All posts by Jonathan Veach

Trophy Largemouth Bass Telemetry Project

Largemouth bass commonly reach sizes in Florida that dwarf those in many other parts of the world where they are native or introduced. This trend is in part due to the long growing season in a warm subtropical climate and the natural fertility of Florida’s abundant freshwater lakes, but largely due the unique genetics of largemouth bass in Florida that allow many of them to grow to epic sizes. Their genetic character is distinct enough that FWRI geneticists advocate they are separate species (Micropterus floridanus) from largemouth bass native to the rest of North America (M. salmoides). Thus, catching trophy bass, or at least having the chance to catch one, is a major component of the attraction and allure to freshwater fishing in Florida.

To promote trophy bass fishing and conservation in Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) launched TrophyCatch in 2012. TrophyCatch rewards anglers for catching, documenting and releasing trophy bass while engaging anglers as citizen scientists who help the FWC build a long-term dataset of where and when trophy bass have been caught across the state. Trends or anomalies in these data may help steer FWC’s research biologists to develop new studies on largemouth bass or other species.

Kingsley Lake emerged from the TrophyCatch data as an unexpected and prolific producer of some of Florida’s largest bass. These bass were thought to be unusually old, and FWC biologists hypothesized their size and age might be linked to the lake’s unusual depths, which exceeds 40 feet deep across much of the lake’s offshore waters. If the water column at Kingsley Lake underwent thermal stratification during summer, bass there might be able to select temperature zones that maintain their metabolism closer to optimal levels compared to bass in shallower lakes that grow excessively hot, top-to-bottom, during much of the summer. Researchers working at the Harris Chain of Lakes (HCOL) had similar interests of learning more about trophy bass behavior and longevity. Communication among biologists led to hypotheses regarding differences between Kingsley Lake and lakes, such as those on the HCOL, that were more representative of Florida’s shallow-vegetated waterbodies.

Based on those discussions, FWC biologists developed two telemetry studies to learn more about the life history of bass in Florida and how these fish interact with their environments. Biologists specifically targeted the largest and oldest segment of the population because trophy bass are revered by anglers. One of the goals in this study was to document differences in lake characteristics and how the large bass behave to better understand the factors associated with Kingsley Lake bass living longer and growing to larger maximum sizes. By better understanding some of the environmental and habitat conditions that are linked to trophy bass occurrence at Kingsley Lake and HCOL, FWC can better manage fisheries for trophy bass across the state.

FWC biologists used two types of telemetry tags – acoustic and radio – to track the movements of bass. At HCOL, bass were collected by boat electrofishing, which temporarily immobilizes fish in freshwater so they can be netted. At Kingsley Lake, biologists collect bass via hook-and-line sampling. For both types of telemetry tags, biologists surgically implanted them into the body cavity of study bass. The tags were about the size of an AA battery, so the incisions were less than one inch long and required 3–4 sutures to close. What distinguished the two types of telemetry tags used was the way that they transmitted information to biologists. Because of Kingsley Lake’s smaller size (1,700 acres), biologists used acoustic telemetric tags there and were able to install a grid of acoustic receivers that covered the entire lake. The acoustic tags also included depth and temperature sensors, which provided near-continuous depth and temperature recording for tagged fish during the study. Collecting these data required biologists to routinely retrieve the receivers and downloaded the tag detection logs. Bass at lakes Eustis (one year) and Dora (four years) were implanted with radio telemetry tags because these two lakes were much larger and radio telemetry allows for much faster searching when relocating tagged bass. The radio tags contained a sensor that measured temperature and one that monitored movement and would alert biologists if the bass died and ceased moving. There, biologists conducted weekly searches to find all radio tagged bass and recorded GPS locations, temperature and habitat data for each one.

Besides water temperatures collected from the actual tagged fish locations, researchers collected temperature and oxygen profiles at fixed sites for each lake during the summer months.

The study at Kingsley Lake has been completed, but biologists plan to continue tagging more trophy bass at the HCOL and are considering transitioning the focus to Lake Apopka, which has recently experienced substantial gains in habitat and fishing effort.

Biologists confirmed that bass at Kingsley Lake reach exceptionally old ages for bass in Florida. Age estimates for several bass found dead and donated by lake residents were 14–16 years old. Conversely, bass aged from Lake Eustis, Dora and other lakes within the HCOL had a maximum age of 11 years old. Although researchers don’t have evidence that Kingsley Lake has higher growth rates, a greater average longevity may allow large bass more years to grow and a subset of trophy bass to reach sizes that are almost never achieved at the HCOL. For example, the TrophyCatch database includes 17 bass caught over 13 pounds at Kingsley Lake (1,700 acres) compared to zero bass over 13 pounds caught at the HCOL (76,000 acres). Therefore, longevity is an important factor in bass attaining trophy sizes over 13 pounds.

Key differences between the two waterbodies may help unlock the mystery of Kingsley Lake bass living to much older ages. Mapping of the lakes revealed that nearly 50% of Kingsley Lake’s area had depths of 24 feet or greater, with a maximum depth of 82 feet; compared to Lake Dora, which has a maximum depth of 15 feet. Water quality monitoring at each lake revealed that the water column had thermal stratification at Kingsley Lake compared to Lakes Eustis and Dora where the temperature and oxygen did not decline substantially with depth. Information from tagged trophy bass showed that bass at Kingsley Lake do sometimes select for cooler layers within the water column. This was most prevalent during late spring and early summer and may be advantageous for bass recovering from spawning season. Compared to the telemetered bass at the Harris Chain of Lakes, Kingsley Lake bass inhabited cooler water 90% of the time, and temperature differences were most pronounced in spring and early summer, when Kingsley Lake bass averaged about 4°F cooler temperature. This temperature difference was a little less than biologists expected, but much of Kingsley Lake’s deepest and coolest water becomes devoid of oxygen by mid-summer, reducing the overall available thermal refuge. Studies have found (including FWC telemetry work) that bass endure the most stress and mortality during post-spawn and summer months in Florida. With bass at Kinsley Lake having access to and using the cooler strata of water during this season of high stress, it is likely this results in reduced natural mortality each summer; allowing for higher longevity to attain larger maximum size.

Although the sample sizes are low and mortality was not the primary objective at Kingsley Lake, researchers did observe much higher annual mortality at Lakes Eustis and Dora (87%) compared to Kingsley Lake (20%). At Lakes Eustis and Dora, researchers confirmed the fate for 48 tagged trophy bass and 29% were caught by anglers which resulted in a total of 17% fishing mortality (combination of harvest and release mortality). Natural mortality at the HCOL was 70% and of those that died from natural mortality or release mortality, all besides 1 died from April through September. This study helps confirm the high mortality season for trophy bass in Florida as water temperatures approach 90°F; along with providing more evidence how refuge from these extreme conditions during the hot summer months may affect mortality rates.

This research was funded by boaters and anglers through the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program. The FWRI Freshwater Fisheries Research biologists who led this study worked closely with Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management biologists. Camp Blanding Joint Training Center allowed the researchers access to Kingsley Lake through U.S. military property.

Results from this study could inform future fisheries or habitat management actions. Habitat use patterns could help fisheries managers determine the best placement for offshore fish attractors or help prioritize areas and habitats for restoration activities. Knowledge of the value of thermal refuge in deep lakes could be used to seek additional lakes with bathymetry and water column stratification similar to Kingsley Lake to create angler access or pursue trophy bass management strategies. FWC could promote the habitat use patterns documented in this study to anglers, making them more informed of bass behaviors and perhaps leading to more angling success.

Agency News

Supplemental Feeding of Manatees in Indian River Lagoon Ends

The Joint Unified Command (UC) is scaling down operations to a spring and summer response mode. However, a core group of staff will remain active for future planning and contingency response. This Atlantic Coast Manatee Unusual Mortality Event (UME) is an ongoing event, and all agencies and partners remain committed to our collective response.

The supplemental feeding trial at the Temporary Field Response Station ended on March 31. With warmer water temperatures most of the manatees have naturally dispersed from their warm water refuges. The number of manatees visiting the site continues to decrease since feeding stopped last week; for example, on Saturday, April 2, staff observed 40 manatees, but by Tuesday, April 6, they only saw six animals. Staff will continue to monitor manatees at the site to watch for distressed animals. 

Even though the UC winter enhanced support operations are scaling down, agency staff, volunteers, and our many partners within the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership (MRP) will continue to work tirelessly to rescue and care for manatees needing help.

With limited space at critical care facilities this winter, the MRP partners, the FWC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked to strategically move animals among the partner facilities to keep valuable space available and two new facilities joined the partnership. As of this week, there are 87 manatees in rehabilitation (19 of these have been identified as UME-related rescues) at 14 critical care or rehabilitation/holding facilities: 71 in Florida, 2 in Georgia, 12 in Ohio, 1 in Texas and 1 in Puerto Rico. Of this total, 14 animals are considered non-releasable, and the remainder should be able to be returned to the wild following rehabilitation. 

The UC encourages people to continue reporting sick, injured or dead manatees to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 so trained experts can respond and assess the situation. People should never push a stranded marine mammal back into the water. 

The FWC and partners will continue to work on habitat related projects to help support manatees and other wildlife. Learn more.

The UC thanks the many partners, including the MRP, who assisted with this season’s UME Response. The UC is also grateful to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida and the 1,387 individuals from around the world who donated $168,160 for the UME response including the purchase of Florida grown produce used in the manatee temporary feeding trial. 

Director Message

Grateful

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

I had to double check to confirm this, but May 2022 will mark my 20th year as director of FMRI/FWRI.  Many would say that is too long for one person to head up an organization, especially one focused on science. If I am counting correctly (and in this I am only moderately confident), this is also my 78th Director’s article for this newsletter.  I ask your indulgence as I reflect on how far we have come these last two decades.

I invite each of you to take some time to contemplate how unique our Institute is as an organization.  The Constitution of the State of Florida states that FWC will be made up of three main units:  management, research, and enforcement.  The inclusion of research as a component of fundamental law defining FWC is underappreciated in my opinion.  The word “science” does not appear in our state constitution and “research” occurs substantively only one other time, in defining the purpose of the state university system.  There is an appealing parallel here:  our success in implementing our mission at FWRI has been greatly strengthened by a positive, collaborative working relationship with academic institutions.  This is not always the case for state fish and wildlife agencies.  The specific mission of FWRI is further defined in state statute, which defines the purpose of the Institute as generating objective scientific information to support natural resource management.  This law, in which research and monitoring activities are independent from rulemaking and policymaking, gives FWC/FWRI a rock-solid foundation and purpose for conducting science in the public interest.

During the 2 years that I spent as director of the former FMRI (2002-2004), much of my time was spent preparing for the ultimate reorganization of the FWC, which was created by constitutional amendment in 1998 with over 72% of the vote.  To assist with the details, I was tasked with pulling together a Research Advance Team who would determine the structural and functional attributes of the new research entity.  Of the 12 members of that team, only five (myself, Luiz Barbieri, John Hunt, Alan Woodward, and Karl Miller) are still active with FWC.  This team spent the better part of two years traveling the state meeting with every group that might ultimately move into the yet-to-be-named research entity.  It was no small feat to identify personnel, budget, equipment, and facilities that would go into this new entity especially when you consider that we would be breaking up organizational groups that had been together for many decades.  I will forever be grateful to this team for helping to work through these difficult, and often contentious discussions. 

One of the last decisions to be made was the form the new research entity would take.  For some time, it was thought that having separate Institutes, each focusing on specific ecosystem types, would be preferred since it would recognize the significant history and body of work accumulated by freshwater, terrestrial and marine researchers.  Ultimately, a perspective was reached based on the premise that the individual groups shared similar histories and a future commitment to generating high quality science that could ultimately build a cohesive single research capability for the nascent FWC. 

But what would this now single entity be called?  In thinking of this, I did what I often do when faced with a complex problem – simplify it as much as possible.  What was the best way to honor the legacy of the former research groups while promoting the expanded role of the new entity?  Simply flip the “M” upside down and create the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI).  In doing this I counted on the fact that these similar acronyms would create a halo of confusion that would persist for a few years allowing us to build a profile for FWRI that honored our expanded mission while building on the legacy established by FMRI.  In retrospect I would argue that is exactly what happened. 

We have come a long way since that letter-flipping leap of faith.  Due to your hard work and commitment (and those that came before you) we have built something special in the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and I continue to count myself extremely lucky to be associated with such a talented group of people.  Success often breeds success, and I am happy to say that has been our experience as an organization.  When FWRI was first formed in 2004, we had an annual budget of $43 million.  For this coming fiscal year (22/23) it is likely that our budget will exceed $117 million. Collectively, we have weathered many ups and downs and responded to innumerable unpredictable events to build a uniquely valuable scientific institution within state government.

For that, and for all of you, I remain extremely grateful.

Research Spotlight

Recently Documented Tilapia Oreochromis spp. Population in Newnan’s Lake

By Jason O’Connor and Chris Anderson

Tilapia Oreochromis spp. are members of the cichlid family that are native to North Africa and the Middle East (Figure 1). At least two species of Tilapia are well-established throughout peninsular Florida. Blue Tilapia Oreochromis aureus were introduced to the state (via research ponds) by FWC’s predecessor the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission in 1961 to evaluate their utility as food, game, forage and weed control within the state. Some of these fish were distributed to the public and were subsequently released into freshwater ecosystems in south-central Florida. Nile Tilapia Oreochromis niloticus have been collected in Florida since at least 1972, however, details of their introduction and establishment are less well-documented than for the Blue Tilapia. The two species readily hybridize in the wild, and many specimens collected in Florida exhibit hybrid traits. Both species are largely herbivorous, consuming a mix of plant matter, detritus, and occasionally zooplankton, small insects and fish. Tilapia are farmed at aquaculture facilities throughout the state, and established wild populations support commercial fisheries in central and southern portions of the peninsula. Tilapia are not traditionally sought by recreational anglers, but they do support localized bowfishing oriented recreational fisheries, often in springs and spring runs (e.g., Silver Glen Springs).

Figure 1: Tilapia Oreochromis sp. collected from Newnans Lake via electrofishing in February 2022. Photo credit: Christian Fernandez.

Although initially introduced in south-central parts of the state, Tilapia have spread throughout much of peninsular Florida, and now occur in most major drainages east and south of the Suwannee River, with a few isolated records from other states surrounding the panhandle (Figure 2). The Orange Creek Basin, a sub-drainage of the St. John’s River in north-central Florida, is one of the northern-most occupied watersheds in the state (Figure 3). Major lakes in the Orange Creek Basin include Orange, Lochloosa and Newnans. The fish communities in these lakes have been intensively sampled for decades, and although Tilapia have been regularly documented in Orange and Lochloosa lakes for over 15 years, they are rarely encountered on Newnans Lake. Prior to 2021, there had only been 2 documented records of Tilapia in Newnans (both in April 1999), despite annual fish surveys using a variety of sampling methods since 1989. However, we observed a single Tilapia in March 2021 while electrofishing in Prairie Creek, the primary outflow of Newnans Lake. Then in November 2021, we collected two individuals in the northern end of the lake while surveying for Black Crappie Pomoxis nigromaculatus. The following spring (February-March 2022), we observed numerous Tilapia in throughout the lake while surveying for Largemouth Bass. The majority of the individuals collected have been around the same size (35-43 cm), which suggests that much of the population may be from a single annual cohort.

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information to determine whether the current population expansion of Tilapia in Newnans represents a novel invasion or population growth of an existing low-density population. If this represents a novel invasion, it may have been caused by human-mediated translocation or via natural immigration from established populations within the Orange Creek Basin. There are numerous anecdotal reports of people moving non-native fish among waterbodies in Florida, particularly for species of recreational or commercial importance. It is also possible that the frequency of historically high water levels throughout the Orange Creek Basin since 2017 has facilitated movement of individuals from established populations to Newnans via a series of creeks and canals. Alternatively, it is conceivable that an established population has existed in Newnans since at least 1999 but has occurred at densities below the detection limits of our sampling gears. If this is the case, then the recent population expansion may have been a result of increased access to quality spawning habitat due to sustained high water levels, which increased recruitment in recent years.

Figure 2: Distribution of Tilapia Oreochromis spp. in Florida and surrounding states obtained from FishNet2 (www.fishnet2.net, 2022-04-08).

                Regardless of whether we are witnessing a new invasion of Tilapia or simply a population boom of a historically low-density population, this population expansion has resulted in the greatest frequency of Tilapia observations/collections by FWC in Newnans in the last two decades. Although research on the impacts of Tilapia in large, natural ecosystems is lacking, pond/mesocosm studies on the impacts of high-density Tilapia populations have documented substantial reductions of age-0 production, recruitment, and growth of Largemouth Bass Micropterus salmoides, the most popular freshwater sportfish in Florida. The existence of the long-term fish community dataset provides a unique opportunity to evaluate potential effects that Tilapia establishment/population expansions have on fish populations/communities in a large, natural ecosystem. This highlights the importance of long-term sampling programs (e.g., Freshwater Fisheries Long-term Monitoring Project) for tracking the spread, and abundance of non-native fishes so that their potential impacts on native fish populations and communities can be assessed. Additionally, the Newnans population is currently one of the northernmost established Tilapia populations in Florida. Since climate change will likely facilitate expansion of their established range into the Florida panhandle, information on the effect of Tilapia invasion/expansion on native fish communities in Newnans Lake would inform fisheries managers about potential undesirable impacts if/when new invasions/expansions occur.

Figure 3.: Map of the Orange Creek Basin (outlined in yellow) obtained from the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Staff Spotlight

This issue, Ron Bielefeld from Avian Research out of Sebastian, took some time to answer some of our questions. Thank you, Ron!

What is your professional experience?

27 years with GFC (East Gulf Coastal Plain Joint Venture) and FWC

What are you working on now?

I am working on a major Florida sandhill crane radio telemetry project as co-PI with Tim Dellinger.  The objectives are to gain understanding of the habitat use, movement, survival, and reproductive patterns of cranes using both conservation lands and urban/suburban areas.  I am also working on finishing a manuscript for publication on the status of the genetic integrity of the Florida mottled duck.

How is this information beneficial? 

Florida has and continues to experience massive growth and development. Rural habitats are disappearing at a rapid rate.  The information we are gathering on Florida sandhill cranes will help managers understand and possibly predict what effects continued urbanization will have on the crane population.  With regards to mottled ducks, this same urbanization is the main mechanism that caused the mallard hybridization problem Florida mottled ducks now face.  As areas are developed, people buy mallards to put on retention ponds and other bodies of water, and these birds become feral. They then encounter our mottled duck.  The result is hybridization and ultimately genetic introgression.  This introgression, if left unchecked, will likely lead to the loss of the mottled duck as a distinct genetic entity.  The mottled duck population assessment project and the manuscript coming from it lays out this risk and suggests actions to help minimize it moving forward.

What has your typical work day like?

I would say I do not have a typical day, which is awesome. Every day is different.  Some days are spent mostly in the field collecting data for a research project, while other days are spent mostly in the office doing analyses or writing, for example.  Some days are a combination of both. 

Who has been your favorite mentor or role model?

I have been lucky to work with and under some great people while with GFC/FWC.  This may sound like a copout, but my favorite mentor or role model has been the people I have worked with all these years.  The biologists and managers of this agency work extremely hard and are so passionate about conserving the natural systems of this state and the world.  Their work ethic and passion have fueled my efforts for 27 years.  I have tried to keep up, and many times I have failed, but I have always benefited from working with and around these awesome people. 

What have some of your biggest challenges been?

My biggest challenge has been staying positive about the future of the natural world. I am not a pessimist, but a realist, and the reality is there is so much happening in the world that is detrimental, even catastrophic, to wildlife. So much so, that I often think what I am doing means nothing in the long run.  I have often told people that we, as conservationists, are like a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.  However, like I stated, I see the passionate efforts of others trying to make a difference for wildlife, and that has kept me going trying to do the same.

What do you like most about your career?

I love birds, and my career has revolved around bird management and research.  I love that I have been able to work with these wonderful creatures all my career.  However, what I like most about my career is all the awesome and supremely dedicated people I have met and worked with.  I do not believe there exists a more dedicated group of people.

Was this your original career interest? Why or why not?

Yes.  And I feel fortunate to have been able to pursue my passion for my entire career.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?

I would be a full-time wildlife photographer.  In fact, I plan on pursuing this line of work after I retire.

What’s been one of your best memories during your career at FWRI?

One of my best memories is working with the team of people I had a hand in putting together to complete two of the major research projects I lead while with GFC/FWC.  One was the team that completed the mottled duck telemetry project in south Florida and the other was the team that resulted in the development of the plumage key to ID mottled ducks.  For me these were big undertakings, and thinking about them now, as I approach retirement, I am proud of those efforts.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time, now that’ll you have more of it?
I will be doing a lot more wildlife photography.  I love wildlife and spending time outdoors observing and photographing it in action.  Images move people like data often cannot.  I hope to inspire others with my imagery to do more to conserve the wildlife we have left on this planet.

After a career in the sciences and conservation, what sage advice can you offer us?

I don’t know about sage advice, but I will state this, don’t ever give up.  Like I mentioned, it can be depressing to think about and dwell on all the negative things that are happening to our wild world.  But, what you are doing matters.  Without folks like you doing the work you do and getting the data out there so people can understand what is happening, wildlife would not stand any chance at all.  So, keep it up, you inspire me and you inspire many others outside our field to work for the conservation of our natural world.

What book or piece of literature would you recommend currently?

I am a dog lover and if you are a dog lover too, I would highly recommend the book entitled Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog by Ted Kerasote.

Spatiotemporal Patterns in the Biomass of Drift Algae in the Indian River Lagoon

Drift macroalgae (DMA) plays key roles in the ecology of many coastal systems, including the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). In systems like the IRL, DMA play an important role in cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The ability of macroalgae to take up and store nutrients makes them successful when nutrients are limiting or supplied in pulses, which allows them to compete with phytoplankton for access to elements in the water column. However, DMA are less robust and persistent than rooted macrophytes, so their death or lack of growth can add or leave carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus that become available for uptake by fast-growing phytoplankton. In fact, shifts from dominance by benthic primary producers to dominance by phytoplankton have been observed in multiple systems with negative impacts on seagrass assemblages and their associated fauna. Such a shift may have occurred in the IRL because an unprecedented sequence of intense and longlasting blooms of phytoplankton has afflicted the system since 2011.

Patterns in the biomass of drift macroalgae were identified using new and original analyses of data from several sampling programs collected between 1997 and 2019. Fixed transects were surveyed at least twice a year (summer and winter) approximating times of annual maximum and minimum abundance of seagrasses. The location of each transect was marked with poles, and the path to be surveyed was delineated by a graduated line extending perpendicularly from the shoreline out to the deep end of the seagrass canopy. In summary, transects extended for 15–1,900 m across depths to 1.8 m. To quantify the abundance and distribution of DMA found in deeper water, large-scale acoustic surveys were conducted between April and June in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2015. While the surveys covered up to 288 km2, we focused analysis of spatiotemporal variation on reaches 2, 3, and 4, which were completed in all 5 years.

All available data show a relatively low biomass of drift macroalgae in 2010–2012, and surveys of fixed transects and seining as part of a fisheries independent monitoring program also recorded low biomass in 2016. Low light availability and potentially stressful temperatures appeared to be the main influences as indicated by the results of incubations in tanks to determine environmental tolerances and data on ambient conditions. Decreased biomass of drift macroalgae had implications for cycling of nutrients because carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus not stored in the tissues of drift macroalgae became available for uptake by other primary producers, including phytoplankton. The estimated 14–18% increases in concentrations of these elements in the IRL could have promoted longer and more intense phytoplankton blooms, which would have reduced light availability and increased stress on algae and seagrasses. An improved understanding of such feedback and the ecological roles played by drift macroalgae will support more effective management of nutrient loads and the system by accounting for cycling of nutrients among primary producers.

Map showing the Indian River Lagoon, five inlets, nine reaches, fixed transects through seagrass, and water quality stations.

New Shared Stewardship Partnership Helps Implement Landscape Conservation

By Matthew Chopp

History

“Let’s bring the FWC into the Shared Stewardship Program here”, said Ivan Green. Ivan was the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) District Ranger on Osceola National Forest, and he was talking to Chris Wynn, FWC North Central Regional Director. It was 2019, and Ivan was eager to enhance conservation efforts on the national forest in a bold new way – with the establishment of a co-funded employee position. The timing was right for this partnership too – the USFS had an employee vacancy, and the ink was still wet on the new Florida Shared Stewardship Agreement. Chris championed this idea, and in 2021 Beth Stys (FWRI Center for Spatial Analysis) used Landscape Conservation Strategic Initiative program funds to make it happen.

Matthew Chopp was hired to serve in this new role – Shared Stewardship Coordinator on Osceola National Forest.

Mission

The USFS Shared Stewardship Program includes a forest management strategy that builds capacity through collaboration and focuses on landscape-scale outcomes. Agency and stakeholder partnerships are required to achieve success at this level. So then, Matthew’s position was established to help coordinate (1) projects on Osceola National Forest, (2) conservation planning for Florida National Forests, and (3) implementation of the FWC’s Landscape Conservation Strategic Initiative in the North Central Region – benefits that may not have happened without this direct collaboration.

Accomplishments

Matthew is currently assisting FWC colleagues with development of the Connect, Collaborate, and Conserve Southwest Region pilot project – a flexible model designed for future use in all five FWC regions. Southwest Regional Staff are using landscape conservation prioritization tools developed by the FWRI’s Center for Spatial Analysis to help identify a pilot project location. Matthew’s position represents a touchstone of success for the Landscape Conservation Strategic Initiative – the “connect, collaborate and conserve” approach is his position’s focus.

Matthew also established the Osceola National Forest Coordinating Committee – a group of stakeholders from the FWC, USFS and universities, many who are already conducting research and management projects on this national forest. Connecting with colleagues in this way is a valuable investment towards engaging large landscape conservation projects like the Ocala to Osceola Wildlife Corridor, which overlaps the Osceola National Forest.

This example of cost-sharing an employee position represents a novel approach to filling a specific need for these partnering agencies, and may be repeated as opportunities arise around the state.

Acknowledgements

Partnerships require team efforts, and the establishment of this Shared Stewardship Coordinator position would not have been possible without the support and initiative of the following leaders:

FWC

Eric Sutton, Executive Director

Thomas Eason, Assistant Executive Director

Chris Wynn, North Central Regional Director

Gil McRae, Director, FWRI

René Baumstark, Information Science and Management Section Leader, FWRI

Kristen Nelson Sella, Biological Administrator, Center for Spatial Analysis, FWRI (Matthew’s supervisor)

Beth Stys1, Associate Research Scientist, FWRI

USFS

Kelly Russel, Forest Supervisor, National Forests in Florida

Ivan Green, Deputy Forest Supervisor, National Forests in Florida

Thomas Scott, OSC District Ranger

1Current position: Regional Climate Adaptation Ecologist, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Southeast Region

Photo Credit: North Florida Land Trust

Many-Lined Salamander Surveys

By Aubrey Greene

The many-lined salamander (Stereochilus marginatus) occurs along the Atlantic Coastal Plain as far north as Virginia and reaches the southern edge of its range in extreme northeastern Florida where it is a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). This species is highly aquatic and inhabits a variety of permanent lentic or lotic wetland habitats such as cypress swamps, ditches, slow blackwater streams, and shallow backwaters. Many-lined salamanders were first documented in Florida in 1973 in Baker County. Since then, this species has been documented from three additional counties (Columbia, Union, and Nassau) but is apparently restricted to the St. Marys and Nassau River drainages. Most known localities are from Osceola National Forest and John M. Bethea State Forest, with a few other documented populations on private lands.

Limited research or monitoring has been done to determine the status of many-lined salamanders in Florida, and over the years, FWC personnel occasionally surveyed known localities but have not detected the species in ca. two decades. Many-lined salamanders were also undetected at several historical sites during dusky salamander (Desmognathus auriculatus) surveys from 2016-2019. The lack of recent sightings along with more frequent and extreme drought conditions in the region over the past 20 years raises concern regarding the status of many-lined salamanders in the state. Occasional mild drought conditions are less of a concern for this species given their preference for permanent bodies of water. However, frequent, prolonged drought conditions could pose a threat to the species’ life cycle as larvae require over a year within aquatic habitats to metamorphose. Adults are also closely tied to aquatic habitats and are rarely encountered far from the water’s edge. 

We aim to clarify the status and distribution of many-lined salamanders within Florida by surveying historic many-lined salamander localities and other potentially suitable habitat over the next two years. To do this, we are using a variety of survey methods (i.e., dredging, dipnetting, hand raking, and minnow traps) and conducting monthly time-based surveys to detect adult and larval many-lined salamanders. In January 2022, we started conducting surveys at seven historic sites and one potentially suitable site and will continue surveying these thru December 2022. Additional potentially suitable sites will be identified and surveyed January – December 2023. We will use aerial imagery and ground truthing to identify potential sites to survey within the known drainages. If salamanders are found, we will use landscape data to determine habitat associations and the repeated surveys to assess detectability.

So far, after three rounds of surveys, we have not detected adult or larval many-lined salamanders at any of the survey sites. In the coming months we hope to visit known occupied sites in SE Georgia to gain a better understanding of preferred habitat and survey methodology as well as develop a search image for the species. Additionally, we are planning a blitz for the April surveys with the idea that more boots on the ground will give us a better chance at finding that needle in the haystack, or in this case, salamander in the muck.

Effects of Submarine Groundwater Discharge on Seagrass Communities in Western Florida Bay

By Brad Furman

The warm shallow waters of Florida Bay are home to expansive turtlegrass (Thalassia testudinum) meadows that provide more than 500,000 acres of essential fish habitat and support a vibrant ecotourism industry, as well as important commercial and recreational fisheries. Found at the southern terminus of mainland Florida within Everglades National Park, Florida Bay is a unique and enigmatic ecosystem, one that has long been recognized as an estuary of national importance, and whose storied decline was once a catalyst for Everglades Restoration. Now, as end-of-pipe for our nation’s largest wetland restoration effort: the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP), Florida Bay remains at the center of debate regarding freshwater delivery and its conveyance through the vast Everglades ecosystem.

Since the 1880s, wholesale changes to the hydrology of South Florida and the conversion of roughly half the ecosystem to agriculture and urban uses left Florida Bay with a fraction of the freshwater input it may have once enjoyed. Today, the estuary is reliant on the vagaries of direct rainfall to balance intense seasonal evaporation, exposing the system to regular bouts of hypersalinity. Calm wind conditions or water column stratification, combined with high water temperatures, facilitate the development of widespread hypoxia and anoxia that can lead to intense hydrogen sulfide production, particularly in the densest turtlegrass meadows. Hydrogen sulfide is a strong phytotoxin that can quickly kill seagrasses if it reaches sensitive meristematic tissues. It is thought that this process led to widespread turtlegrass mortality or die-off in the late 1980s, which set off nearly a decade of recurrent algal blooms and damaging sediment resuspension events, all of which significantly impacted benthic macrophyte communities and reduced fishery yields. Despite ongoing restoration and management efforts in Florida Bay, hypersalinity remains an issue, and another large-scale seagrass die-off was observed in 2015.

Figure 1: Map of study area including the three focal basins: Rankin Lake (RAN), Rabbit Key Basin (RKB) and Whipray Basins (WHP).

Although the drivers and mechanisms of turtlegrass mortality are now well known, there are important questions about how groundwater discharge might influence hypersalinity in areas prone to die-off within Florida Bay. To date, groundwater dynamics are poorly resolved for western Florida Bay and the relationship, if any, between groundwater discharge and seagrass condition remains a mystery.

Submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) is the flow of terrestrially derived water into the coastal zone. Discharge can rival surface water inputs in terms of nutrient delivery and the outflow of groundwater can have major implications for coastal flora and fauna. For seagrasses, SGD could stimulate plant growth and influence community composition and, as a source of fresh or less saline water, might alleviate hypersalinity. Conversely, anoxic groundwater could facilitate sulfide production and intrusion into roots and rhizomes in vulnerable seagrass meadows. Exploring groundwater-seagrass interactions across a gradient of turtlegrass die-off severity will provide new insights into the pace and distribution of seagrass loss and could offer new metrics for assessing ecosystem resilience.

Figure 2: The towed resistivity cable (A) which is used to measure conductivity, water column depth, and subsurface sediment depth and the radon gas partitioner (B) where the radon gas escapes the water through turbulence and is detected in the radon detector.

In partnership with researchers from Georgia Southern University and Florida International University, we began the first of a three-year EPA-funded project to explore the spatiotemporal patterns of SGD and its relationship to seagrass community composition and meadow physiognomy in western Florida Bay (Figure 1). This research will combine radon-222 and electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) to map seasonal patterns in SGD in three Florida Bay basins, each with different histories of seagrass die-off (Figure 2). We will then relate spatiotemporal patterns in SGD to seagrass community composition and distribution using remote-sensing mapping of seagrass coverage and discrete in situ sampling of species identity and abundance. By combining the expertise of benthic and spatial ecologists, and groundwater geologists with data end-users, we will use a multidisciplinary, iterative approach to examine the relationship between groundwater and seagrasses.

To date, we have completed the first of several SGD surveys (Figure 3) and are looking forward to hitting the water to hunt for groundwater in Florida Bay in June 2022.

Figure 3: Preliminary map of radon-222 collected from surface waters of Whipray Basin in November 2021. Interpolation prepared by Brielle Robbins of Georgia Southern University.

Director Message

Perspectives From 40 Years at FWRI

By John Hunt, Leader of the South Florida Research Lab

Gil offered me the opportunity to step in for him and write the Director’s Message. At first, I was hesitant because these are big shoes to fill. After all, Gil has a way with words that can take a topic of relevance to us, find a new perspective, and be inspirational. I have often been inspired by his writings and have returned to past messages many times. I have struggled with what to say in this space for a while. After all, what can an old man say that is more than just musings and memories. I finally realized the most useful statement I can make is to restate that the FWRI mission is important – very important. And, that each and every one of us is important, not just to each other, but to our agency, other agencies and organizations, and to every single person that lives in or comes to Florida to visit.  I admit I chuckle at myself for landing on this topic, but I think it is just – important – to say it. All too often, we forget why we are here and forget that in the day-to-day we as individuals and as an organization make a difference. 

We are in the business of producing knowledge and when we effectively put that knowledge to work, we make a positive difference in the conservation of Florida’s natural resources and in the continued ability of all our stakeholders to experience Florida. We work in and influence conservation outcomes in every ecosystem and habitat in Florida, from Florida’s highest point in Walton County to the deepest reefs west of the Dry Tortugas.  Sometimes it takes many years for these outcomes to be realized, so please never give up. The recent actions taken by the FWC to establish a closure at the multi-species fish spawning aggregation site near Western Dry Rocks in the Keys typifies every aspect of how we at FWRI, if patient and persistent, influence conservation actions. The management action occurred in 2021, but the seeds were planted many years before.  Nearly 20 years of science led to this decision. Some was directed at spawning aggregations and some became important in the most unexpected way. It took our administrative staff providing cogent advice to hasten the ability to do our mission. It took the dedication of the field teams to work long days often many miles offshore. It took building knowledge through the commitment of our scientists to publish in journals and it took our editorial staff making the product better. It took developing partnerships with our communications staff to improve our public facing documents. It took a long consistent and committed relationship with our colleagues at DMFM where we collectively tried different ideas over the years.  Just at that moment we thought we would only have limited success; we rediscovered a snapper life history paper by Jim Colvocoresses and Luiz Barbieri. That paper provided the information that was put into the context of Western Dry Rocks; and the knowledge imparted resulted in the best possible conservation action.  I encourage each and every one of you to spend a few minutes reflecting on what you do for FWRI and how your actions contribute to our mission.

Everyone needs a mentor and Bill Lyons was mine. I have no doubt that few of you have ever heard of him, but for those that know him – I have no doubt that your memories of Bill are as striking as mine. I vividly remember my interview with him for a Biological Scientist II position in the Florida Keys, an exotic place in my mind. I arrived at Building C in the fall of 1980 and was interviewed in a small room in the back of the Administration area. The office of Karen Steidinger, who was our leader at the time, was right around the corner.  Now, I was wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and shh, don’t tell the staff at SFRL, flip flops. Don’t ask what I was thinking, and I do not necessarily recommend it, but I think that was the key to getting that job. I have often wondered if he walked into Karen’s office and said I just interviewed the most unprofessionally dressed applicant ever, but hey, he will fit in down in the Keys. Bill taught me how to be a critical thinker. Without that, I would not have been successful in my career. And of course, the proper use of three words; “while, whereas, and although” were beaten into my brain. All you science writers, check out these words, and when you write “while” think of Bill because you just know he is about to tell you in his own inimitable way that you should have used “whereas” or “although”. Thank you Bill for taking me on, trusting in a very young man to be a lab manager, and for your unwavering support for many years.

Finally, there are many people to thank after 40 years. In this limited space I can only mention a few. First, to my fellow ILT, past and present, thank you. We have all worked hard to develop the FWRI culture, from those that travelled the State during the early FWC years to all you have done in the past couple of years. I shall especially miss our retreats where we have solved the woes of the world. And, I offer my special thanks to all the many people that have served with me in the Florida Keys. You all have made my life better. And to Alejandro, Bill, Bob, and Tom: we have spent more than thirty years together. You have been the bedrock of the lab. I cannot imagine working all this time with anyone but you. And finally, I return to my boss, Gil McRae. Gil, this is not an Eddie Haskell moment. Your support and often wise counsel for me and all of us has made FWRI the best place to work that I can possibly think of. Thank you and thank you to everyone at FWRI!