State of the Beach/State Reports/FL/Beach Ecology
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- 1 Introduction
- 2 Policies
- 3 Inventory
- 4 Other Coastal Ecosystems
- 5 Education
- 6 Contact Info
- 7 Footnotes
To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.
Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.
In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include
- quality of habitat,
- status of ‘indicator’ species,
- maintenance of species richness, and
- management practices.
It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.
Florida's Strategic Beach Management Plan, completed in 2008, does not appear to use beach ecology as a factor in beach restoration projects. According to the plan, the state does a limited amount of biological monitoring during and directly after a beach management project: "Environmental monitoring consists of the collection and analysis of nesting and hatching data for marine turtles, shorebirds, density and diversity of epibiotic species on nearshore hardbottom and artificial reefs, and some fish surveys. Environmental monitoring is used to assess the effects of beach erosion control projectsand the success of artificial reefs required as mitigation for project impacts."
Florida monitors and regulates beach grooming practices. Permits issued in 16 urban counties allow grooming of 21% of Florida's sandy beaches fronting the Gulf and Atlantic. Not all counties groom "regularly"; this is based on need. "Wildlife friendly" grooming protocols have been established. A document listing eight "beach cleaning permit conditions" has been prepared to protect marine turtle nesting activities. One such guidance document exists for Monroe County, another for Brevard through Broward County, and a third for all other coastal counties.
During turtle nesting season from May 1 - Oct. 31, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) restricts beach areas that can be cleaned, prohibiting mechanical cleaning of turtle nesting areas. FDEP recognizes that seaweed, algae and other wrack line debris along the shoreline can help build and stabilize beaches and dunes. In addition, the organic matter contained within the wrack line provides a foraging and nesting habitat for resident and migratory coastal beach nesting bird species.
A section of the state's administrative code governing construction seaward of the mean high-water line states that “coastal armoring structures shall not be constructed in federally designated critical habitat for marine turtles.” That rule was essentially meaningless until July 2014, because the federal government had never designated critical habitat for sea turtles. Now that certain areas of the Florida coast have been designated as critical habitat for Loggerhead turtles (see below), it appears that new seawall construction in the most critically eroded areas — those where water is lapping up to where a seawall might be proposed — is off-limits along vast stretches of Florida's coast. Although scientists say limiting seawall construction is important for protecting turtle habitat, restrictions on the structures are often opposed by property owners. DEP officials are now reviewing the seawall prohibition. More on this.
The report Eroding Long-Term Prospects for Florida’s Beaches: Florida’s Coastal Management Policy provides an overview of erosion issues in Florida, their impacts on sea turtles and how these issues might be addressed.
No beach is bulldozed on a regularly basis. Occasional beach scraping may be allowed for emergency upland property protection.
Several criteria are used to evaluate permit applications for fill projects. These include:
- Restrictions on design, placement, and timing of projects to protect marine turtle nesting.
- Required to avoid, minimize, and mitigate for unavoidable direct and indirect hardbottom impacts.
- Required to use native beach compatible sand source for fill; no contaminants, debris, etc.
See Rule 62B-41, F.A.C. for details. Also see other relevant Beach Management Rules and Joint Coastal and Environmental Resource Rules
Section 161.58, F.S. establishes guidelines for vehicle use on the beach.
In April 2011 the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustees for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill announced that BP had agreed to provide $1 billion toward early restoration projects in the Gulf of Mexico to address impacts to natural resources caused by the spill. The funds will be used to support projects such as the rebuilding of coastal marshes, replenishment of damaged beaches, conservation of sensitive ocean and coastal habitat, and restoration of barrier islands and wetlands that provide natural storms protection. Each Gulf state - Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas - will select and implement $100 million in projects; the Federal Resource Trustees, NOAA and Department of the Interior (DOI), will each select and implement $100 million in projects; and the remaining $300 million will be used for projects selected by NOAA and DOI from proposals submitted by the State Trustees. Additional information, including a link to the full agreement, is available online here.
Beach Driving and Sea Turtles
An interesting controversy erupted in Flagler County regarding beach driving and sea turtles. As reported by Virginia Smith in Daytona Beach News Journal, you might expect the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to oppose beach driving to protect sea turtle nesting areas. But in this case, Flagler County rebuffed a second demand by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lift its ban on the Volusia-Flagler Turtle Patrol's use of all-terrain vehicles to monitor sea turtle nests. In a letter dated July 7, 2005, David Hankla, a field supervisor for the service in Jacksonville, told Flagler officials that they risk no violation of the Endangered Species Act by allowing the ATV monitoring to continue, and reminded them that the federally licensed turtle patrol acts as an extension of the service itself. In a reply on July 8, County Administrator David Haas challenged Hankla's account of an earlier phone conversation and repeated the county's case that beach driving, which it banned in December 2004, was an all-or-nothing proposition. Only if the service promised to protect Flagler County from any beach driving related lawsuits, Haas said, would the ban be reconsidered -- and if it were lifted, it would have to be lifted for everyone.
Since sea turtle nesting season began on May 1, 2005 the driving ban limited the Volusia-Flagler turtle patrol's ability to monitor 11 miles of unincorporated county beaches. Particularly affected are nests too close to the sea, which state law requires be moved by 9 a.m. the morning after they are dug. Without ATVs the deadline is nearly impossible to meet, said Turtle Patrol president Beth Libert, and many nests are now submerged (and therefore dead) as a result. If the ban were lifted immediately, Libert said, many turtles could still be saved. The first of the season's hatchlings are getting ready to emerge, she said, and those unable to crawl out of their nests -- a very common occurrence -- could be helped before they're buried alive.
As reported by Ludmilla Lelis in the Orlando Sentinel on November 5, 2005, the larger issue of beach driving was apparently resolved when Volusia County won the right to allow vehicles on the beach until 2030, through a federal permit that keeps beach driving in place despite the potential harm to endangered animals. With the new permit, federal officials have decided that the harm to turtles was minimal and that beach driving can be allowed for a quarter-century. Beach-driving advocates and county officials have praised the new permit, seeing beach driving as essential to local tourism and public access to the beach. However, some environmentalists are disappointed with a tradeoff that allows sea turtles or piping plovers to be killed.
A legal challenge against beach driving was launched in the 1990s when a lawsuit claimed that beach driving violated the federal Endangered Species Act because the cars were driving over turtle nests and killing the mother turtles trying to lay their eggs and the little hatchlings that emerge from the nests. During that lengthy legal battle, Volusia received its first federal permit to allow beach driving, which required the county to reduce the harm to the turtles. Nighttime driving was stopped, and driving was barred from several miles of beach where there are greater numbers of turtle nests. Cars were also barred from driving in the dunes, where the turtle eggs are usually laid. Currently, beach driving is allowed on 15.4 miles of the county's 51-mile beachfront, though beach erosion caused by 2004's hurricanes has made it difficult to keep many of those sections of beach open to driving.
During the past nine years there have only been reports of six sea-turtle hatchlings killed by vehicles, an indication that the county's efforts to manage the beach have been saving the rare reptiles. Some environmentalists remain critical of the county's beach management, citing evidence of scores of mother turtles that abandoned nesting attempts after walking into the beach posts that Volusia County uses for traffic control.
Florida Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program
The Federal Department of Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations Act of 2002 directed the Secretary of Commerce to establish a Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) “for the purpose of protecting important coastal and estuarine areas that have significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical or aesthetic values, or that are threatened by conversion from their natural or recreational state to other uses.” CELCP gives priority to lands that can be effectively managed and protected and that have significant ecological value. Each coastal state that submits grant applications under CELCP must develop a CELCP Plan approved by NOAA's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM). An assessment of priority land conservation needs and clear guidance for nominating and selecting land conservation projects within the state must be included in each CELCP Plan.
The Florida Coastal Monitoring Program (FCMP) submitted its first CELCP projects to OCRM for consideration in 2005 for the FY 2007 project review cycle. OCRM awarded funds to the top 17 of 41 eligible projects; Florida’s projects were ranked 25, 33 and 40 and did not receive funding. In August 2006, as a result of the national rankings received by Florida’s previous project submissions, FCMP focused on developing a draft CELCP Plan to ensure that its FY 2008 projects would receive extra credit. The program submitted Florida’s draft CELCP Plan to OCRM in October 2006. Subsequently, FCMP submitted three CELCP projects to OCRM for consideration during the FY 2008 project review cycle. OCRM identified 44 projects eligible for funding, including Florida’s projects which were ranked 11, 19 and 30, but were not funded. FCMP also worked to address OCRM’s concerns with Florida’s draft CELCP Plan and submitted the final draft to OCRM in June 2007. The plan was approved by OCRM in November 2008. In 2009, Florida received funding for two projects, the Caya Costa State Park and Guana Tolomato Matanzas projects. In 2010, OCRM awarded funding to Florida's Keewaydin-Rookery Bay NERR project. More information about Florida's CELCP projects can be found on Florida's CELCP Website.
FCMP’s CELCP Plan establishes a process for identifying, selecting, and nominating projects for review at the national level. The plan identifies the Florida Forever Program as the foundation for the state’s CELCP implementation. The Division of State Lands is tasked with implementing and managing the Florida Forever Program and, in cooperation with the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, is responsible for many of the processes associated with evaluation and appraisal of lands available for state acquisition. The Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas (CAMA) provided input on the availability of lands for acquisition within Florida’s three National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERR) - Apalachicola Bay Reserve, Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve, and Rookery Bay Reserve.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate portions of island and mainland coastal beaches in six states along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for the Northwest Atlantic (NWA) population of loggerhead sea turtles. In total, 90 nesting sites in coastal counties located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were identified for possible designation as critical habitat for the NWA population of loggerhead sea turtles. These sites incorporate about 740 shoreline miles: about 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline, and consist of nesting sites with or immediately adjacent to locations with the highest nesting densities (approximately 84 percent of the documented nesting) within these six states.
In July 2014 NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the proposed rule was final, designating critical habitat for the turtle out of some 700 miles of beaches and nearly 300,000 miles of ocean along the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico. Details and maps.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) created the Florida Wildlife Legacy Initiative to develop a strategic vision for conserving all of Florida’s wildlife to meet the requirements of the State Wildlife Grants Program. The result of the Initiative was the development of the Statewide Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), which produced a comprehensive inventory of the natural habitats and threatened species in Florida in 2005 and outlined a strategic plan for conserving Florida’s habitats. One of the required elements of State Wildlife Grants is the identification of conservation threats to wildlife habitats throughout the state. Seven habitats were rated as stressed to a high level of threat; coral reefs, coastal tidal streams, submerged aquatic vegetation (seagrass and algae), beaches, mangrove swamp, salt marsh, and tidal flats, in descending order of stressor rating.
Florida's 2010 FACT report includes nine "Coastal Habitat Indicators" under the Coastal Habitats section for:
- Number of Acres Managed for Habitat Conservation
- Number of Acres of Seagrass Cover and Degree of Propeller Scarring
- Number of Acres of Wetland Habitat
- Number of Acres of Shellfish Growing Habitat
- Number of Miles of Sandy Beach and Acres of Dune Habitat
- Number of Acres of Coral Protected Habitat and Artificial Reefs
- Number of Acres of Aquatic Preserves
- Number of Freshwater Springs, Springshed Land Use, and Nutrient Levels
- FCMP Grants for Coastal Habitats
Regarding sandy beach and dune habitat, the 2010 FACT report states:
The number of miles of sandy beach in Florida has been determined to be 825 by a thorough survey of coastal shoreline. This number is modified by the amount of erosion and beach re-nourishment occurring over time. Florida sandy beaches are distributed primarily along three shorelines: the northwest Panhandle, the southwest Gulf coast, and the Atlantic coast from Duval County to Miami-Dade. Very little sandy beach is found in the Big Bend area, the Ten Thousand Islands area on the Gulf in Monroe County, and the Florida Keys.
Beach dune habitat is found on the barrier island system that exists along most of Florida’s coastline. Dune habitat overlaps with most of the area identified as sandy shoreline, except in areas of Volusia, Collier, and Sarasota counties. The FWC estimated 32,295 acres of dune habitat in 2005. Over half of this habitat is protected as conserved lands; 46% existing as conserved and managed lands (under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act), 1% Florida Forever lands, and 5% Strategic Habitat Conservation Area lands. Florida beaches and beach dunes are important nesting areas for sea turtles and many species of shorebirds.
Several endangered species of sea turtles, including the loggerhead and green, lay their eggs on Florida beaches. After an incubation period of several months, the eggs hatch and the little hatchlings make their way to the ocean. Although most are eaten by crabs, birds, and fish, a few will survive and return to the same beach as adults.
Both the green and loggerhead sea turtles are threatened by development of nesting beaches and incidental capture by commercial fishing industries. The green sea turtle is also threatened by disease (large and numerous external and internal fibroid tumors). The cause of these tumors is unknown. High incidence rates of tumors (20 percent of turtles examined) have been noted in both Florida and Hawaiian waters. A lesser incidence has been reported from Australian waters. Click here for the status of the Florida sea turtle and recovery plan development.
Loggerhead and leatherback turtles have only a 50 percent chance of avoiding being accidentally snared by a deep-sea fishing line each year, a new study has revealed. This rate of capture of the endangered turtles is unsustainable, say the researchers. They are calling for the creation of "ocean wildlife reserves" maintained by tracking the turtles using satellite transmitters. Rebecca Lewison, Sloan Freeman and Larry Crowder of Duke University Marine Laboratory performed a survey of international turtle bycatch reports. They estimate that more than 200,000 loggerheads and 50,000 leatherbacks were accidentally caught in fishing gear worldwide during 2000.
Many encounters are fatal for the turtles that swallow the fishermen's hooks. And both loggerhead and leatherback turtle populations have already fallen by 80 to 90 per cent over the past decade as a result of habitat loss, egg poaching, and predation.
But the researchers believe the endangered turtles could be protected within oceanic wildlife reserves. As the turtles' habitats move around, these reserves would have to move with them. The turtles follow the borders between warm and cold water, as well as ocean upwellings, which attract their prey. Ocean reserves could, however, be maintained by tracking the turtles with satellite transmitters, the researchers say. The team is already tagging turtles in order to learn more about their migrations.
The Duke University team's work was presented in February 2004 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle, Washington.
Florida's 2010 FACT report includes a section on Living Resources which has seven "indicators." Among these is Number of Sea Turtle Nests and Number of Strandings. The report tracks data for three different species of sea turtles - the loggerhead, the green turtle, and the leatherback. Following is the discussion for each species:
Between 2000 and 2010, Loggerhead nests counts experienced an overall net decrease of nearly 10,000 for the whole period. Nest counts declined during the majority of the decade and reached an all time low in 2007 (28,074). Despite such a drop, Loggerhead nests counts far exceeded nest counts from other species.
Green Turtle nest counts exhibited a nearly biennial cycle. While loggerhead turtle nest counts were at their lowest in 2007, green turtle nest counts reached their highest that same year (9,091). The lowest nest count during this period (329) occurred in 2001. This was the third lowest green turtle nest count since the survey began in 1989 (289 nests in 1999 and 267 in 1993).
Leatherback nest counts exhibited an increasing trend over time. Like green turtles, leatherbacks also experienced a notably high nest count in 2007. The highest nest count during this period (615) occurred in 2009 and was the also the highest nest count since the survey began in 1989. The lowest nest count during this period (154) occurred in 2000, which, at the time, was the second highest nest count for leatherbacks since 1989. The largest increase (350) took place between 2008 and 2009.
Following is a portion of the report's discussion of turtle mortality:
Typically, loggerhead turtles were found stranded more than any other species each year. One exception occurred in 2010 when green turtle stranding counts exceeded that of loggerhead turtles. Increases in loggerhead stranding counts took place in 2005 and 2006 counts increased by 26 percent and 36 percent respectively. Significant increases in green turtle counts occurred each year beginning in 2005 through 2010. A significant decrease in loggerhead strandings occurred in 2004 when counts dropped by 33 percent.
Annual increases and decreases in stranding counts often coincided among all five species. In 2001, 2005, and 2010, each species experienced increases while in 2002 and 2004, each species experienced a decrease in stranding counts. Three species, Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley, each peaked in 2001 with 41, 48, and 144 strandings respectively. Loggerhead counts were highest in 2006 with 1,233 strandings while green turtle strandings peaked in 2009 with 740 strandings.
The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge consists of 20 miles of beach along central Florida's Atlantic Coast from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso Beach. It hosts the largest concentration of nesting loggerhead sea turtles in the western hemisphere.
Data presented at the 25th annual Sea Turtle Symposium in Savannah, Georgia in January 2005 was not encouraging for loggerhead sea turtles. Data from the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge showed the number of loggerhead nests had dropped steadily since 1998, when almost 18,000 nests were dug in the refuge, to 2004's approximately 8,000 nests. Since Florida provides more than 90% of the loggerhead's North American nesting grounds, the drop-off could have repercussions for the species as a whole.
Potential causes for the decline in loggerhead nests that were suggested at the conference included recent cold-water upwellings, coastal development, beach armoring, and even longline fishing near the Azores.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in December 2004 to regulate sea wall construction and protect sea turtles in Indian River County. In exchange for the ability to authorize some new sea walls, Indian River County must enforce a strict ordinance regulating lighting along the coast, carefully monitor all sea turtle activity along county beaches, conduct sea turtle education programs and eliminate other threats to sea turtles in the county.
An article by Virginia Smith in the Daytona Beach News Journal in June 2005 reported that Florida's sea turtle nesting was the lowest it had been since the late 1980s, yet disorientations were reaching all-time highs -- a paradox that turtle experts say might stem from beach nourishment projects, beach lighting, or both. A disorientation event is usually a matter of baby turtles heading toward artificial lights instead of the sea. An event can affect a single turtle or a whole nest, and is not necessarily fatal. In 2013 eyebrows were raised when the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm wants Volusia County to exempt a core area of the city's beachfront from sea turtle lighting rules to "take advantage of increasing development opportunities." Chisholm asked the county to help convince state and federal officials that the developed area, which “has practically zero nesting activity,” should have different turtle lighting standards.
From 1999 to 2003, as sea turtle nesting dropped by about 20 percent statewide, disorientations of both adult and hatchling sea turtles (the vast majority hatchlings) more than doubled, from 677 events to 1,460.
2004 was the state's lowest turtle nesting year since 1998, and hurricanes removed a potential 1 million hatchlings from the population, but disorientations held strong at 912 events.
Recent studies have shown hatchling disorientations increase as much as tenfold in the two years after a nourishment project. Spring and summer 2005 saw over a dozen such projects statewide. Altered beach profiles may be causing nesting females to seek lower ground on the wrong side of a slope.
Dean Gallagher, an environmental specialist with the state's marine turtle protection program, said there are still lighting issues that need resolving even without the additional problems caused by beach nourishment. The major utilities refuse to convert to a type of streetlight that state experts say would greatly reduce disorientations, Gallagher said, and "overall lack of regulation and enforcement" on beach lighting is exacerbating the statewide disorientations.
Although the number of sea turtles seems to be declining, the popularity is growing for guided, late-night turtle walks, where beachgoers can watch a 300-pound turtle dig a hole, drop 100 eggs and drag herself back to the ocean. One organization offering turtle walks in Florida is the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach.
Good news for sea turtles finally emerged in 2012 when leatherbacks, loggerheads and greens emerged from the Atlantic to deposit their eggs on Florida shores, often in record numbers. On Singer Island, more than 225 green turtles made nests during the March through October nesting season. That’s almost 10 times the number that how many nested there in the mid-1990s. But actual and planned seawall construction on Singer Island in 2013 has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Sea Turtle Conservancy concerned about loss of sea turtle nesting habitat. In Boca Raton, leatherbacks dug 33 nests, a new high. Loggerheads were prolific pretty much everywhere, including Jupiter Island, where nests more than doubled from the numbers tallied between 2000 and 2005. Overall, the 2012 nesting season was the second-highest statewide since scientists began counting nests in 1989. Surveys on 250 miles of selected Florida beaches — called index beaches — found more than 58,000 loggerhead nests, for example, just below the high of 59,918 in 1998. The good news continued in 2013.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy (formerly the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC)) is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Florida with offices and projects in several other locations. Since its founding in 1959, CCC’s work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. CCC is a world-renowned leader in sea turtle research and conservation. CCC works to ensure the survival of sea turtles within the wider Caribbean basin and Atlantic through research, education, training, advocacy and the protection of the natural habitats upon which they depend.
Check out this video on sea turtles that was produced as part of the Ahead of the Tide project.
Salt-friendly sea oats -- known to scientists as Uniola paniculata -- are used to stabilize sandy soil with their long root system. The plant's tall lean blades catch blowing sand to produce dunes that protect the beach against rising waves and heavy wind. Russell Setti, administrator of the Broward Soil and Water Conservation District, is coordinating a sea oat planting project in Broward County. Similar efforts are occuring all along the South Florida coast. To help with future sea oats plantings in Broward, call the Broward Soil and Water Conservation District at 954-584-1306. For more about the Kids Ecology Corps visit their Website or call 954-524-0366.
The Coastal Wildlife Conservation Initiative is one of the Special Initiatives of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This initiative aims to protect coastal wildlife through an integrated approach, considering both wildlife and habitat needs and socioeconomic issues. The initiative encourages stakeholder participation in the development of management practices that affect coastal wildlife. The website also contains information on shorebirds, sea turtles, and beach mice.
The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a partnership of the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, with the goal of significantly increasing regional collaboration to enhance the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico. The five U.S. Gulf States have identified six priority issues that are regionally significant and can be effectively addressed through increased collaboration at local, state, and federal levels:
- Water Quality;
- Habitat Conservation and Restoration;
- Ecosystem Integration and Assessment;
- Nutrients & Nutrient Impacts;
- Coastal Community Resilience; and
- Environmental Education
Other Coastal Ecosystems
Florida's Coral Program
Florida is a member of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. As Florida's Coral Reef point-of-contact, the Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has participated in developing local action strategies to improve coral reef health. The Task Force has developed goals, objectives, and projects using a facilitated process, including public review and input, for four priority focus areas: land-based sources of pollution; fishing, diving, and other uses; lack of public awareness; and maritime industry and coastal construction impacts.
Project GreenShores is a multi-million dollar habitat restoration and creation project located in Downtown Pensacola along the urban shoreline of Pensacola Bay. This habitat restoration effort partners FDEP's Northwest District's Ecosystem Restoration Section with the City of Pensacola, Escambia County, the Ecosystem Restoration Support Organization, the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, Gulf Power, local agencies, businesses, and volunteers in a community based effort to restore oyster reef, salt marsh, and seagrass habitat within the Pensacola Bay System. Restoring the Pensacola Bay estuary to its historic state stabilizes shorelines and provides essential habitat for wildlife propagation and conservation.
Project GreenShores was constructed in phases and consists of two adjacent sites in Pensacola Bay. Site 1 was completed in 2003 and consists of 15 acres of estuarine habitat composed of seven acres of oyster reef and eight acres of salt marsh/seagrass habitat. Site 1 has received several awards, including the 2003 Coastal America Partnership Award, the 2004 EPA Gulf of Mexico Program’s Gulf Guardian Award, and The Conservation Award from the Francis M. Weston Audubon Society in 2007.
Project GreenShores Site 2, constructed in the summer of 2007, encompasses the area of Pensacola Bay from the western shore of Muscogee Wharf up to and including Hawkshaw Lagoon. This site consists of two submerged breakwaters of approximately 600’ x 150’x 0.5’ (below Mean Low-Water line) which were constructed using 25,000 cubic yards of recycled concrete obtained from a decommissioned airfield at Naval Air Station Pensacola. The submerged breakwaters will function to reduce fetch driven wave energy before it reaches the inter-tidal marsh islands and shoreline. In time, the breakwaters will also serve as a living oyster reef as oyster larvae settle and grow on the substrate provided. Three inter-tidal marsh islands were constructed using 16,000 cubic yards of spoil material from a previous dredge of the Escambia River.
Keith Kolasa of the Southwest Florida Water Management District lead a team that recently mapped sea grass beds in the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of the Anclote River, in northern Pinellas County, to the Withlacoochee, on the Citrus-Levy county line. Kolasa found 380,000 acres of sea grass beds, all but about 100,000 acres of that classified as "dense." It is a natural plain, an underwater savanna, the second-largest expanse of sea grass in the country after the one that stretches in the gulf from the Florida Keys to Naples. Though documentation is spottier outside the United States, the sea grass field off the Florida coast may be the fourth-largest in the world. It's full of life — manatees, mullet and sea turtles. And if estuaries are the incubators of marine life, sea grass beds are its K-12s, refuges for juvenile grouper and other game fish before they grow and move on to deeper water.
Seagrass Losses in Florida
Seagrasses are a valuable part of Florida's marine environment, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Dredge and fill projects and degraded water quality, as well as other activities, are responsible for their precipitous decline.
Along the Southwest Florida coast there are two major bay systems with similar physical features but dramatically different histories. Tampa Bay has experienced the stresses of a developed, urbanized bay system. Charlotte Harbor, on the other hand, is one of the most natural estuaries remaining in Florida. During the past 100 years, Tampa Bay has experienced an 81 percent decline in seagrass acreage. A 29 percent decrease in area of Charlotte Harbor seagrasses was documented through comparison of aerial photographs from 1944 to 1982.
Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Marine Research Institute scientists are studying changes in Florida's coastal fisheries habitats. By analyzing aerial photographs from the 1940s and 1950s and satellite imagery and aerial photographs from the 1980s, the scientists are able to evaluate habitat change.
Several sites on the east Florida coast have been analyzed. Among them are Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona Beach, and the Indian River from Sebastian Inlet south to St. Lucie Inlet. At the Ponce Inlet site, a 100 percent loss of seagrasses was noted. This destruction was due primarily to dredge and fill activities for development and the Intracoastal Waterway. A seven-mile stretch of estuary surrounding the Sebastian Inlet has experienced a 38 percent decline in seagrass habitat since 1951. Another study site just north of Fort Pierce Inlet was assessed for change in habitat over time. A 25 percent loss of seagrasses was documented in this area since 1958.
The studies documenting fisheries habitat alterations in Florida, such as the seagrass losses described earlier, are proving helpful to local and state officials. They are increasing public awareness about the problem of fisheries habitat losses and are providing incentives to address this serious problem in Florida's coastal zone.
Florida's 2010 FACT report has a section on Coastal Habitats which includes the indicator "Number of Acres of Seagrass Cover and Degree of Propeller Scarring." Portions of the discussion for that indicator are shown below:
The total amount of seagrass cover in Florida coastal waters can only be estimated, but is thought to have exceeded 2.25 million acres in 2003 (Carlson and Madley, 2007). This area does not include the deeper water (> 2 m depth) beds of Halophila decipiens (paddle grass) in the Gulf of Mexico, which have not been mapped. The most obvious aspects of Florida seagrass distribution are the abundances found in Florida Bay/Florida Keys and Big Bend area. The lack of submerged aquatic vegetation on the Atlantic coast of Florida north of Mosquito Lagoon in Volusia County is due to the high energy surf along the beaches and the fresh and blackwater nature of the rivers in this area.
Seagrass meadows can be described as continuous or patchy. Patchy areas of seagrass may be so naturally or by impact from environmental stressors (man-made or natural). Patchy seagrass may be more vulnerable to accumulated environmental stressors, but should not be considered ecologically less valuable. The functional attributes of continuous seagrass beds and patchy seagrass areas differ, and each provides habitat to the estuarine or marine community. Large areas of the Florida coastal Gulf of Mexico may contain the diminutive Halophila decipiens, which has been found to be abundant to 30 meters depth in the Gulf of Mexico (Southwest Florida Nearshore Benthic Habitat Study, CSA, 1989).
As aerial shoreline data has been collected and analyzed more frequently, the percent cover of seagrass has been found to be variable spatially and temporally on time scales of a decade or less. Statewide estimated seagrass cover was 15% lower (2.25 million acres) in 2003 than in 1993 (Carlson and Madley, 2007). However, at a sub-regional level, some estuaries have seen increasing seagrass cover while others have seen declines, and differences in trends can be seen on the sub-estuary level (Yarbro and Carlson, 2010).
Estuaries of the Atlantic Peninsula region showed increasing trends over the period 1999 to 2007. Seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon increased in acreage by more than 13% from 1999 to 2007. Estuaries of the Gulf Peninsula showed increasing seagrass cover from 1999 to 2008 ranging from 5.5% to 36.7%, with Sarasota Bay having the largest increase. Estero Bay showed a negative change in seagrass cover, but reporting dates were 2004 to 2006. The Panhandle showed significant loss of seagrasses in St Joseph Bay (-18.3%), Choctawatchee Bay (-38.4%), the Pensacola Bay system (-42.7%), and Perdido Bay (-80.5%), during the period 1987 and 2006. Other estuaries of the Panhandle region showed increases in seagrass beds: St Andrews Bay (14.2%), Santa Rosa Sound (9.9%), and Big Lagoon (1.1%) between 1992 and 2003. Most of the estuaries that were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 were in the Panhandle. Seagrass meadows in the northern Big Bend remained stable (less than 1% change between 2001 and 2006). Florida Bay showed stable seagrass cover of over 145,008 acres (less than 1% change between 1992 and 2004). This represents a recovery from the widespread die-off of seagrass in Florida Bay beginning in 1987. The total extent of seagrass from all estuaries indicates stable statewide percent cover for the time period 1987 to 2008.
NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.
In February 2006, the Collier County Environmental Advisory Council voted 9-0 to recommend to the county commissioners that they deny a permit for a private beach club that would consist of a 2,925-square-foot pavilion with boat shuttle access and a boardwalk to the beach on Keewaydin Island. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Collier County Audubon Society and many island homeowners and lot owners oppose the project, which would potentially impact the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
A book published in 2007 that tells the Florida beach ecology story is Florida's Living Beaches, A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber by Blair and Dawn Witherington. From the book description:
Exploring along [Florida's] beaches offers encounters with myriads of plants, animals, minerals, and manmade objects. Beginning with the premise that beaches are themselves alive, this guide to the natural history of Florida beaches heralds the living things and metaphorical life near, on, and within the state’s sandy margins. It is organized into Beach Features, Beach Animals, Beach Plants, Beach Minerals, and Hand of Man. In addition to being an identification guide, the book reveals much of the wonder and mystery between dune and sea along Florida’s long coastline. Each part of a living beach is shown to have its own unique intrigue, with featured diversity that includes wrack lines, runnels, ripples, sea foam, hurricanes, jellies, blue buttons, hundreds of seashells, beachhoppers, ghost crabs, tiger beetles, heart urchins, sea pork, surf fishes, sea turtles, dozens of shore birds, beach mice, tracks in the sand, whales, beach flowers, dune plants, seabeans, driftwood, rainbow sands, shelly rocks, volcanic pumice, fossils, beach shrines, sea glass, Spanish treasure, sea heroes, fishing curiosities, beach threats, conservation, and quests. Whether common or rare, powerful or delicate, beautiful or odd, each part of a living beach has a story to tell.
Environmental Specialist III
Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems
Division of Water Resource Management, Florida DEP
Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
- Lewison, R.L., Freeman, S.A., Crowder, L.B. (2004). Quantifying the effects of fisheries on threatened species: the impact of pelagic longlines on loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles. Ecology Letters 2004 (7): 221-231.
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