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2019 Healthy Bay Report Card

Florida Sea Grant is involved in several citizen science and education projects designed to monitor the health of the bay.  Below is an annual report of those projects.

 

WATER QUALITY –

 

Fish Kills

Fish kills are an obvious concern for coastal residents and businesses.  In past decades hundreds of thousands of fish died due to a variety of reasons, but more often than not – it was hypoxia (lack of dissolved oxygen in the water).  Low DO can be caused by natural and man-made events.  In our case, the release of excessive nutrients from human sources can cause algal blooms which, when they die, are decomposed by microbes, which use valuable dissolved oxygen in doing so.  These can trigger fish kills.  Below are the fish kill data from 2019.

 

FISH KILL DATA (Jan-Oct 2019)

Month # of Fish Kills reported # of Dead Fish reported Cause
Jan 0 0
Feb 0 0
Mar 0 0
Apr 0 0
May 0 0
June 0 0
July – Johns Beach report – # unknown Unknown May have been discolored water
Aug 2 Unknown Dead catfish in lower Perdido Bay

Multiple species from Emerald Beach Park in Navarre

Sep 3 Unknown Unknown

Tarpon Perdido Key Beach

Mullet, Blue Crab, Sea Turtle @ Herron Bayou

Pond @ Tiger Point golf course

Oct 12 Unknown 11 reports of menhaden in Bayou Chico

1 report from Ramsey Beach on Perdido Bay

 

 

Comments on Fish Kills

The number of reported fish kills have reduced significantly since the 1970s.  In 2019 there was a surge of kills reported in late summer.  It is believed these were triggered by dissolved oxygen reductions due to extremely warm air and water temperatures – not from excessive nutrients in the water.  Menhaden are fish that have a low tolerance for low concentrations of DO and these were the fish most often associated with the fish kills occurring in Bayou Chico in early October.

 

Nutrients

Five volunteers monitor five local bodies of water for total nitrogen, total phosphorus, total chlorophyll a, water clarity, and salinity in the LAKEWATCH PROGRAM.  Samples are collected every other month and analyzed by the LAKEWATCH team at the University of Florida.    

 

LAKEWATCH

Body of Water Station 1 Station 2 Station 3
Upper Pensacola Bay New site no data yet
Bayou Texar Eutrophic Eutrophic Eutrophic
Bayou Chico Hypereutrophic Hypereutrophic Eutrophic
Bayou Grande Eutrophic Eutrophic Eutrophic
Lower Perdido Bay Eutrophic Eutrophic Eutrophic

 

Comments on Nutrients

The term eutrophic indicates high levels of nutrients in the water.  However, estuaries are naturally eutrophic – which is why estuaries are such productive ecosystems.  That said, hypereutrophic (excessive high nutrient levels) are a concern.  This LAKEWATCH data suggest that the Jones Creek arm of Bayou Chico may have a nutrient problem.  High concentrations of nutrients can trigger algal blooms which could be (a) toxic and (b) cause hypoxia and fish kills.  In 2020, Sea Grant will work with stakeholders in this watershed to try and determine cause and suggest practices to reduce this problem.

 

Bacteria

The Florida Department of Health monitors local swimming beaches once a week during the “swimming season”.  They continue to monitor Bayou Texar and Sanders Beach year-round.  71 colonies (or >) of Enterococcus fecal bacteria is considered poor and requires a second sample be collected.  If the second sample also is 71(>) a health advisory is issued.  Sea Grant’s objective is help the community reduce the number of required health advisories be at (or below) 30% of the samples collected.

 

FDOH FECAL BACTERIA COUNT (as of end of October 2019)

Body of Water Good Moderate Poor Advisories % of samples
All 13 locations 196 31 55 38 .14
Bayou Texar 25 3 15 15 .35
Bayou Chico 7 2 15 14 .58
Bayou Grande 9 8 7 7 .29
Sanders Beach 28 9 11 5 .11
Casino Beach 23 0 2 1 .04
Park West 22 0 3 1 .04

 

Comments on bacteria

Our community has been battling this issue for several years now, particularly in the local bayous.  Enterococcus fecal bacteria are found in the digestive tracts of birds and mammals and are used as a proxy to identify sewage problems.  In recent years, the city and county have made several infrastructural, and clean up, changes to help reduce this problem.  They have worked reducing but some problems still exist.  Sea Grant is trying to educate the public how to reduce this problem and hopes that no one body of water will have more than 30% of their samples requiring a health advisory.  The 2019 data show that the three major bayous are still struggling with this issue.  We do plan to offer a program on septic and sewer maintenance that residents can do to help reduce the number of advisories being issued.

 

Salinity

Salinity is the amount of dissolved solids in the water – mostly salts.  There has been interest in restoring both seagrasses and scallops in area waterways of the Florida panhandle.  However, the water quality must be right, and this would include salinity.  Coastal species of seagrass, and scallops, need the salinity to be 20 ‰ (or higher) more often than not.  With the increase amount of rainfall in recent years, there is the question whether the salinity may be too low for such projects.  Below is the data collected by six volunteers in the Pensacola Bay area in 2019.  “N=” is the number of times they have sampled.  We hope to get a minimum of 50 samples from each volunteer over the next year or so.

 

SALINTY MONITORING (as end of October 2019)

Body of Water N = Mean Median Mode Range (‰)
Old River 17 20 19 20 15-27
Bayou Grande 11 21 22 22 9-24
Kees Bayou 15 14 14 14 14-29
Lower Perdido 10 13 13 13 3-17
Big Sabine 2 22 22 NA 21-22
Little Sabine 6 22 22 21 19-24
Big Lagoon 7 23 25 25 5-27

 

Comments on salinity

The number of samples reported by each volunteer are low, we have JUST begun to collect this data.  They will continue to sample until we reach “N = 100” at the minimum.  From this we will have a better idea if seagrass, scallop, or even oyster restoration will work in these bodies of water.  More to come.

 

HABITAT RESTORATION

 

Shoreline Salt Marsh

Much of the natural shoreline vegetation has been removed over time for a variety of reasons.  These shoreline buffers reduce erosion, remove pollutants in run-off, and enhance fisheries and wildlife.  All of these have economic impacts for the community.  Restoring them is important, but also problematic in terms that not everyone wants a salt marsh on their property.  With the Living Shoreline program waterfront property owners can work with the state to restore their shoreline so that it (a) provides the eco-services mentioned above and (b) allow the owner access to the water.

 

Grasses in Classes

Is a program where local schools partner with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to produce shoreline plants that can be used in restoration projects in the Pensacola Bay area.  Below are the 2019 data from this program.

 

GRASSES IN CLASSES

School Species J. roemarianus S. patens Symphyotrichum Sesuvium S. alterniflora
WFHS # begin 36 36 36 18
# end 64 151 77 0
PFHS # begin 36 36 36 18
# end 105 70 112 163
EHS # begin 36 18 18 18 18
# end 91 72 2 18 48
WHS # begin 36 36 36 18
# end 44 53 0 79
GBHS # begin 36 36 36 18
# end 133 129 23 41
TOTAL # begin 180 162 162 90 18
# end 437 475 214 301 48

 

Comments on Grasses in Classes

These plants are currently waiting time to plant.  Winter tides make planting much easier and these plants will be going in this winter.

 

Living Shorelines

Private citizens can have a living shoreline planted on their property.  The benefits are mentioned above, and Sea Grant can help you walk your way through the process of doing so.  We hope to gain one new project each year.  This year we were invited out to speak to two property owners.  One decided not to put one in at this time.  The other has a natural marsh starting and has chosen to create a no-mowing buffer to allow this to take naturally.

There are three other properties who have, in recent years, had a project planted on their property.  Sea Grant can show you how to monitor your project to determine how well it is doing over time.  Below are the results of monitoring of two of the projects.

 

LIVING SHORELINE GROWTH

Location Year Mean Height (cm) Density / 0.5m2 Distance from shore (m)
Old River 2018 122 13 2.4
2019 142 ND 2.4
Bayou Grande 2018 73 15 3.0
2019 73 25 2.0

 

Comments on living shoreline monitoring

In both of these projects growth has occurred.  At the Old River site, the plants have grown taller but have not accreted further from shore.  At the Bayou Grande site, the plants have not grown taller over the course of one year but have become denser.  All of which is good.  Photos of these two projects also indicate they are doing very well.  This should help with erosion, remove pollutants, and enhancing fisheries over time.  Again, we hope to add another project in 2020.

 

Submerged Seagrasses

Most understand the importance of seagrasses to local fisheries and to the health of the bay itself.  It has been estimated 80-90% of the commercial important fisheries species depend on these seagrasses for at least part of their life cycle.  They are vitally important for the restoration of scallops in area waters.  In 2019 we trained nine volunteers to monitor seagrasses in one of 11 1×1 nautical mile grids in Big Lagoon.  Each volunteer monitored four 0.25 x 0.25m2 quadrats within their assigned grids.  Once a month from May through September.  They also took water samples for analysis in Dr. Jane Caffrey’s lab at UWF.  Those samples looked at total suspended solids, dissolved inorganic nitrogen, dissolved inorganic phosphorus, ammonium, nitrite, and chlorophyll a.  Students from UWF randomly selected some of the sites to monitor salinity and other parameters using a YSI in the field.

–          As total suspended solids and dissolved inorganic phosphorus increased, the percent of the quadrat which was bare of grass also increased.

–          The opposite was the case for dissolved inorganic nitrogen; as DIN increased the percent of quadrat that was bare of grass decreased.

There is more analysis for the UWF lab to complete.  We will report on these when we get them.

Mangroves

Red, black, and white mangroves are estuarine trees found in the more tropical parts of Florida.  In recent years some of these have been found growing in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Black mangroves are more tolerant of cold weather and would be expected (if any) to survive here.  However, both black and red mangroves have been found in different parts of the area.

Working with graduate student Aaron Macy (Dauphin Island Sea Lab), Sea Grant developed a volunteer program to survey 10 100-meter transects in each county of the Florida panhandle.  In Escambia County we have 10 such locations and had four volunteers survey looking for these plants.  Below are the results of their surveys.

 

Location Mangroves present
Kees Bayou No
Big Lagoon State Park No
Siguenza Cove No
Langley Point No
Redfish Cove No
Trout Point No
Ft. McRee No
Little Sabine No
Big Sabine #1 No
Big Sabine #2 No

 

Comments on mangroves

For the second year in a row we did not find any live mangroves in Escambia County.  We have, however, found them in the past.  They died during a hard freeze and have not returned.  Aaron Macy is moving on and so the formal project will come to an end this year, but we will continue to ask locals to report sightings of this tree and it will be part of our annual Scavenger Hunt.

 

OCCURRENCE OF WILDLIFE INDICATORS

 

Certain wildlife species can be used as indicators of the health of the bay.  Below are some that are currently being monitored by local volunteers.

 

Diamondback Terrapins

Diamondback terrapins are the only resident brackish water turtles in the United States, preferring salt marshes and mangroves over open beaches.  They are an important predator in these systems and their presence/absence can impact the entire biological community.  Sea Grant is using their presence (by calculating frequency of occurrence) as an indicator to the overall health of these marshes; their presence being a good thing.  In 2019, 15 volunteers spent a total of 176 hours surveying one of 8 sites in the Pensacola Bay area.  Below are the results of their surveys.

 

DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN SURVEYS (2019)

County # of sites # of surveys # of encounters Frequency of Occurrence
Escambia 5 60 5 0.08
Santa Rosa 3 54 16 0.30
TOTAL 8 114 21 0.18

 

DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN SURVEYS (2007 – 2019)

Year # of surveys # of encounters Frequency of Occurrence # of encounters Escambia # of encounters Santa Rosa
2007 23 3 0.13 1 2
2008 34 10 0.29 0 10
2009 43 23 0.53 0 22
2010 38 22 0.58 0 21
2011 28 25 0.89 1 24
2012 3 2 0.67 1 1
2013 1 1 1.00 0 1
2014 0 0 0.00 0 0
2015 62 6 0.10 1 5
2016 42 7 0.17 1 6
2017 60 5 0.08 3 0
2018 139 25 0.18 10 15
2019 114 21 0.18 5 16

 

Comments on Terrapins

We are finding terrapins in the Pensacola Bay area – more in Santa Rosa County than Escambia.  Following the second table, you will notice an increase in FOO between 2007-2011.  This is partly due surveyors getting better at finding them, rather than a sudden surge in the population.

Between 2012-2015 there is a noticeable decrease in effort – only 4 surveys in 3 years.  This is due to a job change by myself and time did not allow.  Between 2015-2019 we developed a citizen science program within Sea Grant to conduct these surveys.  The effort (# of surveys) increased over 100% but encounters declined.  We believe this was more due to volunteer surveyors learning how to find them.  You will notice during the citizen science period the FOO of occurrence did increase.  Again, we feel this may be due more to learning how to find than a surge in the population.  We have a good group of trained volunteers now and we believe their surveys will begin to yield better information on what is happening with the terrapins in our bay over the next few years.

 

Scallops

This is one of the more popular family activities (scalloping) and seafood products in Florida.  Many long-time residents can remember days when their families would snorkel all day, bring home the goods, and enjoy this popular Florida seafood item.  Unfortunately, they have declined significantly.  Once found between Pensacola and Miami they are now only found in large numbers in the Big Bend region.  Commercial harvest is no longer allowed and recreational harvesting is regulated.

Once common in Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon, these bivalves are very difficult to find today.  Their decline has been attributed to both decline in habitat (seagrass) and over harvesting.  As agencies and volunteers continue to monitor both habitat and salinity, Sea Grant also has a project where volunteers search our lower bay area for the presence of this animal – an indicator that things are improving.

In 2019, 10 locals were trained and seven of those volunteered to survey four 50-meter transects in one of 11 grids in Big Lagoon.  Those participants brought an additional 3 volunteers to assist with a total of 10 volunteers this year.  Below are the results of their effort.

 

SCALLOP SURVEY (Big Lagoon – 2019)

Grid # volunteers # transects Area surveyed (m2) # scallops Seagrass species Seagrass density Macroalgae present
1 3 4 400 0 Shoal <5-50% N
2 2 4 400 0 Shoal 50% Y
3 0
4 2 4 400 0 ND 70-90% Y
5 0
6 0
7 0
8 2
9 2
10 2 4 400 1 shell Shoal Turtle 50-100% N
11 2 4 400 3 shells Shoal Turtle 50-100% N

 

 

SCALLOP SURVEYS (2015-2019)

Year # volunteers # grids surveyed Area surveyed (m2) # scallops found
2015 24 8 3300 0
2016 33 11 4300 1
2017 5 4 1600 0
2018 21 8 3200 0
2019 10 7 2800 0
TOTAL 93 1
MEAN 19 8 3040
RANGE 5-33 4-11 1600-4300

 

Comments on Scallops

As you can see from the second table – scallops are not very abundant in our bay.  However, we do know of at least two piles of cleaned shells in local parking lots, and some (including me) have seen live ones outside of the organized survey times.  So, they are still in the area albeit in VERY low numbers.  The water quality and seagrass habitat may still be issues for restoration, but local harvesting is not going to help.  We will continue to do these surveys each June in the possibility we are selected for a state restoration project.

 

Great Nature Scavenger Hunt

This project was developed in 2019 to address the need for education about our local estuary.  Citizen science projects are a great way to educate the public about what is happening in their community, and these volunteers can then educate others about what they are finding.

There are several species of interest in our bay area.  Some are creatures that were here decades ago and are now rare (or completely absent).  Others are creatures that were not historically found in the area but are now.  Still others are species of concern – such as invasive species or listed/protected ones.  Having hundreds of volunteer eyes scanning the bay area for these selected species not only enhances their education but provides information useful to resource managers.

In 2019, we had 19 volunteers on four teams conduct 12 surveys during the Scavenger Hunt Week (Oct 13-19).  Below are the results of their effort.

 

NATURE SCAVENGER HUNT – October 2019

Habitat # surveys # volunteers Minutes surveys Species Found
Beach-Dunes 6 11 500 Bald eagle

Crown Conch

Longnose Killifish

Widgeon grass

Salt Marsh 3 3 55 Crown conch

Alligator

Seagrass 1 2 240
Hardened Habitats 2 3 75 Oyster reef
TOTAL 12 19 870

14.5 hrs

4 TEAMS

12 SURVEYS

 

Species Beach

Dune

Salt Marsh Seagrass Hardened Structures
Beach vitex
Chinese tallow
Cogongrass
Mangroves
Manatee grass
Widgeon grass X
Beach mouse
Coyote
Red fox
Feral cat
Bald eagle X
Crown conch X X
Oyster reef X
Nutria
Diamondback terrapins
Longnose killifish X
Lionfish
Scallop
Sea urchin
Manatee
Horseshoe crab
Sand dollar
Sea turtle
Lightning whelk
Stone crab
Seaside sparrow
Alligator X
Milkweed
River otter

 

X” indicates species found during the week-long hunt period.

 

 

Comments on Scavenger Hunt

Verbal response to this project was very positive, but attendance at trainings and participation in surveys was not as much as we had hoped.  This is understandable with a new project, but we hope to increase participation next year.

We initially had 26 species of interest, this increased to 29 during the survey.  The table above shows what was found during the “hunt period”.  However, 21 of the 29 were seen in our bay at sometime during the year.

–          Eight of these were “historic species” that were once common.  Seven of these eight (88%) were seen at least once this year – either during the survey or outside of it.  Lightning whelk being the only one not found.

–          Six were “listed species”.  Four of the six (67%) were seen either during the survey, or outside of it, this year.  The two not found were the beach mouse and the seaside sparrow.

–          Five were “invasive species”.  All five (100%) were seen this year, none of them during the scavenger hunt.

–          Five were “species of concern”.  These are species that could have a negative impact on estuarine ecology if not managed.  Only one of the five (20%) were seen this year.  This was the crown conch.  The only reason this is listed as “species of concern” is that their population seems to be expanding both in number and habitats.  We are not sure what this means, but want to track them to see if what we “think” we are seeing is truly happening.

–          Four were “new species” – those not historically here but have been seen in recent years.  Three of the four were found (75%).  Only the river otter was not seen this year.

–          Two are species that are sensitive to salinity changes and are being tracked to determine whether the increased rain seen in the bay area changes their distribution.  Widgeon grass (which likes lower salinities and the upper bay) was found at Bayou Grande during the survey and in Big Lagoon outside of it.  The Longnose Killifish (which like higher salinity) was found in Santa Rosa Sound, Big Lagoon, and Bayou Grande.

We will continue this project at least two more years to see if we get more interest.

 

Horseshoe Crab Watch

Horseshoe crabs are one of those animals that were once found in the Pensacola Bay area and have disappeared over time.  There is not currently a formal citizen science project surveying for these.  However, there is a Horseshoe Crab Watch effort to report sightings of these returning creatures at our office.  Below are the locations where either the crab, a male/female combo, or a molt have been found in our area.

 

HORSESHOE CRAB RECORDS

Area Location
Perdido Key GICWW Innerarity Point
Old River
Pensacola Pass Ft. Pickens
Pensacola Beach Little Sabine
Paradise Grill
Big Sabine
Gulf Breeze Deer Point
Deadman’s Island
Redfish Cove – East Bay
Pensacola Bayou Grande
Sanders Beach
Project Greenshores

 

 

There is a tagging program through Sea Grant and FWC, but we must have a known nesting beach with a relatively large number of individuals to initiate that project in the bay area; and that has not happened yet.  We will continue to monitor.

 

OCCURRENCE AND MANAGEMENT OF INVASIVE SPECIES

 

Beach vitex

Beach vitex (Vitex rotundifolia) is now listed as an invasive species and a state noxious plant in Florida.  First reported in 2012 by Bob and Lucy Duncan in Gulf Breeze, we have now been able to log 72 locations in Escambia County and Gulf Breeze.  Each year volunteers come out to help educate locals and remove this plant from our area.  We HOPE to be able to eradicate it before it becomes established. Six workdays and surveys, with 19 volunteers, were conducted this year.  Below are the results of their effort.

 

BEACH VITEX WORKDAYS-SURVEYS 2019

Location # of Surveys # of Removal Workdays
Perdido Key 3
Pensacola Beach 1
Tarkiln Bayou 1
TOTAL 1 4

 

BEACH VITEX LOCATIONS IN ESCAMBIA COUNTY – GULF BREEZE

Location # of sites # of sites treated/removed % treated/removed
Gulf Breeze 3 2 .67
Pensacola Beach 40 30 .75
Gulf Islands – NLO 24 24 1.00
Gulf Islands – Ft. Pickens 1 1 1.00
Perdido Bay 2 1 .50
Perdido Key 2 1 .50
TOTAL 72 59 .82

 

Comments on beach vitex

The good news is that 82% of the known locations have either been completely removed or have been treated and will be checked annually.  Treated locations could take as long as five years to completely eradicate, so we will continue to monitor and treat.

The bad news is that 18% have had not been removed nor treated.  Most of these are on private property and some wish to hold to the plants for a variety of reasons – all of which are good ones.  We do ask that home owners with the plant remove the seeds during fall so that they are not dispersed further.

The other issue is that we may not know where all of the plants are.  We ask citizens to report locations so that we can mark and track.  We will continue to work on this project until they are gone, controlled, or we have lost the war.

 

Lionfish

The presence, and situation, with the invasive lionfish off Pensacola is well known.  These animals first appeared off our shore in 2010 and have been increasing ever since.  Studies have shown that (a) they prefer artificial structures over natural ones, (b) they consume a large variety of small demersal reef fish including juvenile vermillion snapper, (c) they produce a mean of 30,000 eggs every four days – year round, (d) the egg cases are dispersed to new locations via currents, e) though some native species have consumed them, it is not a common practice, (f) their densities off Pensacola are some of the highest in the south Atlantic region.  In short, these guys can be a real problem.

 

2019 Information

During the 2018 Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day (LRAD) event on Perdido Key, divers reported lionfish hard to find at depths shallower than 120 feet.  Local dive charters who take visitors out to hunt lionfish reported the same.

In 2019, at both a state and a regional workshop, University of Florida researchers reported what the divers were seeing – the densities in shallow water have declined.  There has been evidence from both a high school science project, and graduate work at UF, that lionfish are consuming lionfish.  It is not known at what rate, or whether this has impacted the densities.  They have also discovered skin lesions on many of them.  It is known that there are variety of microbes that can cause this, it is not known which is causing them in lionfish or whether these lesions are negatively impacting their populations.

This year Escambia County had 342 local divers with registered saltwater products licenses for harvesting lionfish – it is not known how many actually did.

Escambia County ranked 5th in the state with the amount of lionfish sold commercially.

 

The 2019 LRAD was held in Destin.

187 divers participated – record

5,048 lionfish were submitted during the pre-tournament event – record

14,119 lionfish were harvested during the weekend tournament – record

19,167 total lionfish were harvested during the 2019 LRAD event – record

 

During Father’s Day weekend, a local angler caught a lionfish on rod & reel at the Ft. Pickens pier.  Follow up dives at the jetties found additional lionfish, all of them small.  2020 there will be continued monitoring a surveying for lionfish inside the bay.  We currently know of 13 verified records.  10 in lower Pensacola Bay, and 3 in Big Lagoon.