All posts by Rob Diaz de Villegas

About Rob Diaz de Villegas

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer for WFSU-TV, covering environment and the outdoors. Rob is in the process of completing Roaming the Red Hills, an exploration of north Florida/ south Georgia ecology funded by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Rob’s previous ecology projects include EcoShakespeare, which was funded by PBS member station WNET and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and In the Grass, On the Reef, a collaboration with the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab funded by the National Science Foundation. Rob’s EcoAdventure segments air on WFSU’s Local Routes and can be found on the WFSU Ecology Blog.

Days 1 & 2: October Oyster Push- “Just Gun it”

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Alligator Harbor at sunrise

The sun is about to rise in Alligator Harbor.

IGOR chip- biogeographic 150The first leg of David Kimbro’s Roctober oyster push is now complete.  If you look at the schedule below, you’ll see the first day was intensive, starting in the wee hours and going late into the night.  As David mentioned in his post, the head of the NC team (Jon Grabowski) was along for the fun.  David was Jon’s lab tech once upon a time, as was Dr. Randall Hughes (In the Grass).  So tagging along I definitely got some “family reunion” vibes, with lots of good natured ribbing (let’s just say it was good-natured).

For this October push, David will be breaking in a new boat to help his team cover ground more efficiently while lugging traps and samples around.  In order for the boat to move in shallow water, David replaced the motor with a lawnmower engine.  It worked fine on Thursday, when the water was higher, but it had a few problems Friday morning at low tide:

Jon drags the boat- and Tanya and Alicia

Jon Grabowski drags the boat- along with and Tanya and Alicia- after not being able to drive the boat through shallow waters.

Finally, they were able to get it to go.  The solution?  As David’s tech, Hanna, said- “Just Gun it!”

The catch this time was a little different than the last, with new fish like Red Drum ending up in the gill nets and no juvenile fish being caught in the minnow traps.  They also started looking into the stomachs of some of the predators (they have a permit to do so if the fish die in the net) and are seeing that the catfish here are eating mud crabs.  Mud crabs, of course, are key oyster predators.

Hanna kayaks

Early Friday morning, Hanna Garland kayaks to "site 1" in Alligator Harbor.

We’ll be heading out with David’s crew throughout the week.  On top of all of the other arrangements they have to make to move their crews around multiple sites hundreds of miles apart, they have to accommodate our camera crew.  So thanks for finding a way to drag us along!  Hopefully we can show people the kind of work that goes into making this kind of research happen.  There’s a lot of work to go along with the science, and with every subsequent sweep and new experiment, the patterns will hopefully clarify and our understanding of these ecosystems- and how to best conserve them- will be that much further advanced.

David’s crew has been split into two teams, the Net/Trap team (N/T) and the Tile team (TI).  For a closer look at how David’s team nets and traps larger fish and crabs, click here.  To learn more about what the Tile team will be doing, click here.  And if you click On the Reef under categories in the sidebar, you can track David’s progress over the course of this study.

Thursday, October 21-  Alligator Harbor

8:30 AM– Retrieve tiles, sediment, and spat. (TI)

11:07 AM– Deploy traps (N/T)

5:07 PM– Retrieve traps.  High tide activities: reference water level, water samples, replace spat sticks.  Unlike in the previous sampling done in Alligator Harbor, there were no juvenile pinfish or pigfish.(N/T)

8:00 PM– Deploy nets.  The nets will be retrieved Friday morning to give David an idea about what was swimming around over night.  (N/T)

Tide Times and height (ft.) for Alligator Harbor, October 21, 2010
Low-  8:07 AM (0.2)
High- 2:12 PM (2.7)
Low- 8:07 PM (0.9)

P1010300Friday, October 22-  Alligator Harbor

8:00 AM– Retrieve nets, data logger.  Today there were a lot of red drum (redfish) and of course, catfish (hardhead and sail).  On site dissection reveals that the catfish eat mud crabs, thus serving the same role that toadfish serve in North Carolina reefs. (N/T)

8:30 AM– Return tiles/ oysters.  The tiles for the new spat experiment mentioned by David go out today. (TI)

Tide Times and height (ft.) for Alligator Harbor, October 21, 2010
Low-  8:40 AM (0.1)

David and his team are taking Saturday off.  Bright and early Sunday morning, the Net/ Trap team heads for Cedar Key while the Tile team heads to Saint Augustine.

David’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
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The Making of a Softshell Crab

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- habitat 150To clarify, we are looking at the biological process through which a blue crab molts its shell, not recipes (feel free though, to share your favorites in the comments area).  I have to admit that before I started this project, I had thought that softshell crabs were a specific species, or group of species.  Of course, such a species wouldn’t survive very well in the wild. Continue reading

A walk “in the grass”

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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Last week we had a post on what it was like on an oyster reef, the idea being that many people have never really seen one.  Continuing with that theme, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look into a salt marsh.  This is a trickier proposition because, well, what is a typical salt marsh?  Some of them grow in muddy waters next to oyster reefs, or they can be found along beaches, in wide expanses or in small islands just off the coast.  I’ll keep today’s imaginary journey confined to marshes in St. Joseph Bay, where Randall Hughes conducts her biodiversity study- that is what I am most familiar with.

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This is what an oyster reef looks like…

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IMG_3499

The photo above is my work computer’s desktop picture. Most of the time, when people see it, I find that they had no idea what an oyster reef looked like.  One coworker thought it was a muddy cabbage patch.  To be honest, until I first stepped on one for this project, I wouldn’t have known a reef from a pile of rocks.  And, like a lot of people, I love eating the things- right out of the shell with a little grit and juice.  That’s the disconnect we sometimes have between the food we eat and from where it comes.  So it occurred to me that, while we’ve been talking these last few months about the complex relationships between predators and prey on the reef, it might be helpful to get back to oyster basics.  Over the following weeks, we’ll cover various topics (like why subtidal oysters are harvested more often than intertidal ones like those up there).  We’ll start with what it’s actually like out on a reef, and what you’d see there.

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A closer look into the reefs

IGOR chip- habitat 150The following photos are of samples taken at each of Dr. Kimbro’s sites, as mentioned in his previous post.  After surveying the reefs to see what large fish and crabs were living in the reefs, he and his team turned to looking at the oysters and the creatures living under them in the mud.  That’s what you’re seeing here.  Click on any photo to make it larger.

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Under the Surface at Pensacola Beach

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Last month, I ventured just outside the Forgotten Coast to Pensacola Beach. I was serving as videographer for Matt Roush and FSU Headlines.  The piece was on research by Marcus Huettel and Joel Kostka on some important little critters (we love important little critters), really little ones.  The sand was a gleaming white, reflecting the sun onto me and burning my feet.  Parents and children swam in the water while a row of bulldozers sat idle with bored cleanup workers resting in the shade of their machines’ canopies.  At a glance, it didn’t look like the beach had recently been covered in a mat of crude oil.

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Operation Noah’s Ark

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

The video above is from our dimensions program. It dovetails nicely with what we care about on this site, which is the ecology of Florida’s Forgotten Coast, in this case salt marshes.  The idea is that, when looking to minimize potential oil damage to our coast, you start with its smallest building blocks.  Operation Noah’s Ark, based out of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, is collecting a lot of little critters that live in places like salt marshes. The fiddler crab helps maintain the marsh with its burrows, which bring oxygen to cordgrass roots.  In that grass, juvenile mullet find shelter, as do blue crabs and juvenile pinfish.  The Kemps-Ridley Sea Turtle eats those blue crabs, and those pinfish will mature and swim out into the gulf to be eaten by gag grouper.  You can see how one species becoming compromised can have a cascading effect throughout the Gulf.
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“Thicker than Water” Opening

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150We have some photos from the event, and you can see the turnout was good.  The SAIL Bluegrass Ensemble played in the garden.  It never ceases to amaze me how many young people in Tallahassee not only get into bluegrass but put on a good show.  Inside, there were some artful cards made by LeMoyne students that could be obtained by donating, and which were intended to be sent to legislators so that people could express their concerns over offshore drilling in Florida.  And then of course there was the art.  Allison Jackson’s oil paintings were featured in our previous post.  They depict scenes along the Forgotten Coast, or scenes featuring animals of the Forgotten Coast.  Patrick Lane had some mixed media pieces, some of which are featured in the slideshow below.  Their artwork will be sold and the proceeds split between LeMoyne Center for Visual Arts and two organizations, both of whom were present on Friday.

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Thicker than Water: an Exhibit of Community Concern

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150The show opening tonight at the LeMoyne Center for Visual Arts has a topic close to our hearts.  It’s called “Thicker than Water: an Exhibit of Community Concern,” and it features works by two artists concerned about human impact on Gulf ecosystems.  The proceeds from tonight will be split three was between the art center, Crude Awakening Tallahassee and the Florida Wild Mammal Association, and the Wild Mammal Association will have some statistics on the current crisis.  The artists are Patrick Lane and Allison Jackson.  Allison’s paintings are featured in the slideshow above.  One painting is titled St. Joseph Bay, which is of course where  we are following Dr. Randall Hughes and her biodiversity in salt marsh ecology study.  The first painting of the slideshow features something that’s been a common sight the last couple of months in the bay, horseshoe crabs coupling.

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Enjoy Them While You Can


IGOR chip- employment 150After all the time we’ve spent on oyster reefs, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the little guys mean to us culturally.  The video above is from Our Town, Apalachicola and features the famed oystermen of that town.  The article below is a little more personal.

Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We had just finished interviewing John Spohrer for a photography feature and, well, we were in Apalachicola.  So I decided to conduct what our oyster researcher Dr. David Kimbro would call an exercise in predator-prey relationships.  My prey was some of Apalachicola’s finest product, and it wasn’t even an R month.  Me and my wife Amy (who is also my production co-conspirator) decided to try a place with a decent-sized crowd of friendly locals out front, the Hole in the Wall.  Amy did not eat any oysters and this was her last shoot with me for this project.  More on that later.

People in Apalachicola are proud of their product.  The man shucking the oysters behind the bar would excitedly declare “Oh, that’s a good one” as he picked them out of the ice.  The perpetually smiling waitress who brought them to the table would come by every once in a while and ask “How do you like your oysters?”

“They’re delicious,” I’d say.

“Enjoy them while you can…”

IMG_3465

Dr. David Kimbro in Alligator Harbor

I did enjoy them, as I have for years.  People in these parts have for quite a while.  Longer than you may realize.  At nearby St. Vincent Island, ancient oyster shells and pottery shards lie in piles called middens, evidence of a long disappeared people.  The shells have been dated at 4,000 years old or older.  This means that people have been enjoying these oysters for thousands of years.  It’s an impressive legacy, especially when you consider how some of our country’s other historical oyster producing areas have fared over time.  The Chesapeake Bay used to be difficult to navigate it was so cluttered with reefs.  New York City used to be renowned for the oysters harvested there, they were a staple of the Big Apple until just under a century ago.  But while those habitats have been decimated, Gulf oyster reefs retain their abundance and quality.  When we accompanied David Kimbro on the first day of his study in Alligator Harbor, the scientist who had been studying reefs in North Carolina and California marveled at the size of the reefs.  He’d never seen so many.

I fell like I was rubbing it in Amy’s face eating those oysters, even if she had been looking forward to enjoying the local seafood as much as I was.  We had done the research and shrimp were an acceptable food, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids important to brain development in embryos.  This was her last shoot, as the days were growing hotter and we spend some long days on marshes and reefs.  Our child will be born a Floridian, like I was.  I’ve been spoiled by great beaches, a steady supply of fresh seafood, wetlands bursting with animal and plant life.  I wonder in what kind of Florida my child will grow up.  Will he or she have at their disposal what Floridians have had over the last few thousand years?  No one can really say.  Even if the worst happens, there is hope that we can restore it, even if it could never be exactly the same.  In the meantime, I’ll just do what I was told.  I’ll enjoy it while I can.

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