Category Archives: Apalachicola River and Bay

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

(Video) RiverTrek 2: The Apalachicola’s Bluffs and Tupelo Swamps

Video: Kayak adventure in the upper Apalachicola, where we find Florida’s tallest river bluffs face a decades old man made threat.  Also, higher water lets us deeper into Sutton Lake, a back woods swamp where the oldest and largest tupelo and cypress trees of the Apalachicola basin are found.

Plan your own Apalachicola River Adventure.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Alex Reed inspects rubble from the Alum Bluff landslide.

Alex Reed inspects rubble from the Alum Bluff landslide.

It’s amazing to see how much can change in one year on the Apalachicola River.  I’ve previously mentioned the smaller sand bars and higher water.  But the most striking visual difference is in the face of Alum Bluff, probably the iconic image of the upper river. In part 1 of this adventure, we approached it from land to be rewarded with possibly the best view of the river and the forest around it.  In part 2, we kayak up to it.  Last year, we camped there and had activities in the evening and following morning that kept me from just being able to hang out and enjoy the bluff from my boat.  As I did so this year, Alex Reed, our co-captain as well as a geologist, was inspecting the rubble from a landslide that occurred earlier in the year.  Some of the rocks unearthed were millions of years old.

A few miles down the river, we explored an area that had been on my mind as RiverTrek approached.  I was hoping that this year’s rain would let us penetrate deeper into Sutton Lake, a place that Dan Tonsmeire calls the “quintessential” backwoods swamp.  That’s my favorite part of the video, as we make our way well past where we did last year.  As you paddle the big, wide Apalachicola, you pass so many creeks, sloughs, and other side channels.  Behind the trees could be an Aspalaga Blue Spring (where we hiked in part 1), any branch off of the river might take you back to a dark, canopied swamp like Sutton Lake.  The more I paddle the river, the more I am aware of how little of the basin I’ve actually seen.

It’s a lot to fit into two videos.  I want to show you the river; that’s why I go.  But we paddled with a lot of interesting people with some interesting stories, many of which I couldn’t fit into the videos without making a full blown program of it (maybe I should do that… would any of you watch it?).  Here are a few interesting bits  about my fellow RiverTrekkers:

George Blakely and Zone 5

Zone 5 in a Personal Floatation DeviceIn several shots, you see a dog running across the mouth of a cave, down a steep path, or sitting calmly in a canoe.  That’s Zone 5, a rescue dog that accompanies George Blakely on his adventures (she even has her own pink personal flotation device).  George explains where he got such a cool name.

“In photography, Ansel Adams, he had his own system for the different tones, zones zero through nine.  Zone five is middle grey.  When she runs really fast, which she does frequently, except when she’s in the canoe, she’s middle grey.”

Todd Engstrom

Todd Engstrom recounts his search for the ivory billed woodpecker along the Apalachicola River.

Todd Engstrom recounts his search for the ivory billed woodpecker along the Apalachicola River.

Todd is an ornithologist with a unique history with the Apalachicola.  He was sent to look for evidence of a bird that was thought to have been extinct for several decades.  The ivory billed woodpecker is one of the largest species of woodpecker in the world, measuring about 20 inches long.  When one was thought to have been sighted in Arkansas (a sighting that is now in doubt), The Cornell Lab of Ornithology sent Todd to scour likely habitat in the Apalachicola River basin.  As opposed to the red cockaded woodpecker, which prefers upland forests, the ivory billed prefers lowland, old growth forests.  Todd spent four months searching, from Lake Seminole to the bottom of the river.

“As a consequence of that, I was camping out, boating on the river, going to field sites.  Just really enjoyed it.  Fell in love with it.”

Chris Robertson

Chris is a returnee from RiverTrek 2012, and one of our co-captains.  For him, a highlight of the trip came on the third morning.

“It was the time of the trip when you could finally let go of everything that goes on back in the quote-unquote real world, and just kind of immerse yourself in the river and what you’re doing.  When you reach that point, it’s very emotionally and spiritually recharging.”

Just me and the river on RiverTrek 2012, somewhere between Estiffinulga and Wewahitchka.  The Apalachicola River

Just me and the river on RiverTrek 2012, somewhere between Estiffinulga and Wewahitchka.

I get was Chris is saying.  After a couple of days, the trip starts to feel like your reality.  You’ve woken up a for couple of mornings where you stick your head out of your tent and see the river.  Last year, I had a similar experience on the third day.  I spent some time paddling alone, where the only visible signs of civilization were within my kayak.  One of my favorite things about the trip is the people, but I treasured my one-on-one time with the river.

Who knows what my next adventure on the Apachicola River Basin will be.  RiverTrekker Mike Mendez has talked about an extended trip starting on the Flint or Chattahoochee.  Doug Alderson is mulling a hiking trip in the many protected lands around the river.  I’ll be planning other EcoAdventures around the area, all the while knowing that there is some corner of the river basin that needs to be further explored.

Next on In the Grass, On the Reef

The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab takes their critters on the road.  Meanwhile, back at their aquarium, tentacles are a-flailing over a tasty treat and marine megafauna try to eat our GoPro camera.  Also, I begin a new adventure as a member of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.  I’ll give you the lowdown as the Council looks for ways to connect existing trail systems and create more opportunities for the kind of multi-day EcoAdventure featured in our RiverTrek videos.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

RiverStyx

Planning Your Own Apalachicola River Kayak Camping Adventure

The Apalachicola Blueway is managed by the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, and the trail was mapped and the Blueway Guide created by Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails.

Part 2 of the RiverTrek 2013 Adventure is now online. Witness some of the long term damage done to the river, and tag along as we take advantage of this year’s higher water to paddle into one of our area’s “quintessential” swamps. If you missed Part 1, catch it here.  In 2012, we paddled the river in it’s entirety.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

After having partaken in the last couple of RiverTrek paddles down the Apalachicola River, I have to commend Georgia Ackerman and Doug Alderson for the work they put in to planning the trips.  A dozen paddlers of multiple experience levels paddle 107 + miles (once you factor in side trips) over five days, camping along the way.  Even a relative newbie like me can tag along and find myself alive in Apalachicola five days later.

You’re in good hands having expert paddlers like Doug and Georgia in charge.  But, thanks to a lot of hard work by Doug, any moderately experienced paddler has the tools to plan their own RiverTrek.  Where do you camp?  Where can you refill your water?  On what sand bar can you have a Jetboil tea party?  All of those questions are made clearer with the Apalachicola Blueway Paddling Trail guide.

Choose your adventure

The River Styx. Incorporating creeks and tributaries into your Apalachicola River adventure can give you a more intimate feel for the river.

Every year for RiverTrek, paddlers have to find a way to extricate themselves from work and family obligations for five days to paddle the entirety of the Apalachicola River.  But not every trip has to eat your whole week.  Consulting the handy dandy Apalachicola Blueway Trail Guide, you’ll see that there are multiple locations to put in and take out along the river.

Last year for a RiverTrek warm up paddle, I accompanied some of my fellow trekkers on a trip from the River Styx to Owl Creek.  This was an 18 mile day trip that let us see a couple of side channels as well as the river itself.  This year on the Trek, I was extracted at Estiffinulga after two days of paddling and one night of camping.  You have a lot of options, especially if you factor in the many creeks and tributaries in the lower river, in the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area (Watch our EcoAdventure in the Apalachicola WEA).

Once you know how many days you’ll be able to spend on your trip, decide how many miles you’re able to do a day.  This year, we averaged just over 20 miles a day at about 5 – 6 miles an hour, and we did 4 miles an hour with last year’s record low flows.  Of course, you’ll want to make sure that there’s a place for you to sleep at the end of the day…

Camping

Estiffinulga Breakfast

Breakfast on the Estiffinulga sand bar on RiverTrek 2012. Look at how big it is! The Apalachicola is full of high, wide sand bars…

In Part 1 of our video, our trip leaders found the Alum Bluff sand bar too small for sixteen campers.  No problem.  There was another high, wide sand bar just a mile to the north, and it wasn’t even on the trail map as a campsite.  The upper Apalachicola has numerous such sand bars, which gives you flexibility in planning your trip.  Once you get past Wewahitchka at mile 42 (mile markers start at 106 at the Woodruff Dam and work their way down to 0 at Apalachicola), there are less options directly on the main channel.

This year, we had some rain and the Army Corps of Engineers had more water to release from the Woodruff Dam.  That means that the river rose a little overnight, and so we had to pull our kayaks a little further up on the bar.  Which brings me to…

Staying high and dry

Estiffinulga Sand Bar Camp Site

…Estiffinulga sand bar on RiverTrek 2013. For all I know, the spot where the breakfast table is in the picture above is under my kayak here. Checking the U.S. Geological Survey’s river gauges can give you an idea about how big some of these sand bars might be.

RiverTrek occurs in October every year, during the river’s low water season.  The high water season begins in late February and continues through May.  It’s usually lowest in the fall.  This means that, typically, there are more sand bars exposed for camping then.  Typically.  Whereas last year, drought conditions kept the sand bars as exposed as they’ve ever been, this year’s rain has left them much smaller.  That’s the beauty of the outdoors.  I went on the same trip two years in a row, and things looked different in a lot of places.  But how can you know what to expect when you plan your trip?

For best camping conditions, the Blueway Guide recommends that the US Geological Survey gauge at Chattahoochee remains below 44 feet, and below 5.5 feet at the USGS Sumatra gauge.  Looking at the gauge info at the link above, I see that Chattahoochee was around 42.5 with a spike to 43.5 (when water is released from the dam) for the first day of RiverTrek.  At that height, Alum Bluff was too small for our group and Estiffinulga sand bar (the day 2 camp site) looked nice and cozy.  Within a couple of days, the gauge readings swelled to near 44 feet.

Bring all the gear you will need

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails (where Doug works) has compiled some helpful checklists to make sure you bring everything you need for kayak camping trip.  The bar on the right side of their Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail web site has links to safety tips and a recommended gear list.  You could also watch this short video we did with Georgia and her husband and RiverTrek alum Rick Zelznak, on packing for kayak camping.  In about five minutes, they give you a quick rundown of what to bring, how to organize it in your dry bags, and how to fit it all into your kayak (this was based on Georgia’s RiverTrek 2011 experience).

Plan your route.  Check the river gauges.  Make sure you have all the gear you need, and that you can fit it into your kayak or canoe.  Experience one of Florida’s great rivers.

We work hard on these videos, but it’s never the same as being there.

the Sutton Lake Bayou, off of the Apalachicola River on RiverTrek 2013.

(Video) RiverTrek Part 1: Garden of Eden, Apalachicola River

Video: Kayaking in, and hiking around, the Apalachicola River.

Last year’s RiverTrek kicked off a year where we made the Apalachicola River and Bay a focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef (IGOR) project.  As with this year’s video, last year’s was a two-parter.  Watch Part 1, Days 1 and 2, here.  Watch Part 2, Days 3 through 5, here.  In Part 2, we looked at how low river flows last year precipitated the crash of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.  Shortly after, IGOR team member Dr. David Kimbro began investigating the oyster stocks more closely.  You can follow that research here.

This video focuses on a 5-day kayak and canoe adventure down Florida’s longest river.  RiverTrek is a fundraiser for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.  Riverkeeper staff and volunteers have been an immense help in producing our Apalachicola videos and in getting them seen.  Thank you to Dan, Shannon, Tom, Georgia, Doug, and everyone else for allowing us to be part of the adventure.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Sunset on the northern Apalachicola River, from our day one camp site.

Getting back on the Apalachicola River for RiverTrek 2013, we’ve come full circle.  On RiverTrek 2012, we journeyed down the entirety of the Apalachicola River, and explored some of the area around it.  We climbed the tallest river bluff in Florida, Alum Bluff.  In a wild corner of Torreya State Park, we followed Means Creek into a small ravine and ultimately into a cave.  We camped on sand bars, many of which were augmented by river sediments dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers, and climbed the largest sand spoil of them all- Sand Mountain.  When the trip was over, our collaborator, Dr. David Kimbro, started his research into the cause of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery collapse.  Within a few months, we traveled from the top of Alum Bluff to the bottom of Apalachicola Bay, all in an attempt to better understand this large and complex river and bay system.

Aspalaga Blue Spring

Aspalaga Blue Spring lies just a mile off of the Apalachicola River, at mile marker 98. From a sand bar on the west side, one would bushwhack a mile into the woods to find it.

A year later, we return to the river for RiverTrek 2013.  The Apalachicola seemed familiar, yet different, like a friend you haven’t seen for a little while.  After last year’s drought and record low flows, higher water this year made for a slightly different feel.  As you can see in the video, we had choices to make about where we would sleep the first night, as the Alum Bluff sand bar was much more submerged than it was last year.  And, we were moving a little faster.

More water is flowing in the creeks and sloughs, the smaller waterways that add 300 miles of banks to the 106 mile river.  This increases foraging grounds for fish, and connect the river to swamps and decomposing plant matter that ultimately feed oysters in the bay.

A little bit of water one year won’t fix all that is wrong with the river, though that water is critically necessary.  The alteration of the river channel affects how water flows into these smaller channels, and increases erosion.  And water released from the dam needs to mimic the seasonal cycles of the river, with larger discharges in the wet months (Spring and Summer) and less in the dry months (ramping down over summer and back up again in later winter).  This is an intricate system, and all of its parts have to properly function for the system as a whole to succeed.

Coming out of a cave on Means Creek

My fellow RiverTrekkers wait for me as I prepare to climb out of a cave on Means Creek. This group paddled to raise money for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization that advocates for Florida’s share of water in the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint basin. Over the last few decades, many have fought for the Apalachicola, which is downstream of the other two rivers.

A lot of the time, we don’t appreciate something until we’re in danger of losing it.  The crash of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery was an eye opener for a lot of people as to how reliant the Bay is on the river flow.  But this is a fight that has been waged for decades, between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, and against the Army Corps of Engineers’ policies in managing the river and its flow.  In this video, Part 1 of 2, we explore the area around the river, bushwhacking through the woods to clear, cool springs and climbing in the bluffs above the river for a better vantage point.  Next week, in Part 2, we take a quick look at the decades long struggle with the Corps, and see that oyster beds aren’t the only habitat that need fresh water.  And we kayak into the “quintessential” cypress/ tupelo swamp- Sutton Lake.

Music in the video by pitx and Cross(o)ver.

Learn more about the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, and the Garden of Eden Trail, here.

Learn more about the Apalachicole Blueway paddling trail here.

Cypress and Tupelo swamp, Sutton lake off of the Apalachicola River.

rivertrek2013previewbanner

RiverTrek 2013 Preview: A Year in the Apalachicola River and Bay

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

RiverTrek paddlers are raising funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization whose mission is to “provide stewardship and advocacy for the protection of the Apalachicola River and Bay, its tributaries and watersheds…” (participating media members do not raise funds).  At the end of the paddle, on October 12, there will be a reception in Battery Park in Apalachicola.  There, people can greet the paddlers and bring non-perishable food items in benefit of Franklin’s Promise.  Franklin’s Promise aids the families affected by the failure of the Apalachicola Bay oyster reefs.

IGOR chip- gastronomy 150“The Good Lord giveth, and Georgia and the Corps taketh away.” Those words were spoken by Jon Steverson, Executive Director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.  He was testifying before Florida senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) during a special field hearing to address the collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.  The high-profile event, held two weeks ago in Apalachicola, marked almost one year into a particularly turbulent era for this region.  Just one year ago, I was preparing to kayak the Apalachicola River for RiverTrek 2012.  The winter bars in the bay were just days away from opening.  When they did, a lot changed, including the nature of the RiverTrek videos we were to make, and the In the Grass, On the Reef project as a whole.

U.S. Senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation field hearing Apalachicola on August 13.

As I prepare to cover RiverTrek 2013 (October 8-12), the answers to the Apalachicola’s water flow problems remain elusive, and frustration remains high.  Much of that frustration is aimed, as one might gather from the first sentence of this piece, at the state of Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers.  Thirteen days into the job as Mobile District Commander, Colonel Jon Chytka absorbed decades of displeasure at the Corps’ management of the ACF basin.  “I’m going to try to find out why they sent you,” said Senator Nelson, “Why didn’t they send the generals that I’ve been talking to?”  Part of the frustration stems from the rigidity with which the Corps follows the ACF Water Control Manual, and their interpretation of the authority granted them by congress.  The economic impact of fresh water on Florida’s seafood industry is not given as much weight as its economic impact on Georgia agriculture.   The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is the only guarantor that the river flow is not set below 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is how low it stayed for 10 months starting May 1, 2012.  That qualifies as the lowest river flow in recorded history, and only endangered mussels and gulf sturgeon kept it from being lower.  Senator Rubio asked whether the Apalachicola oyster would qualify for such protection.  Crassostrea virginica, the common oyster, is the main oyster species found on the east coast of this country and in the Gulf of Mexico.  The oysters you see on the fringe of the coast are the same species as the larger ones harvested from the floor of the bay.  Apalachicola oysters are the same species as Chesapeake oysters.  To the letter of the law, and despite massive decline in oyster reefs worldwide, it is not an endangered species.

This oyster was retrieved from Dr. David Kimbro’s oyster experiment in Apalachicola Bay. They found it dead, with its meat having been eaten. Like many of the dead oysters they’ve found, it has oyster drill egg sacs growing on it. Each of the sacs (here growing on the “chin” of the oyster) contains 10-20 drills.  Low freshwater input to the bay increases its salinity, making the bay hospitable to oyster predators such as drills, crown conchs, and stone crabs.

A further source of frustration with the Corps is the speed with which the Manual is being updated.  As Col. Chytka pointed out, the process began in 2008 and was complicated by lawsuits, the amount of input from stakeholders in the affected states (over 3,000 comments), and the “technical complexities” of the system.  He projected that a draft of an Environmental Impact Statement would be ready in the Summer of 2015, after which they’d reopen it to comments and then finalize by 2016.  The oyster industry may not have that kind of time.  “I don’t see any hope for the near future,” said Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. “We don’t have a near future.”

The best-case scenario for the bay, as determined by the University of Florida’s Oyster Recovery Team, is full recovery within a couple of years.  That’s dependent on being able to place a significant amount of oyster shell at the bottom of the bay.  So far, Hartsfield estimates that they’ve covered 35-40% of Cat Point, historically one of Apalachicola’s most productive bars.  By the end of the current shelling project, he believes that they’ll have covered 50% of another of the bay’s main bars, East Hole.  So, in addition to fresh water, oysters will still be lacking adequate substrate where spat could settle.  Additional funding will be needed to cover the bars fully.  There is, though, a glimmer of hope.

While frustration has remained high, so too has passion for the ecosystem and compassion for the people affected.  Says Hartsfield, “This is the first time, ever, out of all this disaster that Franklin County has experienced in the commercial (seafood) industry, that we’ve had any recognition.  And we appreciate it greatly.”  That recognition drew dozens to the steps of the Franklin County Courthouse that day to show support.  It has drawn researchers willing to work with oystermen to find solutions.  It has drawn a steady stream of regional and national media.  And it drew the United States Senate to a fishing town on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.  At the very least, lot of people are invested in finding a solution.

RiverTrek paddlers make their way to Sutton Lake, off of the Apalachicola River.  Last year, the water was too low to paddle to where the largest cypress trees in the Apalachicola watershed are found.  With a year of healthy rainfall, this year's paddlers will have better opportunities to explore the creeks and sloughs branching off of the river.

RiverTrek paddlers make their way to Sutton Lake, off of the Apalachicola River. Last year, the water was too low to paddle further into the lake, where the largest cypress trees in the Apalachicola watershed are found. With a year of healthy rainfall, this year’s paddlers will have better opportunities to explore the creeks and sloughs branching off of the river.

I’m one of the media members who have found themselves returning to cover the crisis, and it started with 105 miles of paddling.  Last year at this time, RiverTrek was to be a different perspective on our local ecology than our marsh, oyster reef, and seagrass videos.  A change of pace.  Instead, it kicked off a year of content that connected the river with the coast, and with the people who care for and rely on these resources.  I now find myself getting ready for this year’s journey with a better knowledge and feel for the story, but with much less certainty about the outcome.  RiverTrek will end after five days.  For this other, much larger Apalachicola adventure, we’ll all just have to keep on paddling.

For more information on RiverTrek 2013, visit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper web site.  To watch videos from last year’s Trek, click here.

Music in the video by airtone.  “Salt in the Blood” was written and performed by Brian Bowen.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Shark tooth found in Apalachicola Bay buoy marking oyster reef experiment.

Apalachicola Oyster Research: SHARK WEEK

Since they’ve deployed their experimental cages in Apalachicola Bay, David Kimbro’s crew has had some go missing, while others have been found in this condition.  Missing buoys make potentially unharmed cages nearly impossible to find.  Until just yesterday, there have been no leads as to the identities of possible culprits.

Dr. David Kimbro Northeastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Southern Oyster Drill

Shark week? In Apalachicola Bay, oyster drills like this one are the animals that have inflicted the most damage.

I’ll eventually get to how our research on Apalachicola Bay oysters ties into shark week. But first, let me tell you about my history with the annual Shark Week, which is put on by the Discovery Channel. Growing up as a surfer in North Carolina, the best time to surf was in the late summer and early fall. After many warm months of zero waves in the spring and summer, we lived for tropical storms that would make their way into the south east….but not get too close. I hated those suckers that got too close, because fun waves would quickly turn into pigs being on the roof and lots of misfortune for my fellow North Carolinians.

Getting to the point, every August, I was barraged by the Discovery Channel with interesting stories about sharks. Cool… but as soon as the waves start coming up, I’d have all of these thoughts about sharks circling through my head. In fact, in the line-up the next morning, it was looked down upon to talk about the previous evening’s episode of Shark Week. Now, sharks are awesome and they are critical to the health of our marine environments, but I don’t like to think about them when I’m waiting for a wave.

Okay, enter our research on Apalachicola Bay’s oyster reefs. It has been a very wet summer and the waters are very murky… you can’t see squat under water. But that doesn’t deter us, because we have been full throttle this past year and especially this summer on the monitoring and experiments.

Disclaimer: the pronoun we = Nikkie and Hanna, who have to do all the diving and data collection. To be honest, I couldn’t have asked for a better graduate student and employee to lead this research project.

Nikkie with crown conch (and egg casing), found in Apalachicola Bay.

Nikkie with crown conch (and egg casing), found in Apalachicola Bay. Surveys have found that while southern oyster drills have thrived on commercially harvested reefs on the floor of the bay, conchs have been more numerous on fringe reefs.

Now, another disclaimer is that Nikkie DISLIKES not being able to see under water. So, for all of the sites that I can’t free dive to collect the data (my scientific diver certification expired…next on the to-do list to fix), I would serve as shark/alligator bait by swimming on the surface of the water for 1/2 hour while others collected data below.

To be honest, I’ve skewered Nikkie about her fear and about needing me to serve as bait. BUT… then I got an email today from the crew, which happens to be the first mission since I departed from Florida for Massachussettes. This week, my lab is undergoing a Herculean effort to set up another experiment. In doing so today, they solved mystery of who/what has messed with all of our previous experiments and they simultaneously confirmed Nikkie’s fear. These experiments are protected by welded cages and marked with buoys, which have frequently and unfortunately gone missing. This is bad for our research funds, our time and for the data we need to understand Apalachicola and its oyster reefs.

So, in the spirit of the board game Clue...who dunna it?

Freaking sharks. Given Nikkie’s significant fear and my discounting of that fear, I sure felt bad getting this message from Hanna and Nikkie today. But hey, that’s what team Kimbro does for Apalachicola oysters!

(Edit 8/11/13.  FSU Coastal and Marine Lab’s Dr. Dean Grubbs IDs it as a bull shark.  Read more on this fact sheet from NOAA, from which we leave you with this quote: “Bull sharks are one of the three top sharks implicated in unprovoked fatal attacks throughout the world.”– Rob)

Shark tooth found in Apalachicola Bay buoy marking oyster reef experiment.

Cheers,

David

See more posts and videos on the Apalachicola oyster crisis and this research.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Oyster Research Needs Your Help In Apalachicola Bay

Oyster drills infest one of David Kimbro's Apalachicola Bay experimental spat tile cages.

In January, David Kimbro’s lab did a preliminary survey of Apalachicola Bay oyster reefs, looking at the overall health of oysters and the presence of predators. They followed this up with an experiment meant to monitor oyster health and predator effects over time. Many of their experimental cages were displaced, likely due to the buoys marking them breaking off. But what they found in the cages that remained intact was that oyster drill numbers appear to be exploding in warmer waters.  David is looking for help keeping tabs on them.

Dr. David Kimbro Northeastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Wishing that you were wrong is not something that comes naturally to anyone. But that is how I felt at the most recent oyster task force meeting in April. There, I shared some early research results about the condition of the oyster reefs. In our surveys, we found that the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay were in really bad shape and that there were not any big bad predators hanging around the reefs to blame. Even though I had originally shot off my big mouth about the oyster fishery problem being caused by an oyster-eating snail, I hoped that our first bit of data meant the snails were never there. Or better…that they were gone. The story of the boy who cried wolf comes to mind.

But an alternative of this David-cries-wolf story is that our January sampling didn’t turn up many predators because it’s cold in January, and because they were hunkered down for a long winters nap. Unfortunately, this option is looking stronger.

Experimental cages to be deployed in Apalachicola Bay.

Experimental cages to be deployed in Apalachicola Bay.

Since the task force meeting, we have been figuring out how conduct field experiments in Apalachicola. To be honest, an underwater environment without any visibility is an experimentalist’s worst nightmare. Still, we deployed fancy equipment, big cages, and then little mini experiments inside each big cage to figure out how much of the oyster problem is due to the environment, to disease, or to predators.

Even though we lost over half of our experiment and instrumentation, we recovered just enough data to show that the problem could be predation and that the culprit is a voracious snail.  So, after learning some lessons on how to not lose your equipment, we decided to take another crack at it. In fact, Hanna and crew just finished sampling half of our second experiment today. We got the same results….lots of snails quickly gobbled up all of the oysters that were deployed without protective cages. But the oysters that were protected with cages did just fine.

This photo illustrates what Apalachicola oyster reefs are dealing with. This is one clutch of eggs laid by one adult snail. Within each little capsule, there are probably 10-20 baby snails. After a long winter’s nap, these snails are hungry.

We are going to keep at this, because one week long experiment doesn’t really tell us that much. But if we keep getting the same answer from multiple experiments, then we are getting somewhere.

In addition to updating y’all, I wanted to ask for your help. Because my small lab can’t be everywhere throughout the bay at all times, there are two things you could do if you are on the water.

Click the link to the right for GPS coordinates.

First, if you come upon our experiment, can you let me know when you happened upon them and how many buoys you saw? If you report that all buoys are present, then I’ll sleep really well. And if you alert us that some buoys are missing, then I’ll be grateful because we will stand a better of chance of quickly getting out there before the cages are inadvertently knocked around, so that we can recover the data.  Click here for GPS coordinates and further instructions.

Second, if you are tonging oysters, then you are probably tonging up snails. It would really help us to know when, where, and how many snails you caught.  Take a photo on your phone (Instagram hashtag #apalachcatch – Instagram instructions here) or e-mail them to robdv@wfsu.org.  We’ll be posting the photos and the information you provide on this blog.

This is kind of a new thing for us, attempting to use technology and community support this way.  There may be some bumps along the way.  If you’re having trouble trying to get photos to us, contact us at robdv@wfsu.org.

Thanks a bunch!

David

David’s Apalachicola 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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Researchers and Oystermen Fighting for Apalachicola Bay

Last week, Hanna Garland showed us how the Hughes/ Kimbro Lab adapted their techniques for underwater research in Apalachicola Bay. She talked about their difficulties with the weather, and as you can see in the video above, it was difficult for their oysterman collaborator (as it is for Apalachicola oystermen these days) to find enough healthy adult oysters to run the experiment. Below, David Kimbro looks back at the big Biogeographic Oyster study and what it has taught them about how oyster reefs work, and how they’ve been able to take that knowledge and apply it to the oyster fishery crisis.
Dr. David Kimbro Northeastern University/ FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

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Does our study of fear matter for problems like the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery crash? Absolutely.

Bear with me for a few sentences…

I like to cook. My first real attempt was a chicken piccata and it was a disaster. After ripping off the recipe from my brother (good cook), I quickly realized that the complexity of the recipe was beyond me. To save time and fuss, I rationalized that the ordering of ingredients etc. didn’t matter because it was all going into the same dish. Well, my chicken piccata stunk and I definitely didn’t impress my dinner date.

Way back in 2010, David paddles to one of the St. Augustine sites used in the lab's first tile experiment. Since then they have done two spat tile experiments and two cage experiments ranging from Florida to North Carolina.

2010: David paddles to a St. Augustine oyster reef during his lab's first tile experiment. Since then they've done two spat tile experiments and two cage experiments ranging from Florida to North Carolina.

Around this same time… long, long ago, a bunch of friends and I were also working on a basic science recipe for understanding how oyster reefs work and it only contained a few ingredients: predatory fish frighten crabs and this fear protects oysters….a beautiful trophic cascade! But years later, we figured the recipe was too simple. So, we overhauled the recipe with many more ingredients and set about to test it from North Carolina to Florida with the scientific method.

Now that we finally digested a lot of data from our very big experiment (a.k.a. Cage Experiment 1.0), I can confidently say that the fear of being eaten does some crazy things to oyster reefs. And even though most of the ingredients were the same, those crazy things differed from NC to Florida. While our final recipe isn’t perfect, we now have a better understanding of oyster reefs and that the recipe definitely has many more ingredients.

For instance,

  1. Mud crab hearing testThe fear of being eaten has a sound component to it. Previously, we thought fear was transmitted only chemically, but now we know that crabs can hear. This is huge!
  2. Oyster filtration and oyster pooping can affect the amount of excess nutrients in our coastal environment. Our collaborator (M. Piehler, UNC-CH) showed that in some places, this can remove excess nutrients and that this services makes an acre of oyster reef worth 3,000 every year in terms of how much it would cost a waste water treatment facility to do the same job.
  3. In a few months, I hope to update you on how sharks, catfish, drum, and blue crabs fit into the recipe.

In addition to uncovering some new ingredients, our pursuit of this basic science matters because it allowed us to figure out what methods and experiments work as well as what things don’t  (Watch how they reinvented one of their most depended upon tools: The spat tile experiment). In short, the fruits of this basic science project can now be shunted into applied science and the development of interventions to improve the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.

But given that the lack of oyster shell in the bay is clearly the problem and that re-shelling the bay would bring the oysters back, why do we need to conduct the research? Well, then again it could be the lack of fresh water coming down the Apalachicola River and/or the lack of nutrients that come with that fresh water. Oh, don’t forget about the conchs that are eating away at oyster reefs in St. Augustine, Florida and may be doing the same to those in Apalachicola.

Shawn Hartsfield tonging for oysters to be used in the Apalachicola Bay experimentLike the chicken piccata recipe, Apalachicola Bay is awesome, but it’s complicated. Clearly, there are lots of things that could be in play. But if we don’t understand how they are all linked, then we may waste a lot of effort because fixing the most important part with Ingredient A may not work without simultaneously fixing another part with Ingredient B. Even worse, maybe Ingredient B must come first!  Only through detailed monitoring and experiments will we figure out how all of the ingredients fit together.

Luckily, my brother shared the fruits of his basic culinary experiments so that I could quickly solve my applied problem: cooking a good dinner for the second date. Similarly, it’s great that we received funding from NSF to conduct our biogeographic oyster study, because now we can quickly apply the same methods and personnel to help figure out what’s ailing the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery. Basic and Applied science, Yin and Yang.

–David

What’s next?

David’s colleague, Dr. Randall Hughes, takes us through another ecosystem that has been affected by drought in recent years, the coastal salt marsh.  As severe droughts become a normal occurrence, coastal ecosystems like marshes or the oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay stand to take a beating.  Randall is looking at what makes a marsh stronger in the face of drought and other disturbances.

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

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Notes From the Field, Apalachicola: Measure Twice, Cut Once

Waves and wind can make an underwater experiment challenging. But in Apalachicola Bay, it’s getting to where getting enough oysters to run an experiment is a challenge in itself. On Dimensions tonight (Wednesday, May 8 at 7:30 PM/ ET), get an inside look into what it’s like to go oystering during the oyster fishery crisis. We look at the men and women fighting for the bay, and the evolving alliance between those who work the bay, and those who would study it.

Hanna Garland FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Hanna Garland and Meagan Murdock, Florida State University Coastal and Marine LabGrowing up, I always loved to help my dad with the never-ending list of house and boat projects, but because being a perfectionist is not one of my attributes, it would bother me when he would remind me to “measure twice, cut once.” However, whether taken literally or figuratively, this saying has had more relevance as I have progressed through college and now my graduate career. Take for example: the Apalachicola Bay oyster experiment.

In January, we conducted habitat surveys in order to assess the condition of oyster reefs throughout Apalachicola Bay by quantifying the oysters themselves as well as the resident crustacean and invertebrate species. We found some interesting patterns, but this survey data is just a “snapshot” in time of the oyster reef communities, so we designed an experiment that will investigate the survivorship and growth of market-size oysters in the presence or absence of predators at 12 reefs across the bay.

Live, market-sized Apalachicola Oysters epoxied to posts for an experiment in Apalachicola Bay.Mimicking the design of most of the oyster experiments in the Hugbro lab, we continue to keep the marine epoxy, mesh, and rebar companies in business by securing oysters into predator-exposed or predator-excluded treatments and then installing them onto reefs. While the habitat surveys were conducted via scuba diving (or sometimes walking because the reefs were so shallow!), we decided to give our free-diving skills a test for the oyster experiment installation in order to reduce gear and research costs. Being primarily intertidal researchers we are not accustomed to all of the logistics for subtidal research, but free diving is mostly a mind game, right?

Scuba and snorkeling gear.

The gear needed for scuba diving (left) versus free diving (right).

Wrong! Meagan and I were reminded that we will never be greater than Mother Nature or “the elements.” We were only able to install the experiment on 10 of the 12 reefs throughout the bay and due to unfavorable weather conditions and diving logistics, we were unable to complete the installation on the remaining 2 reefs or check the status of the oysters that had already been deployed. As a result, we will be restarting this experiment in May, but this time via scuba and with learned knowledge and experience of working in the bay, which will allow us to obtain a more complete and accurate experimental data set.

Buoy marking a submerged experiment in Apalachicola Bay.

These buoys mark experiment sites. Having the experiments submerged makes it otherwise invisible to passing boats and their propellors, and to oystermen and their tongs.

As frustrating as it may be to re-do the experiment, I was reminded at the recent Oyster Task Force meeting in Apalachicola, that the answer to the oyster crisis is going to take time; and in order to identify and quantify the environmental or biological stressors in the bay, research and management must be done correctly and entirely. So stay tuned, as there will need to be a lot more “measuring twice and cutting once” before we will be able to identify the key explanatory variables causing the loss of oyster habitat in Apalachicola Bay!

Music in the video by Nekronomikon Quartett.

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

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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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Predatory Snails Overrunning Florida Oyster Reefs

A couple of years ago, David wrote about what seemed to be a very locally contained problem.  An out of control population of crown conchs was decimating oyster reefs south of Saint Augustine. Now, he’s seeing that problem in other Florida reefs, including those at the edges Apalachicola Bay. In reviewing his crew’s initial sampling of the bay, he sees that the more heavily harvested subtidal reefs are being assaulted by a different snail.

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Along the Matanzas River south of St. Augustine Florida, Phil Cubbedge followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by harvesting and selling oysters for a living. But this reliable income became unreliable and non-existent sometime around 2005. Then, Phil could find oysters but only oysters that were too small for harvest. Like many other folks in this area, Phil abandoned this honest and traditional line of work.

In 2010, Phil was fishing with his grandson along the Matanzas River and spotted several individuals who seemed severely out of place. Because Phil decided to see what they were up to, we are one step closer toward figuring out what happened to the oyster reefs of Matanzas and what may be happening to the oyster reefs of Apalachicola Bay.

Before I met Phil on this fateful morning, I was studying how the predators that visit oyster reefs may help maintain reefs and the services they provide (check out that post here). My ivory-tower mission was to see if the benefits of predators on oyster reefs change from North Carolina to Florida. To be honest, I’m not from Florida and I blindly chose the Matanzas reefs to be one of my many study sites. And in order to study lots of sites from NC to Florida, I couldn’t devote much time or concern to any one particular site. In short, I was a Lorax with a Grinch-sized heart that was two sizes too small; I just wanted some data from as many sites as possible.

Hanna Garland (r) discusses with Cristina Martinez (l) how they will set up gill nets as part of their initial oyster reef research in St. Augustine.

But then I met Phil, heard about his loss, and understood that no one was paying attention to it. After looking around this area, my Grinch-sized heart grew a little bigger. Everywhere I looked had a lot of reef structure yet no living oysters. Being a desk-jockey now, I immediately made my first graduate student (Hanna) survey every inch of oyster reef along 15 km of Matanzas shoreline. I think it was about a month’s worth of hard labor during a really hot summer, but she’s tough. Hey, I worked hard on my keyboard!

With these data and lots of experiments, we showed that a large loss of Matanzas oyster reef is due to a voracious predatory snail (crown conch, Melongena corona). This species has been around a long time and it is really important for the health of salt marshes and oyster reefs (in next week’s post, Randall shows the crown conch’s role in the salt marsh). But something is out of whack in Matanzas because its numbers seemed to look more like an outbreak. But, why? Well, thanks to many more Hanna surveys and experiments, we are closing in on that answer: a prolonged drought, decreasing inputs of fresh water, and increasing water salinity.

David took an exploratory trip to Apalachicola Bay with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the fall of 2012, where they found these snails.

We need to figure this out soon, because we see the same pattern south of Matanzas at Cape Canaveral. In addition, I saw conchs overwhelming the intertidal reefs of Apalachicola last fall. While these reefs may not be good for harvesting, they are surely tied to the health of the subtidal reefs that have been the backbone of the Apalachicola fishery for a very long time. Even worse, the bay’s subtidal reefs seemed infested with another snail predator, the southern oyster drill (Stramonita haemastoma). Is this all related? After all, according to locals and a squinty-eyed look at Apalachicola oyster landings, it looks like Apalachicola reefs also started to head south in 2005.

To help answer my question, my team began phase 1 of a major monitoring program throughout Apalachicola Bay in January 2013.With funding from Florida SeaGrant, my lab targeted a few oyster reefs and did so in a way that would provide a decent snap shot of oysters throughout the whole bay. With the help of Shawn Hartsfield and his trusty boat, a visit to these sites over a time span of two weeks and hours upon hours of sample processing back at the lab revealed the following:

(1) There is a lot more oyster reef material in the eastern portion of the bay;

(2) There are also a lot more adult oysters toward the east;

(3) Regardless of huge differences in adult oyster density and reef structure, the ratio of dead oysters to live oysters is about the same throughout the whole bay;

(4) Although the abundance of snail predators is not equal throughout the whole bay, it looks like their abundance may track the abundance of adult oysters.

These data do not show a smoking gun, because many different things or a combination of things could explain these patterns. To figure out whether the outbreak of  multiple snail predators is the last straw on the camel’s back for Apalachicola and other north Florida estuaries, we are using the same experimental techniques that Hanna used in Matanazas River. Well, like any repeat of an experiment, we had to add a twist. Thank goodness Stephanie knows how to weld!

Luckily, I have a great crew that is daily working more hours than a day should contain. As I type, they are installing instrumentation and experiments that will address my question. If you see Hanna and Stephanie out on the bay, please give them a smile and a pat on the back.

More later,

David

Click here to see graphs illustrating the increase in salinity in the Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). The NERR System allows you to review data from sensors at any of their reserves, including Matanzas and Apalachicola.

Music in the piece by Philippe Mangold.

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