Expansion of Estuarine Monitoring to the Florida Panhandle

By Myranda Clark and David Gandy

A portion of the Deepwater Horizon’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) settlement was earmarked for the construction and operation of a production-level fish hatchery in the Florida Panhandle. A partnership between FWC, DEP, and the City of Pensacola has designed a hatchery facility (Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center) to be built in Pensacola, Florida. The release of hatchery-reared animals is ethical only when both the wild and hatchery-reared stocks are monitored to ensure that wild populations are not adversely impacted.

Accordingly, the Fisheries-Independent Monitoring Program (FIM), with its long history of working with the Stock Enhancement Research Facility in Manatee County, was tasked with developing a sampling program for estuaries in the Florida Panhandle. With the potential release of in-season Phase I (1.25 inches) Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) and Spotted Seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) into five Panhandle estuaries (Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Sound, Choctawhatchee Bay, St. Andrews Bay, and St. Josephs Bay), it was determined that the most appropriate sampling approach would be the use of 21.3-m seines in shallow water habitats.

Historical data collected by the FIM program from Apalachicola Bay (1998-2015), and Choctawhatchee Bay/Santa Rosa Sound (1992-1997) were used to develop a sampling design that would use 21.3-m seines to assess wild populations prior to hatchery releases, and wild and hatchery-reared populations after releases are initiated. Sampling of wild stocks began in July 2017 in all five estuaries and will occur monthly from July through December each sampling year. The timing of this sampling coincides with peak young-of-year recruitment for both Spotted Seatrout (July – September) and Red Drum (October – December) into estuarine nursery habitats in Florida Panhandle estuaries. Aside from a shorter sampling season, this survey employs identical protocols that are currently used in several other estuaries throughout Florida; therefore, project-associated data will be comparable to 21.3-m seine data collected throughout the state, so data should quickly be useful in stock assessments.

Young-of-the-year estuarine-dependent fish, such as Red Drum and Spotted Seatrout, depend on suitable nursery habitat to provide critical foraging grounds, refuge from predators, and essential abiotic conditions necessary to optimize growth and survival to adulthood. The data collected from this survey will allow FWC to identify these essential habitats in Florida Panhandle estuaries, allowing for the release of hatchery-reared fishes where they will have the greatest chance for survival. Current sampling efforts are also identifying trends in recruitment variability for wild stocks. Sampling after releases begin will gauge the relative contribution of the hatchery to overall stocks and assess the efficacy of these stocking efforts.

Data from year one of this study will be summarized with a preliminary presentation occurring at the FWRI-FIM program’s annual meeting in St. Petersburg, January 24 – 26, 2018.