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 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


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, The Powerful Filterers of the Estuary – Thomas Derbes II


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!

Understanding Salinity in Northwest Florida’s Waters with a Family Activity

Understanding Salinity in Northwest Florida’s Waters with a Family Activity

Understanding Salinity in Northwest Florida’s Waters with a Family Activity

Dana Stephens, 4-H Agent

Salinity is the amount of total dissolved salts in water. This includes all salts not just sodium chloride, or table salt. Salinity is important in aquatic environments as many flora and fauna depend on salt and the level of dissolved salts in the water for survival. People interested in the composition of water frequently measure chemical and physical components of water.  Salinity is one of the vital chemical components measured and often measured by a device determining how readily electrical conductance passes between two metal plates or electrodes. These units of electrical conductance, the estimate of total dissolved salts in water, is described in units of measurement of parts per thousand (PPT).

At the large scale, Earth processes, such as weathering of rocks, evaporation of ocean waters, and ice formation in the ocean, add salt to the aquatic environment. Earth processes, such as freshwater input from rivers, rain and snow precipitation, and ice melting, decrease the concentration of salt in the aquatic environment. Anthropogenic (human-induced) activities, such as urbanization or atmospheric deposition, can also contribute to changes in salinity.

Salinity and changes in salinity affect how water moves on Earth due to contrasts in the density of water. Water containing no dissolved salts is less dense than water containing dissolved salts. Density is weight per volume, so water with no dissolved salts (less dense) will float on top of water with dissolved salts (denser). This is why swimming in the ocean may feel easier than swimming in a lake because the denser water provides increased buoyancy.

Northwest Florida is a unique place because we have a variety of surface waters that range in salinity. There are ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and springs, which have no to low salinity levels (0 to 0.5 PPT), and commonly referred to as freshwater systems. We house six estuaries—Perdido Bay, Pensacola/Escambia Bay, Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrews Bay, St. Joseph Bay, and Apalachicola Bay. Estuaries are bodies of water with freshwater input(s) (e.g., rivers) and a permanent opening to the ocean (e.g., Destin Pass in the Choctawhatchee Bay). Estuarine waters are termed brackish water (0.5 to 30 PPT) due to the dynamic changes in salinity at spatial and temporal scales. Waterbodies with an even more dynamic change in salinity are the coastal dune lakes Northwest Florida’s Walton and Bay Counties. Coastal dune lakes are waterbodies perched on sand dunes that intermittently open and close to the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes these waterbodies are fresh and sometimes they have the same salinity as the Gulf of Mexico, like after a large storm event. Finally, the Gulf of Mexico, or ocean, has the highest salinity (> 30 PPT) among the waterbodies of Northwest Florida.

Here is an educational activity for the family to explore salinity and how salinity differs among Northwest Florida waters.

Understanding Salinity Activity--Join in this family activity to explore understanding salinity in water. Here is what you will need for the activity. Three containers for mixing. Four, clear glasses. Salt. Food coloring. Measuring cups. Spoons.

Salinity Activity for Families. Step 1: Prepare Water. Set three mixing containers on hard surface. Measure 1/2 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of salt. Pour 1/2 cup of salt into one container. Pour 1/4 cup of salt into another container. Add 1 cup of hot tap water to all three containers. Add different food coloring to containers with salt. Mix salt, water, and food coloring until completely dissolved in each container using separate spoons.Salinity Activity for Families-Step 2: Explore Salinity Densities. Pour contents of three containers into three clear glasses separately. Pour 1/2 cup from the clear water glass into the fourth, empty glass. Add water with a spoon from the lower salinity glass to the glass with clear water. Do this slowly along the side of the glass. Do not stir/share this glass. Add water with a spoon from the higher salinity glass to the same glass. Do this slowly along side of the glass. Do not stir or share the glass. Observe changes when adding the waters with different salinity levels.Salinity Activity for Families-Step 3: Questions to Consider and Discuss. What happened when the first colored water was added? What happened when the second color water was added? Why do you think this happened? How may salinity levels affect the density of water?Broad Questions for Consideration--Name some waterbodies in Northwest Florida where salinity may be the same and where salinity may differ. Why id density of water important in our waters in Northwest Florida?Salinity Changes Everything--thanks for participating. Please contact Dana Stephens at or 850-826-1316 for more discussion questions or family activities.



Test Your Well Water Once a Year to Help Ensure It’s Safe to Drink

Test Your Well Water Once a Year to Help Ensure It’s Safe to Drink

Private well system in Florida. Image: UF/IFAS, C. Wofford
Private well system in Florida. Image: UF/IFAS, C. Wofford

About 2.5 million Floridians rely on private wells for home consumption, which includes water for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene. Private wells are not regulated by the EPA Clean Water Act, and well users are responsible for ensuring their water is safe to drink.

What should you have your well water tested for?

The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) recommends that well users test their well water once a year for bacteria at a minimum. Another important contaminant to test for is nitrate.

Bacteria:  Labs generally test for total coliform (TC) bacteria and fecal coliforms (like E. coli).

  • Coliform bacteria are a large group of bacteria and most are harmless. But a positive test result indicates that if they are in your water, other pathogens that cause diseases may also be present. They are used as indicator organisms.
  • Fecal coliform bacteria are a subgroup of coliform bacteria found in human and other warm-blooded animal feces. E. coli are one species and some strains can cause diarrhea, food poisoning and other illnesses.

If your water sample tests positive for only total coliform bacteria or both TC and fecal coliform (E. coli), FDOH recommends your well be disinfected through shock chlorination. You can either hire a well contractor to do this or you can do it yourself. Information for how to shock chlorinate your well can be found at EDIS Private Wells 101: Bacterial Contamination and Shock Chlorination

Taking a water sample at the kitchen faucet.
Take a water sample at the kitchen faucet if this is where you get most of the water that your household consumes. Image: F. Alvarado

Nitrate: The U.S. EPA set the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) allowed for nitrate in drinking water at 10 milligrams per liter of water (mg/L). Values above this are a particular concern for infants less than 6 months old because high nitrate levels can cause a type of “blue baby syndrome” (methemoglobinemia), where nitrate interferes with the capacity of hemoglobin in the blood to carry oxygen. It is especially important to test for nitrate if you have a young infant in the home that will be drinking well water or when well water will be used to make formula to feed the infant.

If test results come back above 10 mg/L, never boil nitrate contaminated water as a form of treatment.  This will not remove nitrates. Use water from a tested source (bottled water or water from a public supply source) until the problem is addressed. Nitrate in well water can come from multiple sources, including fertilizers, animal waste and/or human sewage, such as from a septic tank.  

You should also have your well water tested at any time when:

  • The color, taste or odor of your well water changes or if you suspect that someone became sick after drinking your well water.
  • A new well is drilled or if you have had maintenance done on your existing well
  • A flood occurred and your well was affected

Remember: Bacteria and nitrate are by no means the only parameters that well water is tested for. Call your local health department to discuss what they recommend you should get the water tested for. FDOH also maintains an excellent website with many resources for private well users which includes information on potential contaminants and how to maintain your well to ensure the quality of your well water.

Where can you have your well water tested?

UF/IFAS Extension will be hosting a private well and water quality workshop on April 11 in Blountstown, with a Zoom option. We will cover well and septic system function and maintenance, water testing and how to prepare for hurricane season. We will also offer facilitated water testing. For more information and to register go to our Eventbrite link or you can also register by visiting the Calhoun County Extension Office, (850-674-8323). Last week’s post about the workshop provides more information as well.

In general, many county health departments accept samples for water testing. You can also submit samples to a certified commercial lab near you. Contact your county health department for information about what to have your water tested for. If they don’t offer testing, they often provide the name of certified laboratories near you. Or you can search for FDEP certified laboratories here.

If you have any questions, you can also reach out to me at or (850)875-7111.

Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Join us for our upcoming multi-county private well and water quality workshop. As a private well user, you are responsible for ensuring that your water is safe to drink. We will cover how private wells and septic systems work, proper maintenance, steps to help ensure your drinking water is safe to consume and disaster preparedness for this upcoming hurricane season. We will also offer facilitated water testing for bacteria, lead and nitrate.

Private well and water quality workshop flyer April 11, 2024

The workshop will be offered on Thursday, April 11, 2024, from 9:00 am – 11:30 am CST at the Calhoun County Extension Offices, 20816 Central Ave. E, Blountstown. You can also attend virtually via Zoom. Registration is $5.00 per person. Facilitated water screening for total coliform and E. coli bacteria is available at a reduced cost. Please register on Eventbrite, or you can also register by visiting the Calhoun County Extension Office, (850-674-8323). This workshop is being presented by UF/IFAS Extension Bay, Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties.

For lead and nitrate testing prices and additional details, visit our Eventbrite page or call the Calhoun County Extension Office at 850-674-8323. Pre-registration is encouraged as seating is limited, but as mentioned previously, a virtual option is also available. For persons with disabilities requiring special accommodations, please contact the Extension Office (TDD, via Florida Relay Service, 1-800-955-8771) at least ten working days prior to the class so that proper consideration may be given to the request. UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.   

Floating Oasis in the Bays; Oyster Farms and Their Ecological Benefit

Floating Oasis in the Bays; Oyster Farms and Their Ecological Benefit

You might have seen a floating oyster farm while driving over Garcon Point Bridge or along Scenic Highway. Many people know them for the beautiful, tasty oysters they produce, but those farms have a major ecological benefit that many aren’t aware of. First, the oysters in those cages act as a very efficient water filter, filtering upwards of 30 gallons per day. The floating farms also act as an oasis for other marine creatures, from crustaceans to finfish, and can help increase the biodiversity in the area. Oysters are also great at sequestering carbon into their shells. Today, we will go over these ecological benefits and proper etiquette when maneuvering around the farms to enjoy some of the ecological benefits of the oyster farm.

Pompano on an oyster farm
Florida Pompano Caught Off an Oyster Farm – Thomas Derbes II

Besides being tasty, oysters are very well known for their ability to filter massive amounts of water in a single day. Research has shown rates of up to 50 gallons per day in a laboratory setting, but they filter upwards of 30 gallons per day in the wild. With most oyster farms in the area having more than 500,000 oysters on their farm, that’s more than 15,000,000 gallons of water per day per farm! Oysters can filter out any excess sediments from the water, forming them into small packets and depositing the sediment on the bottom of the bay, keeping the sediments from being re-suspended. This is very beneficial to any bay or estuary as eutrophication (More Here on Eutrophication) has been an issue in almost every bay in the southern United States.

Another benefit to oyster farms is that it is a floating oasis for all types of marine creatures. Blue crabs and stone crabs are a common threat to oysters, and they love to congregate around oyster farms waiting for an easy meal from a dropped oyster or oyster spat on cages. Common bay fish, like the Spotted Seatrout, Sheepshead, and Red Drum, have been known to hang out under the cages consuming smaller finfish and crabs, but some uncommon fish like Tripletail and Florida Pompano also patrol the cages looking for a meal. Because of its ability to hold all types of fish, fishermen love to fish around the oyster farms. Fishing around oyster farms is allowed, but most farmers want the boats to stay on the boundary of the farm and not inside of it. This is due to there being lines under the surface of the water that could potentially damage any lower unit and can cut free a line of cages. Also, it is against state law to be within the boundary of the farm if you are not an authorized harvester of that lease, and I have personally seen FWC enforce those rules. As a seasoned oyster farmer once told me “We know our farm holds fish and it is okay for them to fish the farm, heck put out some blue crab traps around it, but do not mess with the cages and stay outside of the boundary and we can all live in harmony.”

Oyster Farmer holding a Tripletail fish
Tripletail Caught Off An Oyster Farm – Brandon Smith

Last but not least is the ability of oysters to sequester carbon and excess nitrogen into their shells and pseudofaeces (aka bio-deposits). Carbon and nitrogen sequestration is a crucial service provided by oysters that helps battle global climate change. Just as they do with excess sediments, they deposit excess carbon and nitrogen into bio-deposits that accumulate on the bottom, keeping them from being re-suspended into the waters. Oyster reefs are currently on the decline around the world, and their decline has “resulted in a forfeiture of several ecosystem services” including carbon and nitrogen sequestration and water filtration. (More Here on Carbon Sequestration)

While oysters might be tasty, we have learned about some of the ecological services oysters provide to an estuarine environment. From water filtration to increasing biodiversity to carbon/nitrogen sequestration, oysters are a major benefit to any estuary and can help fight climate change and eutrophication. Next time you see an oyster farm or reef, give oysters (and farmers) a little appreciation for their hard work in helping make the world a healthier place!

Local Oysters Displaying “Green Gills” 

Local Oysters Displaying “Green Gills” 

And it’s a good thing! Green gill oysters are prized in the oyster community. In the Carolinas and Northern France, green gill oysters are a seasonal, cherished crop and a product of the saying “You are what you eat!” The phytoplankton, Haslea ostrearia, is the typical culprit, and their distribution is measured by direct observation from plankton tows or the occurrence of green-gilled oysters. The exact distribution is unknown, but there are reports of H. ostrearia throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Haslea ostrearia is a beautiful pennate diatom that contains a water-soluble blue pigment known as marennine (More Here). Marennine’s production is stimulated by long photoperiods, blue light, and high light/low cloud weather. It can also be released into the water and into the flesh of organisms (typically oysters) that consume them.

Green-gill oyster on the farm
Fresh out of the water Grayson Bay Oyster with green gills! – Brandon Smith, Grayson Bay Oyster Company

Pensacola Bay, and surrounding areas, had a pretty mild fall in terms of rainfall, and the bays have turned a beautiful green-blue hue as the bays have risen in salinity and phytoplankton typically found in the Gulf of Mexico were able to survive. Brandon Smith, owner of Grayson Bay Oyster Company, was out working his farm January 7th, 2024, and sent a text to me saying “take note of the green gills,” and I was very shocked and happy to see actual, green-gilled oysters in our local waterways. He graciously harvested a few dozen to examine (and let me taste test), and I was able to confirm the presence of green gills in the oysters. After further research on H. ostrearia, it seems as though the pennate diatom made it into our bays and is the culprit of this wonderful surprise.

Oyster displaying green-gills
A local Grayson Bay Oyster displaying green-gills – Thomas Derbes II

When I shucked my graciously donated oysters from Grayson Bay, I was reminiscing on the first time I came across green-gilled oysters. The first batch of green gill oysters I ate came from an oyster farm in North Carolina called N. Sea Oyster Company. Their green-gilled beauties “Divine Pines” were requested by a wedding I was catering for, and I was able to slurp down one to get talking and tasting notes. The seasonal Divine Pines offered a sweet yet salty taste and became one of my favorite out-of-area oysters to serve at events and to personally consume. While beautiful, the green-gilled oysters are usually only found in the fall/winter months. These green-gilled Grayson Bays were very comparable and offered a salty yet very sweet and minerally finish. The H. ostrearia is responsible for not only the green gills, but the sweet tasting notes, and I highly recommend adding any green-gilled oyster to your fall/winter raw bar selection.   


Turpin, Vincent & Robert, J-M & Philippe, Goulletquer & Massé, Guillaume & Rosa, Philippe. (2008). Oyster greening by outdoor mass culture of the diatom Haslea ostrearia Simonsen in enriched seawater. Aquaculture Research. 32. 801 – 809.