Special to the Panama City News Herald
L. Scott Jackson
UF/IFAS Extension Bay County / Florida Sea Grant
UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County / Florida Sea Grant
Do you live in Bay, Gulf, and Franklin County? We need your help! Scallop Sitters is one of our cooperative volunteer programs with Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC).
Historically, populations of bay scallops were in large numbers and able to support fisheries across many North Florida bays, including St Andrew Bay, St Joe Bay, and Alligator Harbor (Franklin County). Consecutive years of poor environmental conditions, habitat loss, and general “bad luck” resulted in poor annual production and caused the scallop fishery to close. Bay scallops are a short-lived species growing from babies to spawning adults and dying in about a year. Scallop populations can recover quickly when growing conditions are good and can decline dramatically when growing conditions are bad.
An opportunity to jump start restoration of North Florida’s bay scallops came in 2011. Using funding from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, a multi-county scallop restoration program was proposed and eventually set up in 2016. Scientists with FWC use hatchery reared scallops obtained from parents or broodstock from local bays to grow them in mass to increase the number of spawning adults near critical seagrass habitat.
FWC also created another program where volunteers can help with restoration called “Scallop Sitters” in 2018 and invited UF/IFAS Extension to help manage the volunteer part of the program in 2019 which led to targeted efforts in Gulf and Bay Counties.
Giving scallops a helping hand, “Scallop Sitters” work with UF/IFAS Extension, Florida Sea Grant, and FWC restoration scientists by cleaning scallops and checking salinity once a month from June through January. Photo by Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant.
After the 2020 hiatus due to COVID-19, the program boasted nearly 100 volunteers for the 2021 campaign. UF/IFAS Extension is once again partnering with FWC in Bay and Gulf and Franklin Counties. Despite challenges with rainfall, stormwater runoff, and low salinity, our Scallop Sitter volunteers have supplied valuable information to researchers and restoration efforts, especially in these beginning years of our program. Scallop Sitters collect useful information about salinities throughout the target bays. But the bulk of the impact comes with keeping a close watch on their scallops. The scallops maintained by their sitters have a better chance of a successful spawn when the time is right.
A “Scallop Sitter” cage ready for placement near seagrasses. The cages are restoration tools used to produce baby scallops during the annual growing cycle. Photo by L. Scott Jackson.
So, what does a Scallop Sitter do? Volunteers manage predator exclusion cages of scallops, which are either placed in the bay or by a dock. The cages supply a safe environment for the scallops to live and reproduce, and in turn repopulate the bays. Volunteers make monthly visits from June until January to their assigned cages where they clean scallops removing attached barnacles and other potential problem organisms. Scallop Sitters watch the mortality rate and collect salinity data which helps figure out restoration goals and success in targeted areas.
You are invited! Become a Scallop Sitter
Franklin County https://bit.ly/franklinscallopsitter22
Gulf County https://bit.ly/gulfscallopsitter22
Bay County https://bit.ly/bayscallopsitter22
- You will be sent a registration survey via email, a virtual workshop link, and an invite to our Northwest Florida Scallop Sitter Facebook Group.
- View a virtual workshop or you can attend our Kickoff Reception 9:30 AM before picking up your scallops and supplies. See the pick-up schedule below.
- Pick-up supplies and scallops:
Franklin County: June 2nd Kickoff Reception 9:30AM, Pick-up 10:00AM – 1:00 PM (Eastern)
Gulf County: June 9th Kickoff Reception 9:30AM, Pick-up 10:00AM – 1:00 PM (Eastern)
Bay County: June 16th Kickoff Reception 9:30AM, Pick-up 10:00AM – 1:00 PM (Central)
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.
When you look over the species of sea basses and groupers from the Gulf of Mexico it is a very confusing group. Hoese and Moore1 mention the connections to other families and how several species have gone through multiple taxonomic name changes over the years – its just a confusing group.
Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
But when you say “grouper” everyone knows what you are talking about, and everyone wants a grouper sandwich. This became a problem because what people were serving as “grouper” may not have been “grouper”. And as we just mentioned what is a grouper anyway? The families and genera have changed frequently. Well, this will probably get more technical than we want, but to sort it out – at least using the method Hoese and Moore did in 1977 – we will have to get a bit technical.
“Groupers” are in the family Serranidae. This family includes 34 species of “sea bass” type fish. Serranids differ from snappers in that they lack teeth on the vomer (roof of their mouths) and they differ from “temperate basses” (Family Percichthyidae) in that their dorsal fin is continuous, not separated into two fins. These are two fish that groupers have been confused with.
Banked Sea Bass.
Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
We can subdivide the serranids into two additional groups. The “sea basses” have fewer than 10 spines in their dorsal fin. There are 10 genera and 18 species of them. They have common names like “bass”, “flags”, “barbiers”, “hamlets”, “perch”, and “tattlers”. They are small and range in size from 2 – 18 inches in length. Most are bottom reef fish with little commercial value for fishermen. Most are restricted to the tropical parts of the Atlantic basin but two are only found in the northwestern Gulf, one is only found in the eastern Gulf, and one has been found in both the Atlantic and Pacific. The biogeography of this group is very interesting. The same species found in both the Atlantic and Pacific suggest an ancient origin. The variety of serranid sea bass suggest a lot of isolation between groups and a lot of speciation.
The ”groupers” have 10 or more spines in their dorsal fin. There are two genera in this group. Those in the genus Epinephelus have 8-10 spines in their anal fin and have some canine teeth. Those in the genus Mycteroperca have 10-12 spines in their anal fin and lack canine teeth. Within these two genera there are 15 species of grouper, though the common names of “hind”, “gag”, “scamp” are also used. Most of these are found along the eastern United States and Gulf of Mexico. Five species are only found in the tropical parts of the south Atlantic region, five are also found across the Atlantic along the coast of Africa and Europe, and – like the “sea bass” two have been found in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. They range in size from six inches to seven feet in length. The Goliath Grouper can obtain weights of 700 pounds! Like the sea bass, groupers prefer structure and can live a great depths. Unlike sea bass they are heavily sought by commercial and recreational anglers and are one of the more economically important groups of fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
The massive size of a goliath grouper. Photo: Bryan Fluech Florida Sea Grant
One interesting note on this family of fish is that most are hermaphroditic. The means they have both ovaries (to produce eggs) and testes (to produce sperm). Sequential hermaphrodism is when a species is born one sex but becomes the other later in life. This is the case with most groupers, who are born female and become male later in life. However, the belted sand bass (Serranus subligarius) is a true hermaphrodite being able to produce sperm and egg at the same time – even being able to self-fertilize.
For many along the Florida panhandle, their biogeographic distribution and sex do not matter. It is a great tasting fish and very popular with anglers. For those with a little more interest in natural history of fish in our area, the biology and diversity of this group is one of the more interesting ones.
1 Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press. College Station TX. Pp. 327.
Snook… Wait did you say Snook in the Florida panhandle?
Yep… they are not common, but they have seen here.
For those who do not know the fish and do not understand why seeing them is strange, this is a more tropical species associated with tarpon. In the early years of tourism in Florida tarpon fishing was one of the main reasons people came. Though bonefish and snook fishing were not has popular as tarpon, they were good alternatives and today snook fishing is popular in central and south Florida… but not in the north.
This snook was captured near Cedar Key. These tropical fish are becoming more common in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: UF IFAS
This fish is extremely sensitive to cold water, not liking anything under 60° F. They frequent the same habitats as tarpon, mangroves and marshes. They are euryhaline (having a wide tolerance for salinity) and can be found in freshwater rivers and springs. Actually, near river mouths is a place they frequent. The younger fish are more often found within the estuaries and adults have been found in the Gulf of Mexico. Again, this is a more tropical fish with records in Florida north of Tampa being rare. In the western Gulf the story is the same, almost all records are south of Galveston, Texas. Until recently…
Hoese and Moore1 cite a paper by Baughman (1943) that indicated the range of the fish had actually moved further south. One reason given was the loss of the much-needed salt marsh and mangrove habitats from human development. But in recent years there have more reports north of Tampa. Purtlebaugh (et al.)2 published a paper in 2020 indicating an increase in snook captured in the Cedar Key area of the Big Bend beginning in 2007. At first records only included adults, and the thought was these were “wayward” drifters in the region. But by 2018 they were capturing fish in all size classes and there was evidence of breeding going in the area. The range of the fish seemed to be moving north. The study suggests they still need warm water locations to over winter, and, like the manatees, springs seem to be working fine. But another piece of the explanation has been the reduction of hard freezes during winter in this part of the Gulf. Climate change may be playing a role here as well.
There seems to be other tropical species dispersing northward in a process some call “tropicalization” including the mangroves. There have been anecdotal reports of snook near Apalachicola where mangroves are becoming more common, and I know of two that were caught in Mobile Bay. There are mangroves growing on the Mississippi barrier islands as well. While explaining this during a presentation I was doing for a local group, a gentleman showed me a photo of a snook on his phone. I asked if he caught it in the Pensacola area. He replied yes. When I asked where, he just smiled… 😊 He was not going to share that. Cool.
There is no evidence that snook have established breeding populations are in our waters. Especially after this winter with multiple days with temperatures in the 30s, it is unlikely snook would be found here. But it is still interesting, and we encourage anyone who does catch one, to report it to us.
1 Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press. College Station Tx. Pp 327.
2 Purtlebaugh CH, Martin CW, Allen MS (2020) Poleward expansion of common snook Centropomus undecimalis in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico and future research needs. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0234083. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234083.
I recently posted an article about the seahorses of the Florida panhandle. It would be remiss of me if I did not include their close cousins the pipefish. Where seahorses are well known but hard to find, pipefish are easy to find but not well known.
The seahorse-like pipefish.
Photo: University of Florida
Pipefish are in the same family as seahorses, Syngnathidae, and are basically elongated seahorses. Pulling seine nets in local grassbeds we often catch them. Students always ask what they are. “Are these needlefish?” is a frequent question. I reply “no, they are pipefish”. Which then comes “pikefish?”. To which I reply “No, PIPEfish… like P-I-P-E… – they are basically elongated seahorses”. And then there is always – “coool”. To which I reply “yes… very cool”.
Pipefish have the same body armor, body rings, and long tube snout of the seahorse. However, they lack the curled prehensile tail for a more elongated body, looking more a grass blade than their cousins. They actually have a caudal fin (the fin most call “fish tail”). Most range between 3-6 inches long but the chain pipefish can reach a length of 10 inches, this is the “big boy” of the group. Like seahorses, they hide in the grass using their tube-shaped mouths to suck in small planktonic food. Like the seahorses, the males’ possess a brood pouch to carry the fertilized eggs and give live birth (ovoviviparous).
The pipefish can quickly be divided into two groups – those with long snouts, and those with short – and this can be easily seen when captured in a net. After that identification gets a bit tricky, you have to count rays in the fins or rings on the body. It is sufficed to say, “it’s a pipefish” and leave it at that.
Those with long snouts include the Opossum, Chain, Dusky, and Sargassum pipefish.
The Opossum Pipefish (Microphis brachyurus) is about 3 inches long and was not reported from the northwestern Gulf of Mexico according to Hoese and Moore1. In the eastern Gulf, our way, it is considered rare but has been found in salt marshes, seagrasses, and in Sargassum mats drifting in from the Gulf. The Florida Museum of Natural History list this fish as a “marine invader”2. In 1991 NOAA listed it as a species of concern due to its decline across the region3. There are reports of this pipefish entering freshwater creeks within our estuaries.
The Chain Pipefish (Syngnathus louisianae) has a very long snout and is the “big boy” of the group reaching 10 inches in length. It is quite common along the panhandle and has one of the larger ranges of this group, found all along the Atlantic coast, throughout the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean.
The Dusky Pipefish (Syngnathus floridae) is a long-snout, large pipefish reaching a length of eight inches. It prefers higher salinity than many pipefish and is found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic seaboard often offshore.
The Sargassum Pipefish (Syngnathus pelagicus). This is a good scientific name for this fish (pelagicus) for it lives on the large mats of Sargassum weed that drifts across the oceans. Because of this it has a worldwide distribution. This longnose pipefish reaches the typical length of six inches. It lives as many other pipefish do hiding in the grass snapping up food when it comes close enough but it’s habitat is often drifting offshore and inshore sightings of this species are rare.
There are three species of “short-snout” pipefish.
The Fringed Pipefish (Anarchopterus crinigerus) is a smaller pipefish reaching only three inches. It seems to be absent in the western Gulf but is found along the Florida panhandle, the Gulf coast of peninsula Florida, and through the Caribbean to Brazil.
The Northern Pipefish (Syngnathus fuscus) reaches a length of six inches. It is very common along the Atlantic seaboard but Hoese and Moore1 report only four specimens from the Gulf of Mexico. This one would be considered very rare, and an expert should identify it if one thinks they have it.
The Gulf Pipefish (Syngnathus scovelli) is one of the more common pipefish collected in our waters. It is a short-snout species reaching the typical six inches but has these distinct bluish-gray bars that run vertically along the sides. It is found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and even into some freshwater habitats. The Florida Museum of Natural History also list this species as a marine invader4.
I am not sure how much seining you do along our waterways, but if you do any within the grassbeds you are sure to find one of these unique and interesting fish.
1 Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX. Pp. 327.
2 Opossum pipefish. Discover Fishes. Florida Museum of Natural History. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/florida-fishes-gallery/opossum-pipefish/.
3 Opossum Pipefish. Species of Concern. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1224/ML12240A312.pdf.
4 Gulf Pipefish. Discover Fishes. Florida Museum of Natural History. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/florida-fishes-gallery/gulf-pipefish/.
Seahorses are one of the coolest creatures on this planet – period. I mean who doesn’t like seahorses? People state “I love snakes”, “I hate snakes”, “I love sharks”, “I hate sharks”. But no one says, “I hate seahorses”. They are sort of in the same boat with sea turtles, everyone loves sea turtles. They are an icon of the sea, logos for beach products and coastal HOAs, underwater cartoons and tourist development boards, diving clubs and local restaurants. But have you ever seen one? I mean beyond seeing one at a local aquarium or such, have you ever found one while snorkeling on one of our beaches?
Most would say no.
I have lived in the panhandle all my life and have spent much of it in the water, and I can count on both hands the number of times I have encountered a seahorse while at the beach. Most encounters have been while seining. I cannot count on both hands how many times I have pulled a seine net here but very few of them did a seahorse encounter occur. When they did, it was over grassbeds. In each encounter the animal was lying in the grass not wriggling like the other fish, just lying there. It would be very easy to miss them discarding it as “grass”. It makes you wonder how many times I captured one and did not know it. When we did find one it was VERY exciting. My students would often scream “I had NO idea they lived here!”.
The seahorse Photo: NOAA
However, if you tried searching for them while snorkeling, which I have, the encounter rate is zero. But this makes sense. These animals are so well camouflaged in the grass it would be a miracle to find one just hanging there. This is by necessity really. If you have ever watched a seahorse in an aquarium they are not very “fleet of foot”. Escaping a predator by dashing away is not one of their finer skills. No, they must blend in and remain motionless if trouble, like a snorkeler, comes by.
But I have seen one while diving. It was a night dive near the Bob Sikes Bridge on Pensacola Beach about 40 years ago. We were exploring when my light swung over to see this large seahorse extended from a pipe that was coming out of some debris on the bottom. I was jubilated and screamed, as best you can while using SCUBA, for my partners to come check this out. We were all amazed and my interest in these animals increased.
When I attended Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) as an undergraduate student, like many in the 1970s, I thought I would get involved with sharks, but I quickly developed a love for estuaries and my interest in seahorses returned. I made a visit to the library there and found very little in the literature, at that time, which piqued my interest even more. My senior year we had to complete a project where we had to collect, and correctly identify, 80 species of fish to pass the class. I asked the crew of the research vessel at DISL if they had ever found seahorses. They responded yes and took me to what they called their “seahorse spot”. We caught some. It was very cool. And yes… seahorses do exist here in the wild.
But what is this amazing animal?
What do I mean by this? As a marine science instructor, I would give my students what are called a lab practical’s. Assorted marine organisms would be scattered around the room and the students had to give their common name, phylum name, class name, and answer some natural history question I would ask. Snails are mollusk, mackerel are fish, jellyfish are cnidarians, and then they would come to the seahorse. Seahorses were… well… seahorses! What the heck are they?
Many of you may know they are fish. But over the years of teaching marine science, I found that many students were not sure of that. The definition of a fish is an animal with a backbone that possesses a scaly body, paired fins (usually), and gills. Seahorses have all that. There is a backbone no doubt. The scales are not as obvious because they are actually fused together in a sort of armor. The paired fins and gills are there. Yep… they are fish, but a fish (horse) of a different color.
This seahorse is a species from Indonesia.
Photo: California Sea Grant.
First, they are one of about 13 families of fish in the Gulf of Mexico that lack ventral fins, those on the belly side of their bodies. Second, they lack a caudal fin (the fish tail) and have a more prehensile tail for grabbing objects. Third, they swim vertically instead of horizontally as most fish do. Again, there is nothing about their body design that says “speed”.
Another thing I find fascinating about these animals is their global distribution. You might recall that the initial focus of this series on Florida panhandle vertebrates was the biogeography of these creatures. Seahorses are found all over the world. There are over 350 species of them. But the interesting question is: how would a seahorse living in the northern Gulf of Mexico reach Melbourne Australia? It makes sense that being so far apart there would be such differences in looks and genetics that they would be classified as different species, but how did an animal like a seahorse disperse across a large ocean like the Pacific?
Honestly, I can say the same for ghost crabs, which I found on the beaches of Hawaii. How did they get there? But that is another story.
My best guess was the dispersal occurred at a time when the two continents were closer together. The Pangea days, or some time close to that period. And as the continents “drifted” the seahorses remained close to their shorelines and moved apart. They may have been able to “island hop” across coral reefs to other Indonesian Islands, but those here in the United States were long lost relatives that changed in their appearance and lifestyles due to the large separation from others. That is my two cents anyway.
Hoese and Moore1 list two species of seahorses found here in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The Lined Seahorse and the Dwarf Seahorse.
The Lined Seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) is the larger of the two, reaching an average length of five inches. This is the one I found near the Bob Sikes Bridge all those years ago. Like all seahorses they are well adapted to life in debris where they can grab on to something with their prehensile tail and feed on small zooplankton using their vacuum like tube snout. Like all seahorses, the males have a brood pouch that holds the fertilized eggs producing live birth – another “live bearer”. They are usually dark in color, but gold individuals have been reported. Some have filamentous threads on their bodies making them look even more like plants. Their biogeographic distribution is amazing. They are found from Nova Scotia, throughout the tropics, all the way to Argentina. This suggests few biogeographic barriers, other than substrate to hide in.
The Dwarf Seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) – also known as the pygmy seahorse – is much smaller, with a mean length of 1.5 inches. That would qualify as “dwarf” or “pygmy”. How would you ever find these? Other than size, the difference between these two are the number of rays (soft spines) in their fins. They can be counted, but its not fun, especially with a 1.5” seahorse. This guy prefers high salinity, actually, I have found that most seahorses do. This one is more tropical in distribution.
There is a third Florida species, the long snout seahorse (Hippocampus redi) that is found on the Atlantic coast, but not in the Gulf.
The strange thing about the seahorses in Florida, has been the declining encounters over the last few decades. For a creature that seems to have few barriers, they have found trouble somewhere. Maybe the loss of habitat, maybe a population crash due to the common practice years ago of capture and drying out for tourists to buy. It could be a change in environmental conditions such as salinity in the Pensacola Bay area. I am not sure. The more I write this article, the more my interest in this fish returns. As many researchers and wildlife managers have mentioned, this is an animal who has “fallen through the cracks”. People notice the changes in sea turtle and manatee encounters, but not seahorses. Maybe it is time we pay more attention to them and see how they are doing. I for one would hate to see the decline of this creature here in the panhandle.
Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station, TX. Pp. 327.
Based on our seine surveys along the beaches of most estuaries in the Florida panhandle, this is one of the most abundant fish in our bays. No matter the time of year, or the location, estuarine seining usually includes numerous individuals of this group. It is very apparent the importance they play in the food web of our local bays.
The silverside, or “glass” minnow.
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey
Those visiting and recreating in our waters probably are not aware of the numerous individuals of this fish schooling all around them. They are almost transparent and are often called “glass minnows” because of this. So, you do not really see them – even if you are snorkeling. But take a small hand net or a seine net and you will quickly discover they are there – and a lot of them.
They are small three-inch fish that are long, and tube shaped with forked (lunate) tails. Their bodies have a slight yellow-green appearance on the dorsal side, but much is a whiteish in color or transparent all together. They do have a broad silver stripe that runs laterally along their body and is where they get their common name “silversides”. Anchovies also have this “silverside” and are found in the same locations but differ from the silversides in that they have a more “shark looking snout” and only one dorsal fin, compared to the two dorsal fins found on the silversides.
It is apparent this whiteish, transparent color and silver stripe are effective in avoiding predation. Again, you and I do not see them while we are snorkeling. But is also apparent that many are consumed due to the large number you find in their schools. I have found from my seining surveys this fish is often collected on days when no other species are. The heat of summer, the cool of winter, during and after storms, high humidity, it does not matter – I always captured them. I have captured them over sandy beaches, over seagrasses, near jetties, and in the muck and mire of salt marshes. They are literally everywhere. I also capture them more frequently than I do anchovies, suggesting their importance to the health of the estuarine food web. It is one of the first fish my students learned to identify because of how frequently we caught them.
In the northern Gulf, there are two species found in local estuaries – the rough silverside and the tidewater silverside. Hoese and Moore1 do report a third species similar to the tidewater silverside that is more tolerant of saltwater.
The Rough Silverside (Membras martinica) is called so because their body scales are serrated and are “rough to the touch”. This is when you slide your fingers from the back towards the head, your fingers will feel the serrations and it is rough to the touch.
The Tidewater Silverside (Menidia beryllina) is smooth to the touch because their scales lack serrations. Other than that, these two fish look very similar. Tidewater silversides seem to be restricted to the shorelines and do not venture to the extended grassbeds off the beach. The third species mentioned M. peninsulae, is reported to prefer salinities at and above 19 ppt, where the tidewater prefers lower salinities. There is little else mentioned to distinguish these two, but I have seen both names reported in the scientific literature from researchers sampling our bay.
Both species of silversides have a large biogeographic distribution. Ranging from the colder waters of New York, all along the eastern seaboard, and the entire Gulf of Mexico.
You may not see them often, but know they are an important part of the estuarine ecology.
Hoese, H.D., Moore, R. H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX. Pp. 327.