What’s All This About the Rice’s Whale?

What’s All This About the Rice’s Whale?

Recently I participated in a local festival to educate the public about the Rice’s Whale – the newly described species in the Gulf of Mexico that is now listed as critically endangered, possibly the most endangered whale in the world’s oceans.  I honestly did not know enough about it to provide much education and chose to do terrapin conservation at my table instead (something I know more about) but have since learned much about this new member of the Gulf community.

One of the more frequent comments I heard during the event was “I did not know we even had whales in the Gulf”.  This is understandable since we rarely see them – most of us have never seen one.  When we think of whales we think of colder climates like Alaska, New England, and the colder waters off California.  But many large whales must give birth to their smaller calves in warmer waters – so, they make the trek to tropical locations like Hawaii and Florida to do so.  But there are also resident whales in the tropical seas.

You first must understand that the term “whale” does not only mean the large creatures of whale hunting fame, but any member of the mammalian order Cetacea.  Cetaceans include both the large baleen whales – like the blue, gray, and right whales – but also the toothed whales – like the sperm, orca, and even the dolphins.

The Right whale is another critically endangered whale found in the Gulf of Mexico. Image: NOAA.

There are 28 cetaceans that have been reported from the Gulf, 21 of those routinely inhabit here.  Most exist at and beyond the continental shelf – hence we do not see them.  Only two frequent the waters over the shelf – the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin and the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, and only one is routinely seen near shore – the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin.


This image shows the location of the continental shelf and thus the location of most of the whales found in the Gulf of Mexico. Image: NOAA.

But offshore, out at the edge of the continental shelf, exists several species of large and small cetaceans.  The endangered Sperm, Sei, Fin, Blue, Humpback, and Northern Right whales have been seen.  Of those only sperm whales are common.  Others include several beaked whales (which resemble dolphins but are much larger), large pods of other species of dolphins, pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, pygmy and false killer whales (as well as the killer whale itself), and other baleen whales such as the Minke and Bryde’s whale.

The Bryde’s whale is one of interest to this story.

The Bryde’s whale (pronounced “brood-duss” – Balaenoptera edeni) is a medium sized baleen whale, reaching lengths of about 50 feet and weighing 30 tons.  It is often confused with the larger sei whale.  They are found in tropical oceans across the planet and are not thought to make the large migrations of many whales due to the fact it is already here in the tropics for birth, and its food source is here as well.  They reside in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico extending from the DeSoto Canyon, off the coast of Pensacola, to the shelf edge near Tampa.  They appear to travel alone or in small groups of 2-5 animals.  They feed on small schooling fish, such as pilchards, anchovies, sardines, and herring.  Their reproductive cycle in the Gulf is not well understood.

The Bryde’s whale was thought to be the only resident baleen whale in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: NOAA.

Strandings have occurred – as of 2009, 33 have been logged.  There are no records of mortality due to commercial fishing line entanglement, but vessel strikes have occurred.  Due to their large population across the planet, they were not considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but that may change in the Gulf region due to human caused mortality.  Between 2006-2010 it was estimated that 0.2 Bryde’s whales died annually due the vessel strikes.

In the 1960s Dr. Dale Rice described the Gulf of Mexico population as a possible subspecies.  It is the only baleen whale that regularly inhabits the Gulf of Mexico.  And ever since that time scientists examining stranded animals thought they may be dealing with a different species.

In the 1990s Dr. Keith Mullin began examining skull differentiation and genetic uniqueness from stranded animals of the Gulf population.  Dr. Patricia Rosel and Lynsey Wilcox picked up the torch in 2008.  In 2009 a stranded whale, that had died from a vessel strike, was found in Tampa Bay and provided Dr. Rosel more information.  In 2019 a stranded whale, that had died from hard plastic in gut in the Everglades, was examined by Dr. Rosel and her team and, with data from this skull, along with past data, determined that it was in fact a different species.  The new designation became official in 2019.


The newly described Rice’s whale only exists in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: NOAA.

The new whale was named the Rice’s whale (Balaenoptera ricei) after Dr. Dale Rice who had first describe it as a subspecies in the 1960s.  With this new designation everything changed for this whale.  This new species only lives in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was believed there were only about 50 individuals left.  Being a marine mammal, it was already protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but with this small population it was listed as critically endangered and protected by the Endangered Species Act.

New reviews and publications began to come out about the biology and ecology of this new whale.  Rice’s whales do exist alone or in small groups and currently move between the 100m and 400m depth line along the continental shelf from Pensacola to Tampa.  Diet studies suggest that it may feed near the seafloor, unlike their Bryde’s whale cousins.  They may have lived all across the Gulf of Mexico at the 100-400m line at one time.  They prefer warmer waters and do not seem to conduct long migrations.

The area where the Rice’s whale currently exists. Image: NOAA.

Being listed under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA National Marine Fisheries (NMFS) was required to develop a recovery plan for the whale.  NMFS conducted a series of five virtual workshops between October 18 and November 18 in 2021.  Workshop participants included marine scientists, experts, stakeholders, and the public.  There were challenges identified from the beginning.  Much of the natural history of this new whale was not well understood.  Current and historic abundance, current and historic distribution, population structure and dynamics, calving intervals and seasonality, diet and prey species, foraging behavior, essential habitat features, factors effecting health, and human mortality rates all needed more research.

At the end of the workshop the needs and recommendations fell into several categories.

Management recommendations

  • Create a protected area
  • Restrict commercial and recreational fishing in such – require ropeless gear
  • Require VMS system on all commercial and recreational vessels
  • Require reporting of lost gear and removal of ghost gear
  • Risk assessment for aquaculture, renewable energy, ship traffic, etc.
  • Prohibit aquaculture in core area and suspected areas
  • Reduce burning of fossil fuels
  • Prohibit wind farms in core area
  • Renewable energy mitigation – reduce sound, night travel, passive acoustic
  • Develop spatial tool for energy development and whale habitat use
  • Require aquaculture to monitor effluent release
  • Develop rapid response focused on water quality issues
  • Develop rapid response to stranding events
  • Reduce/cease new oil/gas leases
  • Reduce microplastics and stormwater waste discharge
  • Work with industry to use technologies to reduce noise
  • Reduce shipping and seismic sound within the core area
  • Restrict speed of vessels
  • Maintain 500m distance – require lookouts/observers while in core
  • Consider “areas to be avoided”

Monitoring recommendations

  • Long-term spatial monitoring
  • Long-term prey monitoring
  • Electronic monitoring of commercial fishing operations
  • Necropsies for pollution and contaminants

Outreach and Engagement are needed

Top Threats to Rice’s Whale from the workshop Include:

  • Small population size – vessel collisons
  • Noise
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Prey – Climate change – marine debris
  • Entanglement – disease – health
  • Offshore renewable energy development

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires the designation of critical habitat for listed species.  In July 2023 NOAA proposed the area along the U.S. continental shelf between 100-400 meters depth as critical habitat.  Comments on this designation were accepted through October 6, 2023.

The proposed protection zone for the Rice’s whale including the core area. Image: NOAA.


Vessel strikes are a top concern.  It is understood that the most effective method of reducing them is to keep vessels and whales apart and reduce vessel speeds within the approved critical habitat.

On May 11, 2021, NOAA Fisheries received a petition submitted by five nongovernmental agencies and one public aquarium to establish a year-round 10-knot vessel speed limit in order the protect the Rice’s whale from vessel collisions.  The petition included other vessel mitigation measures.  On April 7, 2023, NOAA published a formal notice in the Federal Register initiating a 90-day comment period on this petition request. The comment period closed on July 6, 2023, and they received approximately 75,500 comments.  After evaluating comments, and other information submitted, NOAA denied the petition on October 27, 2023.

NOAA concluded that fundamental conservation tasks, including finalizing the critical habitat designation, drafting a species recovery plan, and conducting a quantitative vessel risk assessment, are all needed before we consider vessel regulations.  NOAA does support an education and outreach effort that would encourage voluntary protection measures before regulatory ones are developed.

On that note, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) did issue voluntary precautionary measures the industry could adopt to help protect the Rice’s whale.  These include:

  • Training observers to reduce vessel collisions.
  • Documenting and recording all transits for a three-year period.
  • All vessels engaged in oil and gas, regardless of size, maintain no more than 10 knots and avoid the core area after dusk and before dawn.
  • Maintain 500m (1700 feet) distance from all Rice’s whales.
  • Use automatic identification system on all vessels 65’ or larger engaged in oil and gas.
  • These suggestions would not apply if the crew/vessel are at safety risk.


This is where the story is at the moment…

This is what is up with the Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico.

We will provide updates as we hear about them.




1 An Overview of Protected Species in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA Fisheries Service, Southeast Regional Office, Protected Resources Division.  2012.  https://www.boem.gov/sites/default/files/oil-and-gas-energy-program/GOMR/NMFS-Protected-Species-In-GOM-Feb2012.pdf.


2 Rosel, P.E., Mullin, K.D. Cetacean Species in the Gulf of Mexico. DWH NRDA Marine Mammal Technical Working Group Report. National Marine Fisheries Service. Southeast Fisheries Science Center.



3 A New Species of Baleen Whale in the Gulf of Mexico. 2024. NOAA Fisheries News.



4 Rice’s Whale. NOAA Fisheries Species Directory.



5 Rice’s Whale. Marine Mammal Commission.



6 Rice’s Whale: Conservation & Management. NOAA Species Directory. 2024.



7 BOEM Issues Voluntary Precautionary Measures for Rice’s Whale in the Gulf of Mexico. 2023. U.S. Department of Interior. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.



8 NOAA Fisheries Denies Petition to Establish a Mandatory Speed Limit and Other Vessel Mitigation Measures to Protect Endangered Rice’s Whales in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA Fisheries News. FB23-079. Gulf of Mexico Fishery Bulletin. October 27, 2023.



9 Petition to Establish Vessel Speed Measures to Protect Rice’s Whale. NOAA Fisheries. Protected Resources and Actions.



10 Denial of Gulf Protections Could Lead to the “Permanent Loss” of Rice’s Whale. Jim Turner. WUSF News. October 31, 2023.


The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

The Panhandle of Florida is home to many estuaries along the coast, from the Escambia Bay System in the west to the Apalachicola Bay System in the east. These estuaries are very important and are the intersection where rivers (fed from their respective watersheds) meet the Gulf of Mexico and contain many different organisms that help filter the waters before they reach the Gulf. These organisms include oysters, marsh plants, seagrasses, scallops, tunicates, and other invertebrates. In this two-part article, we will explore marsh plants, seagrasses, oysters, and scallops.

Marsh Plants

Marsh Plants is a broad term for a family of grasses that lines the shore and contain grasses like Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and Gulf Cordgrass (Spartina spartinae). These plants help trap sediments before they enter the estuary and are excellent at erosion prevention. When the water encounters the plants, it slows the flow, and this allows for sediments to collect. Marsh Plants are a great tool for shoreline restoration and are a major part of the Living Shorelines Program. The roots of the plants are also very efficient at removing nutrient pollutants like excess nitrogen and phosphorus which are major influencers in eutrophication. Marsh Plants also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and have been tabbed as “superstars of CO2 capture and storage.” (CO2 and Marsh Plants)

marsh grass

Marsh Grass and Oyster Reef in Apalachicola, Florida – Thomas Derbes II


Seagrasses are different than Marsh Grasses (seagrasses are ALWAYS submerged underwater), but they offer some of the same ecological services as Marsh Grasses. The term seagrasses include Turtle Grass (Thalassia testudinum), Shoal Grass (Halodule wrightii), Widgeon Grass (Ruppia maritima), and Manatee Grass (Syringodium filiforme) to name a few. Seagrasses help maintain water clarity by trapping suspended sediments and particles with their leaves and uptake excess nutrients in their roots. Seagrasses are very efficient at capturing carbon, capturing it at rates up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. (Carbon Capture and Seagrasses) They also provide habitat for crustaceans, fish, and shellfish (which can filter the water too) and food for other organisms like turtles and manatees.

Grassbeds are also full of life, albeit small creatures.
Photo: Virginia Sea Grant


Crassostrea virginica (or as we know them, the Eastern oyster) is a native species of oyster that is commonly found along the eastern coast of the USA, from the upper New England states all the way to the southernmost tip of Texas. Eastern oysters are prolific filter feeders and can filter between 30-50 gallons of water per day. As filter feeders, they trap nutrients like plankton and algae from the environment. In areas of high eutrophication, oysters can be very beneficial in clearing the waters by trapping and consuming the excess nutrients and sediments and depositing them on the bottom as pseudo-feces. With oyster farms popping up all over the Gulf Coast, the filtering potential of estuaries is on the rise. (Between the Hinge)


Oysters, The Powerful Filterers of the Estuary – Thomas Derbes II


Bay Scallops (Agropecten irradians) were common along the whole Florida Gulf Coast, but their numbers have taken a recent decline and can only be found in abundance in the estuaries to the east of St. Andrews Bay in Panama City, Florida. Scallops make their home in seagrass beds and are filter feeders. While scallops do not contain the filtering potential of an oyster (scallops filter 3 gallons of water per day as an adult), they are still a key part of filtering the estuary. Just like oysters, scallops feed off of the suspended particles and plankton in the water column and deposit them as pseudo-feces on the bottom. The pseudo-feces also help provide nutrients to the seagrasses below.

Bay Scallop.
Photo: FWC

I hope you enjoyed this first article on filterers in the estuary system. While oysters are known as the filterers of the estuary, I hope this has opened your eyes to the many different filterers that call our estuary home. Stay tuned for Part 2!

A Day at the Beach

A Day at the Beach

I might shock a few people when I say this, but I’d rather be out in the bay somewhere rather than the beach. I just feel like I always bring a gallon of sand back on me even after washing down before getting in the car. However, there is one activity that will always get me out on the beach, and it just so happens to be the right time of the year for it. Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus), aka Pompa-Yes, have started to cruise the white, sandy beaches in search of food as they migrate west to their breeding grounds. While out on a fishing trip this past weekend, the Pompano (and every other fish) eluded me, but I was blessed with an amazing array of wildlife.

When I first arrived at my spot just to the east of Portofino Towers, I was greeted with a pair of Sanderlings (Calidris alba) playing the “water is lava” game while taking breaks between waves to argue with each other and probe the sand with their beaks from marine invertebrates. When I was doing more research on sanderlings, one comment I saw was that they ran like wind-up toys, and that’s the truth! They were pretty brave too, not a single footprint of mine in the wet sand didn’t go un-probed. Sanderlings are “extremely long-distance” migratory birds that breed on the arctic tundra close to the North Pole and winter on most of the sandy beaches in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world. Non-breeding sanderlings will often stay on sandy beaches throughout the summer to save energy. They were great entertainment for the whole fishing trip.


Sanderlings in the Tide Pool – Thomas Derbes II

Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) were out in numbers that day. I am not the best photographer, but I was very proud to capture a Pelican mid-flight. These birds are residents of the Florida Panhandle year-round. If you’ve ever been to Pensacola, you might have bumped into one of the many Pelican Statues around the area, and they’re pretty much the unofficial mascot of the area. I am always amazed at how these seemingly big, clumsy birds can effortlessly glide over the waves and water as if they are the Blue Angels doing a low-pass. Pelicans were almost wiped out by pesticide pollution in the 1960’s, but they have made an incredible comeback.

Pelican Flying Over The Waves

Brown Pelican – Thomas Derbes II

While I was waiting for a Pompano to bite, I had a visit from a small Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina) that was caught in the tidepool that was running along the beach. He didn’t seem injured or sick, so I quickly grabbed a glove and released him into the gulf. Stingrays are pretty incredible creatures and can get to massive sizes, but they do contain a large, venomous spine on their tail that poses a threat to beach goers. They are not aggressive however, and a simple remedy to make sure you don’t get hit is to do the “Stingray Shuffle” by shuffling your feet while you move in the water to scare up the stingrays.


Atlantic Stingray Cruising the Tide Pool- Thomas Derbes II

As I was getting ready to pack up, I noticed a new shorebird flying in to investigate the seaweed that had washed up on shore. I had a hard time identifying this bird, but once I was able to see it in flight with its white stripe down the back, I realized it was a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres). Turnstones get their name from their foraging behavior of turning over stones and pebbles to find food. Even though we do not have pebbles, the turnstone was looking through the seaweed for any insects or crustaceans that might be an easy meal. Turnstones are also “extremely long-distance” migratory birds breeding in the arctic tundra with non-breeding populations typically staying on sandy beaches during the summer. The turnstone made sure to stay away from me, but I was able to get a good photo of it as it ran from seaweed clump to clump.


Ruddy Turnstone – Thomas Derbes II

While I didn’t catch anything to bring home for dinner, I did get to enjoy the beautiful day and playful wildlife that I wouldn’t have experienced sitting on a couch. You can turn any bad fishing day into an enjoyable day if you pay attention to the wildlife around you!

Understanding Salinity in Northwest Florida’s Waters with a Family Activity

Understanding Salinity in Northwest Florida’s Waters with a Family Activity

Understanding Salinity in Northwest Florida’s Waters with a Family Activity

Dana Stephens, 4-H Agent

Salinity is the amount of total dissolved salts in water. This includes all salts not just sodium chloride, or table salt. Salinity is important in aquatic environments as many flora and fauna depend on salt and the level of dissolved salts in the water for survival. People interested in the composition of water frequently measure chemical and physical components of water.  Salinity is one of the vital chemical components measured and often measured by a device determining how readily electrical conductance passes between two metal plates or electrodes. These units of electrical conductance, the estimate of total dissolved salts in water, is described in units of measurement of parts per thousand (PPT).

At the large scale, Earth processes, such as weathering of rocks, evaporation of ocean waters, and ice formation in the ocean, add salt to the aquatic environment. Earth processes, such as freshwater input from rivers, rain and snow precipitation, and ice melting, decrease the concentration of salt in the aquatic environment. Anthropogenic (human-induced) activities, such as urbanization or atmospheric deposition, can also contribute to changes in salinity.

Salinity and changes in salinity affect how water moves on Earth due to contrasts in the density of water. Water containing no dissolved salts is less dense than water containing dissolved salts. Density is weight per volume, so water with no dissolved salts (less dense) will float on top of water with dissolved salts (denser). This is why swimming in the ocean may feel easier than swimming in a lake because the denser water provides increased buoyancy.

Northwest Florida is a unique place because we have a variety of surface waters that range in salinity. There are ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and springs, which have no to low salinity levels (0 to 0.5 PPT), and commonly referred to as freshwater systems. We house six estuaries—Perdido Bay, Pensacola/Escambia Bay, Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrews Bay, St. Joseph Bay, and Apalachicola Bay. Estuaries are bodies of water with freshwater input(s) (e.g., rivers) and a permanent opening to the ocean (e.g., Destin Pass in the Choctawhatchee Bay). Estuarine waters are termed brackish water (0.5 to 30 PPT) due to the dynamic changes in salinity at spatial and temporal scales. Waterbodies with an even more dynamic change in salinity are the coastal dune lakes Northwest Florida’s Walton and Bay Counties. Coastal dune lakes are waterbodies perched on sand dunes that intermittently open and close to the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes these waterbodies are fresh and sometimes they have the same salinity as the Gulf of Mexico, like after a large storm event. Finally, the Gulf of Mexico, or ocean, has the highest salinity (> 30 PPT) among the waterbodies of Northwest Florida.

Here is an educational activity for the family to explore salinity and how salinity differs among Northwest Florida waters.

Understanding Salinity Activity--Join in this family activity to explore understanding salinity in water. Here is what you will need for the activity. Three containers for mixing. Four, clear glasses. Salt. Food coloring. Measuring cups. Spoons.

Salinity Activity for Families. Step 1: Prepare Water. Set three mixing containers on hard surface. Measure 1/2 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of salt. Pour 1/2 cup of salt into one container. Pour 1/4 cup of salt into another container. Add 1 cup of hot tap water to all three containers. Add different food coloring to containers with salt. Mix salt, water, and food coloring until completely dissolved in each container using separate spoons.Salinity Activity for Families-Step 2: Explore Salinity Densities. Pour contents of three containers into three clear glasses separately. Pour 1/2 cup from the clear water glass into the fourth, empty glass. Add water with a spoon from the lower salinity glass to the glass with clear water. Do this slowly along the side of the glass. Do not stir/share this glass. Add water with a spoon from the higher salinity glass to the same glass. Do this slowly along side of the glass. Do not stir or share the glass. Observe changes when adding the waters with different salinity levels.Salinity Activity for Families-Step 3: Questions to Consider and Discuss. What happened when the first colored water was added? What happened when the second color water was added? Why do you think this happened? How may salinity levels affect the density of water?Broad Questions for Consideration--Name some waterbodies in Northwest Florida where salinity may be the same and where salinity may differ. Why id density of water important in our waters in Northwest Florida?Salinity Changes Everything--thanks for participating. Please contact Dana Stephens at dlbigham@ufl.edu or 850-826-1316 for more discussion questions or family activities.



Tagging Wildlife Part 2 – Leatherback Sea Turtles

Tagging Wildlife Part 2 – Leatherback Sea Turtles

The leatherback sea turtle is the largest of the five species that have been found in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  With a carapace (top shell) length between 6-7 feet and weighing between 800-1000 pounds it is truly a magnificent creature.  Any encounter with them is amazing. 

Most encounters occur with fishermen or divers who are out searching for artificial reefs to fish or dive.  Though very rare, they have been known to nest in this area.  They feed exclusively on jellyfish and will follow them close to shore if need be.  But what do leatherbacks do with most of their time?  Do they hang offshore and follow jellyfish in?  Do they circle the entire Gulf of Mexico and we see them as they pass?  Based on past studies, many encounters with this turtle occur in the warmer months.  They often become entangled in commercial fishing longlines set in the central Gulf of Mexico.  But what do they do during the fall and winter?  One of the tagging projects presented at a recent workshop tried to answer that question. 

The project was led by Dr. Christopher Sasso of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The tag chosen for this was a satellite tag.  Since the leatherback must surface to breath air, and often is found near the surface following jellyfish, orbiting satellites would be able to follow them.  As we mentioned in Part 1, catching the creature is step 1, and catching a six-foot 1000-pound sea turtle is no easy task. 

The team used a spotter aircraft to locate the turtles.  Once found, the pilot would radio the chase boat who would zip in with a large net.  The net was connected to a large metal hoop and was designed to give way once it was around the turtle.  Once in the net the turtle was hauled onto a small inflatable boat where the work of tagging could be done.  They would measure the animal, take blood samples, place a PIT tag within them (similar to a microchip in your pet) and then attach the satellite tag by a tether to the tail end of the turtle before releasing it.  The entire operation took less than 30 minutes.    

Between 2015-2019 19 leatherbacks were tagged in the northern Gulf.  17 of these were females and 2 were males.  Data obtained from these tags ranged between 63 and 247 days at liberty.  The behavior the team noticed was divided into foraging behavior (feeding on jellyfish) and transiting behavior (direct swimming ignoring all). 

The turtles foraged in this part of the Gulf until the fall season.  At that point most of them moved south along the Florida shelf, past the western peninsula of the state, heading towards the Keys.  A few chose to swim directly south against the Loop Current, and a small number remained in the area. 

Those moving along the Florida shelf appeared to be foraging as they went.  Those crossing the open Gulf may have foraged some but seemed to be focused on getting south to the nesting beaches.  Almost all of the turtles entered the Caribbean on the east side of the Yucatan channel, following the currents, with their final destination being their nesting beaches.  When they returned, they did so in the warmer months and used the western side of the channel – again following the currents – until they once again reached the northern Gulf and foraging began again.  One interesting note from this study, the two males tagged did not leave the Gulf.

The tagging studies do show that leatherbacks use the Gulf of Mexico year-round.  They usually head south to the Caribbean when it gets colder and use the currents to do so.  It is during the warmer months we are most likely to see them here foraging on jellyfish.  It is an amazing experience to encounter one of these large turtles.  I hope you get to experience it one day.

Satellite tracks of leatherback movement in the GoM. Red (2015), Blue (2018), Black (2019). Image: Sasso (et.al.) 2021.


Sasso, C.R., Richards, P.M., Benson, S.R., Judge, M., Putman, N.F., Snodgrass, D., Stacy, B.A. 2021. Leatherback Sea Turtles in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico: Foraging and Migration Behavior During the Autumn and Winter. Frontiers in Marine Science., Vol. 8., https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2021.660798.

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!


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