighing about 3 tons each, were deployed nested inside select Super Reefs, adding to the complexity and diversity of the reefs. In total, approximately 980 tons of engineered concrete artificial reef material were placed in 8 permitted areas. These deployments were completed in December 2020 with the support of the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.
Bay County’s NRDA Phase II deployment in Small Area Artificial Reef Sites (SAARS) E – L are located 11 – 15 nautical miles (nm) southwest of St Andrew Bay Pass in Florida state waters. (Source ArcGIS mapping software).
This monitoring dive was conducted by FWC in January 2021, shortly after the reefs were deployed. You can move the 360 deg video image to experience what the divers see and observe.
Below is an overview map of these three prime snapper sites!
Wishing everyone great fishing days on the water with family and friends!
Chantille Weber, Coastal Resource Coordinator, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County
L. Scott Jackson, Bay County Extension Director, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County and Florida Sea Grant
An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Andra Johnson, Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament May 20-21, 2023, at HarborWalk Village in Destin, FL, is gearing up to tackle a pressing ecological challenge while showcasing the power of sport to make a positive impact. This unique tournament, held along the picturesque shores of the Emerald Coast, focuses on combating the invasive lionfish population in the region’s waters.
Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific region, have become a significant threat to the delicate balance of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. With their voracious appetite and rapid reproduction, these invasive species pose a grave danger to native marine life. The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament aims to address this issue by encouraging divers and fishermen to actively hunt and remove lionfish from the waters.
Participants in the tournament will compete to catch the most lionfish, utilizing their skills in underwater navigation, spearfishing, and conservation. Sponsors provide cash and prizes for multiple categories including most caught, largest and smallest lionfish. The event provides an exciting platform for experienced divers and newcomers alike to contribute to the preservation of the marine environment.
Beyond the ecological significance, the tournament also offers a thrilling experience for both participants and spectators. Divers equipped with their spears dive into the depths, searching for lionfish while showcasing their prowess and bravery. The tournament fosters a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among the participants, creating a community dedicated to the cause of protecting marine ecosystems.
In addition to the competitive aspect, the Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament promotes education and awareness about the invasive species. Participants and attendees have the opportunity to learn about the impact of lionfish on local marine life and explore sustainable solutions to combat the issue at the free Lionfish Awareness Festival from 10:00-5:00 each day. Sign up to volunteer at the event if you want to join the fun. The week prior to the tournament is dedicated to Lionfish restaurant week where local restaurants practice the “eat ‘um to beat ‘um” philosophy and cook up the tasty fish using a variety of innovative recipes.
The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament 2023 represents a unique fusion of sport, environmental conservation, and community engagement. By bringing together individuals passionate about marine conservation, this event serves as a powerful catalyst for change and a shining example of how sport can contribute to the preservation of our natural world. Learn more at https://emeraldcoastopen.com.
At their December 2021 meeting, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) passed two rulings designed to enhance the conservation of diamondback terrapins, a small estuarine turtle.
As of March 1, 2022, no one can possess a diamondback terrapin without an FWC permit.
As of March 1, 2023, all recreational crab traps in Florida must have a 6×2” funnel opening, or a By-Catch Reduction Device to make the funnel opening 6×2”.
This article discusses the recreational crab trap ruling. We will discuss the What, Why, How, When, and Where of this ruling.
The new ruling calls for all recreational crab traps in Florida waters to have a 6×2 inch funnel opening, or a By-Catch Reduction Device that creates a funnel opening of 6×2 inches, by March 1, 2023.
Diamondback terrapins are a species of special concern in the state. The diversity of sub-species is high, highest of any other state, but abundance is low. Research has shown that threats to terrapin populations include, loss of habitat and nesting beaches, nest depredation by wildlife, removal for the pet trade, and incidental drowning in crab traps. To help conserve this animal in our state the two rulings mentioned above were passed in 2021.
By-catch Reduction Devices (BRDs) measuring 6×2” can be obtained from your local Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent. If you do not have a Sea Grant Extension Agent in your county extension office, they will direct you to the closest one. You will need to place the BRD on each of the funnel openings of your crab trap using zip ties. Your local Sea Grant Agent can show how to do this.
All recreational crab traps used in Florida waters should have the 6×2 inch (or BRD in place) by March 1, 2023.
This is for Florida waters only.
If you have further questions concerning this ruling, please contact your local Sea Grant Agent at your local county extension office.