Category Archives: Apalachicola River and Bay

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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 oyster fishery.  The Apalachicola Community Center was filled with concerned locals, many of which were oystermen.  They were looking for news on the crash of the fishery and recommendations for future action.

The task force is made up of UF researchers and our collaborator, Dr. David Kimbro of Northeastern University (and until recently, Florida State University).  They collected and analyzed historical sets of data on the health and abundance of oyster stocks in the bay, and added current field observations.  This data was then used to create a model which would predict the success of restoration efforts under different flow conditions on the Apalachicola River.

Here is some of what was discussed in the meeting:

  • 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.

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Notes From the Field: Becoming an Oyster Woman

Stephanie Buhler is the newest addition to the Hug-Bro family (the HUGhes and KimBRO labs).  She and Hanna Garland have been alternating Scuba diving duties for David Kimbro’s new Apalachicola Bay study.  Stephanie was nice enough to let us strap a GoPro camera to her head as she dove, allowing us to capture images of the floor of the bay.  The images give an indication as to the severity of the fishery crisis. We will continue following this study. Tomorrow, we begin a series of videos looking at David and Randall Hughes’ NSF funded oyster study. Over the course of that research, they honed many of the techniques they’re using in Apalachicola Bay. The videos will take you into that study, and into the lives of oysters and the animals that make use of the reef.

This post was written on Sunday, January 20, 2013.
Stephanie Buhler FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Today marks our sixth day out in the Apalachicola Bay surveying the oyster reefs. It could not have been a more beautiful Sunday with the sun shining bright and a crisp-cool breeze as we drove to our first reef. While Hanna and I definitely have our methods down to a routine at this point, today we had the opportunity to learn a “new” technique for grabbing oysters that did not require a single regulator. This morning our boat captain, Shawn Hartsfield, brought his oyster tongs on the boat for us, and we had a blast trying to get his method down for picking up the oysters.  Comically, he did not inform us that the metal tongs alone were about 40 lbs. as he watched our attempts in bringing our bundle of oysters to the bow of the boat. Best back and arm work out I have ever had!

Bringing the tongs onboard could not have happened on a more relaxed day.  Typically Hanna and I alternate days being the boat tender/diver, but today all of our reefs were extremely shallow and no dive equipment or assistance was needed. A fantastic hassle-free Sunday of work.

Hanna harvests oysters in shallow water.

The Apalachicola Bay study is funded by Florida Sea Grant.  In the Grass, On the Reef is Funded by the National Science Foundation.

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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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Video: RiverTrek 2012 Part 2 and the Lost Post

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV


Did you enjoy Part 2 but haven’t seen Part 1 yet?  Watch it here.

In the video above, I say something like “and just like that, RiverTrek was over.”  Except, for me, it kept going on for another month as I edited two video segments.  This post is the end of my RiverTrek experience.  I’ll end it by writing the “update from the field” post I wanted to write but for which I didn’t seem to find time.  It was on our last lunch of the trip.

As you can see, we aren’t stretched out on a wide sandbar.  We stopped seeing those midway through Day 4.  We had to do a little scouting to find a spot where we could all sit somewhat comfortably.

As I paddled in, I brushed against a low branch and found myself snagged on something.  Once I noticed what it was, my brain was slow to sort out the correct order of action, which was to stop the kayak and THEN remove the hook.  You see these hooks hanging off of low branches along the lower half of the river, often marked with a fluorescent flag to avoid such incidents.  I had even gotten footage of a few of them.  When Georgia heard that I had been snagged, she gleefully asked “was there any blood?”  I guess that’s what I get for making her pose with a bloody finger and the hook that got her and then posting it here a couple of months ago.  No blood though, it just snagged my shirt.

I wasn’t the only one with a close call on our lunch break:

Bryan Desloge once again flaunted his uncanny ability to startle venomous snakes.  This one had been hanging out under the log where Bryan chose to eat his lunch.  When Bryan sat down, it slithered by his feet to hide in the brush.  The paddlers among us who were knowledgeable about snakes had a hard time identifying it, feeling that looked like a cottonmouth but that the coloration was wrong.  Had Bryan discovered a new subspecies?  After the trip, Doug Alderson wrote no less of a snake expert than Dr. Bruce Means, who confirmed that it was a cottonmouth.  “That drab, rusty/muddy color on a cottonmouth is pretty common in muddy rivers.” wrote Dr. Means,  “I see it a lot in [the] Apalachicola, Choctawhatchee, and Escambia rivers.  I think it is dried silt on the snake’s back.  When I catch one and wet it, the natural colors come out but then the snake
gets drab again when dry.”

We ended lunch by looking at these tracks in the sand.  These were even more difficult to identify than the snake.  Consulting his field guide, Doug concluded that they were mink tracks.  It was surprising to most of us that mink lived along the Apalachicola, but that just goes to show you why it’s considered a biodiversity hotspot.

So now, a month later, RiverTrek is over but the problems in the river, basin, and bay remain.  As my In the Grass, On the Reef collaborator Dr. David Kimbro gears up to further investigate the oyster reefs in the bay, our focus when it comes to Apalachicola will shift there.  But while our primary area of concern is estuarine ecosystems, our EcoAdventure segments do lead us inland and up rivers.  So, we’re likely to be back on the River on this blog.

Related Links

For more information on the Apalachicola RiverKeeper, visit their web site.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input.  You can let your voice be heard here.

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan Tonsmeire told us in his original interview with us back in August, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

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

We want to hear from you! Add your question or comment.
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Split the Difference: Applied vs. Basic Science

Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Looking over the catch

Shannon Hartsfield and Colonel Donald Jackson of the Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division look over their catch during an oystering demonstration at Cat Point Bar. This demonstration was meant to show the problems caused by low fresh water input into the bay. Below, David talks about starting to work towards a possible solution.

Tonight on WFSU-TV’s Dimensions program, watch Part 2 of RiverTrek 2012.  Tune in at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV. In case you missed it, you can watch Part 1 of RiverTrek 2012 here

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Spread offense or Power-I formation? Man-to-Man or Zone defense? Austerity or Stimulus spending? And most importantly, Batman or Batgirl?

Whether leading a team of athletes or a population of countrymen, deciders frequently confront such either-or decisions or binary outcomes (i.e., yes or no).

Because time is one of our most limiting resources, natural scientists confront such a dilemma right out of the gate: should I pursue Applied or Basic scientific research?

By applied, I mean research that focuses on immediate solutions to societal problems: How can we deal with a new infectious disease (e.g., avian flu)? Where did the BP oil go?

By basic, I mean research that focuses on improving our knowledge about the nuances of the natural world: How many galaxies are there in the observable universe and how were they formed (I just saw a must-see iMax movie, Hubble 3D, at the JFK Space Center Visitor Complex)? Why is biodiversity so much greater in the tropics?

Flashing back to my childhood hero, I realize that Michael Jordan will likely remain the best basketball player to ever play not solely because of his offense (which was certainly top tier), but also because he worked relentlessly to become a top-tier defender as well. Obviously, few people can master both sides of a spectrum, and sometimes a focus on both or on splitting the difference can come with great cost. For example, my favorite college football team (UNC) is implementing a hybrid defense (i.e., a 4-2-5 instead of a 4-3 or a 3-4) this year; we LOST 68-50 this last Saturday…in FOOTBALL!

Because my plans for playing in the NBA and NFL obviously aren’t working out, let’s get back to science and the merits of focusing on both ends of the science spectrum.

Recently, I talked about this topic with a leading research and clinical Psychologist at Florida State University, Dr. Thomas Joiner. Ignorantly, I thought FSU was only great in Football…turns out that they also have the best Psychology department in the nation. In a recent book Lonely at the Top, Dr. Joiner weaved together many interesting and Basic research studies to show how gender and evolutionary forces cause nuanced interactions all the way from neurons and one’s health to one’s social behavior. It was fascinating to learn how these interactions can promote the loneliness that facilitates suicides.

But while all of these powerful connections lined up well for the main argument of his book, I am equally interested by a conversation we recently shared together about there being many applied problems that can’t wait around for further testing of nuanced ideas. For instance, Dr. Joiner recently began working with the US military to study and reduce the causes of suicide within the military. As Dr. Joiner indicated, the military probably couldn’t give a darn about Basic research findings. They just want some realistic solutions and they want them yesterday.

If you stuck it out this far, you are probably wondering, “how does this relate to oysters, predators, etc.?” Well, the motivation of my Basic research is to increase our knowledge about how predators keep the lights on for many of the natural systems that we depend on like oyster reefs, salt marshes and seagrass beds. But in pursuing this research over the past three years, I have confronted a very important applied problem that needs immediate solutions: the oyster fishery of Apalachicola, Florida presently contains too few oysters to support the local economy (Download a PDF of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report here).

So, if you follow this blog, you’ll get to see whether my attempt to be like Mike (if you’ve seen my vertical leap, it’s obvious we’re talking research and not b-ball), to emulate the approach of Dr. Joiner, and to split the Applied–Basic difference is a success or a bust. I’ll be working with a lot of good researchers (Florida Sea Grant, UF Oyster Recovery Task Force), state organizations – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS) and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)- and the local community to examine the following:

David accompanies FDACS on a sampling trip in Apalachicola Bay as part of a new collaboration.

(1) How in the heck do you work in such a large and logistically challenging system?

(2) What is the extent of the problem…how far gone is the resource?

(3) After getting some research under our belts, what our some realistic options to this problem?

(4) Because we all want answers to these questions yesterday, can we explore the existing data, which was impressively collected by FDACS for the past 30 years, to get a head start?

Finally, I suspect that this Applied perspective may help inform the merits of my Basic interests. There are a ton of things that could be contributing to the failure of the oyster fishery such as climate change, drought, fresh-water extraction, over-harvesting, disease, nutrient inputs, and water quality. Whether or not any of our predator ideas help explain the lost of this fishery represents a very big test. In other words, relative to other explanations, is all of this predator stuff really important?

Ok, as the locals along the Forgotten Coast say “let’s get’er done”.

Best,
David

Take the RiverTrek 2012 photo tour down the Apalachicola River. You can zoom in and scroll across the map for greater detail. Later we’ll post a map with more of the basin and bay as well, from our other EcoAdventures in the area (River Styx, Graham Creek, etc.). Also, many of the locations are approximate. We did not geotag the location of every houseboat on the river, but the photos do show up in the same general vicinity (with the exception of more recognized landmarks such as Sand Mountain, Alum Bluff, etc.).

Related Links

For more information on the Apalachicola RiverKeeper, visit their web site.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input.  You can let your voice be heard here.

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.

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

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

 

RiverTrekkers climb into Means Creek, named for biologist Bruce Means.

Video: RiverTrek 2012 Days 1 & 2

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Part 2 of our RiverTrek adventure is now live. You can watch it here.

RiverTrekkers climb into Means Creek, named for biologist Bruce Means.

IGOR chip- filtration 150The web version of the video, which you see above, has some shots of our impromptu spelunking expedition by Means Creek that were not in the air version.  I was waiting on permission to show our cave adventure, which was in a part of Torreya State Park that we were told will be opened to the public at some point in the future.  I got that permission after last week’s Dimensions had been completed.  You may notice that, for a video about a kayak trip, we spend a lot of time in caves, bushwhacking in the woods, or climbing up bluffs.  None of our off-river excursions were in lands open to the public, but were instead near parklands that were (Means Creek in Torreya and Alum Bluff on The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, near the Garden of Eden Trail).  With those parks in the northern stretch of the river and the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area in the south, there are ample opportunities to explore the areas adjacent to the river.  Those protected lands are valuable for their ecotourism potential, but they have a indirect value when it comes to the water in the river, in Apalachicola Bay, and into the Gulf of Mexico.

It has to do with clean (or cleaner, anyway) water.  I wrote last week about the Army Corps of Engineers visit to Apalachicola Bay, and the meeting during which various presenters made their case for the why the river needed more water than has been flowing through the Woodruff Dam.  One presentation that left an impression was that of Dr. Felicia Coleman, Director of the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.  She was showing how the water flowing from the Apalachicola River had positive effects beyond the bay, and she made an interesting contrast.  She was comparing the “green river” plumes from both the Apalachicola and Mississippi Rivers, the two largest North American sources of freshwater in the Gulf.  Along with the fresh water, they contribute chlorophyll and other nutrients.  There is a striking difference in what each river is putting into the Gulf.

“The two sources are quite different, because one is man made, agricultural… excess nutrients are falling into the Gulf” Dr. Coleman said, referring to the Mississippi, “and the other is a natural nutrient base that’s coming into the bay,” referring to the Apalachicola.  The Mississippi River drains 41% of the continental United States, along with considerable nitrogen and phosphorus such as are found in concentrated fertilizers typically used to grow crops and and keep lawns green.  The areas at the mouth of the Mississippi have been heavily developed, so there aren’t the kinds of coastal ecosystems that would filter these nutrients (though as David Kimbro pointed out to me, the sheer volume of runoff from the Mississippi is greater than what these coastal ecosystems could filter).  All of that nitrogen and phosphorous was of course meant to make plants grow, and a farmer can control how fertilizer is applied to get crops to grow how they want and to maximize their yield.  When it runs off of farms and lawns and into the water, you can’t control what plants grow and how fast.  If phytoplankton gets a super dose of nitrogen, its growth can become unchecked and it can suck the oxygen out of water.  Dr. Coleman estimated that the dead zone off of the Mississippi is about the size of New Jersey.

Shrimp boats in Apalachicola, at the very end of RiverTrek 2012.

So, that’s me taking a hike on Alum Bluff and trying to make it about the oysters in the bay.  But there is a connection to the bay, and as Felicia Coleman illustrated, beyond the bay and into the Gulf.  Gag and red grouper are commercially important fish that are caught in waters that are about 60 feet deep.  They spawn when the green river plume is at its seasonal peak (the flow of the river is not constant).  Dr. Coleman presented a map that showed the greatest concentration of grouper spawning happened within that plume.    So the water flow, which is at an all time low (since people have started measuring it), is crucial to that fishery as well as to the shrimp, crab, and oyster fisheries of the bay.  “If you look at rivers around the world that have had intense fresh water withdrawals,” Dr. Coleman said, “There have been some of the most spectacular fishery failures that we know about, in a global sense.”

Riverlinks

I’m not the only one publishing blog posts on RiverTrek 2012.  My fellow paddler (and author) Doug Alderson wrote this post for his Visit Tallahassee blog.

The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input.  You can let your voice be heard here.

Stay tuned for Part II of the RiverTrek Adventure on Wednesday November 14 at 7:30 PM/ ET as we complete our journey to the bay.

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The River, the Bay, and the Army Corps of Engineers

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Slideshow: Army Corps of Engineers visit Apalachicola Bay

Tonight on WFSU’s Dimensions: Part 1 of the RiverTrek 2012 Adventure.  Days one and two of paddling, camping, hiking and climbing air at 7:30 PM/ ET with an encore on Sunday, October 28 at 10 AM/ ET.  The trip concludes with Part 2 (Days 3-5) on Wednesday, November 14 at 7:30 PM/ET.

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The slideshow above was photographed on Monday, when Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited (along with state agency officials and media) to see firsthand how depleted the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay have become.  We went out in three oyster boats, captained by the leadership of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, to the Cat Point bar.  Cat Point is usually one of the most productive winter reefs in the bay.  In early September, the Summer reefs closer to the mouth of the river are closed and the Winter reefs further out are opened up.  The Winter reefs should have spent months replenishing and younger oysters should have matured into legal sized, commercially viable oysters.  Only this year, it didn’t happen.

Colonel Donald Jackson receives oystering tips from Shannon Hartsfield.

Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Association, takes a few licks with his oyster tongs and then hands the them to Colonel Donald Jackson.  Colonel Jackson takes a few licks; between the two of them they take about eight.  Hartsfield inspects their catch: about six legal oysters in a pile of dead shell. Later he tells me that in past years, that amount of work would have yielded about a 30 lb. bag of legal oysters.  This is what the Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited to see.  The Corps controls the flow of water in the Apalachicola/ Flint/ Chattahoochee basin, directing water into over 200 reservoirs and adjusting how much flows through dams.  The lack of water flowing from the Apalachicola River, due in large part to the drought we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, is the main cause of the fishery crisis.  The oystering demonstration is the Franklin County Seafood Workers’ argument for more water to be allowed through Woodruff Dam at the Florida/ Georgia border.

The wrangling over this water is often portrayed as between seafood workers in the bay and Georgia’s farmers and Atlanta’s water consumers.  But the list of stakeholders also contains power companies (hydroelectric and nuclear), MillerCoors LLC, manufacturers, and recreational concerns, to name a few (see the full list here).  It’s messy.  And change doesn’t look like it’s coming soon.  As the colonels said during the community meeting later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they are soldiers following a protocol.  A new protocol (an update to the ACF Master Water Control Manual) is being drawn up, but changes will not take effect for 2-3 years, and in the meantime there isn’t a lot of leeway for how the water can be redirected, at least not by the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority (The U.S. Legislature grants them the authority they have). They are taking public input for the Manual Update, you can send your comments here.

This slide provided by Helen Light (©USGS) illustrates the floodplain supported by the river. As water levels have decreased over the last few decades, there has been a loss of 4 million trees in the floodplain and a loss of aquatic habitat.

During that meeting, presenters from different agencies, universities, and local concerns laid out the impact of the low water flow on the bay and on the river basin.  The next day, the colonels would be going up the river to see the effects of low flow there, where I had just paddled a week-and-a-half ago in the video that airs tonight.  My interest had been, as a main focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef project is oyster reef ecology, the bay and how the lack of river flow had affected it.  As Helen Light said to us on the first night of the trek “You all know a lot about the bay, and the impacts in the bay, you’ve been reading it in the paper.”  That night, gathered around her on the sand bar across from Alum Bluff, she proceeded to tell us about the effects on the river.  She had studied the floodplain for decades while working for the US Geological Survey, and has seen the changes undergone as river flow has decreased over the last few decades.  I keep going back to her talk in the video, much as we did in our conversations kayaking down the river.  Even as we were falling in love with the river (or reconnecting with it), we learned of its struggles and the troubles it was facing.

For all of the statistics on the decline of the river, it was still a beautiful paddle.  The fish were jumping, eagles soared overhead, turtles sat on logs- and as we reported, there were plenty of snakes.  We got off the river, too, to see some of the creeks, swamps, and forest around it.  For all its troubles, the river is still enjoyable, as are its products.  There has been a 44% decline in Ogeechee Tupelo trees along the river since 1976, but you can still buy tupelo honey produced from the trees in the river basin.  And at the reception after the community meeting on Monday, the same day I saw oystermen pull dead shell off the floor of the bay,  there were trays of healthy looking Apalachicola oysters on the half shell.  As tourists and consumers, it can be easy to dismiss the stats when our own eyes (and taste buds) tell us everything looks normal.

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RiverTrek 2012: A Quick Look Back

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

On every RiverTrek Day wrap-up post I wrote about what I heard while I lay in my sleeping bag that morning.  This morning it was the buzzing of my alarm, and then I strained to hear anything else.  Walls do a much better job keeping sound out than the thin fabric of a tent.  Eventually I hear that gentle hum of cars and trucks.  Today’s trash day, so I know garbage and recycling trucks are coming.

Back to a more technologically civilized existence.  That means I can upload all the posts that wouldn’t make it from the tablet while using Rick’s or Micheal’s phones as hotspots.  And I can add a lot more photos.  The blog software lets you fudge the dates, so everything can show up in order and you can start at the beginning and look at what we saw along the way.  The best way to see it all would be to go back to what is currently page 3 and keep scrolling over the posts (every new post will push them down, so this won’t be true for more than a few weeks).  Or you can just jump to the beginning and go post by post.

I am fortunate and honored that I was invited to participate in this year’s event.  I hope we do it justice in these posts and in the two video segments set to air on WFSU’s dimensions program (and which I’ll post here).  There may be other bits and pieces to post as well.  We saw and learned a lot.

And I do want to thank everyone who helped me with the production side of things.  Georgia already thanked the support team, and I want to reiterate that.  Thanks Eddie, Mitch, Fred, Dawn and Rick.  Thanks as well to Captain Gill on the support boat, and a big thanks to Dan Tonsmeire for taking a videographer for two days and showing him the river (and for so many other things as well).

Thanks to WFSU videographer Dan Peeri and In the Grass, On the Reef Associate Producer Rebecca Wilkerson for your assistance on the production side of things.

Thanks to the paddlers for putting up with the cameras, my lagging behind when I went to get a shot, and the occasional bump from my boat.  And for making me feel welcome in this group.  Thanks to Rick and Micheal for the use of your phones as WiFi hotspots.  A big thanks to Georgia for posting diligently and keeping the outside world up to date when technology failed me.  Georgia and Doug Alderson did a fantastic job coordinating the trip and picking participants.  I can’t say enough about the experience of RiverTrek, and how much there was for us to shoot and write about.

Lastly, I want to thank my wife Amy for letting me go for five days and staying home with an increasingly active toddler.

I’m probably forgetting someone.  If I am, these posts are editable.