Upcoming Event: Panhandle Outdoors Live at St. Joseph Bay on June 21st!

Upcoming Event: Panhandle Outdoors Live at St. Joseph Bay on June 21st!

The University of Florida/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series on St. Joseph Bay. This ecosystem is home to some of the richest concentrations of flora and fauna on the Northern Gulf Coast. This area supports an amazing diversity of fish, aquatic invertebrates, turtles and other species of the marsh and pine flatwoods. Come learn about the important roles of ecosystem!

Registration fee is $40. You must pre-register to attend.

Registration link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/panhandle-outdoors-live-st-joseph-bay-by-land-sea-tickets-906983109897

or use the QR code:

Meals: Lunch, drinks & snacks provided (you may bring your own)

Attire: outdoor wear, water shoes, bug spray and sunscreen

*If afternoon rain is in forecast, outdoor activities may be switched to the morning schedule

Held at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Lodge: 3915 State Road 30-A, Port St. Joe

8:30 – 8:35 Welcome & Introduction – Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension (5 min)
8:35 – 9:20 Diamondback Terrapin Ecology – Rick O’Connor, Escambia County Extension
9:20 – 10:05 Exploring Snakes, Lizards & the Cuban Tree Frog – Erik Lovestrand, Franklin County Extension
10:05 – 10:15 Break
10:15 – 11:00 The Bay Scallop & Habitat – Ray Bodrey, Gulf County Extension
11:00 – 11:45 The Hard Structures: Artificial Reefs & Derelict Vessel Program – Scott Jackson, Bay County Extension
11:45 – Noon Question & Answer Session – All Agents
Noon – 1:00 Pizza & Salad!
1:00 – 1:20 Introduction to the Buffer & History – Buffer Preserve Staff
1:20 – 2:20 Tram Tour – Buffer Preserve Staff
2:20 – 2:30 Break
2:30 – 3:00 A Walk in the Mangroves – All Agents
3:00 – 3:15 Wrap up & Adjourn – All
The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

The Estuary’s Natural Filtration System Pt. 1

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

Marsh Plants

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

marsh grass

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

Seagrasses

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

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

Oysters

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

Oysters

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

Scallops

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

Bay Scallop.
Photo: FWC

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

Stem to Stern (Northwest Florida November 2, 2023)

Stem to Stern (Northwest Florida November 2, 2023)

Organized and sponsored by Florida Sea Grant, the “Stem to Stern” workshop in November 2023 at the Emerald Coast Convention Center marked a significant gathering in marine conservation and management. This event drew together legal experts, representatives from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), local marine resource coordinators, law enforcement, and industry stakeholders to tackle critical issues facing Florida’s marine environments. Through discussions that ranged from legal frameworks for boating and waterway access to environmental conservation strategies, the workshop facilitated a deep dive into the complexities of marine policy and stewardship. Discover new programs, insights, and collective expertise shared at “Stem to Stern.”

Florida Sea Grant Boating and Waterways Workshop

November 2, 2023 Emerald Coast Convention Center

1250 Miracle Strip Parkway SE – Ft. Walton Beach FL

9:00 – 9:25 WELCOME AND INTRODUCTIONS

Welcome

Rick O’Connor (Florida Sea Grant UF IFAS Extension)

Moderators –Mike Norberg and Jessica Valek (Okaloosa County)

Panel Discussion

Ryan Hinely (Northwest Florida Marine Industry)

Capt. Keith Clark (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Cecilia James (Panhandle Association of Code Enforcement – PAOCE)

Robert Turpin (Escambia County Division of Marine Resources)

Glenn Conrad (U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary)

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Pebbles Simmons (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

9:25 – 10:10 BOATING AND WATERWAY ACCESS

Resources:

Boating, Waterways, and the Rights of Navigation in Florida (2019, 5th Edition)

Moderator – Tom Ankersen (Florida Sea Grant/UF IFAS Extension, Prof Emeritus)

Anchoring and Mooring

Brendan Mackesey (Pinellas County)

Boating Restricted Areas

Byron Flagg (Gray Robinson Law Firm)

10:10 – 10:15 Break

10:15 – 11:15 REGULATION AND ENFORCEMENT

Moderator – Robert Turpin (Escambia County Division of Marine Resources)

Marine Enforcement of Derelict and At-Risk Vessels

Resources: FWC Derelict and A-Risk Vessels

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Capt. Keith Clark (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Lt. Jarrod Molnar (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Lt. Shelton Bartlett (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

At Risk Vessels

Resources: FWC Derelict and A-Risk Vessels

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Florida Vessel Turn-in Program (VTIP)

Resources:FWC Florida Vessel Turn-in Program (VTIP)

Phil Horning (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Partnering with FWC to Remove Derelict Vessels

Resources: FWC Derelict Vessel Removal Grant Program

Chantille Weber (UF IFAS Extension) and Scott Jackson (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

11:15 – 12:15 Lunch

Post Lunch Q&A Derelict Vessel Discussion

12:15 – 12:55 WATERWAY ENVIRONMENTS

Moderator – Dr. Laura Tiu (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Update on Giant Salvinia

Resources: FWC Giant Salvinia

Derek Fussell (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Boating and Seagrass protection

Resources: Florida Sea Grant, Be Seagrass Smart – “Scars Hurt”

Savanna Barry (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

12:55 – 1:20 BOATING SAFETY

Moderator – Chantille Weber (UF IFAS Extension)

Pontoon Boating Safety (Law Enforcement’s Perspective)

Kyle Corbitt (Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Department)

Pontoon Boating Safety (Operator’s Perspective)

Resources: Okaloosa County Watersport Operators Coalition

John Stephens (Okaloosa County Watersport Operators Coalition)

1:20 – 1:25          Break

1:25 – 2:10 PUBLIC EDUCATION

Moderator – Rick O’Connor  (Okaloosa County)

Communicating with the Public

Resources: Florida Sea Grant Communications

Donielle Nardi (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Florida Friendly Visitor Program (Working with Recreational Boaters)

Resources: Florida Sea Grant – About Us!

Anna Braswell (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

2:10 – 3:00 POLLUTION AND MARINE DEBRIS

Moderator – Thomas Derbes (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Clean Vessel Program

Resources:

Clean Vessel Program and help for Marinas

Clean Vessel Program and how Boaters can Help Keep Florida’s Waters Clean!

Vicki Gambale (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

Preparing for Storms

Resources:

UF/IFAS Disaster Preparations and Recovery

UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant – Hurricane Prep: Securing Your Boat

Scott Jackson (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension) and Chantille Weber (UF IFAS Extension)

3:00 – 3:15          EVALUATIONS – Rick O’Connor (Florida Sea Grant, UF IFAS Extension)

3:15 – 3:45          WRAP UP – Robert Turpin (Escambia County Marine Resources)

PROGRAM SPONSORS

FWC Logo Destin Fort Walton Beach Logo

 

Acknowledgement

We extend our deepest gratitude to all who contributed to the success of the “Stem to Stern” workshop. To our esteemed speakers, whose expertise and insights into marine conservation and management have been invaluable, we offer our sincere thanks. Your presentations were not only informative but also inspirational, guiding us toward a more sustainable future for our waterways.

A special acknowledgment goes to the members of the planning and program committee. Your dedication and hard work in organizing this event did not go unnoticed. From the initial planning stages to the execution of the workshop, your efforts have been the backbone of this successful gathering.

We also want to thank the authors of the surveys that have provided us with essential data and perspectives. Your research and analysis contribute significantly to our understanding of the challenges and opportunities within Florida boating and waterways.

Lastly, we are incredibly grateful for the support from our sponsors. Your generosity and commitment to Florida Sea Grant and marine conservation have been crucial in bringing this workshop to life. Your support not only made this event possible but also highlights your dedication to safeguarding our marine ecosystems.

Together, we have taken an important step towards protecting and enhancing Florida’s waterways. Thank you for your contributions, commitment, and shared vision for a sustainable future.

Information edited and compiled by: L. Scott Jackson, Chantille Weber, and Amon Philyaw, UF/IFAS Extension Bay County

An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Andra Johnson, Dean. 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.

 
A Sea of Grass; Part 11- Reptiles

A Sea of Grass; Part 11- Reptiles

When snorkeling the grassbeds of the Florida panhandle encountering a reptile has a low probability, but it is not zero.  Of all the reptiles that call this part of the state home, few enter marine waters and most of those are very mobile, moving up and down the coast heading from one habitat to another.  In fact, there are no marine reptiles that would be considered residents of our seagrasses, only transients. 

The one species that you might encounter is the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas).  This is the largest of the “shelled” sea turtles and has a vegetarian diet.  With a serrated lower jaw, they can be found grazing in the seagrass beds feeding on both the grasses and the species of algae found there.  The carapace length of these large reptiles can reach four feet and they can weigh up to 400 pounds.  Their coloration is similar to that of the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) but their heads are smaller and there are only two large scutes between the eyes rather than the four found in the loggerheads.  The colors of the skin and shell have shades of brown, yellow, orange, and some black and can be quite beautiful.  The name “green” sea turtle comes from the color of their internal fatty tissue.  Feeding on a diet of seagrasses, it becomes green in color, and this was discovered by early fishermen who hunted and consumed this species.  It is the one used most often in what is called turtle soup and is actually farmed for this dish in other countries. 

The green sea turtle. Photo: Mile Sandler

Like all sea turtle species, they are born on the Gulf side of our barrier islands.  If they successfully hatch, they work their way to the open water and spend their early years in the open sea.  Some have been associated with the mats of Sargassum weed floating offshore, feeding on the variety of small invertebrates that live out there.  They will also nip at the Sargassum itself.  As juveniles they will move back into the coastal estuaries where they begin their vegetarian lifestyle.  As adults they will switch time between the open sea and the grass filled bays.  Once unfortunate side effect of feeding in our grassbeds is the frequency of boat strikes.  There are tens of thousands of motored vessels speeding through our grassbeds and the turtles surfacing for air can be targets for them.  Our hope is that more mariners are aware of this problem and will be more vigilant when recreating there. 

Another turtle who IS a resident of the estuary is the much smaller diamondback terrapin.  Though terrapins much prefer salt marshes they will enter seagrass beds, and some spend quite a bit of time there.  Terrapins prefer to feed on shellfish so, moving through the grassbeds it is the snails and bivalves they seek.  Because of their size they feed on the smaller mollusk.  A typical terrapin will have a carapace length of about 10 inches and may weigh two pounds.  They will take small crabs and shrimps when the opportunity is there, and they are known to swim into submerged crab traps seeking the bait.  Unfortunately, being air breathing reptiles, they will drown after becoming entrapped.  It is now required that all recreational crab traps in Florida have bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) on each of the funnel openings to reduce this problem.  Many studies, both here in Florida and elsewhere, have shown these BRDs do not significantly reduce crab catch and so you can still enjoy crabbing – just not while catching terrapins.  Encountering one snorkeling would be a very rare event, but – particularly in the eastern panhandle – has happened. 

Diamondback terrapin. Photo: Rick O’Connor

A third reptile that has been seen in our grassbeds is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).  Preferring freshwater systems, encounters with alligators in an open seagrass bed are rare, but do happen.  There are plenty of freshwater ponds on some of our barrier islands that the alligators will use.  They have been seen swimming out into the seagrass beds and often will cross the bay, or Intracoastal Waterway, to mainland side.  They have also been seen swimming near shore in the Gulf of Mexico.  Though they can tolerate saltwater, they have a low tolerance for it and do not spend much time there. 

Alligators are top level carnivores feeding on a variety of wildlife.  Like most predators, they tend to seek and capture the easiest prey.  Most often these are fish, reptiles, or small mammals.  But they will take on large birds or deer if the opportunity presents itself.  Despite their natural fear of humans, they have taken pets and also have attacked humans. 

Having only canines in their mouths, they must grab the prey and swallow it.  Lacking molars, they cannot chew.  So, more often than not, they select prey they can swallow whole.  If they do grab a larger animal, they are known to drown the creature in what has been termed the “death role” and cache it beneath the water under a log (or some structure) where it will soften to a point where they can cut small pieces and swallow it.  All of the alligators I have seen in our grassbeds were definitely heading somewhere.  They were not spending time there.  After heavy rains the salinity may drop enough to where they can tolerate being out there longer and encounters could increase.  But they are still rare. 

Alligator Photo: Molly O’Connor

I will mention here that there are several species of snakes that, like the alligator, are swimming from one suitable habitat to another – crossing the seagrass in route.  All snakes can swim and encounters in brackish water are not unheard of.  I have several photos of diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) swimming across the Intracoastal Waterway between the mainland and the islands. 

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in intracoastal waterway near Ft. McRee in Pensacola. Photo: Sue Saffron

Encounters with reptiles are rare in our seagrass beds but pretty exciting when they do occur.  There is certainly no need to fear swimming or snorkeling in our bay because they are so rare.  But maybe one day you will be one of the lucky ones who does see one. 

A Sea of Grass; Part 10 – The Fish

A Sea of Grass; Part 10 – The Fish

When visiting and exploring seagrass beds, most are hoping, and expecting, to see fish.  As we have seen in this series, there are a lot of creatures that can be found living within a seagrass meadow, but it is the fish that get our attention and what we talk most about afterwards. 

According to Hoese and Moore’s Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters, there are 497 species of fish found in the Gulf of Mexico.  In my surveys of Pensacola Bay over the years, I have logged 101 of those in the estuary.  I am sure there are more, but I can confirm there are at least those.  Many spend all or part of their time in our seagrasses.  As you seine or snorkel in the grassbeds you will notice most of them are very small.  Much of this is due to the fact that the seagrasses are nursery areas for many species, and it is the young that we find here.  But many are also small as adults, and the grass provides food and shelter for them.  There are far too many to mention in an article like this, but let’s look at some of them. 

Sardines and Anchovies

As you snorkel through the grass, or even look at it from a boat or dock, you see numerous silver colored baitfish flashing as they dart in and out of the grass.  There are all sorts of silver baitfish in the seagrasses with sardines and anchovies being two of them.  In my experience seining for fish, they appear to be seasonal.  I did not capture them all year but when I did, I would capture a lot.  These species are famous for being the ones in small tins that people consume, though there is no fishery for them here locally.  Anchovies have also been considered an indicator species; their presence suggests good water quality. 

The striped anchovy is a fish often found in our seagrass beds. Photo: NOAA.

Silverside Minnows

Also known as silversides and glass minnows, these are one of the most common fish collected in seine nets.  They are abundant year-round and are an important food source for many of the larger predators living here.  Small and transparent, you do not see them while snorkeling.  Their huge presence is only discovered when you pull a seine net through the grass.  There are several species of them, but they are not easily identified and more often are just logged as “silversides”.  They are an important member of the seagrass community. 

The silverside, or “glass” minnow. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Seahorses and Pipefish

These two fish are highly specialized for living in seagrasses.  They look like grass and move very little making them hard to detect.  Like silverside minnows, it is rare to see them while snorkeling but make their presence known when seining.  Their bodies are covered in armor-like scales, and they have tubed mouths for “vacuuming” small invertebrates from the water column.  They are very slow swimmers and have to avoid detection by blending in with the environment.  And yes, it is the males that carry the eggs in their brood pouches.  These are amazing fish and always bring excitement when they are captured in the net.  There are two species of seahorses and seven species of pipefish found in our waters. 

The seahorse-like pipefish. Photo: University of Florida

Killifish

Often called “bull minnows” by anglers, these small fish are, at times, very abundant.  There are seven species of killifish in our bays but the Gulf Killifish, Longnose Killifish, and the Bayou Killifish are the ones we most often collected. 

This longnose killifish has the rounded fins of a bottom dwelling fish.

Needlefish

These are common, frequently seen, fish swimming at the surface of the water.  Long and needle-shaped, these fish have long snouts full of sharp teeth indicating they are one of the predators of this system.  There are four species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart.  They are harmless to humans unless you capture them in your net at which time they will try to bite. 

Swimming near the surface is a common place to find needlefish. Photo: Florida Springs Institute

Mullet

Another very common fish found year-round here.  This species are the ones famous for jumping while you are fishing, paddling, or just watching from the beach.  Those who do not visit the Gulf coast often always ask “I just saw a fish jump!” and the reply from a local (without even looking up to see what it was) will reply “It’s a mullet”.  These schooling fish can get pretty large (average length is 30 inches) and it is common to see fishermen out with their cast nets trying to catch a few.  It is a popular food fish for those along the Gulf coast.  Mullet fries, with beans and grits, are a way of life here.  The fish are easily seen swimming and darting over the grass as you paddle by, and their young are found seasonally in seine nets.  They are bottom feeders, feeding mostly on algae from the grass blades.  There are actually two species, the white and the striped mullet.  The striped mullet, also known as the black mullet, is the one most often sold in the seafood markets. 

The Striped Mullet. Image: LSU Extension

Drums and Croakers

With 18 species within this family, this is the largest family of inshore fish in the Gulf.  Growing up along the panhandle people learn quickly about croakers.  Back in the day when gill nets were used to harvest mullet, croakers were a common catch as well, and often consumed.  Today they are still sought by some shore-based anglers and juveniles are common in seine nets.  The species I most often captured were the spot and Atlantic croaker.  Spot croakers were common year-round, Atlantic croakers were more seasonal.  

Drums are larger members of this family.  There are several species more associated with sandy bottoms and the shoreline of the Gulf, many of these are called whiting, but the red drum (redfish) and black drum can be found in the grassbeds.  Redfish are particularly common here and one of the reasons many anglers get out of bed in the morning.  They are very popular sportfish across the region.  Black drums are not found as often, and like being around pilings and structures that offer certain foods they prefer.  Both species can get quite large.  Redfish average 5 feet while black drums can reach an average of 3 feet.

All of the fish in this family are famous for their “croaking” “drum” sounds they make using their swim bladder, and it is rare not to capture at least one kind in a seine net. 

The classic look of a bottom fish. This is the redfish, or red drum. Photo: NOAA

Spotted Seatrout; Speckled Trout; “Specks”

There is no “trout family” in the fish world.  Most freshwater trout are members of the salmon family while the marine versions are members of the drum/croaker family.  This is the case with the famous speckled trout – or speck.  There are white trout and silver seatrout in this family, and all are sought after by anglers, but it is the speckled trout that is most associated with seagrasses, most sought after by anglers, and is one of the top predators in this system.  They reach an average length of 4 feet. 

Spotted Sea Trout – Cynoscion nebulosus http://www.floridasportsman.com/sportfish/seatrout/

Pinfish and Sheepshead

From my experience both snorkeling and seining the grasses, I would say – hands down – that pinfish is the most common species found in our grasses.  For many young anglers this is the first fish they ever catch.  You can see them easily while snorkeling and they are the most numerous species in the nets throughout the year.  Their huge numbers play an important role in the food web of this system.  Feeding on a variety of small invertebrates in and around the grass blades, pinfish are a large part of the diet of the larger sportfish we target.  Throwing cast nets and dropping pinfish traps is popular with anglers to collect this abundant baitfish for their life bait fishing efforts.  They are called pinfish because of the sharp spines in their dorsal fins.  These are also the fish that nip at your ankles while you are standing still in the water. 

Sheepsheads are larger members of the porgy family (the ones these two species belong to).  As adults sheepsheads prefer hard structure where they can use their incisors to chip away at barnacles and other shellfish, but they are sometimes found roaming the grassbeds and their young will spend their growing years hiding and feeding in the grass. 

One of the most common fish in our grassbeds; the pinfish. Photo: Nicholls State University.

Pigfish

When first captured in the seine net, pigfish are often confused with pinfish – they look very similar.  But a closer look at the striping/spotted pattern on their sides, and the position of their mouth, you realize you have something different.  Being members of the grunt family, they also “croak” like croakers and drums – hence their common name “pigfish” – due to the grunting sounds.  This helps with identifying which fish you have.  Though common in the grasses, I did not catch these as frequently as pinfish and they were not as abundant. 

Spotfin Mojarra

This is a common silver baitfish that resembles the pinfish and is frequently collected in our seine nets.  The mojarra is in a different family than pinfish.  They lack sharp spines and incisor teeth, rather they have a sort of “vacuum” like mouth which they use to suck small invertebrates from the sand. 

Gag Grouper

This is a popular sport and commercial fish from the wrecks and reefs of the Gulf of Mexico.  But gags begin their lives in the seagrass beds, and we have collected medium sized individuals in our seine nets.  This underscores the importance of these grassbeds to the fisheries so many love.  We need to protect these systems from our activity both on land and in the water. 

Gag grouper. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Jacks

Another popular group with anglers, many species of jacks use these grasses as their nurseries.  We most often collected juvenile lookdowns, pompano, and crevalle in our nets.  At times we caught a small member of the family called a leatherjacket.  These were seasonal and associated with breeding.  Once again, underscoring the importance of having healthy seagrasses. 

Jacks have the sleek, fast design of the typical open water marine fish. Photo: NOAA

Toadfish

One of the creeper looking fish in the seagrass community is the Gulf toadfish (also known as the oyster dog).  This monstrous looking bottom fish lives in burrows scattered around the grassbeds where they lie in wait to ambush prey.  Their large mouths and sharp teeth can grab a variety of creatures, including the human finger.  At times small toadfish will move into an empty can or bottle discarded by people instead of a burrow where they grow to a size they can no longer escape.  It is said there may be a mild venom associated with their bite.  Though no one has ever died, or been sent to the hospital, due their bite, it is painful and should be avoided. 

The common estuarine Gulf toadfish. Photo: Flickr

Barracuda

Yes, barracuda can be found in seagrasses.  But in our case, these have all been juveniles.  There are three species of them, and they are not easy to tell apart.  They also appeared to be seasonal in our collections.  We never found them high numbers, usually one or two in a seine.  But they are present. 

The Great Barracuda. Photo: NOAA

Lizardfish

This is another medium sized, sharp toothed, bottom dwelling predator of the grassbed community.  There are seven species of them, and all have that “snake” “lizard” look to them having many sharp canine teeth.  They spend their time buried in the sand waiting to ambush potential prey.  Snorkelers may see them as they dart away tossing up sand when we get too close.  I rarely see them snorkeling but occasionally capture them in the seine net to the delight of the students assisting.  

Blennies and Gobies

These are very small fish that are almost impossible to find while snorkeling but are often collected in the seine net.  They resemble the freshwater darters and, lacking a swim bladder, spend their time on the bottom.  There are many species associated with rocks and artificial reefs but there are some who call the seagrasses home.  They use their incisor teeth to feed on small invertebrates in and on the grasses.  Being territorial, they can give a little nip to your hand.  Gobies differ from blennies in that their two pelvic fins are fused together to form a sort of “cup” or “sucker disk”. 

Puffers

Another one of the more popular fish with students who help me seine.  Everyone loves to see them inflate with either water or air into a “balloon” to make it very difficult for predators to consume them.  There are eight species of puffers in the Gulf of Mexico, five of them have been captured in our seines.  Most are small with little “bumps” on their bodies instead of spines.  But there is the Burrfish, who is a member of a different family that is medium sized, has spines, and is very common in the grassbeds.   

Striped Burrfish Photo: NOAA

Filefish

Our grassbeds are full of a small cousin to the triggerfish – the planehead filefish.  Like triggerfish, filefish have a thick sharp spine that is found at the front of the dorsal fin – called a “trigger” on the triggerfish.  The planehead filefish is a small species (nine inches average length), green to brown in color, and very common in the grassbeds; though you will probably not see one unless you catch it in a net. 

Planehead Filefish. Photo: NOAA.

Flounders and Soles

A favorite food fish for many locals, flounders spend a lot of time buried in the sand near grassbeds to ambush prey.  Born with a typical fish design, early in development one of their eyes will move to the other side of the head, giving them two eyes on one side.  By doing this, they have increased their binocular vision, improving their ability to judge accurate distance of the prey, and making hunting easier.  They lose color on the side where the eye has left and have chromatophores (cells) on the side where the eyes are that, like octopus and squid, allow them to change colors and blend in.  In our part of the Gulf, if the eyes move to the left side of the head, they are called flounders.  If they move to the right, they are called soles.  Soles in our part of the Gulf of small not of much interest to anglers.  One small species is often collected by shrimpers who feed them to hogs.  This sole can “cup” their body in defense making like a suction cup and they do this in the throat of the hogs sometimes killing them.  They are called “hogchokers”.  Flounders on the other hand are very popular with anglers.  Some fish for them using rod and reel, others prefer gigging them at night using lanterns.  There are 17 species of flounder, some reaching lengths of three feet. 

A flounder scurrying across the seafoor. Photo: NOAA

Tonguefish

Tonguefish are small flat fish with eyes on one side of their heads like flounder.  They differ than that their tails come to a point and there is no caudal fin present, as there is in flounders.  As mentioned, they are small – ranging from 3 to 8 inches in length.  The Blackcheek tonguefish is particularly common in our grassbeds.  But like so many, you will not see it unless you catch it in a net. 

Snook

This is a very popular gamefish from south Florida associated with several habitats including grassbeds.  Due to a process some call “tropicalization” – the movement of tropical species north due to climate change – snook are now, albeit in small numbers, reported in the Florida panhandle.  This is a new species you may see while exploring or fishing out there. 

This snook was captured near Cedar Key. These tropical fish are becoming more common in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Photo: UF IFAS

There are many more species of fish found in our grassbeds we could talk about, but we will end it here.  As we mentioned in the beginning, this is a group of animals that many come to the beach to find.  Whether for fun or for food, finding fish makes for a good day.  See how many different species you can find. 

A Sea of Grass Part 9 The Rays

A Sea of Grass Part 9 The Rays

As I write this article it is mid spring, and the rays are bedding on the edges of our seagrass beds.  The most common species seen is the Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina).  They are often found in the sandy areas near the grass where they bury in the sand to ambush potential prey.  This time of year, their numbers increase as the females are preparing to releasee their young in summer.  Mating occurs in early spring and the females will deliver live young1.

According to Hoese and Moore2, there are eight families and 18 species of rays and skates found in the Gulf of Mexico.  These are cartilaginous fish found in the same class as sharks but differ in that their gills slits are on the ventral side (bottom) of the body and their pectoral fins begin before the gill slits do on the side of the head.  Most are depressed (top to bottom) and appear like pancakes, but not all of them.  Sawfish and guitarfish appear more like sharks than rays. 

Of the 18 species listed, seven can be found in the estuaries and may be associated with nearby seagrass beds.  Two are species of sawfish, which are rare in our bays these days. 

The sawfish. Photo: University of Florida.

There are two members of the eagle ray family, the cownose ray and the eagle ray, which can be found in our bays.  These resemble manta rays but differ in that they lack the characteristic “horns” of the manta (often called the Devil Ray because of them) and they do possess a bard on their tail, which manta’s do not.  These are more pelagic rays spending their time swimming in the water column and hunting for buried food. 

The cownose ray is often mistaken for the manta ray. It lacks the palps (“horns”) found on the manta. Photo: Florida Sea Grant

The butterfly ray does resemble butterflies in shape having wide “wing-like” fins and a very small tail.  It behaves similar to stingrays burying in the sand and ambushing smaller prey. 

Two of the more familiar stingrays are found in our grassbeds, the Atlantic Stingray and the Southern Stingray.  The Atlantic Stingray’s disk is more round in shape while the Southern Stingray’s is more angular shaped.  The Southern Stingray is larger (disk width about five feet, Atlantic disk width is about two feet) and prefers estuaries with higher salinity.  The Atlantic Stingray is very common and can tolerate freshwater, thus is common throughout the bay. 

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

Stingrays are notorious for their venomous bards and painful stings.  They actually try to avoid humans and are frequently spooked by our activity fleeing as soon as they can.  However, there are times when people accidentally step on one buried in the sand, or hiding in the grass at which time they will flip their whip-like tail up and over to drive their barb into your foot forcing you to move it – and you do move it – while you yell and scream.  The ray then will swim away and can regrow a new barb. 

The bard is a modified tooth.  It is serrated on each side and there is a thin sac of venom along the flat side of the barb.  When it penetrates your foot there is pain enough there.  But the natural reaction of your body to an open wound is to close it, this reaction can pop the venom sac and release the toxin.  The chemistry of the toxin is not life threatening to humans but is very painful.  This experience is something you do want to avoid. 

Like their shark cousins, rays do have rows of small teeth which they use to crush small invertebrates including shelled mollusks.  They lie in the sand to ambush prey moving in and out of the seagrass beds.  They possess two spiracles on the top of their heads which provide water to the gills when they are lying on the seafloor or buried in it.

 Like sharks, males can be identified by the two claspers associated with the anal fin and the females usually have two uteri where the young develop.  In skates, and some other rays, the young are deposited into the environment within a hardened egg case often called a “mermaids purse”.  We see these washed ashore in the beach wrack.  Young stingrays usually develop within the female and are born “live” in summer. 

Though there is fear of this animal from some seagrass explorers they are a small threat unless you step on one.  To avoid this, when in and around the sandy areas of a grassbed, move your feet in what we call the “stingray shuffle”.  This is sliding your feet across the surface of the sand instead of stepping.  The pressure generated from this movement can be detected by the ray several feet away and they will immediately move away.

Despite the fear, they are amazing creatures and play an important role in the overall health of the grassbed community. 

References

1 Snelson, F.F., Williams-Hooper, S.E., Schmid, T.H. 1988. Reproduction and Ecology of the Atlantic Stingray, Dasyatis sabina, in Florida Coastal Lagoons. Copeia. Vol. 1988, No. 3 (Aug 1988). Pp. 729-739.

2 Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M University Presse.  College Station TX. Pp. 327.