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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.

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Seagrass Wrack in the Salt Marsh – Blessing or Curse?

2-Minute Video: Seagrass wrack kills part of the marsh, but do its benefits outweigh the destruction?

Our videos to date have centered on biodiversity in the marsh and how it can make a marsh stronger against disturbances. As we see in this video, at least one type of disturbance might actually promote genetic and/ or species diversity.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University
This snake was found in a seagrass wrack experiment in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve. Blue crabs were often found taking shelter in their experimental plots as well.

This snake was found in a seagrass wrack experiment in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve. Blue crabs were often found taking shelter in their experimental plots as well.

This time of year if you look around salt marshes in our area, you’ll probably see a strip of dead plant material, or “wrack”, resting on top of the salt marsh plants around the high tide line. Look closer, and you’ll see that it’s mostly made up of seagrass leaves that have either been sloughed off naturally (seagrasses produce lots of new leaves in the summer and shed the old ones) or, occasionally, uprooted by boats driving through shallow seagrass beds. Look even closer (say, by picking it up), and you may just find a harmless marsh snake (or worse, a cottonmouth!) – in our experience, they like to hang out in the cool, moist areas under the wrack.

So is this wrack “good” or “bad” for the salt marsh? As with many things in life, the answer depends on your perspective. If you’re a snake or other critter that likes the habitat provided by the wrack, then it’s probably a good thing. On the other hand, if you’re one of my crew who finds that snake, and particularly if you’re Robyn who REALLY doesn’t like snakes, then it’s most definitely a bad thing. Or, if you happen to be the plant that the wrack settles on top of for long periods of time, then it’s a bad thing, because many of those plants die. But, if you’re a seed that is looking for a good spot to germinate in the marsh, then the bare spot created by the wrack is likely a good thing.

Bare spot left in salt marsh left by seagrass wrack.Last fall, David and I teamed up with Dr. Peter Macreadie from the University of Technology Sydney to find out how the bare “halos” created when wrack mats smother the underlying marsh plants influence the marsh sediments. It turns out, these bare areas store less carbon in the sediments than the nearby vegetated areas, which makes them less valuable as “sinks” for carbon dioxide. But as I mentioned earlier, the bare areas can also serve as a good spot for new plant species (or new genotype of a given species) to start growing, potentially increasing the overall diversity of the salt marsh. And as the seagrass wrack decays, it can provide valuable nutrients to the marsh sediments that support future plant growth. So what is the net outcome of all these good and bad effects?

We decided to do an experiment to answer that very question. As Ryan and Meagan will attest (along with almost everyone else in our labs who we enlisted to help us), this was a very labor-intensive experiment. First, we had to figure out how much wrack is typically in a given area of marsh. Then, we had to collect a lot of wrack, weigh it, assemble it into bags that could be “easily” moved to our experiment, and add it to cages that would help hold it in place. We’re talking ~1.5 tons of wrack picked up and moved to various spots!

FSU Coastal and Marine Lab technician Megan Murdock spin dries seagrass wrack for an experiment at the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.To make matters even more interesting, we had to soak the collected wrack in water to make sure it was all the same wetness, and then spin it around in mesh bags (think salad spinner on a very large scale) for a set amount of time to make sure we could get a consistent weight measurement on each bag. Anyone driving past the SJB Buffer Preserve in early September of last year must have wondered what craziness we were up to! And since we were interested in whether the length of time the wrack sits in one place influences its effects, or whether the number of times that wrack sits in a particular area matters, we moved all of this wrack around in our cages every 2 weeks for 3 months to mimic the movement of natural wrack by the tides. And then we measured everything we could think of to measure about the marsh.

We’re still going through all the data to determine the net outcome, but as expected, whether the wrack is a blessing or curse depends on who you are:

  • Juvenile blue crabs seem to like hanging out in the wrack (which is a much nicer surprise to find than a snake, even when they are feisty!)
  • Fiddler crabs also appear to like the wrack, with greater burrow numbers when wrack is present.
  • Contrary to our expectation that wrack would kill cordgrass and allow other plant species to recruit into the marsh, it looked like cordgrass actually did better in the wrack cages!
  • Sea lavender, a marsh plant with very pretty purple flowers, does not do so well when covered with wrack (Learn more about sea lavender and its relationship with mussels).

More to come once all the data are analyzed…

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.

Music in the piece by Philippe Mangold.

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.

Dr. Randall Hughes inspects a black mangrove growing in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.

Black Mangroves: Strangers in a St. Joe Bay Marsh

2-Minute Video: Mangroves don’t love the cold, but relatively mild winters have seen them multiply north of their range.  Randall takes a closer look at black mangroves in  the salt marshes of Saint Joseph Bay.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150

A few years ago, I took my colleague Dr. Ed Proffitt to check out the marshes in St. Joseph Bay. He asked to see mangroves, and I thought he was crazy. Mangroves up here? No way! But we had only been in one Buffer Preserve salt marsh together for a few minutes before I realized that the small “shrubs” that I had previously ignored were actually small black mangroves! And the more we looked, the more we found. They aren’t everywhere, but they can be quite abundant in some places.

Shrubby black mangroves (Avicennia germinans) are an increasingly common site in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.

Shrubby black mangroves (Avicennia germinans) appear to be an increasingly common site in the marshes of the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.

Mangroves typically occur below the “frost line”, or in areas that don’t experience hard freezes. Lore has it that mangroves have become more common in the northern Gulf of Mexico in recent years due to a series of mild winters. I haven’t been monitoring them long enough to say whether or not there are more now than there were, say, 10 or even 20 years ago, but it’s not hard to see that the ones that are here are successfully reproducing, with small seedlings surrounding the adult trees.

There are even red mangroves lingering around – they are less cold-tolerant than the black mangroves and a surprise to find in our marshes!

Dr. Randall Hughes inspects a black mangrove growing in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.I definitely have not seen any significant dieback in the last 5 winters, even when we have had hard freezes. And I would not be surprised if they become more common and abundant as the climate continues to change.

Mangroves in the marsh raise a number of interesting questions. Will they take over? What will that mean for the services these areas provide to people? Will the fishes and crabs that we like to eat become more or less abundant if mangroves dominate over marsh grasses?

A study conducted in Texas marshes looked at conditions under which mangroves best survived in marshes.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to these questions. But I can say that the mangroves that occur in St. Joseph Bay aren’t necessarily “better” at surviving in the northern Gulf than mangroves from farther down south. And why should they be?  Well, if a group of mangrove propagules arrived in St. Joe Bay, we may expect that only a subset of them would be able to survive the colder temperatures, and when these propagules grew into adult trees and produced propagules of their own, they should pass that “benefit” to their offspring (the process known as natural selection).

Black mangrove propagules.

Black mangrove propagules.

How do we we test whether St. Joe Bay mangroves are better equipped to live here than mangroves from down south? We have 2 ongoing experiments where we’ve planted “propagules” (young mangroves that look a lot like seeds) from different locations throughout FL in St. Joe Bay and followed them through time to see which ones survive and grow the best. There’s a lot of variation, but the St. Joe Bay propagules (which were largely the “runts” of the bunch to begin with) did not do as well as propagules from some of the areas down south such as Cedar Key and Cape Canaveral. These results suggest that it doesn’t take a particularly special propagule to survive in the northern Gulf; instead, there probably aren’t just many propagules that make it up here to begin with.

Of course, we’ve only been monitoring these propagules for 1-2 years; maybe the St. Joe propagules have an advantage when they get old / big enough to reproduce. We don’t want to speed up the mangrove take-over, so we’ll remove the seedlings in our experiment before that happens. But we’ll definitely continue to monitor the ones that already made it here on their own accord to see what they do next!

The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) south of Saint Augustine is where Randall and David have done a lot of their oyster research.  There, mangroves mingle with marsh cordgrass. Could salt marshes in St. Joseph Bay (or north Florida in general) one day look like something approximating this?

Music in the video by pitx.

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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Diversity- Getting by With a Little Help From (Salt) Marsh Friends

2-Minute Video: Marsh cordgrass, needlerush, sea lavender, mussels, periwinkle snails, and fiddler crabs: diversity in the salt marsh.

In Randall’s last post, she looked at whether genetic diversity within the salt marsh foundation species- smooth cordgrass- made for a stronger marsh (and by stronger, of course, we mean better able to shelter yummy blue crabs for people and sea turtles). In today’s post and video, Randall examines how the combination of plants and animals around cordgrass- the species diversity of a marsh- might play a role as well.
Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab/ Northeastern University

IGOR chip- biodiversity 150Even though salt marshes often look like one big sea of green in the intertidal, there are plants and animals other than marsh cordgrass around. And even though I devote a lot of effort to understanding the effects of diversity just within cordgrass, these other species are also important – no marsh is an island. (Well, actually they are, but you get the analogy.)

Fiddler crab found in a St. Joseph Bay salt marsh.So who is important, and why? There are at least two animals that can be classified as “friends” of cordgrass – fiddler crabs and mussels. Fiddler crabs create burrows that allow oxygen to get down in the sediment, and cordgrass roots appreciate that oxygen. The fiddler crabs also aerate the sediment during their feeding, and they can excrete nutrients that the plants use to grow.

As an aside, fiddler crabs are also irresistible for kids (and maybe adults too!).

Mussels aren’t quite as charismatic as fiddler crabs, but they like to nestle around stems of cordgrass, and the byssal threads that they use to attach to one another and to the sediment can help prevent erosion. In addition, they excrete nutrients and other organic material as a byproduct of their filter-feeding, and the plants take advantage of these nutrients.

While investigating the relationship between mussels and marsh cordgrass, Randall’s graduate student, Althea Moore, noticed that mussels also seemed to often accompany sea lavender in the marsh. This led to a separate study for Althea.

So who is MORE important, mussels or fiddler crabs? We did an experiment to test that question, or really, to test whether having mussels and fiddler crabs together is better than having just one or another. The answer? As with much in ecology – it depends. For one, it depends on what you measure. If you look at the number of cordgrass stems, then fiddler crabs are the better friend – cordgrass with fiddler crabs does better than cordgrass without fiddler crabs, regardless of whether you have mussels or not. But if you look at how tall the plants are (another important characteristic in the marsh), then mussels are the better friend, but only when fiddlers aren’t around. And if you look at the amount of organic content, mussels increase organic content at the sediment surface, whereas fiddlers increase it belowground. In the end, the take-home message is that the more things you measure about the marsh, the more important it becomes that you have both mussels and fiddler crabs in order to be the “best”.

In the process of doing the experiment I described above, Althea (my graduate student) noticed that when she was out in the marsh, she often found mussels in and around sea lavender (Limonium) plants more often than she found them around cordgrass. She became interested in finding out whether the mussels benefit the sea lavender, the sea lavender benefits the mussels, or a little bit of both. She’s still working on the answer, but it just goes to show that although we often tend to focus on who eats who (think Shark Week) or who can beat who (Octopus vs. Shark, anyone? Or, for kids, there’s always Shark vs. Train – a favorite at my house!), there are just as many instances of species helping one another (not that they always intend to).

Of course, it’s not just animals helping (aka, facilitating) plants – plants can help other plant species to. We’ve shown through a series of experiments that cordgrass benefits from having its tall neighbor needlerush (Juncus roemarianus) around, but only if the snails that like to graze on cordgrass are also present. Nothing is ever as simple as it looks in the marsh…

Music in the piece by Revolution Void.

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.