Panama City Dive Center’s Island Diver pulls alongside of the El Dorado supporting the vessel deployment by Hondo Enterprises. Florida Fish and Wildlife crews also are pictured and assisted with the project from recovery through deployment. The 144 foot El Dorado reef is located 12 nautical miles south of St Andrew Pass at 29° 58.568 N, 85° 50.487 W. Photo by L. Scott Jackson.
In the past month, Bay County worked with fishing and diving groups as well as numerous volunteers to deploy two artificial reef projects; the El Dorado and the first of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) reefs.
These sites are in Florida waters but additional opportunities for red snapper fishing are available this year to anglers that book for hire charters with captains holding federal licenses. Federal licensed Gulf of Mexico charters started Red Snapper season June 1st and continue through August 1st. Recreational Red Snapper fishing for other vessels in State and Federal waters is June 11th – July 12th. So booking a federally licensed charter can add a few extra fish to your catch this year.
The conversion of the El Dorado from a storm impacted vessel to prized artificial reef is compelling. Hurricane Michael left the vessel aground in shallow waters. This was in a highly visible location close to Carl Grey Park and the Hathaway Bridge. The Bay County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) acquired the El Dorado, January 14, 2019 through negotiations with vessel owner and agencies responsible for recovery of storm impacted vessels post Hurricane Michael.
The El Dorado was righted and stabilized, then transported to Panama City’s St Andrews Marina by Global Diving with support from the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife. Hondo Enterprises, was awarded a contract to complete the preparation and deployment of the vessel for use as an artificial reef.
Reefing the El Dorado provides new recreational opportunities for our residents and tourists. The new reef delivers support for Bay County’s fishing and diving charters continuing to recover after Hurricane Michael. Several local dive charter captains assisted in the towing and sinking of the El Dorado.
The El Dorado was deployed approximately 12 nm south of St. Andrew Bay near the DuPont Bridge Spans May 2, 2019. Ocean depth in this area is 102 feet, meaning the deployed vessel is accessible to divers at 60 feet below the surface.
The Bay County Board of County Commissioners continues to invest in the county’s artificial reef program just as before Hurricane Michael. Additional reef projects are planned for 2019 – 2020 utilizing Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) and Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act) funds. These additional projects total over 1.3 million dollars utilizing fines as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Deployments will occur in state waters in sites located to both the east and west of St. Andrew Bay Pass.
Walter Marine deploys one of nine super reefs deployed in Bay County’s NRDA Phase I project located approximately 12 nautical miles southeast of the St. Andrew Pass. Each massive super reef weighs over 36,000 lbs and is 15 ft tall. Multiple modules deployed in tandem provides equivalent tonnage and structure similar to a medium to large sized scuttled vessel. Photo by Bob Cox, Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association.
The first of these NRDA deployments for Bay County BOCC was completed May 21, 2019 in partnership with Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection using a $120,000 portion of the total funding. The deployment site in the Sherman Artificial Reef Permit Area is approximately 12 nm south east of St Andrew Bay Pass at a depth of 78 – 80ft.
|Patch Reef #
|BC2018 Set 1
(6 Super Reefs and 4 Florida Specials)
|29° 55.384 N
||85° 40.202 W
|BC2018 Set 2
(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)
|29° 55.384 N
||85° 39.739 W
|BC2018 Set 3
(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)
|29° 55.384 N
||85° 39.273 W
|BC2018 Set 4
(1 Super Reef and 4 Florida Specials)
|29° 55.384 N
||85° 38,787 W
In 2014, Dr. Bill Huth from the University of West Florida, estimated in Bay County the total artificial reef related fishing and diving economic impact was 1,936 jobs, $131.98 million in economic output and provided $49.02 million in income. Bay County ranked #8 statewide in artificial reef jobs from fishing and diving. Bay County ranked #3 in scuba diving economy and scuba diving was 48.4 % of the total jobs related to artificial reefs. Dr. Huth also determine that large vessels were the preferred type of artificial reef for fishing and diving, with bridge spans and material the next most popular. Scuba diving and fishing on artificial reefs contributes significantly to the county’s economic health.
For more information and assistance, contact UF/IFAS Extension Bay County at 850-784-6105 or Bay@ifas.ufl.edu. Follow us on Facebook at http://faceboook.com/bayifas .
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.
This article is also available through the the Panama City New Herald
They say that dreams don’t work unless you take action. In the case of some Walton County Florida dreamers, their actions have transpired into the first Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) installation in the United States. In 2017, the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA) partnered to solicit sculpture designs for permanent exhibit in a one-acre patch of sand approximately .7-miles from the shore of Grayton Beach State Park at a depth of 50-60 feet. The Museum gained immediate notoriety and has recently named by TIME Magazine as one of 100 “World’s Greatest Places.” It has also been featured in online and print publications including National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Travel & Leisure, Newsweek, The New York Times, and more.
Seven designs were selected for the initial installation in summer of 2018 including: “Propeller in Motion” by Marek Anthony, “Self Portrait” by Justin Gaffrey, “The Grayt Pineapple” by Rachel Herring, “JYC’s Dream” by Kevin Reilly in collaboration with students from South Walton Montessori School, “SWARA Skull” by Vince Tatum, “Concrete Rope Reef Spheres” by Evelyn Tickle, and “Anamorphous Octopus” by Allison Wickey. Proposals for a second installation in the summer of 2019 are currently being evaluated.
The sculptures themselves are important not only for their artistic value, but also serve as a boon to eco-tourism in the area. While too deep for snorkeling, except perhaps on the clearest of days, the UMA is easily accessible by SCUBA divers. The sculptures are set in concrete and contain no plastics or toxic materials. They are specifically designed to become living reefs, attracting encrusting sea life like corals, sponges and oysters as well large numbers and varieties of fish, turtles and dolphins. This fulfills SWARA’s mission of “creating marine habitat and expanding fishery populations while providing enhanced creative, cultural, economic and educational opportunities for the benefit, education and enjoyment of residents, students and visitors in South Walton.”
The UMA is a diver’s dream and is in close proximity to other Walton County artificial reefs. There are currently four near-shore snorkel reefs available for snorkeling and nine reefs within one mile of the shore in approximately 50-60 feet of water for additional SCUBA opportunities. All reefs are public and free of charge for all visitors with coordinates available on the SWARA website (https://swarareefs.org/). Several SCUBA businesses in the area offer excursions to UMA and the other reefs of Walton County.
For more information, please visit the UMA website at https://umafl.org/ or connect via social media at https://www.facebook.com/umaflorida/.
Schools of fish swim by the turtle reef off of Grayton Beach, Florida. Photo credit: University of Florida / Bernard Brzezinski
Red Tide has been a persistent presence in the Panhandle since September and responsible for many reported fish kills and respiratory distress in some people. Over the past week, red tide was still present in low to medium concentrations in or offshore of Escambia County to Bay County.
Jack-knife fish killed by red tide Miramar Beach, Florida
Red tide is a natural occurrence and Florida experienced red tides long before humans settled here. The tides originate 10-40 miles off shore and winds and currents bring them inshore. Red tide is fueled by nutrient typically stemming from land-based runoff.
During winter, the northerly winds and southbound currents will push the tide back offshore. There was hope that Hurricane Michael might help carry the red tide back out to sea. Unfortunately, it seems the nutrient run-off from the storm’s heavy rain or retreating storm surge may have contributed to the intensity and duration of the bloom.
In our economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, the red tide is continuing to take a toll, especially on waterfront businesses. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, store-bought and restaurant served shellfish are safe to eat during a red tide bloom because shellfish are monitored for safety and tested for red tide toxins before they are sold. The edible parts of crabs, shrimp and fish are not affected by the red tide organism and can be eaten, but guts should be discarded.
Many remember the local red tide bloom in 2015. The longest red tide bloom ever recorded lasted 30 months from 1994 to 1997. Warmer water due to climate change is predicted to cause algae to bloom more often, more intensely, and in more water bodies. It is imperative that we reduce nutrient inputs to our lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal ocean waters today.
It is now late May and in recent weeks I, and several volunteers, have been surveying the area for terrapins, horseshoe crabs, and monitoring local seagrass beds. We see many creatures when we are out and about; one that has been quite common all over the bay has been the “stingray”.
The cownose ray is often mistaken for the manta ray. It lacks the palps (“horns”) found on the manta.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant
These are intimidating creatures… everyone knows how they can inflict a painful wound using the spine in their tail, but may are not aware that not all “stingrays” can actually use a spine to drive you off – actually, not all “rays” are “stingrays”.
So what is a ray?
First, they are fish – but differ from most fish in that they lack a bony skeleton. Rather it is cartilaginous, which makes them close cousins of the sharks.
So what is the difference between a shark and a ray?
You would immediately jump on the fact that rays are flat disked-shape fish, and that sharks are more tube-shaped and fish like. This is probably true in most cases, but not all. The characteristics that separate the two groups are
- The five gill slits of a shark are on the side of the head – they are on the ventral side (underside) of a ray
- The pectoral fin begins behind the gill slits in sharks, in front of for the ray group
Not all rays have the whip-like tail that possess a sharp spine; some in fact have a tube-shaped body with a well-developed caudal fin for a tail.
There are eight families and 19 species of rays found in the Gulf of Mexico. Some are not common, but others are very much so.
Sawfish are large tube-shaped rays with a well-developed caudal fin. They are easily recognized by their large rostrum possessing “teeth” giving them their common name. Walking the halls of Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, you will see photos of fishermen posing next to monsters they have captured. Sawfish can reach lengths of 18 feet… truly intimidating. However, they are very slow and lethargic fish. They spend their lives in estuaries, rarely going deeper than 30 feet. They were easy targets for fishermen who displayed them as if they caught a true monster. Today they are difficult to find and are protected. There are still sightings in southwest Florida, and reports from our area, but I have never seen one here. I sure hope to one day. There are two species in the Gulf of Mexico.
Guitarfish are tube-shaped rays that are very elongated. They appear to be sharks, albeit their heads are pretty flat. They more common in the Gulf than the bay and, at times, will congregate near our reefs and fishing piers to breed. They are often confused with the electric rays called torpedo rays, but guitarfish lack the organs needed to deliver an electric shock. They have rounded teeth and prefer crustaceans and mollusk to fish. There is only one species in the Gulf.
Torpedo rays can deliver an electric shock – about 35 volts of one. Though there are stories of these shocking folks to death, I am not aware of any fatalities. Nonetheless, the shock can be serious and beach goers are warned to be cautious. I once mistook one buried in the sand for a shell. Let us just say the jolt got my attention and I may have had a few words for this fish before I returned to the beach. We have two species of torpedo rays in the Gulf of Mexico.
Skates look JUST like stingrays – but they lack the whip-like tail and the venomous spine that goes with it. They are very common in the inshore waters of the Florida Panhandle and though they lack the terrifying spine we are all concerned about, they do possess a series of small thorn-like spine on the back that can be painful to the bare foot of a swimmer. Skates are famous for producing the black egg case folks call the “mermaids’ purse”. These are often found dried up along the shore of both the Gulf and they bay and popular items to take home after a fun day at the beach. There are four species of skates found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stingrays… this is the one… this is the one we are concerned about. Stingrays can be found on both sides of our barrier islands and like to hide beneath the sand to ambush their prey. More often than not, when we approach they detect this and leave. However, sometimes they will remain in the sand hoping not to be detected. The swimmer then steps on their backs forcing them to whip their long tail over and drive the serrated spine into your foot. This usually makes you move off them – among other things. The piercing is painful and spine (which is actually a modified tooth) possesses glands that contain a toxic substance. It really is no fun to be stung by these guys. Many people will do what is called the “stingray shuffle” as they move through the water. This is basically sliding your feet across the sand reducing your chance of stepping on one. They are no stranger to folks who visit St. Joe Bay. The spines being modified teeth can be easily replaced after lodging in your foot. Actually, it is not uncommon to find one with two or three spines in their tails ready to go. Stingrays do not produce “mermaids’ purses” but rather give live birth. There are five species in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Atlantic Stingray is one of the common members of the ray group who does possess a venomous spine.
Photo: Florida Museum of Natural History
Butterfly ray is a strange looking fish and easy to recognize. The wide pectoral fins and small tail gives it the appearance of a butterfly. Despite the small tail, it does possess a spine. However, the small tail makes it difficult for the butterfly ray to pierce you with it. There is only one species in the Gulf, the smooth butterfly ray.
Eagle rays are one of the few groups of rays that actually in the middle of the water column instead of sitting on the ocean floor. They can get quite large and often mistaken for manta rays. Eagle rays lack the palps (“horns”) that the manta ray possesses. Rather they have a blunt shaped head and feed on mollusk. They do have venomous spines but, as with the butterfly ray, their tails are too short to extend and use it the way stingrays do. There are two species. The eagle ray is brown and has spots all over its back. The cownose ray is very common and almost every time I see one, I hear “there go manta rays”… again, they are not mantas. They have a habit of swimming in the surf and literally body surfing. Surfers, beachcombers, and fishermen frequently see them.
Last but not least is the very large Manta ray. This large beast can reach 22 feet from wingtip to wing tip. Like eagle rays, they swim through the ocean rather than sit on the bottom. They have to large “horns” (called palps) that help funnel plankton into their mouths. These horns give them one of their common names – the devilfish. Mantas, like eagle and butterfly rays, do have whip-like tails and a venomous spine, but like the above, their tails are much shorter and so effective placement of the spine in your foot is difficult.
Many are concerned when they see rays – thinking that all can inflict a painful spine into your foot – but they are actually really neat animals, and many are very excited to see them.
Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M. College Station, TX. pp. 327.
Shipp, R. L. 2012. Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. KME Seabooks. Mobile AL. pp. 250.
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.
- Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, 222 Clark Dr, Panacea, FL 32346 850-984-5297 Admission Fee
- Gulf World Marine Park, 15412 Front Beach Rd, Panama City, FL 32413 850-234-5271 Admission Fee
- Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, 1010 Miracle Strip Parkway SE, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548 850-243-9046 or 800-247-8575 Admission Fee
- 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.
Northwest Florida Workshop Attendees from 2013 in Niceville, FL. This year’s workshop will be held at the UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Office in Crestview, February 22, 2017. Direction and Contact Information can be found at this link http://directory.ifas.ufl.edu/Dir/searchdir?pageID=2&uid=A56
Researchers from University of West Florida recently estimated the value of Artificial Reefs to Florida’s coastal economy. Bay County artificial reefs provide 49.02 million dollars annually in personal income to local residents. Bay County ranks 8th in the state of Florida with 1,936 fishing and diving jobs. This important economic study gives updated guidance and insight for industry and government leaders. This same level of detailed insight is available for other Northwest Florida counties and counties throughout the state.
The UWF research team is one of several contributors scheduled to present at the Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Manager’s Workshop February 22. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and Florida Sea Grant are hosting the workshop. This meeting will bring together about fifty artificial reef managers, scientists, fishing and diving charter businesses, and others interested in artificial reefs to discuss new research, statewide initiatives and regional updates for Florida’s Northwest region. The meeting will be held at the UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Office in Crestview, FL.
Cost is $15.00 and includes conference handouts, light continental breakfast with coffee, lunch, and afternoon refreshments. Register now by visiting Eventbrite or short link url https://goo.gl/VOLYkJ.
A limited number of exhibit tables/spaces will be available. For more information, please contact Laura Tiu, email@example.com or 850-612-6197.
Super Reefs staged at the Panama City Marina, which were deployed in SAARS D, located 3 nautical miles south of Pier Park. Learn more about this reef project and others at the Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Manager’s Workshop in Crestview, February 22, 2017. (Photo by Scott Jackson).
Northwest Florida Artificial Reef Workshop Tentative Agenda
Date: February 22, 2017
Where: UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Office, 3098 Airport Road Crestview, FL 32539
8:15 Meet and Greet
9:00 Welcome and Introductions – Laura Tiu UF/IFAS Okaloosa Co and Keith Mille, FWC
9:25 Regional and National Artificial Reef Updates – Keith Mille
9:50 Invasive Lionfish Trends, Impacts, and Potential Mitigation on Panhandle Artificial Reefs – Kristen Dahl, University of Florida
10:20 Valuing Artificial Reefs in Northwest Florida – Bill Huth, University of West Florida
11:00 County Updates – Representatives will provide a brief overview of recent activities 12:00 LUNCH (included with registration)
1:00 NRDA NW Florida Artificial Reef Creation and Restoration Project Update – Alex Fogg, FWC
1:15 Goliath Grouper Preferences for Artificial Reefs: An Opportunity for Citizen Science – Angela Collins, FL, Sea Grant
1:45 Current Research and Perspectives on Artificial Reefs and Fisheries – Will Patterson, University of Florida
3:30 Association between Habitat Quantity and Quality and Exploited Reef Fishes: Implications for Retrospective Analyses and Future Survey Improvements – Sean Keenan, FWRI
3:50 Innovations in Artificial Reef Design and Use – Robert Turpin, facilitator
4:10 Using Websites and Social Media to Promote Artificial Reef Program Engagement – Bob Cox, Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association & Scott Jackson, UF/IFAS Bay Co
4:40 Wrap Up and Next Steps – Keith Mille and Scott Jackson
5:00 Adjourn and Networking
Register now by visiting Eventbrite or short link url https://goo.gl/VOLYkJ. Live Broadcast, workshop videos, and other information will be available on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/floridaartificialreefs/ (Florida Artificial Reefs) .
An Equal Opportunity Institution. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension, Nick T. Place, Dean.