Sea Turtles of the Panhandle: 2016 Nesting Numbers and Notes

Sea Turtles of the Panhandle: 2016 Nesting Numbers and Notes

There are five species of sea turtles that nest from May through October on Florida beaches. The loggerhead, the green turtle and the leatherback all nest regularly in the Panhandle, with the loggerhead being the most frequent visitor.  Two other species, the hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley nest infrequently.  All five species are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Due to their threatened and endangered status, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/Fish and Wildlife Research Institute monitors sea turtle nesting activity on an annual basis. They conduct surveys using a network of permit holders specially trained to collect this type of information.  Managers then use the results to identify important nesting sites, provide enhanced protection and minimize the impacts of human activities.

Statewide, approximately 215 beaches are surveyed annually, representing about 825 miles. From 2011 to 2015, an average of 106,625 sea turtle nests (all species combined) were recorded annually on these monitored beaches.  This is not a true reflection of all of the sea turtle nests each year in Florida, as it doesn’t cover every beach, but it gives a good indication of nesting trends and distribution of species.

If you want to see a sea turtle in the Florida Panhandle, please visit one of the state-permitted captive sea turtle facilities listed below, admission fees may be charged. Please call the number listed for more information.

  1. Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, 222 Clark Dr, Panacea, FL 32346 850-984-5297 Admission Fee
  2. Gulf World Marine Park, 15412 Front Beach Rd, Panama City, FL 32413 850-234-5271 Admission Fee
  3. Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, 1010 Miracle Strip Parkway SE, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548 850-243-9046 or 800-247-8575 Admission Fee
  4. Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Center, 8740 Gulf Blvd, Navarre, FL 32566 850-499-6774

To watch a female loggerhead turtle nest on the beach, please join a permitted public turtle watch. During sea turtle nesting season, The Emerald Coast CVB/Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council offers Nighttime Educational Beach Walks. The walks are part of an effort to protect the sea turtle populations along the Emerald Coast, increase ecotourism in the area and provide additional family-friendly activities. For more information or to sign up, please email ECTurtleWatch@gmail.com. An event page may also be found on the Emerald Coast CVB’s Facebook page: facebook.com/FloridasEmeraldCoast.

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Celebrating Choctawhatchee Bay – National Estuaries Week

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve - Niceville, Florida

Rocky Bayou Aquatic Preserve – Choctawhatchee Bay, Niceville, Florida – Photo by Laura Tiu

September 17-24, 2016 was the nation’s 28th time to celebrate America’s coasts and estuaries during National Estuaries Week.  This week helps us to remember to appreciate the challenges these coastal ecosystems face, along with their beauty and utility.

Estuaries, semi-enclosed bodies of water with both fresh and saltwater, dot the Gulf Coast of the United States from Brownsville Texas to Key West, Florida. These estuaries are important as they serve as drainage basins for many of the large river systems, and play a significant role in the nation’s seafood industry.

Florida’s six major Panhandle estuaries, which includes Perdido Bay, Pensacola Bay (including Escambia Bay), Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrew Bay, St. Joseph Bay and Apalachicola Bay, are unique ecosystems teeming with life and diversity. Critical habitat includes important seagrass beds that support both the larval and adult stages of fish and invertebrates. In Choctawhatchee Bay, there is also critical foraging habitat for the federally protected Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) and stream habitat for the endangered Okaloosa darter.

Choctawhatchee Bay is in Okaloosa and Walton counties in the Florida Panhandle. It is approximately 30 miles long and from three and a half to six miles wide, with a total area of 129 square miles. It is relatively shallow varying from 10 to 40 feet deep. Large portions of the western half of Choctawhatchee Bay are militarily restricted (Eglin Airforce Base).  The Bay is fed by the Choctawhatchee River and numerous small creeks that feed into several bayous.  The only opening to the Gulf of Mexico is the East Pass, which ironically is at the Western end of the Bay in Destin, Florida.  This is where the saltwater and freshwater mix.

Continued industrial and residential development in the watershed regions that drain into many of these estuaries has impacted them in a number of ways. Pollution comes from storm water runoff, lawns, industry and farms. The shorelines are impacted by development, which causes sedimentation and in turn loss of vegetation.  This reduces water clarity and habitat for wildlife.

Many organizations work to protect this estuary and reach out to others through education, restoration, and recreation events. Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) is one such organization committed to ensuring sustainable utilization of the Choctawhatchee River and Bay.  They, working with their partners, provide leadership for the stewardship of the Bay. Alison McDowell, director of the CBA, notes that 75-85% of commercially and recreationally important species that are caught in the Gulf spend part of their lifecycle in the Bay. McDowell says a key factor in the Bay’s health is monitoring the water quality and reducing erosion, and the Oyster Reef Restoration program started in 2006 does just that.

There are often opportunities for the general public to join in some of the conservation efforts taking place in the Bay. For more information, like the Okaloosa or Walton County Extension Facebook page.

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay

Kayaking Choctawhatchee Bay – Photo by Laura Tiu

 

 

The Autumn Journey of Red Drum

The Autumn Journey of Red Drum

Red Drum are easily identified by their false eyespot located on the tail. Often, the tail and false eyespot break the water surface when red drum feed in shallow water. Shrimp and crabs are favorite food items of hungry red drum. Photo courtesy of NOAA. http://www.photolib.noaa.gov

Red Drum are easily identified by their false eyespot located on the tail. Often, the tail and false eyespot break the water surface when red drum feed in shallow water. Shrimp and crabs are favorite food items of hungry red drum. Photo courtesy of NOAA. http://www.photolib.noaa.gov

Cool mornings this week reminded everyone fall is just around the corner. This subtle change in temperature inspires many of us to behave differently. It’s actually enjoyable to be outside again. Now, it’s easier to relax and drink a morning cup of pumpkin spice coffee on the porch or maybe take a brisk evening walk. These slightly cooler days not only announce the end of the dog days of summer but cue the natural world.

One of the most fascinating stories in nature unfolds this time of year. Red Drum or Redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus) are some of the most well-known and easily identified predators of the bay flats and marshes – But did you know these prized game fish can tell time? They don’t have calendars or watches but sense changes in water temperature and to the length of daylight : night time hours. Our calendar says September while their calendar says time to feed, migrate, and reproduce.

In the fish world, reproduction is known as spawning. It takes about three to four growing seasons for a red drum to mature and spawn. A mature four-year-old fish is about 28-inches in total length from head to tip of the tail. This size fish is critical to the continuation of the red drum population. This is one of the main reasons why fisheries managers regulate the number of 27 or 28-inch red drum caught. Limiting the number of this size redfish supports sustainable recruitment so there will be fish for years to come. Learn more about red drum fishing regulations by visiting Florida Fish and Wildlife at http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/red-drum

When mature, red drum leave the nursery grounds of back bays and bayous and move to inlets and passes. This time of year, groups of spawning red drum may occur in entrances of the bay.

Notable members of Sciaenid or drum fish family include red drum, black drum, Atlantic croaker, and seatrout. Males have muscle fibers they vibrate against their swim bladder. The swim bladder is a hollow air filled sac fish use for buoyancy or depth control. When the muscle “strikes” the hollow sac a drum or drumming noise is created. The larger the fish the greater potential for noise. Male red drum often drum while spawning which generally occurs from sunset to sunrise.

In red drum hatcheries, light and temperature mimic the outside world and control spawning to support stock enhancement programs. In the hatchery, the drumming noise is loud and sounds like a bass drum being struck in rapid succession for about 10 seconds and then repeated. In the natural environment, Sciaenid drumming is so distinctive that researchers use hydrophones to locate and study fish species like seatrout and red drum.

While some fish species take care of their young and produce a few nurtured offspring, red drum overwhelm the odds of survival through shear numbers. During the two month spawning season, red drum spawning aggregations can produce millions of eggs each night. According to Louisiana Sea Grant, one female red drum can produce 1.5 million eggs in one night or 20-40 million per female each spawning season!

Spawning also occurs at the height of tropical storm season. Red drum eggs float on a tiny droplet of biologically produced oil that can be carried long distances by wind, waves, and water. In successful recruitment years, eggs and hatching red drum larvae make a journey into the most protected and productive portions of the bay or estuary in less than a week. Seagrass and submerged shoreline grass provide cover and protection. After rain and storms, adjacent land provides nutrients that naturally fertilize the bay waters. In response, algae and zooplankton bloom just in time to create the perfect first fish food for hatching red drum. The timing of red drum reproduction and survival is precise and elegant!

Juvenile red drum spend their next three to four-years growing to spawning adults, before migrating and starting the reproduction cycle over again.

Quick Facts: According to Texas Parks and Wildlife the oldest red drum ever recorded is 37 years old. The state record in Florida for red drum landed is just over 52 pounds and was caught near Cocoa in Brevard County, FL. A red drum caught in 1984 off the North Carolina coast holds the world record for largest red drum ever caught, 94 pounds!

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, 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 Return of the Bay Scallop to Pensacola Bay?

The Return of the Bay Scallop to Pensacola Bay?

MAN do folks in the Florida panhandle like scallops. I recently visited boat ramps at Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach (in the Big Bend) and the parking lots were full of trucks and boat trailers belonging to people combing the grassbeds of the Gulf searching for this popular bivalve.  Scalloping is a fun activity that gets the whole family outside snorkeling and finding all sorts of local marine life.  And scallops taste good… their sweet meat broiled in butter is a real Florida panhandle treat.   Many locals remember years ago collecting scallops with family and friends in Pensacola Bay area …. Good times!

Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

Bay Scallop Argopecten iradians
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

But that was another time. Scallop populations have declined across Florida’s Gulf coast.  Today commercial harvesting is banned and recreational harvest is limited to the Big Bend area between the Bay/Gulf and the Hernando/Pasco county lines (visit map).  Within this area there is a seasonal limit, bag limit, and harvesting equipment limits.  The season runs from Jun 25 – Sep 24 (except in Gulf County).  Harvesters can collect 2 gallons whole (or 1 pint cleaned) / person / day.  There is a maximum of 10 gallons whole / vessel / day.  You can collect by hand or using a dip net.  All harvesters are required to have a Florida saltwater fishing license unless (a) they are exempt from such a license, or (b) they are wading nearshore and their feet do not leave the bottom (no swimming or snorkeling).  For 2016 the regulations for Gulf County have changed, please visit the above link at FWC for those changes.  BUT wouldn’t it be great to be able to scallop in the Pensacola Bay area again?

 

County Extension Sea Grant Agents have been working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission surveying Gulf coast bays that once had scallop populations – including Pensacola Bay. The purpose is to determine the status of these animals at the moment.  Scallops are mass spawners and need a relatively high density of individuals in order for reproduction to be successful.  The state could easily “re-seed” these areas with scallops to increase the density but their populations declined for a reason.  Was it water quality? Loss of habitat? Heavy predation (human or marine life)? Or a combination?  We are not sure… but a re-seeding project will not be successful until it can be determined that the stresses that caused the reduction have improved enough that the scallop will survive.

A pile of cleaned scallops found in a parking lot on Pensacola Bay.  Harvesting scallop in Pensacola Bay is illegal.   Photo: Rick O'Connor

A pile of cleaned scallops found in a parking lot on Pensacola Bay. Harvesting scallop in Pensacola Bay is illegal.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

On that note, Santa Rosa and Escambia County Extension Sea Grant Agents recently held two scallop surveys; one in Santa Rosa Sound and one in Big Lagoon. The morning of our Santa Rosa Sound survey we found a pile of cleaned scallops in the parking lot of Shoreline Park (approximately 35 scallops).  This is a good sign in that it suggests scallops are trying to make a comeback here.  It is bad in that they were harvested.  Many in our community are not aware that harvesting scallops in Pensacola Bay is illegal. No recreational or commercial harvest of bay scallop is allowed, even during scallop season, west of the Gulf County/Bay County line (Mexico Beach).  If you are out paddling around our grass beds and find live scallop please let your county Sea Grant Agent know, but also remember that you are not allowed to harvest them.  Hopefully one day we will be able to tell you that yes you can, but until then we need to give them a chance to spawn and see if our grassbeds, and water quality, are sufficient enough for them to return.