Category Archives: Apalachicola River and Bay

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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.

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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.