The Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Science Outreach Team is proud to announce four new outreach items that are applicable throughout the US and showcases marine microplastics and homeowners’ insurance:
Marine Microplastics Primer for Extension Professionals – This publication is intended to serve as a guide for extension professionals to aid in answering questions about microplastics that they have encountered or may encounter in the future. The publication can be accessed at https://gulfseagrant.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/MASGP-23-051.pdf.
Property Insurance Basics – Confused about homeowners’ insurance and what it covers or know people who are? The outreach team has created a publication to share basic information about insurance to help property owners make informed decisions about the amounts and types of protection for their homes. Access to the publication can be found https://gulfseagrant.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/MASGP-23-015.pdf.
What is Risk Rating 2.0 and how will it affect my flood insurance?–FEMA has updated their risk rating approach through a new pricing method. This change is the biggest change to the way flood insurance premiums are calculated since 1968. Want to learn more about this new system and how it will affect your flood insurance? Click https://gulfseagrant.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/What-is-Risk-Rating-2.0.pdf to access our publication.
There is a term that all oyster farmers dislike, it is almost like that one villain from a famous book/movie series where they shouldn’t say his name. That term is “unexplained spring/summer mortality” and it has been a growing issue along with the expansion of oyster farming throughout the southeast. While the art of oyster farming has been around since the time of the Romans, it is a relatively new venture here in the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida is home to over one hundred oyster farms. These farms are meticulously cared for by the oyster farm crew, with many different anti-fouling techniques and biosecurity measures in practice to provide the customer with a safe, clean product that you can consume even in the months without an R (another article on that coming later). Each year, farm managers can expect a 10-30% mortality event during the transition from winter into spring/summer, hence the term “unexplained spring/summer mortality.” Researchers and scientists from all over the southeast have been actively working to find a cause for this phenomenon, but the answer has been hard to find.
Our Pensacola Bay has been a hotbed for oysters lately; The Nature Conservancy recently constructed 33 oyster beds along Escribano Point in East Bay, the establishment of the Pensacola & Perdido Bay Estuary Program, acquisition of a $23 million restoration grant with $ 10 million towards 1,482 acres of oyster restoration, and the establishment of oyster farms and hatcheries. In Pensacola Bay, there are currently 5 oyster farms in operation, one of those farms being a family-owned and operated Grayson Bay Oyster Company. Brandon Smith has been managing the business and farm for over 4 years now and has experienced mortality events during those prime spring/summer months. In recent years, they have experienced mortality events ranging from minimal to what many would consider “catastrophic,” and reports from around Florida and the Southeast convey a similar message. Concerned for not only the future of his family farm, but other oyster farms in the Southeast, he has been working with the most experienced institutions and groups in 2022 to possibly get an answer on his and other local “unexplained mortality events.” Each road led to the same answer of “we aren’t quite sure,” but this didn’t deter Smith or other the farmers who are dealing with similar issues.
In 2023, Smith was invited to participate in a Florida-Wide program to track water quality on their farm. This project, led by Florida Sea Grant’s Leslie Sturmer from the Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key, Florida, hopes to shed some light on the changes in water quality during the transition from winter to spring and spring to summer. Water samples have also been taken weekly to preserve plankton abundance and the presence of any harmful algae if a mortality event does occur. With the hottest July on record occurring in 2023, temperature could play a role in mortality events, and now researchers are equipped with the right tools and open lines of communication to possibly find a solution to the problem.
As with traditional farming on land, oyster farming takes a mentally strong individual with an incredible work ethic and the ability to adapt to change. The Southeast has a resilient system of oyster farmers who display these traits and continue to put their noses down and “plant” seed every year for the continuation of a growing yet small industry, even through the hardest of trials and tribulations. Through collaboration with local and state institutions, stakeholders, programs, and citizens, oyster farmers are hopeful that they can solve this “unexplained mortality event” and help develop resilient farming techniques. An important message is local farms that have environmental and economic impacts cannot exist without the support of their community.
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
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.
Aquaculture is growing faster than any other animal food-production sector. The development of new technologies, stagnation of wild capture fisheries, and the increase in seafood demand are all contributing to a 5.3% increase in aquaculture production within the last two decades (FAO, 2020). While global aquaculture production continues to expand, the U.S. is experiencing a seafood trade deficit of $14 billion. The U.S. is clearly in urgent need of more domestic seafood production.
Aquaculture is a growing industry in Florida and one of the best opportunities for expanding seafood production is in offshore or open-ocean marine aquaculture. Offshore aquaculture production has the potential to help meet the protein requirements for a burgeoning population and provide seafood security. Additionally, it can help support working waterfront communities and even enhance recreational dive tourism and recreational fishing. However, the complexity of offshore production is not fully understood by the public. In fact, there is a small, but vocal, anti-aquaculture activist groups that often uses false or outdated information to undermine public confidence and resists even low-impact or environmentally responsible operations. Identified concerns include that the expansion of marine aquaculture will adversely impact fishing, harm coastal communities, and degrade the oceans for other recreational users.
Proper siting of offshore aquaculture farms can address many of the identified concerns. In response, NOAA scientists have developed a tool, Ocean Reports, that can instantaneously analyze more than 100 ocean datasets to develop maps, graphics, and other details of selected areas in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Users can get detailed information about habitats and species, industries in the area, potential hazards (such as undersea cables or shipwrecks), the economic value of ocean commerce, and other detailed oceanographic information.
Ocean reports has data useful to industry and science, but is user-friendly enough for other stakeholders, including students. Recently, students studying aquaculture at Freeport High School in Freeport, FL used the tool to search for potential offshore aquaculture sites off the coast of Florida. The tool is fun and easy to use, so feel free to visit the website to give it a try. https://www.marinecadastre.gov/oceanreports