Category Archives: Research Spotlight

Upland Habitat Celebrates 20-Year Anniversary

By Kent Williges

It’s hard to believe, but 2018 will mark the 20th year of existence for the Upland Habitat Research & Monitoring Program! Quite a few evolutionary changes have occurred over the span of 2 decades.

The program had its origins back in 1998 as the brainchild of Nick Wiley, former executive director of FWC, and was funded by the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) trust fund, the precursor of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF). Prior to agency reorganization, the program at the time was housed in the old Bureau of Wildlife Management, the predecessor of the Wildlife Habitat Management Section (WHM), and was created specifically to use applied research to address management issues within the agency’s Wildlife Management Area (WMA) system.

Over the years, the program has been known by a few different names including the Adaptive Management Section, and the Plant Monitoring Section before the current title was acquired after the agency reorganized in 2004. However, Upland Habitat continues to be closely allied with WHM, and conducts research within the WMA system to develop best management practices for upland plant communities that can be used by land managers across the state. The advantage of working on specific WMAs is that the manager can often see the experimental results immediately, and has a pretty good idea of what is working without having to wait to read about it later in a report. Past research has included monitoring the effects of grazing on upland plant communities, evaluating mechanical vegetation control methods for managing scrub and flatwoods, and helping to develop the agency’s Objective’s Based Vegetation Monitoring (OBVM) program, an adaptive management program that is ongoing to this day.

In 2004, Upland Habitat was moved to the FWRI during the agency-wide reorganization . Itwas placed within the Ecosystem Assessment and Research Section, first under the direction of Jennifer Wheaton and currently led by Dr. Amber Whittle, where it continues to grow and expand. The program was relatively small back in 1998 consisting of only three biologists– Kent Williges, current program leader, is the only original employee remaining. The program continues to grow post-merger, and currently consists of nine full time biologists headquartered at the Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville.

Upland Habitat continues to focus research on all things related to botany. In that way,  they have been able to establish a niche within the agency. Staff handle many requests for plant identification throughout the year from both WMA staff and the general public. They often determine the seed viability of native seed mixes for planting on WHM ground cover restoration projects. Current research for WHM funded by the LATF includes investigating methods for control of cabbage palm in wet flatwoods, comparing chemical control methods for hardwood reduction in upland plant communities, and monitoring the effects of mechanical control methods on ephemeral ponds associated with the flatwoods salamander. In addition, Upland Habitat has evaluated and provided management recommendations for WHM ground cover restoration projects for the past 13 years.

The classic skull and crossed ‘Liatris’ logo of the Upland Habitat Research & Monitoring Program will sport a new bandana throughout 2018, commemorating the 20-year anniversary.

Quantifying habitat characteristics has also become the Upland Habitat program’s specialty. Scientists are currently measuring structural attribute characteristics of wildlife habitat, and monitoring their response to management treatments for 2 endangered species including the Sanibel Island Rice Rat, and the flatwoods salamander.  These projects are funded by the Aquatic Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Section, and a Cooperative State Wildlife Grant, respectively. They are also investigating pollinators in both native, and restored plant communities as part of a cooperative project with the University of Florida.

The next 20 years will undoubtedly present many new challenges for Florida’s land managers as the population continues to increase with seemingly no end in sight. Upland Habitat will continue to utilize applied research to address upland plant community (and some wetlands) management issues within an ever-expanding urban landscape for the benefit of all of Florida’s habitat, wildlife and people.


Bay Scallop Restoration

By Austin Heil

In 2016, we began a 10-year project to restore bay scallops to self-sustaining levels in Florida’s Panhandle. The objective of the scallop restoration project is to enhance the public’s use and enjoyment of Florida’s natural resources by enhancing depleted scallop populations and reintroduction to suitable areas from which scallops have disappeared. The restoration work includes enhancing local scallop populations in targeted areas through a combination of the harvest and redistribution of naturally-occurring juvenile and adult scallops supplemented with stocking from a commercial scallop hatchery. In addition to traditional approaches to restoration, our vision for restoring scallops also includes educating the public on our ongoing restoration projects and asking them to be contributing partners in these efforts.

Scallop Cages

Since the project began in 2016, we have worked with community members in St. Joseph Bay to collect scallops prior to the opening of the scallop season and place them in cages in an exclusion zone protected from harvest. We are currently working on developing partnerships with interested NGOs, county officials, schools, and the private sector to help restore scallops in St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrew Bay. Our plan is to provide scallops and predator exclusion cages to community members in these areas prior to the 2018 scalloping season. Community members will hang their cages with scallops from privately owned docks or, if they have a boat, they can place these cages in the bay. Volunteers must be willing to clean the cages at least once each month as well as monitor the scallops. We hope that by partnering with the community next year we will increase our chances of successful restoring scallops to St. Joseph Bay and St. Andrew Bay.

FWC Wildlife Health Program

By Mark Cunningham

In Florida, FWC free-ranging wildlife veterinarians are key members of a statewide effort to detect and control diseases that threaten fish and wildlife, domestic animals, and people. Stressed by altered and fragmented habitats, environmental contaminants, toxins and global climate change, Florida’s fish and wildlife populations are increasingly vulnerable to disease. Also, Florida’s geographic location, subtropical climate and large human population put the state at high risk for wildlife diseases brought in by exotic and invasive species, increased global travel, and translocation of wildlife.  Staying on top of these threats requires surveillance, prevention, and expert technical assistance.

Fish and Wildlife Health Program Objectives
The objectives of the Fish and Wildlife Health program in Florida include:

  1. prevention of disease introduction or spread
  2. early detection of diseases
  3. assessing disease risks to Florida’s fish and wildlife and, where relevant, threats to domestic animals and public health
  4. responding appropriately if diseases are detected and/or introduced
  5. providing technical expertise (including expertise regarding animal welfare) (FWDST, 2012). The FWC Aquatic Health unit focuses on fish and aquatic mammals. The Wildlife Health unit focuses on terrestrial wildlife health including mammal, avian, reptile, and amphibian populations along with their ecosystems.

Wildlife Disease Surveillance
The FWC Wildlife Health unit conducts surveillance for several wildlife diseases.

  • Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) FWC monitors hunter-harvested waterfowl and live-captured waterfowl and investigates bird deaths for HPAI, a disease that can cause human deaths. Using an on-line form at, the public or other agencies can report bird deaths. The information is relayed to veterinarians and biologists in real time.
  • Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Deer This disease, believed to be caused by a prion, is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy and scrapie. CWD is the only infectious prion disease known to occur in wildlife. Active surveillance involves random sampling of hunter-killed and road-killed deer. Passive or targeted surveillance involves necropsy and testing of deer found sick or dead of unknown causes. The public, other agencies, and biologists can report suspicious cases by calling the CWD hotline at 1-866-293-9282 (1-866-CWD-WATCH). The line is monitored seven days a week, 365 days a year. Necropsies are conducted by FWC wildlife veterinarians and wildlife health biologists at the FWC Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville, FL.
  • Florida panther disease surveillance  FWC monitors the health of this endangered subspecies by periodically capturing and conducting complete physical examinations of young and adult panthers.  All panthers found dead undergo complete necropsy.

Wildlife Disease Prevention/Response
Managing or mitigating wildlife diseases is also an important responsibility for FWC veterinarians. As with domestic animal diseases, prevention is far more effective than treatment, and this is especially true for free-ranging wildlife populations as once a disease has been introduced there is often little that can be done to eliminate it. Regulations and outreach/education are important tools for preventing wildlife diseases.  Vaccination as a preventive measure is rarely used in wildlife populations but can be useful in some endangered species.

  • CWD regulations and outreach
    Two important regulations designed to prevent the introduction of CWD include the prohibition on importation of live cervids and on the transport of hunter-killed carcasses from CWD-positive states. Press releases, notices in hunting regulations, and other outreach programs are also used to help prevent the inadvertent movement of CWD-infected deer into Florida.
  • FELV vaccination of Florida panthers 
    Vaccinating Florida panthers against feline leukemia virus (FeLV) may have helped end an FeLV outbreak in 2004 (Cunningham et al., 2008). Continued FeLV vaccination of live-captured panthers is designed to help stop the chain of transmission if the disease spills over into the panther population.
  • New World Screwworm outbreak in Key deer
    In 2016, FWC and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) veterinarians assisted with the outbreak of New World Screwworm in Key deer in the Florida Keys. Veterinarians performed humane euthanasia as well as capture, immobilization and treatment of infested deer.

Technical Assistance
FWC free-ranging wildlife veterinarians conduct forensic necropsies, provide wildlife immobilization and anesthesia, and occasionally surgically implant radio telemetry transmitters. Veterinarians also address wildlife animal welfare issues including proper methods for humane euthanasia as well as establishing agency protocols for capture, immobilization and other management or research activities. Although wildlife rehabilitation is not a large focus of Florida’s Wildlife Health program or other government wildlife agencies, in cases of endangered species such as the Florida panther, rehabilitation of injured or orphaned panthers and release back into the wild can serve as a management tool to help recover the population.

In summary, FWC’s free-ranging wildlife veterinarians perform a variety of services including disease surveillance, disease prevention and response, and technical assistance. Given the wide range of skills needed and the diversity of species they work with, the free-ranging wildlife veterinarian must be able to work as part of a team and draw on the expertise of wildlife biologists and other veterinarians.


Literature Cited
Cunningham, M. W., M. A. Brown, et al.  2008.  Epizootiology and management of feline leukemia virus in the Florida panther. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 44(3): 537-552.

Fish and Wildlife Disease Standing Team.  2012.  Fish and Wildlife Disease Standing Team Charter. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, St. Petersburg, Florida, 4 pp.


Right Whale Research and Disentanglement

With a population estimated at approximately 500 individuals, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whales in the world and the southeastern U.S. is their primary calving area. Since 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) has carried out right whale research, rescue and monitoring efforts to aid recovery of the species. Most of this work is supported by grant funding provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

FWRI collaborates with Federal, State and non-governmental organization partners to conduct field research mainly involvingaerial surveys, biopsy sampling, disentanglement and stranding response during the winter calving season.

FWRI is one of a handful of major contributors to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Photographs taken by staff are used to identify individual right whales based on the callosity pattern (a natural growth of rough, cornified skin) on their heads as well as human-related scars. Over time, population vital rates such as survival, reproduction and trends in health are monitored in part through this photo-identification research and genetic sampling. FWRI has also worked closely with partners to compile years of aerial survey effort and sightings data into a geographic information system (GIS). Analysis of these spatial data help scientists and managers to evaluate and predict right whale distribution patterns in the calving grounds in relation to environmental factors such as sea surface temperatures, water depth and human activities, such as vessel traffic.

Catalog #3911, a two year-old female, photographed with a complex entanglement in December 2010. Over three weeks, the disentanglement team worked to cut knots and removed all the trailing rope. Unfortunately, her injuries were too severe and she was found floating dead in February 2011.

Vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear are the leading known causes of death in this species. Scarring studies show that more than 80% of the right whale population has been entangled at least once. Right whales are generally strong enough to break away from anchoring gear and are typically found free-swimming with rope fixed in their mouth through their baleen, around their head, and wrapped around their flippers. Right whales can carry this gear hundreds of miles over months, or in some cases years, before either shedding the gear, being spotted and disentangled, or dying from their injures or starvation . FWRI is a member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team which was established by NMFS to help develop take reduction plans that mitigate the entanglement risk to large whales.

Offshore disentanglement operations present diverse challenges that require training and preparation. The Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network (ALWDN) permits response activities on an individual basis through NMFS’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP). The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in partnership with NMFS developed techniques for disentangling anchored and free-swimming large whales that were largely adopted from 19th century whalers.

The whalers would attach barrels or logs to their harpoon line in order to slow the whale, keep it near the surface, and tire it. Disentanglement  involves establishing a control line where buoys and drogues can be attached to add buoyancy and drag, but are also easily removed. The disentanglement teams work from small boats and use customized tools in order to establish working lines and strategically cut the entangling ropes.

Over the past 30 years the ALWDN has developed new techniques and tools and has expanded up and down the eastern seaboard, successfully disentangling hundreds of large whales. In addition to freeing animals from entanglement, the network stresses documentation and gear recovery; both are used to assess the prevalence and impact of gear interactions as well as management strategies to prevent entanglement.

FWRI has been an active member of the ALWDN for over a decade. Our latest disentanglement event occurred in January 2017; Catalog #3530, an adult male and regular visitor to Florida, was spotted with a life-threatening entanglement and several new wounds. The video below describes his disentanglement.

Red Tide Volunteer Monitoring Program

By Karen Henschen

The FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) Red Tide Monitoring Program was officially launched in May 2000. Local citizens were recruited to monitor blooms of Karenia brevis, the Florida red tide organism in offshore waters along Florida’s west coast. Red tide events were known to frequent southwest Florida, and a plan was needed to help coordinate monitoring efforts offshore during species population formation. Today, sampling    efforts have extended beyond offshore southwest Florida. The program’s primary goals now are to provide increased coverage for the early detection of K. brevis and other harmful algal blooms (HAB’s) in offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as alongshore beaches, inshore waters and coastal bays. This added coverage of volunteers in all coastal counties allows researchers to provide early warning to coastal residents in the area, continue lab research, and predict seasonal events.

Karen Henschen, RTOMP Coordinator, packing bottles for volunteers

Because of limited state personnel, boats and other resources, the program relies on all kinds of volunteers including charter boat captains, commercial fishermen, school groups, university researchers and students, marine animal rescue centers, divers, private citizens, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and collaborating partners. Sampling and shipping supplies are provided for each volunteer by Karen Henschen, program coordinator. Karen sends out over 200 sampling bottles to volunteers every week. Bottles are readily available when volunteers go out on a recreational excursion, charter fishing trip, pier or dock fishing, or research field work. Karen coordinates participants from a network of volunteers associated with other environmental partners to share bloom information. In 2016, there are over 300 volunteers collecting 1,200/year in 31 coastal counties. The first sample arrived at the FWRI microscopy lab facility in the summer of 2006, and within those years there has been over 11,000 samples collected. This is a true testament to the dedication and importance of everyone who has participated in this program over the years.

Strong winds, rough seas, or dark of night did not keep Red Tide Monitoring volunteers from water sampling during red tide blooms through the years. Karen also works closely with the FWC Fish Kill Hotline to help determine environmental concerns during marine animal mortality events. Once the volunteer collected samples are received by FWRI staff, they are examined under a microscope and species are identified and counted. Additional HAB species information is recorded at certain sites to help evaluate long-term trends in species composition and shifts in dominant groups (diatoms versus dinoflagellates). The field and lab observation provide a valuable snapshot of the phytoplankton community. This information is immediately used as necessary to guide additional sample collection in areas of concern. The results are reported to the appropriate state managers through the FWC/FWRI Red Tide Status Report, and the data is archived into the HAB Historical Database. State managers and scientists can use this information to better understand HAB species, and the conditions they occur in Florida coastal waters. In fact, many of the certified shellfish growers in Florida voluntarily collect water samples and conduct the field observations because this valuable information helps them manage their harvest activities to ensure the safety of their product. Their data are also used to provide critical ground truth to confirm bloom location seen from satellite imagery provided by USF Optical Oceanography Lab.

Each participant’s contribution is essential to piecing together a picture of the distribution of toxic phytoplankton along the Florida coast. With that understanding appropriate agencies and the public can be alerted of potential harmful algal blooms, and take the necessary precautions. This program succeeds because of these community partnerships that make expanded coastal coverage possible. The time and efforts they give to sampling and red tide event response is invaluable to scientists at FWC. Karen also recruits new volunteers daily in order to help cover Florida coastal waters during non-bloom events to help determine normal environmental conditions.

Scientists are still struggling to understand what causes blooms, to predict their occurrence and to find a way to lessen their impact. Early detection by volunteers is forecasting critical component in scientists’ efforts to better understand harmful algal blooms.

History of the Center of Biostatistics and Modeling

 by Erin Leone

The Center for Biostatistics and Modeling provides statistical analysis advice and support to FWC staff. We are a service-oriented group that supports FWC’s mission much like the other Information Science and Management sub-sections such as the Center for Spatial Analysis, Information Access, and Research Information Sciences.

Our goal is to ensure the validity and continually improve the currency of the scientific studies produced by FWC. We provide general statistical consulting services, develop efficient data management strategies, design study and sampling plans, perform cutting-edge quantitative analyses, produce high-quality graphics and collaborate with staff on peer-reviewed publications. In addition to these services we offer software and analysis training to help staff feel more comfortable with their statistical knowledge base.

The center’s history began in the Lovett E. Williams Jr. Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville back when it housed the Bureau of Wildlife Research under the Game and Fish Commission. It was the retirement of the lab’s namesake – Lovett William – in 1985 that started it all. Realizing the growing need for statistical support, research staff recommended that the commission replace Lovett’s turkey research position not with another biologist, but rather a statistician.

By the time of the commission’s reorganization and creation of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) in 2004, the group consisted of two full-time statisticians in Gainesville. Thanks to the support of staff and leadership, the center has grown considerably and now consists of four statisticians and a dedicated database manager.

Staff in the Center for Biostatistics and Modeling have worked on a wide variety of projects touching every division within FWC and every subsection within FWRI.hypoxssdplot_withwaterbody So far this year we have worked on a number of interesting projects including examining the persistence of bald eagle nesting territories, describing determinant growth in American alligators, estimating species richness on habitat restoration sites, estimating black bear abundance using spatial capture-recapture models, and estimated the impact of red tide on sea turtle mortality. Some examples of our work are highlighted in the included figures. If you have questions about study design, analysis, or are in need of statistical assistance or expertise, please feel free to contact any one of us.

Erin Leone, Paul Schueller, Colin Shea

Statewide Wild Turkey Relative Abundance and Distribution Assessment Mapping Application

by Roger Shields and Tyler Pittman

wild turkeyIn 1973, following many years of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) restoration efforts, the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (predecessor to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) conducted the first statewide assessments of the distribution of wild turkeys. In 2001, the FWC Wild Turkey Management Program (WTMP) conducted a similar map-based survey by mail for comparison. After this survey the WTMP included 10-year assessments of the distribution and relative abundances of wild turkey to FWC’s “Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management” to further monitor population trends of wild turkeys. We conducted this second assessment in 2011 using a specialized online Geographic Information System (GIS) and created an online mapping application for viewing survey results.

To begin the 2011 assessment, the WTMP and upland game bird staff at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) worked with an outside vendor to develop an internet-based GIS mapping system. Resource specialists from FWC, other state and federal agencies, and industrial timber companies, as well as members of the Florida Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Florida Chapter of The Wildlife Society and antlerless deer permit holders were asked to participate in the survey. Survey participants used personal computers and the online application to select specific cells of a 1 km x 1 km grid covering the state for which they were familiar and enter turkey abundance information. The system provided a hierarchy of underlying maps – statewide aerial photography; statewide rivers and major roads; and county, city and conservation area boundaries – to assist respondents in recording turkey abundance data geographically.

In total, 310 people responded to the survey; unfortunately, survey responses accounted for only about 65 percent of the state, and other means were necessary to acquire information about areas lacking survey data. To this end, WTMP biologists turned to staff at FWRI for additional assistance. Research staff developed a Likelihood-based Moving Window Model that used extrinsic data (including habitat suitability models and movement distance data) and information from known areas to inform estimates for unknown areas. For every cell of the statewide grid, the model evaluated the distance from known locations and pathways through suitable habitat from known turkey locations to determine the possibility (or likelihood) of at least one turkey being able to reach and occupy the cell in question. Staff then conducted field surveys to validate these underlying models and databases to ensure they accurately reflected conditions on the ground.

These efforts culminated in a spatial dataset that represents categories of predicted wild turkey presence throughout the state of Florida. The final step of the project was to build a web-based mapping application that allows for public viewing access to the assessment results.  This online tool is available at:

map of wild turkey distribution estimates
Figure 1. This map displays results of a 2011 statewide wild turkey distribution assessment. Note that this model provides estimates using best available information and these estimates do not replace ground surveys.

However, given that wild turkey are a generalist species and widely distributed, the prediction accuracy may not be exact in all areas. Although this information is useful for depicting the general location of turkeys within Florida, caution should be taken when considering local areas, because the survey resolution (1 km x 1 km) and data are not well suited for small spatial scale application.

Using the spatial data derived from this project, FWC staff will be able to relate current turkey population distributions (based on the 2011 data) to previous assessments, vegetative communities, land ownership, harvest records, and other pertinent information.  This will allow the FWC WTMP to focus management on particular areas of the State that have suitable turkey habitat but low turkey populations.

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Habitat Research:
Coastal Wetlands

by Dr. Ryan P. Moyer


Coastal Acidification Studies in Tampa Bay

Women kneeling in field
FWRI coastal wetlands technician Christina Powell conducting coastal acidification sampling of Tampa Bay waters in Old Tampa Bay. Researchers collected samples every three hours over a 30-hour period to measure dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), dissolved organic carbon (DOC), pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, and total nitrogen and phosphorus.

The coastal wetlands research group at FWRI has recently begun pilot field studies to understand the potential buffering effects that seagrass meadows may have on acidified coastal waters. The project was initiated in May 2014, when the coastal wetlands team joined a team of collaborators from the U.S. Geological Survey, ESA Associates, and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to conduct diurnal sampling at two locations in Tampa Bay. This work uses cutting-edge autonomous seafloor sensors with discrete measurements of water column chemistry to understand the hydrodynamics and biogeochemistry of seagrass habitats in Old Tampa Bay offshore of Rocky Point, and in Lower Tampa Bay offshore of Fort DeSoto. Parameters measured over a continuous 30-hour period include dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), dissolved organic carbon (DOC), pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, current speed and direction, and total nitrogen and phosphorus.

Coastal waters experience much higher diurnal geochemical variability than open ocean waters due to the high rates of photosynthesis and respiration that occur in coastal estuaries such as Tampa Bay. As the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) increases, some excess CO2 is transferred to surface waters, thereby lowering pH and resulting in a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Since coastal waters have higher rates of respiration (produces CO2) and photosynthesis (consumes CO2), they may serve as a natural buffer area for organisms to adapt to acidified waters. Further, seagrass acreage in Tampa Bay has been slowly recovering since the 1980s and is now the highest it has been since the 1950s. This increase in seagrass means more photosynthesis, and less CO2 in Tampa Bay waters – a trend that is opposite of the expected acidification trend (lower pH) that has been observed in most other coastal and open ocean areas. Thus, Tampa Bay may provide insights towards utilizing strategic habitat restoration to minimize the impacts of ocean acidification in coastal waters. The coastal wetlands research group at FWRI, along with our partners, is trying to understand this unique geochemical occurrence in Tampa Bay, and hope to develop a Bay-wide coastal acidification monitoring program for Tampa Bay in collaboration with the Environmental Planning Commission of Hillsborough County.


Vegetation Monitoring at Clam Bayou

Woman on boat
FWC intern Alexandra Wilcox (left) and coastal wetlands technician Kara Radabaugh (right) measure salt marsh soil pH at Clam Bayou in Gulfport, FL, while coastal eetlands technician Amanda Chappel (center) records the data.

The FWRI coastal wetlands research team also continues to monitor water quality and vegetation in mangrove and salt marsh habitats of Clam Bayou in Gulfport, FL. This work compares commonly used monitoring techniques in tidal coastal wetlands in support of the Coastal Habitats Integrated mapping and Monitoring Program (CHIMMP). The project was initiated in July 2014, when water quality monitoring activities began as part of a consortium with researchers from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, the U.S. Geological Survey, and YSI Inc. Then in December 2014, permanent vegetation monitoring plots were established to compare several different field-based monitoring techniques. Water quality monitoring activities have continued monthly, and vegetation monitoring has been conducted every four months. Three salt marsh transects and three mangrove plots are visited quarterly. The following parameters are measured: sediment accretion, soil moisture, soil pH, porewater salinity, tidal creek salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH, vegetation density, canopy height, canopy density, vegetative species identification, and mangrove diameter. To date, the monitoring efforts have documented a major shift towards mangrove vegetation in salt marsh habitats at Clam Bayou. Information gained from this study will help make recommendations for the development of future coastal wetland monitoring programs statewide. Coastal wetlands are particularly vulnerable to natural and anthropogenic impacts on local hydrology and water quality, which in turn determine the suitability of the habitat for numerous fish and bird species. The wetlands found at Clam Bayou are especially vulnerable due to their proximity to urbanization and altered hydrology.


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Scanning the Ocean Floor for Fish Habitat

by Eric Weather

Maximizing the Efficiency of Reef Fish Surveys Through IncorporaThe Gulf of Mexico benthic habitat can be summarized as a mosaic of sand with limestone rock outcroppings (reefs).  These reefs facilitate the settlement and growth of a wide variety of benthic organisms including corals, sponges and crustaceans.  They also support a diverse fish community from tiny blennies and gobies to commercially and recreationally important groupers and snappers.  The Fisheries-Independent Monitoring (FIM) program in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) conducts annual fisheries monitoring on these reef habitats to provide data for single species and ecosystem-based management initiatives.  In 2009, the FIM program implemented the use of side-scan sonar to identify and classify the benthic habitats in the eastern Gulf of Mexico between 10 m and 110 m deep.  These sonars are towed behind a survey vessel and are equipped with two side-facing transducers that generate and receive sound signals.  When a signal is generated it propagates through the water column and reflects off the seafloor and then back to the transducer.  The intensity at which the return signal is received is interpreted into an image that is deciphered by a trained survey technician.  The configuration of the transducers on the sonar allows the sound signal to ensonify a very wide swath of the seafloor (up to 300 m) at one time.  As the survey vessel moves through the water, a streaming image of the seafloor is generated, as depicted in the video.  When rocky outcrops are identified by a survey technician they are given a habitat category based on their structure and complexity and become the basis for the NMFS/FIM reef-fish survey.  Additionally, these data are used by regional geologists, cartographers and other biologists to help answer a wide variety of research related questions regarding the benthic habitats of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.