During Florida Volunteer Month in April, the FWC is celebrating its many volunteers who contribute time and energy to help conserve fish, wildlife and habitats, and help improve public access and skills related to outdoor experiences such as hunting, fishing, boating and wildlife viewing.
Last year, more than 5,000 volunteers assisted FWC staff with 85 projects around the state, including:
Collecting data to increase knowledge of Florida’s imperiled species.
Instructing youth, residents and visitors on how to become responsible outdoor recreators.
Rescuing marine mammals.
Monitoring and restoring oyster reef habitat.
Constructing, installing and monitoring nest boxes for southeastern American kestrels and wood ducks.
Helping construct and maintain a gravity-fed irrigation system for plants used in scrub habitat restoration.
Go to MyFWC.com/Get Involved, to see FWC volunteer opportunities available statewide and by region. Additionally, volunteers can sign-up for projects on the MyFWC.com/Calendar, where a wide range of volunteer opportunities are advertised.
We often think of science as consisting solely of objective facts and advocacy as driven by personal values and emotions. This view puts science and advocacy on opposite ends of a continuum when it comes to forces that influence policy. The reality is much more complex than this, and navigating the landscape of values, emotions, objective analysis, and policy-making is not always an easy thing to do.
The classic image of the researcher as an isolated individual, free to focus on the specifics of a question without the impact of uncontrolled variables, personal values, and societal pressures is a false premise that is less applicable every day. The scientist’s “ivory tower” is crowded with many influences that directly or indirectly influence how he or she addresses a problem or question. Many researchers struggle to maintain their objectivity on contentious or emotionally charged issues and to pretend otherwise would be diminishing the human side of our science. This is why the very best researchers have a strong record of collaboration with other scientists and the policymakers who depend on their results. Despite scientist’s best efforts to maintain absolute objectivity, there is no substitute for actively soliciting viewpoints from colleagues who may approach an issue from a slightly different angle. It is equally important for researchers to maintain a close connection with the policymakers who base decisions on scientific results. The ultimate policy decision may not have the luxury of following every scientific recommendation to the letter. Social issues such as the cost of implementation, safety concerns, legal authorities, and many other factors often must be considered along with the science in final decision-making. The FWC model, where research is independent but integrated with management decision-making, recognizes the importance of objective science but also emphasizes that the ultimate success of our agency depends on a high level of integration between science and policy.
Similarly, the common view of an advocate for an issue or cause is that of a zealot who has pre-determined the good-guys and bad-guys and seeks to steer others to their cause. This is also an oversimplification. Many advocacy groups employ their own scientists who work diligently to enhance the body of objective knowledge on issues relevant to their cause. In general, even the most outspoken advocates for an issue or particular species will consider objective scientific information and modify their views, if appropriate. However, there is sometimes a lack of trust that prevents the constructive communication of scientific results to advocacy groups or limits scientific collaboration. Building this trust and paving the way for scientific information to inform the debate on an issue takes time and effort, but it is well worth it. Active engagement is the key. Advocates are more likely to accept the outcome of scientific studies if they have been informed of or involved in the planning and design of the work.
So, instead of viewing science and advocacy as two opposite extremes on a continuum, it may be more appropriate to recognize elements of each embedded in the other. While it is absolutely essential for our science to be objective, we must be aware of personal values and opinions that may cloud that objectivity. At the same time, the energy and enthusiasm of the advocate can be channeled into a productive collaboration if a high level of trust is in place. Working the boundaries of these perspectives can be tricky, but it is an underappreciated component of the work with do with FWC and in the long run, effort spent on the “human side” of science often pays the highest dividends.
Many rivers experience natural fluctuations in flow, including periods of extremely high water levels. As surrounding floodplains inundate, nutrients and habitat become available for numerous aquatic organisms.
Many species of fish have adapted to use these conditions for spawning and nursery habitat over time. Changes to the flow of water within a river system can affect the spawning behavior of adult fish and alter important food sources and refuge for juvenile fish. Water level fluctuations can also impact the number of fish surviving to enter a fishery. These potential problems created an opportunity for freshwater fisheries biologists studying fish populations in the Apalachicola River and associated sloughs in northwest Florida.
In 2005, biologists with FWRI’s Aquatic Habitat and Restoration Enhancement Subsection, the Office of Conservation Planning of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation and the University of Florida began a project to study the effect of water levels and flow, or floodplain inundation, on year-class strength on native fishes of the Apalachicola River. This research is part of a long-term monitoring study on the sloughs and mainstem of this important north Florida river system.
The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, with headwaters in Alabama and Georgia, combine to form Lake Seminole on the border of Georgia and Florida. The Apalachicola River originates from the Jim Woodruff Dam at the base of Lake Seminole and flows 106 miles south to Apalachicola Bay. Historic droughts and increased water demands in the upstream portion in Alabama and Georgia have decreased flow in the downstream portions. Over time, the Apalachicola floodplain has been inundated less frequently and to a lesser magnitude than it has historically. Biologists needed improved information on the effects of flow and floodplain inundation on important fisheries in the Apalachicola River system.
Researchers are collecting information on the relationship between water levels and flows and the recruitment of largemouth bass, redear sunfish and spotted suckers. These species were selected based on their feeding and habitat requirements within the river and floodplain. Fishes respond differently to hydrologic conditions based on life history traits, and these species occupy different trophic niches and provide a broad perspective on how discharge may impact fish populations in the Apalachicola River.
Following similar methods established for this research project in 2005, 50 transects between mile markers 80 and 20 in the main channel of the Apalachicola River are randomly selected and electrofished by boat (pulsed direct current) for ten minutes per transect. Randomly selected transects from ten sloughs connected to the main channel are also sampled via electrofishing. All largemouth bass, redear sunfish, and spotted suckers are counted and measured, and sagittal otoliths (largemouth bass and redear sunfish) and asteriscus otoliths (spotted suckers) are removed from a subset of fish. Otoliths, commonly known as “earstones,” are hard, calcium carbonate structures located directly behind the brain of bony fishes. Otoliths help FWRI biologists determine the age of fish as well as the growth rates of various species.
The extrapolated catch per unit effort (CPUE) for age-0 fish of each species is averaged among transects to obtain a mean catch rate. To compare CPUE data among years and perform more robust analyses, researchers collect CPUE at age data for each species from 2005 to present from both main channel habitat and slough habitat. FWC biologists obtain river discharge data from the U. S. Geological Survey on the Apalachicola River near Chattahoochee, Florida, and a linear regression model is used to evaluate the relationship between river discharge and year-class strength of largemouth bass, redear sunfish, and spotted suckers in the Apalachicola River.
Field work is ongoing, and additional statistical analysis will continue for years to come. The FWC has 12 years of data that cover a variety of meteorological and hydrological conditions, and annual field research will incorporate additional meteorological and hydrological conditions and more recruitment information over time. Data has shown that strong year classes for these species on the Apalachicola River system are strongly correlated with extended periods (or days) of floodplain inundation and flows. If more water is provided to Florida, these species will continue to thrive and prosper in this river system.
The Coastal Wetlands research group at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation (NFWF) to assess the impacts of Hurricane Irma to coastal wetland habitats of southwest Florida. Since 2014, the FWRI Coastal Wetlands group along with partner organizations, has been working in coastal marshes and mangroves across Southwest Florida, including Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor, Ten Thousand Islands, Biscayne Bay, and the lower Florida Keys. All pre-existing field sites were located within 50 km of Hurricane Irma’s eye path, with a few sites in the lower Florida Keys and Naples/Ten Thousand Islands region suffering direct eyewall hits. Since all locations include active field sites, a wealth of pre-storm data exists, and these locations are uniquely positioned to evaluate and quantify post-hurricane damage to standing biomass and ecosystem services across a wide geographic area.
Initial Post-Irma field assessments focused on qualitatively assessing and photographically documenting damage (e.g. defoliation, downed trees, redistribution of sediments, etc.). Upon identification of the habitats that experienced the most damage, storm impacts were then categorized as low-, moderate-, and severe-impacts based upon physical habitat damage and distance from eyewall path, height of storm surge, and maximum wind speed experienced during the hurricane. Quantification and monitoring of aboveground damage included measurements of indicators of defoliation (canopy coverage), mortality (recently felled trees and branches), plant community structure (tree diameter or height), and recovery (seedling percent coverage or density). Recovery of mangrove forest was assessed by subsequent visits to long-term monitoring plots in the six months following Hurricane Irma. Sedimentary impacts were also examined and included elevation change, shoreline erosion, and geochemical characterization of storm-derived sedimentary deposits.
Preliminary findings indicate a reduction in mangrove canopy cover from 70-90% pre-storm, to 30-50% post-Irma, and a reduction in tree height of approximately 1.2 m. Although signs of forest recovery and shows signs of slow regrowth, mangrove seedling density has significantly increased in the six months post-Irma. A sedimentary layer of fine carbonate mud up to 10-cm thick was imported into the mangroves of the lower Florida Keys, Biscayne Bay, and the Ten Thousand Islands. A siliciclastic mud layer up to 5-cm thick was observed in the marshes of Charlotte Harbor. All sites had imported tidal wrack consisting of a mixed seagrass and mangrove leaf litter, with some deposits as thick as 6 cm. In areas with newly opened canopy, a microbial layer was coating the surface of the imported wrack layer. Overwash and shoreline erosion were also documented at two sites in the lower Keys and Biscayne Bay and will be monitored for change and recovery over the next few years, pending subsequent funding. Due to changes in intensity along the storm path, direct comparisons of damage metrics can be made to environmental setting, wind speed, storm surge, and distance to eyewall. This information will help provide direct evidence of hurricane impact and recovery trajectories in coastal wetland ecosystems in Florida. The data will be shared with coastal ecosystem managers in order to enhance management and response planning for large natural disasters in Florida such as hurricanes.
Project partners included the U.S. Geological Survey, University of South Florida Saint Petersburg, Rutgers University, Nanyang Technical University, the University of Rhode Island, Tufts University, University of South Florida College of Marine Science, and the US National Park Service.
Major portions of the coastal embayments in northeastern Florida Bay have been closed to public access, and thus to recreational fishing, since the creation of the Crocodile Sanctuary in 1980. The 2015 Everglades National Park (ENP) General Management Plan called for the opening of Joe Bay, which is part of the Crocodile Sanctuary, to public, non-motorized access and catch-and-release fishing. The Fish and Wildlife’s Research Institute’s Fisheries Biology and Fisheries-Independent Monitoring (FIM) programs are involved in a cooperative study with Florida International University, the Snook and Gamefish Foundation, the Audubon Society, and the National Park Service to examine the effects of the 36-year closure and subsequent opening of Joe Bay to catch-and-release fishing.
To examine the effects of the closure on fish and macroinvertebrate (nekton) community metrics and recreationally important fish species, fisheries-independent and -dependent sampling methods are being employed across three embayments from 2016-2019 (Figure 1). Two of the embayments are in the Crocodile Sanctuary; Little Madeira Bay has been and will remain closed to fishing while Joe Bay was opened to fishing in November 2016. A third embayment, Long Sound, is not in the sanctuary and has been open to fishing the entire time. Although the three coastal embayments appear similar in size and function, there are substantial environmental differences among the basins. Freshwater inflow into Joe Bay is much greater than the other two basins, and sediment depth and the amount of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) are quite low. Long Sound also has a very thin sediment layer but typically had the highest salinity, and in recent years, has experienced an increase in SAV cover. Little Madeira Bay has both a thick sediment layer and a consistently high percentage of SAV cover that includes Thalassia, indicative of a climax seagrass community. These existing spatial and habitat relationships will affect the prey base and recreational fishes and will be considered in assessing the effectiveness of the new management strategy.
Fisheries-independent surveys are being conducted during wet and dry seasons by FWC using small (21.3-m) and large (183-m) seines and by FIU using baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVs) using GoPro technology (Figure 2). In the first year of seine sampling, nekton communities differed significantly among basins; relative abundance of nekton was greatest in Little Madeira Bay, and the most numerous species were small-bodied fish that serve as the prey base, such as killifishes, mojarras, gobies, and schooling fish (silversides and anchovies), collected by the small seine. Unfortunately, the large seine technique (which collected the majority of recreationally important species) was only used in Long Sound and Little Madeira Bay because the depths and substrate in Joe Bay are not suitable to this sampling gear. The BRUVs, however, were deployed in all basins, and in contrast to the seine sampling, indicated that community composition was similar across basins. Recreationally important species were most frequently observed in Little Madeira Bay in seines, but in Joe Bay on BRUVs. Sharks were seen frequently on video in Little Madeira Bay and may be affecting BRUV observations there. Trophic groups (small prey, large prey, mesoconsumers, and top predators) appeared stable over time as compared to previously collected seine data using the same methodology from 2006-2009, but there was preliminary evidence of species-specific differences within basins and over time.
Fisheries-dependent information is being obtained through an angler reporting system developed in conjunction with FIU, the Snook and Gamefish Association, and the Audubon Society (Figure 2, paper surveys and a mobile application). So far, the angler reporting system has a good response rate, but visitation to the recently opened no-motor zone in Joe Bay was low.
Two more years of sampling are ahead for this project, so more comprehensive data analyses incorporating hydrological and habitat dependencies are planned. Seine and BRUV nekton community data will be compared between gears and across estuaries, and the long-term trends in visitation and angler experiences documented by the angler reporting system will be examined. This project will provide useful data for developing a long-term protocol for fisheries monitoring in these embayments into the future and demonstrates the advantage of collaborative research to reach a common goal.
FWRI bear researchers began efforts to develop a demographic profile of bears in the Apalachicola subpopulation in May 2016. We have, thus far, placed Iridium satellite collars on 37 adult female bears to document survival rates, the age of first reproduction, the number of cubs produced, and the interval between litters. Additionally, each spring we place VHF collars on cubs in the den and monitor them several times a week to document their survival rate. While these demographic profiles will enable us to construct a population model useful for the management of this subpopulation of bears, the presence of a satellite collar programmed to acquire locations every two hours affords us interesting insights into these bears.
One intriguing aspect of bear behavior occurs during the fall when bears increase their normal food intake from about 8,000 calories (kcal) per day to approximately 20,000 calories per day, resulting in an increase of their body weight by approximately 1.5 kg per day. This behavior, known as hyperphagia, creates stores of energy in the form of fat and is an adaptation by bears to the lack of food during the winter. Because bear foods are normally isolated in time and by space, bears may wander widely in the fall and spend up to 20 hours per day eating. Although the list of food items consumed by Florida bears is rather lengthy (over 100 items) and diverse (bromeliads to walking sticks), acorns and palmetto berries are dominant fall food items in most subpopulations. When these food items are abundant bears do well and have smaller home ranges. When these items are more scarce, bears must make greater movements to obtain the calories necessary to survive the winter.
In fall 2016 we noted movements of several bears of 20-30 km into remnants of coastal scrub habitat where they fed on acorns. In fall 2017, when acorns were apparently not as abundant, bears moved similar distances but further inland to forage in stands of hardwoods along area creeks and rivers.
Interestingly, in fall 2017, bear F605 moved from her home range in Tate’s Hell State Forest near Carrabelle, to private land near Hosford, Florida. This 12-year-old female accomplished this trek of approximately 58 km (as the crow flies) with her three 8-month-old cubs in only three days (see top photo). Subsequently, she remained near Hosford all winter, did not make any more noteworthy movements, and successfully raised all three cubs (see map below).
Bear researchers are frequently impressed with how black bears adapt to their environment and changing conditions. However, we are bewildered with their ability to somehow know that conditions in distant locations are superior to those in their current use area. Yet, it is abundantly apparent they do know. In previous studies, Florida researchers noted lengthy fall movements by bears in Big Cypress during an apparent palmetto berry failure and in Ocala when a drought caused both oak and palmetto fruit production to fail. Nonetheless, the trek by F605 that we documented was an impressive one for a female with three cubs.
Two subspecies of little brown songbirds, the Worthington’s marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris griseus) and the MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus macgillivraii), call the salt marshes of northeast Florida home. Both subspecies are salt marsh obligates, confined to the marshes near the mouths of the region’s rivers. These birds, which used to range from the state line to Volusia County, have seen their distributions contract until the most recent surveys in 2000-2001 only found breeding individuals north of the St. John’s River. The range contractions led to a state listing of Threatened for the Worthington’s marsh wren, while the MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow has been petitioned for federal listing.
In 2014-15 we conducted point counts both north and south of the St. John’s River to estimate occupancy rates and abundances of both species. We found no signs of repatriation into the previously abandoned southern areas, but no further range contractions north of the river. Both species preferred higher elevation patches in the saltier smooth cordgrass marshes over the neighboring brackish black needle rush marshes, and had increased occupancy rates and abundances farther from upland edges.
From 2015-2017, we monitored 996 wren nests and 123 sparrow nests at seven study plots to determine which habitat and nest features affected nest survival rates. Study plots were picked based on our point count data and represented high, medium, and low densities of wrens and sparrows. Most singing male sparrows appeared to be unpaired at all but one site, which suggests that there is a sex ratio imbalance in the region. Both wrens and sparrows experienced high rates of nest loss, with evidence pointing to predation as the main cause. Yet daily high tide height most strongly predicted the probability of nest failure for both species, though we saw limited evidence of nest flooding for sparrows and even less for wrens, which nest comparatively higher off the ground in taller grasses. It may be that extreme high tides concentrate predators in the higher elevation areas of the marsh where the birds tend to nest.
In the last component of our study, we radio-tagged and tracked 50 wren fledglings to look at post-fledging survival. Post-fledging survival was also low compared to similar songbird species, though fledglings that were heavier at the time of tagging survived much better than lighter birds. The causes of fledgling mortality are unknown, but we confirmed at least one predation event when we tracked one of our transmitters to the belly of a corn snake!
Though analyses of the project’s data are on-going, it has become increasingly clear that these subspecies have a tenuous grasp on survival in northeast Florida, with both low nest survival and low fledgling survival. While the birds are not yet losing many nests to flooding, they seem sandwiched between the uplands and the rising seas, with high predator concentrations suppressing their reproductive potential. We intend to synthesize our count and demographic data to identify habitat features that best support wrens and sparrows and to share this information with local managers, hopefully leading to management and restoration efforts that will alleviate some of the pressures these little brown birds face.
The American alligator seems, in some ways, to be one of those perfect species. It has persisted for eight million years with little change. It’s a long-lived (40-60 years) species with high adult survival and a high reproductive potential which helped it recover from once being on the endangered species list. Alligators are also a desired target of hunters for their meat and the value of their hides. And as an apex and keystone species, they play a notable role regulating prey populations and modifying their own environment in ways that benefit other wetland occupants.
Because of their longevity, position in the food chain, and tendency to reside in a limited area, alligators can serve as an indicator of local environmental conditions. Through the process of biomagnification, environmental contaminants can concentrate in their bodies and pose health risks to not only the alligators but also to humans that consume the meat. As a result, FWC’s Alligator Management Program requested that FWRI’s alligator research staff study and monitor mercury (Hg) concentrations in alligator muscle tissue from populations across the state. Our study revealed that average Hg concentrations in Florida waterways varied, but that the rate of accumulation is predictable. Based on these results, alligator research staff began a Hg monitoring program that assesses average Hg concentrations in alligator muscle tissue on harvested lakes, marshes, and river sections known as Alligator Management Units (AMUs). Approximately six or seven AMUs are sampled every year, with a goal of monitoring Hg on over 50 AMUs statewide.
The process involves capturing juvenile (3-6 ft) alligators by hand, snare, or snatch hook, and taking a 0.5-gm biopsy sample of tail muscle tissue to be tested for Hg. The alligator is marked for future identification and released. The tissue samples are sent to the Indian River Field Lab in Melbourne, where our FWRI collaborators analyze them for Hg concentrations. Based on the results and what we learned from the study, we estimate the average Hg concentration of a 7.5-ft alligator (an average-sized alligator that is harvested) on that AMU and inform the Alligator Management staff on whether health/consumption advisories need to be issued.
Advisories are issued to alligator hunters and nuisance trappers that hunt on areas with an average Hg concentration of ≥1 mg/kg. When applied, the advisories prohibit the sale of alligator meat from these areas and strongly discourage consumption. Hunters are, however, allowed to sell the alligator hide. To date, we have identified only two AMUs that meet the criteria for issuing health advisories. Both areas, Water Conservation Areas 1 and 2, are located in South Florida and are part of the eastern Everglades ecosystem. FWRI staff will continue to assess Hg levels in alligator meat to ensure that the public is informed of and protected from any potential health risk.
We receive some interesting calls and messages in the FWRI Communications Office. Sometimes inquiries require multiple experts’ input from a variety of agencies across the state. FWRI is the go-to for identifying unknown species, alive or dead, and on March 19 we received a photo from a news station in Jacksonville that stumped marine biologists and avid fishermen alike.
This ‘creature’ was sighted on the shore of Wolf Island, GA by a man and his son while out boating. Its long neck, small mouth, and distinct tail shape had experts stumped. The fresh-looking pink guts eluded to its authenticity. Biologists speculated it was a frilled shark, but it looked more like a dinosaur. Was this a well-done photoshop prank, or perhaps a movie prop?
Some said it looked identical to an Elasmosaurus – a genus of plesiosaur that lived in North America during the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous period (only about 80.5 million years ago). Layers of the story unfolded as others did more research. Someone stumbled on the Altamaha-ha: a legendary, mythical sea monster thought to inhabit the Altamaha River in Georgia. No one found physical evidence of the carcass, and the story was dismissed as a hoax.
This fall will mark ten years since FWC officially began its work on climate change adaptation by hosting a statewide summit. Since then, we’ve traveled down a long and winding path. Our team has gained and lost talented staff along the way but the journey has been a productive one and today we find ourselves with a dedicated, cross-divisional team and a long list of accomplishments. Previous iterations of the Climate Adaptation Core Team have worked with internal staff and partners to complete climate vulnerability assessments, integrate adaptation into our State Wildlife Action Plan, host training and scenario planning workshops and publish a comprehensive guide to Florida natural resource adaptation, accessible to anyone here, to name a few examples. These days, our small team is looking to the future and setting a course of priority goals and actions for the next five years.
In the beginning, we focused on laying the groundwork by pursuing critical science to better understand the projected impacts of climate change on Florida fish and wildlife and identifying key vulnerabilities. We’re now in a great position to continue building on this knowledge and technical capacity by helping to coordinate and strengthen research and monitoring programs, leveraging funding opportunities and developing a data sharing platform to support and coordinate the important research FWC staff and partners are doing. However, as we set our sights on the end goal of integrating climate adaptation throughout the agency and implementing meaningful on-the-ground adaptations actions, we are increasingly focusing on the importance of communicating effectively and building internal capacity and community.
One of the first steps in that process is the very intent of this brief update: we’d like to let you know we’re here! Our team recently began an internship program based out of Tallahassee and our new climate adaptation interns have done an excellent job launching a monthly newsletter. If you’d like to stay updated on climate-related funding opportunities, events, resources, publications and more, please send a brief email to Lily, mentioning that you’d like to subscribe. As we continue moving toward finalizing our five-year goals and work plan this spring, we’ll be adding more content to our team SharePoint site, which you’re always welcome to explore. And finally, if you’re already working on a climate-related topic and you’re not connected with our team, we’d love to hear from you. We’ll have many opportunities for collaboration in the days ahead and we hope to make as many connections throughout FWRI as possible, as we carry forward working on this pressing issue.
Current Climate Adaptation Core Team Members: René Baumstark (FWRI), Brian Branciforte (HSC), Terry Doonan (HSC), Bob Glazer (FWRI), Beth Stys (FWRI), Lily Swanbrow Becker (HSC/FWRI)
The internal newsletter of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute