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
It sounds like one of those Sci-Fi thrillers where there is a giant asteroid heading to Earth and we need a special team led by Bruce Willis to save the planet. But in this case it is not a large rock, but a large mass of seaweed. And the threat is not a huge impact that would form tidal waves and atmospheric black out but large masses of seaweed covering the beaches up to a foot or more. Once on the beach, the mass of seaweed would begin to break down releasing odors and attracting insects that would not be popular with tourists – just as we get into the peak of tourist season around the state.
It is not something new, this has been a problem in south Florida for a few years now, but this year scientists can see the massive blob of seaweed heading this way and it is larger than before. They are expecting some beaches in Florida to be heavily impacted.
The seaweed in this floating mass is a brown algae known as Sargassum (Gulfweed). Like many brown algae’s, it is yellowish-brown in color and possesses small air bladders called pneumatocysts. These pneumatocysts allow large brown algae, like kelp, to stand tall like a tree in the water column – or, like Sargassum, to float on the surface where they can reach the much-needed sunlight.
There are two species of Sargassum that are found in the South Atlantic: Sargassum natans and S. fluitans. They are not easily distinguished so most just say “sargassum”. These seaweeds form large floating mats that drift in the ocean currents. The clockwise rotation of the North Atlantic gyre creates a central point around which the currents spin that is calm – similar to the eye of a hurricane. Here, the sargassum collects in large masses and was noted in the logs of Christopher Columbus as the “Sargasso Sea” – a place to avoid for colonial sailors due to the fact there is little wind or current here.
Mats of this algae creates an ecosystem drifting across the sea housing transient and residential species that have been the study of marine biologists for decades. The seaweed will get caught in currents that bring it close to shore where fishermen seek it out fishing for jacks or mahi-mahi. Baby sea turtles will use it as refuge until they are large enough to return to the shores of the continents and islands. It will at times get caught in currents that bring it ashore where beach combers sift through to see what they can find. As we mentioned, once on dry ground the seaweed begins to die releasing the odors of decaying sea life and attracting an assortment of insects. When this happens coastal communities will use tractors to drag and remove the smelly mats and deposit them in the local landfill.
In recent years, in south Florida, the amount of this seaweed has increased. The seaweed has formed large mounds on the beaches making beach combing an ordeal and the smell unbearable in many communities. Some of the Sargassum finds its way into the canals of the Florida Keys where it sits and decays, decreasing dissolved oxygen and causing a decline in abundance of some local marine communities. They have responded by removing the Sargassum to the local landfill but are experimenting with composting the material for fertilizing other plants.
Several researchers have experimented with the composting idea with some encouraging results. Some have found a use for it as mulch for coastal mangrove shoots that have lost much of their natural fertilizers due to coastal urbanization. There are problems with using this in some plant settings. 1) It could be too salty for some landscape plants. 2) There is the concern of the amount of arsenic present. Studies continue.
The recent large masses of Sargassum coming ashore began in 2011. What is causing this recent increase in Sargassum on the beaches? Researchers are finding the source of this material is not mats rotating off of the Sargasso Sea but forming in the belt of moving water between the North Equatorial Current in the south Atlantic and the equator itself. The exact cause of this increase growth is uncertain but could be linked to an increase of nutrients from regional rivers, like the Amazon, and from increased ocean temperatures due to climate change – both of these are exactly what seaweeds like.
This year the mass of seaweed seen from satellites is particularly large – over 5,000 miles. It is drifting in the currents heading for the Caribbean and Florida. It will most likely impact south Florida, but researchers do not believe the impact will be as large along Florida panhandle beaches. They will continue to monitor and report on the movement of this mass of seaweed over the course of the summer.
Kayaking through a crystal blue spring, hiking among longleaf pines and discovering gopher tortoise burrows, gliding past alligators by boat in Mobile Bay, private tours of the EPA lab on Pensacola Beach, and meeting hundreds of fascinating, like-minded people—these are just a handful of fond memories from my experiences teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program. Having recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) has inspired the creation of dozens of similar courses in other states and proven itself to be one of the most popular outreach programs to come out of UF IFAS Extension.
The mission of the FMNP is simple—to promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world among Florida’s citizens and visitors. I have always felt strongly that if you want people to care about something, they need to understand it. And to really understand something, you need to experience it. I know my own passion for science and ecology was ignited early on by teachers who took us outside and helped us encounter the many wondrous surprises in the natural world. With FMNP, we seek to do just that.
Over a span of 40 hours in 7-8 weeks, we spend about half our time with classroom presentations and the other half in the field, seeing the plants, animals, and ecosystems we discuss in class. In addition to classes and field trips, students produce a final project and present it to the class. These can range from labeled collections and slide presentations to building bird houses and new trails. The program is composed of three 40-hour core courses; Coastal, Upland, and Freshwater Systems. Seven “short courses” with 24 hours of class/field time include the Land Steward series (Conservation Science, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring, and Environmental Interpretation) and the Restoration courses (Coastal Restoration, Marine Habitat Restoration, and Invasive Plants). Locally, we try to rotate the core modules every couple of years and incorporate the short courses periodically. The registration fee per core module is $250 – $300 and includes a detailed course manual and, upon completion, FMNP patch, certificate, and pin denoting area of expertise. There are a handful of scholarships available for those interested in applying to offset costs.
The classes do not count towards university credit, but are an excellent certification and professional development opportunity that look great on a resume. While we’ve had ecotour operators, park rangers, environmental consultants, teachers, and archaeologists (and many seeking employment in the environmental field), most of our FMNP students are not professionals in the field. They come from every background imaginable, but share an interest in the outdoors. Because we meet weekly, class members often bond and create long-lasting friendships during the courses.
Extension Agents in northwest Florida are offering two Master Naturalist courses, starting in the next few weeks. In Escambia and Santa Rosa County, we will have an in-person daytime Coastal Systems class starting March 28 and running through May 16. Walton County is teaming up with Miami-Dade to offer an evening hybrid (online class sessions, in-person field trips) Freshwater Systems course from February 18 to April 13. FMNP classes are restricted to adults 18 and over, but a new “Florida Youth Naturalist” curriculum has been designed through our 4-H program for young people. For more information on that, check out their website.
I recent took my granddaughter on a dolphin tour out of Pensacola Beach. It was amazing. It was a cool October morning, not a cloud in the sky, the winds were calm, the water crystal clear due to the lack of rain over the past few weeks, and the dolphins were out.
They are amazing animals and always seem to grab your attention no matter how many times you see them. I was a student at Dauphin Island Sea Lab from 1980-81 and taught there from 1985-1990. No matter how many times we heard “dolphins” when out on one of the research vessels, everyone had to run over to look. People do enjoy seeing dolphins. There is just something about them.
During the tour at one location, we saw a group of them (a pod) feeding on fish in the shallow water. They would roll and chase, you could see the sand being kicked up from the bottom as they did. At another location we saw them in breeding mode. Slower moving, caressing, fluke slapping as they turned all around in the water near us. The tour guide told us all sorts of dolphin facts, and some great jokes to go along with them. It was a good program, and my granddaughter was loving it.
She looked over at me at one point and said, “dolphins use to walk on land”. I responded that actually their ancestors did. Dolphins, as we know them, were very much aquatic animals. This led to thoughts on other dolphin questions I have heard over the years.
What is the difference between a dolphin and a whale?
Size… and in some cases teeth.
All whales and dolphins are in the mammalian order Cetacea. Mammalian orders are divided based on the type of teeth they have. Cetaceans are homodonts, meaning they have only one type of tooth. For the toothed whales, these are canines, they lack the molars and incisors that many other mammals have. But some have no teeth rather a specialized fibrous material called baleen, similar to the bristles of a broom, with which they can filter plankton from the water.
There are over 90 species of cetaceans in the world’s oceans, 21 of those are known from the Gulf of Mexico. In a recent published survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service, most of the cetaceans in the Gulf of Mexico are of the toothed whale variety and most occur beyond the continental shelf (which is between 60 and 140 miles south of Pensacola). The only baleen whale in their report was the Byrde’s Whale (Balanopatera edeni). They estimate about 33 of these whales based on their transect surveys and all of these were found beyond the continental shelf between Pensacola and Apalachicola Florida. The largest of the toothed whales reported was the sperm whale, which can reach over 60 feet. They estimate 763 sperm whale in the Gulf, and they were found across the basin beyond the continental shelf.
But it is the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) that we see on the dolphin tours. This is a relatively small toothed whale, reaching lengths of 13 feet, though most in the Gulf region are less than 10 feet. They are the most abundant and most frequently encountered cetacean near shore and within the estuaries and seem to prefer these shallower waters to the open Gulf beyond the shelf. The National Marine Fisheries Service divides them into stocks based on their geographic distribution. They report 37 different stocks of bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf. These are divided into western, eastern, and northern stocks, and then subdivided into estuarine stocks. There are separate stocks for the Perdido Bay and Pensacola Bay groups. This report indicated the stock size for the Pensacola and Perdido Bay dolphins was unknown, though our tour guide indicated there were about 250 in the Pensacola Bay stock. The National Marine Fisheries Service did report about 179 dolphins in the Choctawhatchee Bay stock. The reports estimated over 51,000 individuals for the northern Gulf.
Though not listed as endangered or threatened by the Endangered Species Act, there is some concern on the smaller estuarine stocks and so they have been labeled as “strategic”. There has been fishery related mortality with these dolphins in our waters, primarily with longlining and otter trawl operations, but losses are less than four animals/year and do not seem to be impacting their populations.
What is the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise?
Though many associate the long beak as a dolphin, there are dolphins with short snouts. Killer whales are actually large dolphins. The answer goes back to the teeth, as it always does when classifying mammals. Dolphins have conical shaped teeth where porpoise have more spade shaped ones.
How smart are dolphins?
As everyone knows these are highly intelligent animals. They use an audible form of communication that includes squeaks, clicks, and whistles, to keep the pod together. Researchers have discovered that these audible sounds have a sort of “accent” to them that tells dolphins which pod the dolphin communicating is from. This appears to be very important being that dolphins from one social pod may not accept others from different one. I remember in 1993 when a group of five pantropical spotted dolphins stranded on Pensacola Beach. There were four adults and one 3-month year old in the group. After failed attempts to return the dolphins back to the Gulf, it was decided to transport them to a quarantine area near the EPA lab on Pensacola Beach. There was a virus spreading through some European populations and they did not want to risk taking them to the Gulfarium. In route three of the four adults passed away. The remaining adult was named Mango and the juvenile was named Kiwi. After a period of time in quarantine Mango passed away leaving on the young Kiwi. There was a move to return Kiwi to the wild but some of the dolphin experts on scene told me the likely hood of a different pod accepting Kiwi was a risk, and finding her original pod was very unlikely. After determining the dolphin did not have the virus of concern, they decided to move her to the Gulfarium in Ft. Walton Beach, where she lived the rest of her life.
How does dolphin echolocation work?
Echolocation is different than communication, in that it is inaudible. As with communication, the sounds are produced by expelling air through the blowhole. In the case of communication, there is a muscle that partially closes the opening of the blowhole producing the sounds we hear. In echolocation this is completely closed, and the sound waves are moved through a fat filled melon near the head. The shape and density of the melon can be changed by the animal to produce different frequencies of sound but all inaudible to our ears. These sounds are emitted through the melon into the environment, where they contact something and “echo” back to the dolphin. These echoes are received in a fat filled cavity of the lower jaw and transferred to the brain – where the animal is then made aware of the object out in front of them. Some studies suggest that it may be more than knowing there is an object, they may be able to distinguish different kinds of fish. Though it is most effective within 600 feet, studies show their range may be up to 2000 feet. Studies have also shown that some species of toothed whales can alter the frequency of these echolocated sounds to stun their prey making them easier to catch.
Dolphins are amazing animals.
They live between 30 and 50 years in the wild. During this time, they form tight social groups, feed on a variety of prey, and produce new members every 2-3 years. There is so much more to the biology, ecology, and social life of these animals and we recommend you read more. Once you understand them better, we also recommend you take a dolphin tour to view these amazing creatures.
October has been designated as Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month by Walton County government. Walton County is home to 15 named coastal dune lakes along 26 miles of coastline. These lakes are a unique geographical feature and are only found in a few places in the world including Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, and here in Walton County.
A coastal dune lake is defined as a shallow, irregularly shaped or elliptic depressions occurring in coastal communities that share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico through which freshwater and saltwater is exchanged. They are generally permanent water bodies, although water levels may fluctuate substantially. Typically identified as lentic water bodies without significant surface inflows or outflows, the water in a dune lake is largely derived from lateral ground water seepage through the surrounding well-drained coastal sands. Storms occasionally provide large inputs of salt water and salinities vary dramatically over the long term.
Our coastal dune lakes are even more unique because they share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico, referred to as an “outfall”, which aides in natural flood control allowing the lake water to pour into the Gulf as needed. The lake water is fed by streams, groundwater seepage, rain, and storm surge. Each individual lake’s outfall and chemistry is different. Water conditions between lakes can vary greatly, from completely fresh to significantly saline.
A variety of different plant and animal species can be found among the lakes. Both freshwater and saltwater species can exist in this unique habitat. Some of the plant species include: rushes (Juncus spp.), sedges (Cyperus spp.), marshpennywort (Hydrocotyleumbellata), cattails (Typha spp.), sawgrass (Cladiumjamaicense), waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.), watershield (Braseniaschreberi), royal fern (Osmundaregalis var. spectabilis), rosy camphorweed (Pluchea spp.), marshelder (Ivafrutescens), groundsel tree (Baccharishalimifolia), and black willow (Salixnigra).
Some of the animal species that can be found include: western mosquitofish (Gambusiaaffinis), sailfin molly (Poecilialatipinna), American alligator (Alligatormississippiensis), eastern mud turtle (Kinosternonsubrubrum), saltmarsh snake (Nerodiaclarkii ssp.), little blue heron (Egrettacaerulea), American coot (Fulicaamericana), and North American river otter (Lutracanadensis). Many marine species co-exist with freshwater species due to the change in salinity within the column of water.
The University of Florida/IFAS Extension faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series. Come celebrate Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month as our team provides a guided walking tour of the nature trail surrounding Western Lake in Grayton Beach State Park. Join local County Extension Agents to learn more about our globally rare coastal dune lakes, their history, surrounding ecosystems, and local protections. Walk the nature trail through coastal habitats including maritime hammocks, coastal scrub, salt marsh wetlands, and coastal forest. A tour is available October 19th.
The tour is $10.00 (plus tax) and you can register on Eventbrite (see link below). Admission into the park is an additional $5.00 per vehicle, so carpooling is encouraged. We will meet at the beach pavilion (restroom facilities available) at 8:45 am with a lecture and tour start time of 9:00 am sharp. The nature trail is approximately one mile long, through some sandy dunes (can be challenging to walk in), on hard-packed trails, and sometimes soggy forests. Wear appropriate footwear and bring water. Hat, sunscreen, camera, binoculars are optional. Tour is approximately 2 hours. Tour may be cancelled in the event of bad weather.