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 BuhlerFSU 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.
Last 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.
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.
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.
Part 2 of our RiverTrek adventure is now live. You can watch it here.
RiverTrekkers climb into Means Creek, named for biologist Bruce Means.
The 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.