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About Rob

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a producer, editor, and director for WFSU-TV. He has produced and edited documentaries such as Keys & Hammers, Never the Same Way Twice, and Not Your Mother's Classical, and is also the co-creator of WFSU's music performance program, outloud. Over the last three years, Rob has collaborated with Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro on In the Grass, On the Reef. View some of Rob's work here.

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The Apalachicola Bay Situation Report: A Quick Take

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
The leaders of SMARRT look on as Dr. Karl Havens presents the Apalachicola Bay Oyster Task Force's report.

The leaders of SMARRT look on as Dr. Karl Havens presents the Oyster Task Force’s report.

This past Wednesday researchers from the University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team presented their report on the state of Apalachicola Bay to a public audience at the Apalachicola Community Center.  In the months since a Fishery Disaster was declared in the bay, this task force was formed by researchers from the University of Florida and our collaborator, Dr. David Kimbro (who was at Florida State University and is now at Northeastern).  They collected and analyzed historical sets of data and collected new data from the field to look at current conditions, their causes, and potential future actions aimed at restoration.  Here is a quick look at what was discussed:

  • In his introductory presentation, Dr. Karl Havens (Director of Florida Sea Grant) included an image in his PowerPoint depicting how the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Basin was affected by recent drought conditions.  He called attention to an area of extreme red, approximately over the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers in Georgia, stating that “in 2011, and 2012, it was the driest place in the entire United States.”  Those rivers feed the Apalachicola.
  • Landings data (oyster harvest reported) show a sharp decline in oysters between August and September of 2012.  The suddenness of the decline, said Dr. Havens, is not consistent with overfishing, which results in a gradual drop. (Page 12 of the report)
  • Dr. Steve Otwell cautioned that the reputation of Apalachicola oysters is being tainted by undersized oysters making it to restaurants.  It was acknowledged by representatives of SMARRT that certain individuals do harvest sub-legal oysters, and that a goal of SMARRT is to educate seafood workers about the legal catch sizes and the reasons behind them. When it comes to sub-legal oysters reaching consumers, Franklin County Seafood Workers President Shannon Hartsfield said, “It takes two.”  Someone has to harvest and bring a sub-legal oyster to the dock, and someone has to buy and sell it to restaurants.  SMARRT is the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team, an organization made up of seafood workers and buyers.
  • The report finds that the three inch legal size is effective in preventing “size overfishing,” if it is properly enforced. (Pages 12-13)
  • Concern was raised over out-of-state oysters replacing Apalachicola oysters in restaurants, and whether Apalachicola could regain the market.  Dr. Otwell pointed to Chesapeake Bay, which had its fishery collapse only to rebound as a premium product.
  • Using their ECOSPACE modeling tool, they projected the recovery of the bay under several scenarios.  The worst case scenario has the bay recovering in 2020.  That’s with no shelling or reduction in harvesting.  Reducing effort in 2013 and 2014 would bring it back a couple of years faster, but the best scenario is a harvesting reduction and an increase in shelling (200 acres a year for 5 years).  That scenario predicts recovery by 2015. (Page 17)
  • Three years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, people are still concerned about the possibility of oil contaminated seafood.  Tests of oysters, blue crabs, shrimp and fish species showed little or no trace of chemicals associated with crude oil or dispersants. (Page 19)
  • Hanna Garland installs a rebar cage on the floor of the Apalachicola Bay, in which her and David's experiments will be safe from oyster tongs and boat props.

    Hanna Garland installs a rebar cage on the floor of the bay, in which her and David’s experiments will be safe from oyster tongs and boat props.  We will have videos explaining the experiment in the coming weeks.

    One goal of the Task Force is to set up ongoing sampling of the bay.  The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has surveyed oysters living on the most harvested reefs in the bay, and that data was used in the computer modeling.  But where that work looked at number of oysters (legal and sub-legal), a more thorough look at conditions on the reef was deemed necessary.  That’s what David Kimbro and Hanna Garland have been working on.  They have already completed their survey of the bay and presented a snapshot of predator distribution, reef structure, oyster size, and of oyster mortality (Many of the oysters on the floor of the bay are “gapers.”  When they die, their shells open permanently).  You can read a brief summary of his results here.  Hanna is currently deploying an experiment featuring live oysters and spat tiles (watch a video on the Kimbro/ Hughes lab’s use of spat tiles here).  Through this, they will learn how spat (the next generation of oysters) and adults are surviving conditions in the bay, how well spat are growing, and how many are being eaten by predators.

  • Dr. Otwell had an interesting solution to two problems: harvesting crown conchs.  Those who have followed this blog (or harvest oysters) know that crown conchs can become a real nuisance on oyster reefs (though a potential benefactor of the equally productive salt marsh system).  A crown conch fishery would provide some income for seafood workers while relaxing the effects of a predator that can get out of hand when the water gets saltier (like in recent drought conditions). (Page 28)
crown conch meat

The queen conch (Strombus gigas) is a popular delicacy, but it is under current consideration as an endangered species. Interest is growing in using the related crown conch (Melongena corona, shown above) as a substitute meat.

The hope is that some of the partnerships and research work can continue despite a lack of funding, and even after the fishery recovers.  “I’ve said it over and over and over again, most of our information comes from the really extreme low events,” said Dr. Bill Pine.  “And we don’t know how these systems look during normal flow or high events.”  As he pointed out, research doesn’t always get done when the system is healthy, and that leaves gaping holes in the data.  Likewise, this unprecedented collaboration between seafood workers, the state agencies that manage the fishery, and the research community was created in crisis.  Will it survive as the fishery recovers?

Download a PDF of the full report here.

Coming up

The meeting on Wednesday was part of one of our busiest months of production for In the Grass, On the Reef.  This week alone, we went from one end of our viewing area to another, starting with an EcoAdventure on Slave Canal (towards the eastern end of our range) to Choctowhatchee Bay for a look at a different kind of oyster restoration project (that’s as far west as we air).  We tagged along on an oystering trip and got footage for videos dealing with another coastal ecosystem susceptible to drought: the salt marsh.  We’ve logged a lot of miles, and I have a lot of footage to put together.  Here is a preview:

David’s Apalachicola Bay research is funded by Florida Sea Grant.

In the Grass, on the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Expedition Florida 500 Paddles to Highlight History and Conservation

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

This week, we take a short break from oysters and the ecology of fear for a new EcoAdventure.  We’ll be back in oysters next week, as we look at fear and coastal predators and find out about an ongoing experiment on Florida’s East Coast.  It’s an iteration of the tile experiment examined in this video (and which we will explore more fully in a couple of weeks).  This is a research method Randall, David & co. perfected during their NSF funded oyster study and which David will soon take to his Apalachicola Bay study.  Stay tuned!

In the video, Justin Riney says, “A lot of people don’t think conservation or history is that sexy.”  As a television producer who mainly works to create content on these and similar topics (namely ecology), I appreciate the creativity with which he has designed his mission.  Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) has become immensely popular over the last few years, and I have to admit that it made for a cool entrance as we waited for Justin to see him appear in the distance and see him paddle his way up to the beach.

A few interesting tidbits:

  • Justin’s travel plans call for him paddling a relatively short ten miles a day.  This allows him to stop in the towns he passes and get to know people along the way. The plan calls for paddling on six out of seven days a week.  The extra days come in handy when weather delays him.
  • Justin takes a picture of me taking a picture of the trash found during the Dickerson Bay Ocean Hour cleanup on February 2.

    Ocean Hour, the other main initiative of Justin’s Mother Ocean project, has active participation on four of the seven continents (anyone up for Ocean Hour Antarctica?).  Ocean Hour is from 9 to 10 AM every Saturday, anywhere that people want to go to a coast and clean up.

  • One of Expedition Florida 500′s partners is Viva Florida 500.  You can learn more about events celebrating the 500 years since Juan Ponce de León’s arrival in Florida here.
  • When Justin was going over what he packed for his yearlong trip, he mentioned books.  This intrigued me, as a year’s worth of reading seems like a lot of weight to carry on a SUP.  What he does is trade books along the way, usually reading about the places he’s visiting.  During his time in Wakulla, he read books by Gulf Specimen Marine Lab’s Jack Rudloe, at whose home he was staying.
  • The video above took place entirely on the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which has become one of my favorite places to shoot (and visit).  Dickerson Bay is part of the Panacea Unit, off of Bottoms Road.  As you drive down Bottoms, there is a nice sized salt marsh on either side of you in which there are usually plenty of birds (the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail sign on Highway 98 outside of Panacea is the signal to slow down before your turn).  I first went there with Jack Rudloe, who dragged a net in the water and gave us a quick lesson in marsh ecology from the animals he caught (and quickly released).  The WHO festival took place in the St. Marks Unit, the central unit of the Refuge.  There were plenty of birds in Lighthouse Pond, as there were when we visited last year when Migratory Shorebirds were making use of the extensive wetlands on the property.

Music in the piece was performed by Hot Tamale (playing live at the Festival) and we featured the track Future 03 by Necronomikon Quartett.

The kayak we used to tape the community paddle was provided by the Wilderness Way.

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New Study Tackles Apalachicola Oyster Fishery Crisis

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

IGOR chip_ predators_NCE 150Last Thursday morning, an oyster boat departed East Point and disappeared into the fog.  Despite the crisis level lack of oysters in Apalachicola Bay, you can still see several boats working for what little is left.  That’s not what this boat was doing, however.  It was carrying two divers working for David Kimbro out of the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.  A foggy day is appropriate for the first day of a research study. All of the knowledge is out there, just like the St. George Bridge or the island beyond it are out beyond one’s field of vision.  Eventually the sun comes out and everything is revealed.

They’ll need a little more than the sun to reveal the specifics of the oyster crisis.  It’s easy enough to say that the record low flow of the Apalachicola River combined with harvesting pressure to decimate the reefs.  But the forces at work are a little more nuanced than that.  That’s why newly hired lab technician Stephanie Buhler and graduate student Hanna Garland are plunging into the murky waters of the bay and monitoring up to 20 sites within it for a Florida Seagrant funded project.  The techniques they use will resemble those used by David and his colleague Dr. Randall Hughes in the NSF funded oyster reef study that we have been following over the last two-and-a-half years.  The reefs they’ve worked on for that project were exposed at low tide.  These are not, and so they’ll be diving.  I’m curious to see how it goes in March, when they construct experiment cages on the floor of the bay.

From left to right- Shawn Hartsfield, their captain; Stephanie Buhler; and Alex Chequer, FSU’s Dive Safety Officer. Alex went along on the first day to ensure that all of their dive equipment was operating safely.

One thing they’ll look at with the cages is the interaction between oysters and one of their predators.  So, alongside the environmental data they’ll accumulate- salinity, availability of plankton and nutrients, oyster recruitment (new generations of oysters growing on the reef)- they will look at how the crown conch is affecting oysters in the bay.  If you think it’s as simple “they’re just eating them all,” there’s a chance you might be right.  But what David and Randall have found is that the fear of being eaten can be even more powerful than just removing an oyster.  For a creature with no brain, oysters exhibit behavior and can be influenced by fear.  In a couple of weeks, we’ll have a series of videos chronicling their pursuit of this idea over the last couple of years to see, in David’s words, “Does it matter?”  It’ll be interesting to see how those dynamics might be at play here, where the higher salinity has invited a larger number of oyster consumers.

Another way this study is different from the NSF study is that one end result will be a recommendation as to how the resource is managed.  David’s other collaborator on this project, Dr. J. Wilson White, will develop an Integral Projection Model for the reefs.  Essentially they will take the data collected over the next few months and use it to project how the reef will do in different scenarios.  Those scenarios will depend on the amount of water that flows down the Apalachicola River, which in 2012 was at an all time low.  In these drought conditions, water is low across the entire Apalachicola/ Chattahootchee/ Flint basin.  The basin is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, whose Master Water Control Manual gives priority to stakeholders in the rivers upstream of the Apalachicola.  That Manual is being updated, and Monday is the last day that they are taking public comment on it.  You can lend your voice to that discussion here.

Have you submitted comments to the Army Corps? Would you mind sharing what you wrote? Add your question or comment.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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The Story of 2012

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

I love how David’s story evolves in the segment above.  At first, he concentrates on the oysters and their point of view in the Apalachicola fishery crisis.  It’s the biological approach.  After workshopping his story with Randy Olson, his story takes on a different aspect.  It’s about why he’s getting involved.  It’s the personal approach.  The story is still about David and his colleagues studying the reefs in Apalachicola Bay to determine how best to rehabilitate them, but the hook is different.  It’s one of the stories we’ll be following in what should be another busy year on In the Grass, On the Reef.

Before we look forward to 2013, though, I wanted to look at the stories that made 2012 our busiest year to date:

Funded by the NSF

It took a couple of years, but in July we received a Communicating Research to Public Audiences grant from the National Science Foundation.  The name of that grant is meaningful, and it embodies a background narrative of this project: the work it takes to make an average person care about scientific research.  Researchers know why their work is important, they just don’t always know how to present why it’s interesting.  That’s why we had Dr. Olson come in and put on a workshop for research students (and Randall and David).  So why is Randall and David’s research important?

Ecology is Economy

In short, biology affects people’s livelihoods.  The seafood connection is obvious: over 90% of the species that are commercially fished in the Gulf of Mexico spend some part of their life cycles in one of the three estuarine habitats that we follow: oyster reefs, salt marshes, and seagrass beds.  We saw that oysters offer more to the seafood industry than their meat.  And we’re starting to see the effects of a full-scale ecosystem failure on a community (more on that below).  The non-seafood related benefits were surprising to me.  A rugby field sized patch of salt marsh can save $8,000 in storm surge related property damage.  Seagrass beds are the most effective habitat at storing carbon from the atmosphere.  And in a state as reliant on tourism dollars as Florida, you can’t overlook the ecotourism potential of our coastlines.  Last spring, we went down to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge when migratory shore birds were making their way through.  The refuge’s vast salt marshes are an all-you-can-eat buffet for those birds, and you have to figure that without healthy rivers and coasts, our state’s multi-billion dollar wildlife watching revenue would be imperiled.

Away from the coasts, I enjoyed exploring the geology of the Aucilla Sinks and the rare plants of the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  The Buffer is part of the Apalachicola River basin, and those plants rely on that water just as the oysters in the bay do.  Which brings us to:

The Apalachicola Crisis

Apalachicola Oysters on the Half Shell

Earlier that afternoon, oystermen were demonstrating how few oysters there were in Apalachicola Bay for the Army Corps of Engineers. At a reception later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they shucked oysters for community members. Despite doubling in price over the last year, there aren't enough oysters to maintain the fishery.

At this time last year, when we were waiting to hear whether we got the NSF grant, I was looking forward to some of the things we would do.  I knew that, as we explored the economic benefits of oysters, I would end up on an oyster boat.  It would be fun to watch tongs bring up mounds of succulent Apalachicola oysters.  My first time on an oyster boat didn’t exactly go that way.  As the year wore on, I started planning for RiverTrek 2012.  That was every bit as amazing an experience as I expected it to be, but Helen Light’s presentation on the state of the basin that first night underscored everything that happened after.  Crisis drives a lot of media coverage; it attracts viewers.  I don’t think Apalachicola needs crisis to be interesting, though.  I first visited in 2002 while working on WFSU’s Our Town series.  Each Our Town episode first aired during a pledge drive, and Our Town: Apalachicola was far and away the most successful, with over 50 new members pledging their support to our station.  And it was my favorite.  A couple of months after we premiered it at the Dixie Theatre, I came back for my birthday.  My wife and I camped out on St. George Island, went across the bay to get oysters and had drinks at the Gibson Inn.  So this isn’t the story I wanted to tell.  But there is something to be learned from this about oyster reef ecology and our connection to it.

As David and his crew gear up to investigate more closely, that story will continue here.  Also, Randall and David’s two multi-year, NSF funded studies are concluding.  They put their ideas to the test:  Does the fear of being eaten by large predators have a significant effect on coastal ecosystems and all that they give us?  And, it’s a word we hear a lot, but what role does biodiversity play in the success of a salt marsh and its services?  Stay tuned.

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Notes From the Field: Horse Conch Honeymoon

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

When we started doing Notes From the Field, the intention was for the researchers and their techs and students to write about interesting things they saw or did while conducting their studies.  But I’m sneaking one in.  A couple of weeks ago I went out to Bay Mouth Bar with David Kimbro and his crew for their monthly sampling of gastropods and bivalves.  Horse conchs were plentiful during the summer months, but as the temperature drops they leave for deeper and warmer waters.  WFSU videographer Dan Peeri and I walked around getting shots of dead turtlegrass, a sign of seasonal change.  Oystercatchers were eating sea urchins; how close would they and the other birds let us get?

It was an interesting but quiet day when we heard a shout at the west end of the bar, facing the open Gulf.  Hanna Garland, newly returned from her graduate study on the crown conch problem south of Saint Augustine, seemed to have found something interesting.  Whenever there’s yelling at Bay Mouth Bar, there’s good footage to be found.  Hanna had found a pair of horse conchs mating.  There were several of the football sized orange snails on this side of the bar, including a second coupled pair.  It seems that they hadn’t quite made it to deeper waters, but were perhaps on the way.  And the behavior we observed got my imagination going.  Do they mate before heading on, laying their eggs in deeper waters?  Is that why they leave in the winter, leaving the door open for increased lightning whelk activity?  We can’t say that based on things we saw one day.  But that is one of the wonderful things about visiting wild habitats: seeing animals behave in different ways and getting glimpses into why things happen the way they do (even if careful study ends up providing an alternate narrative).

Horse conchs make an appearance in my EcoAdventures segment on the Leave No Trace principles on tonight’s episode of Dimensions, at 7:30 PM/ ET.  Part of visiting wild places and witnessing interesting behavior is not influencing it with your own behavior. We go over best practices for not disturbing a habitat and its inhabitants.  And for those who haven’t gotten enough Apalachicola River video, our State Parks One Tank Adventure segment tonight is on Torreya State Park.  Also, you can check out our new Apalachicola River and Bay Basin page, under the EcoAdventures North Florida menu.  From there you’ll have access to all of our videos on the basin (beyond the river and the bay) and play with our interactive photo map.

We want to hear from you! Who has seen any interesting animal behavior based on seasonal change? Add your question or comment.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.