Have a “Tree-mendous” Arbor Day!

Have a “Tree-mendous” Arbor Day!

Arbor Day has a 145-year history, started in Nebraska by a nature-loving newspaper editor who recognized the many valuable services trees provide. We humans often form emotional attachments to trees, planting them at the beginning of a marriage, birth of a child, or death of a loved one, and trees have tremendous symbolic value within cultures and religions worldwide. So it only makes sense that trees have their own holiday. The first Arbor Day was such a big success that his idea quickly spread nationwide–particularly with children planting trees on school grounds. In addition to their aesthetic beauty and valuable shade in the hot summers, trees provide countless benefits: wood and paper products, nut and fruit production, wildlife habitat, stormwater uptake, soil stabilization, carbon dioxide intake, and oxygen production. If you’re curious of the actual dollar value of a tree, the handy online calculator at TreeBenefits.com can give you an approximate lifetime value of a tree in your own backyard.

Arbor Day events in the western Panhandle.

While national Arbor Day is held the last Friday in April, Arbor Day in Florida is always the third Friday of January. Due to our geographical location further south than most of the country, our primary planting season is during our relatively mild winters. Trees have the opportunity during cooler months to establish roots without the high demands of the warm growing season in spring and summer.

To commemorate Arbor Day, many local communities will host tree giveaways,plantings, and public ceremonies. In the western Panhandle, the Florida Forest Service, UF/IFAS Extension, and local municipalities have partnered for several events, listed here.

For more information on local Arbor Day events and tree giveaways in your area, contact your local Extension Office or County Forester!

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Author: Carrie Stevenson – ctsteven@ufl.edu

Coastal Sustainability Agent, Escambia County Extension

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2017/01/08/have-a-tree-mendous-arbor-day/

Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Nature Tourism – Bald Point State Park

Some of the most picturesque and scenic natural areas along north Florida’s Gulf Coast are found in Bald Point State Park. The 4,065 acre park is located on Alligator Point, where Ochlockonee Bay meets Apalachee Bay.

Easy access to water activities at Bald Point State Park.
Photo: Les Harrison

Bald Point State Park offers a variety of land and water activities. Coastal marshes, pine flatwoods, and oak thickets foster a diversity of biological communities which make the park a popular destination for birding and wildlife viewing.

These include shorebirds along the beach, warblers in the maritime oak hammocks, wading birds, and birds of prey in and around the marsh areas.  The boardwalk and observation deck overlook the marsh near the beach.

During autumn bald eagles and other migrating raptors, along with monarch butterflies are frequently viewed heading south to a warmer winter.

Bald Point offers access to two Apalachee Bay beaches for water sports and leisure activities, and these facilities include a fishing dock and picnic pavilions at Sunrise beach, North End beach and Maritime Hammock beach.  Grills and restrooms are also available, but pets are prohibited on the beach.

Pre-Columbian pottery helped archaeologists identify the park’s oldest site, placing the earliest human activity 4,000 years ago. These early inhabitants hunted, fished, collected clams and oysters, and lived in relatively permanent settlements provided by the abundant resources of the coast and forests.

In the mid-1800s and late 1900s, fishermen established seineyards at Bald Point. These usually primitive campsites included racks to hang, dry and repair nets. Evidence of the 19th to 20th century turpentine industry is visible on larger pine trees cut with obvious scars.

Bald Point is an excellent location for both wildlife viewing and birding.
Photo: Les Harrison

Among the varieties of saltwater fish found in the brackish tidal waterway are redfish, trout, flounder and mackerel.

Today’s visitors may fish on the bridge over tidal Chaires Creek off of Range Road, and in Tucker Lake, by canoe or kayak. Sea trout, red fish, flounder and sheepshead are common catches, and this is an excellent area to cast net for mullet or to catch blue crabs.

Bald Point State Park is open 8:00 a.m. to sunset daily, with a charge $ 4.00 per car with up to eight people, or $ 2.00 per pedestrian or bicycle

More information is available at the Florida State Park site.

There are numerous trails where the visitor and explore Florida.
Photo: Les Harrison.

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Author: Les Harrison – harrisog@ufl.edu

Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director, Agriculture and Natural Resources. He works with small and medium sized producers in the Big Bend region of north Florida on a wide range of topics. He has a Master’s of Science Degree in Agricultural Economics from Auburn University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Journalism from the University of Florida.

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2017/01/08/nature-tourism-bald-point-state-park/

Christmas”sea” Cheer!

Christmas”sea” Cheer!

The holiday season is a special time for most of us! There are many creatures that live under the sea that represent many of our holiday traditions.

cookie-cutter-shark

Photo Credit: Fl. Museum Of Natural  History, George Burgess

Small cookie cutter sharks are found in very deep water during the day, at night they migrate up the water column to feed. Cookie cutter sharks attract their prey with lighted photophores. Photophores are lighted organs located on the lower part of the shark. Small fish are attached to the glow, larger fish searching for prey get close enough to the shark and the shark bites the prey.  The cookie cutter shark has specialized sucking lips that attach to the victim. The shark then spins its body around and leaves a cookie cutter shaped hole in the fish.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ribbon Eels are found in the Indio Pacific. They have long slender bodies and move like ribbons in and through the crevices reefs. They eat live fish. To view a YouTube video of ribbon fish feeding, click here.

Photo credit: Chris Verlinde

Jingle shells get their name as a result of their shells that when shaken together make a jingle like sound. Jingle shells can be found along the beaches of NW Florida. The shiny iridescent shell is strong and very attractive. Many shell collectors use the shells to make jewelry and wind chimes.

Jingle shells are bivalves and live attached to hard surfaces, just like oysters.

Jingle shells are filter feeders, meaning water is filtered through their gills for plankton.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Christmas tree worms are Christmas tree shaped worms that form burrows corals. The tentacles, which form the tree-like structures are used for feeding on plankton and to breathe.  These plumed creatures are a type of polychaete worm.

Christmas tree worms come in many colors and can be found all over the world. They feed by using their feathery appendages, called radioles to capture phytoplankton that floats by the “feathers.”

Christmas tree worms are easily disturbed and will quickly vanish into their burrows as shadows or larger marine life pass by. They return quickly and continue with their sedimentary lifestyles in the coral.

 

“Marine snow” falls gently on to a coral-covered shipwreck explored in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012 by the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Photo Credit NOAA

Marine snow gets its name as a result of the fluffy materials that resemble snow falling from the sky. Marine snow is decaying material from plants and animals that have died in the oceans. Marine snow may also include sand, fecal matter and inorganic dust.

Just like snowflakes, marine snow grows as it floats to the ocean depths. Marine snow is consumed by scavengers that live along the deep-sea floor bottom. Check out the video below showing the beauty of marine snow.

There are many more festive creatures that live in the sea. Have a wonderful Holiday Season!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: Chris Verlinde – chrismv@ufl.edu

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/12/19/christmassea-cheer/

The Christmas “Sea Star”

The Christmas “Sea Star”

The Florida Orange Sea Star.  Photo: Florida Sea Grant

The Florida Orange Sea Star.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant

One of the more popular traditions this time of year is placing the star on top of the Christmas Tree. The star represents the Christmas Star which led the wise men to the manager.  The stars that have been placed on Christmas Trees over the decades have come in all shapes and forms but gulf coast residents will use a starfish to both represent the Nativity and their connection to the sea.

 

Starfish, more correctly called sea stars, are one of the most recognized marine creatures in the world. Many have used it as a logo or their symbol of the sea.  But what is a sea star actually?  We know they live on the bottom and look like stars but what do they do? How do they function?

 

Sea stars are invertebrates in the Phylum Echinodermata. Echinoderms have radial symmetry; meaning they have a distinct top and bottom but no head or tail.  You certainly know if it is upside down but you are not sure if it is facing you.  They are the only invertebrates to have an internal skeleton; called a test.  It is this skeleton we find in the curio shops and stores – and what we place on our tree.  This skeleton produces tubercules or spines which extend into (and above) the skin – giving them the “spiny skin” for which they get their name – “echino” “derm”.  Echinoderms have a series of tube like sacs underneath their bodies which they fill with water and use like suction cups to move and feed.  Most have male and females and all produce planktonic larva.

 

Sea stars in particular are found worldwide and are more common in coastal waters. They come in a variety of colors and most have five arms – though one species has 40!  Their mouth is on the underside of the body and lacks teeth.  They have a pigment spot at the end of each arm that can detect light.  Some sea stars are attracted to light, while others are repelled by it.  Most sea stars are carnivorous, feeding on a variety of invertebrates including other echinoderms, and some are scavengers.  Mollusk are a common prey, and – to the dismay of oyster farmers – oysters are an easy prey.  The sea stars approach the bivalve, use their tube feet to open the two shells slightly, and insert their digestive tract inside the oyster.  They attack the abductor muscle first, release the tension on the two shells, and then consume the rest of the animal.  Sea stars like seawater, so oysters growing in the upper estuaries have fewer problems with these predators.  Our local sea stars are good at detecting buried prey in our quartz sand and then digging them out.  These animals are famous for their ability to regenerate their body parts.  Oyster farmers trying to reduce this threat have been known to cut them and toss them back, only to have more sea stars later.  However sexual reproduction is also very common.  Most sea stars have 2 gonads per arm and can fertilize up to 2 million eggs in a spawning event.  Spawning is usually in the spring and is triggered by chemicals in the water.

 

Though they are a classic icon for the ocean, and holiday decoration along the coast, these are fascinating animals in their own right.  I wish all of you Happy Holidays and a joyous new year.

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Author: Rick O’Connor – roc1@ufl.edu

Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/12/16/the-christmas-sea-star/

Your Christmas Tree Could Benefit Winter Wildlife

Your Christmas Tree Could Benefit Winter Wildlife

A christmas tree decoration hanging upon a Christmas tree at a tree farm

Christmas trees can provide benefits to wildlife long after they have served as holiday decoration indoors. Credits: IFAS photo database.

Americans purchased approximately 30 million live Christmas trees last year. If you plan to have a live tree this winter, and you’re wondering what you could do with your tree once it has finished its role as holiday decoration in your home, read below. Rather than simply dragging your tree to the curb for the waste disposal truck to pick up, you could prolong the life of your holiday tree by repurposing it to benefit wildlife.

YOUR TREE COULD PROVIDE FOOD FOR WILDLIFE 

Many of the needles may have dropped from your Christmas tree as it dried out while indoors, but the branches should still be intact. This means your tree could be used as a frame to present food for wildlife. After removing your indoor decorations, consider propping the tree up in your yard (perhaps using the same stand you used indoors), and adorning the branches with food enjoyed by wildlife visitors. Some low-budget options include mesh bags filled with bird seed (black oil sunflower seed, safflower seed, and thistle (nyjer) are favorites of many common backyard birds), pine cones smeared with peanut butter, home-made suet cakes, and strings of fruit such as apple slices, orange slices, or grapes. If you choose this option, beware that you may attract not only birds, but mammals such as squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and others.

If you’d like to watch your wildlife visitors, be sure to attach the food items with string so that the animals must eat the food at the site of the tree rather than carrying it away to eat or store elsewhere out of view. Consider using a biodegradable string (i.e., cotton) to secure the food items to your tree so you can eventually compost the tree without worrying about needing to remove the string.

YOUR TREE COULD PROVIDE SHELTER FOR WILDLIFE

If you’re tired of seeing your holiday tree in its upright position, consider taking it outdoors, laying it down, and heaping other vegetative debris loosely on top to form a ‘brush pile’. Brush piles are mounds of woody vegetation created specifically to provide shelter for wildlife.

The lower portions of a brush pile can offer cool, shaded conditions that allow small mammals such as rabbits to hide from the weather and from predators. Meanwhile, the upper portions can serve as perch sites for songbirds. The entire pile may be used as resting sites for amphibians and reptiles. In yards with few understory trees or shrubs, and at times of year when many trees and shrubs have limited foliage, these brush piles can provide much-appreciated cover for many kinds of wildlife.

YOUR TREE COULD PROVIDE SHELTER FOR FISH

Your retired Christmas tree could be used to make long-lasting habitat improvements for fish. In artificial ponds with little submerged vegetation, the addition of one or more Christmas trees could upgrade the quality of refuge and feeding areas for fish. Small fishes may hide among purposely submerged Christmas trees for protection, and larger fishes may follow them. If you’ve got an artificial pond on your property, consider adding discarded trees to create a place where fish can hide and find food, and also to concentrate fish for angling. Simply secure a cinder block to your holiday tree using heavy wire or thin cable and place it far enough from shore that water covers the top of the tree by a couple of feet. When constantly submerged, Christmas trees can persist for many years underwater.

Not only can your tree offer enjoyment to you when decorated with lights and ornaments indoors, but it can also allow you to provide post-holiday gifts to the wildlife and fish on your property.

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Author: hollyober – holly.ober@ufl.edu

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/12/16/your-christmas-tree-could-benefit-winter-wildlife/

Consider a Native Evergreen This Christmas

Consider a Native Evergreen This Christmas

eastern-redcedarThroughout history the evergreen tree has been a symbol of life. “Not only green when summer’s here, but also when cedar%20waxwing%20b57-13-103_vit’s cold and dreary” as the Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” says.  While supporting the cut Christmas tree industry does create jobs and puts money into local economics, every few years consider adding to the urban forest by purchasing a living tree.  Native evergreen trees such as Redcedar make a nice Christmas tree that can be planted following the holidays.  The dense growth and attractive foliage make Redcedar a favorite for windbreaks, screens and wildlife cover.  The heavy berry production provides a favorite food source for migrating Cedar Waxwing birds.  Its highsouthern-redcedar salt-tolerance makes it ideal for coastal locations.  Their natural pyramidal-shape creates the traditional Christmas tree form, but can be easily pruned as a street tree.  Two species, Juniperus virginiana and Juniperus silicicola are native to Northwest Florida.  Many botanists do not separate the two, but as they mature, Juniperus silicicola takes on a softer, more informal look.  When planning for using a live Christmas tree there are a few things to consider.  The tree needs sunlight, so restrict its inside time to less than a week.  Make sure there is a catch basin for water under the tree, but never allow water to remain in the tray and don’t add fertilizer.  Locate your tree in the coolest part of the room and away from heating ducts and fireplaces. After Christmas, install the Redcedar in an open, sunny part of the yard.  After a few years you will be able to admire the living fence with all the wonderful memories of many years of holiday celebrations. Don’t forget to watch for the Cedar Waxwings.

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Author: Sheila Dunning – sdunning@ufl.edu


http://okaloosa.ifas.ufl.edu

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/12/06/consider-a-native-evergreen-this-christmas/

Sustainable Gift-Giving

Sustainable Gift-Giving

I don’t know about you, but my kids have a lot of “stuff.” Legos on my son’s floor, stuffed animals surrounding my daughter’s room—it’s a lot to keep up with. Granted, they have never thrown away a Lego brick or stuffed animal, so they’re not contributing to the landfill (only my lack of sanity), and they have used these gifts for many years. When they outgrow them, we will donate their toys to another family or thrift shop. However, as a group, we Americans generate 25% more waste during the holidays (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s), the equivalent of about 1 million extra tons of garbage.

Music lessons are a gift that keeps on giving--and can result in a skill for a lifetime. Photo credit: Eric Stevenson

Music lessons are a gift that keeps on giving–and can result in a skill lasting a lifetime. Photo credit: Eric Stevenson

As I, and my children, have gotten older, it’s been more important to me to give the gift of experiences, or at least something that they can use for a long time. Tickets to a concert or sports event, music lessons, or a trip to someplace new will result in lifelong memories and skills without the packaging waste or clutter in the house.

Passing on an antique piece of jewelry or their grandfather’s tool set can be inexpensive for you but priceless for the recipient. Last year my kids’ great-aunt gifted them with honeybees for a family from Heifer International, and it was an amazing opportunity to discuss selfless giving and the needs of others. Many folks would love to receive a donation in their name to their favorite charity as a gift.

When it comes down to it, though, giving tangible gifts is often expected, wanted, or even needed. So how can we do this without contributing to 2017’s landfill? First, look at packaging. Many companies are trying to consciously reduce the amount of plastic, paper, and space used to ship and package their items. If you do get lots of extra packaging, be sure to recycle it. I’m a huge believer in reusable gift bags—I’ve been passing some back and forth to family members for years—and some gifts can be given in a useful container, such as a wooden bowl, a platter, or reusable cloth bags. Other gift ideas include clothing (I got a shirt last year made from recycled water bottles) and toys made from recycled materials. Plants, whether houseplants or a tree for the yard, make for long-lasting, beautiful gifts, and consumables like homemade food are meaningful and inexpensive.

Consider giving plants as gifts--they are long-lasting and have many societal and environmental benefits. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Consider giving plants as gifts–they are long-lasting and have many societal and environmental benefits. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Finally, consider the companies producing the gifts you give. Forbes’ list of the 50 Most Sustainable Companies highlights corporations that are making a concerted effort to reduce energy and water use. This can make a big difference when you consider the worldwide reach and influence of companies like Adidas (#5) or Coca-Cola (#13).

We at UF IFAS Extension wish you all a wonderful, memorable, and safe holiday season. This time of year can be overwhelming, though, so if you need help managing stress, check out this publication from our Family, Youth, and Consumer Sciences department!

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Author: Carrie Stevenson – ctsteven@ufl.edu

Coastal Sustainability Agent, Escambia County Extension

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/12/06/sustainable-gift-giving/

Deer Processing Safety

Deer Processing Safety

Freshly processed venison. Photo credit: Jennifer Bearden

Freshly processed venison. Photo credit: Jennifer Bearden

When hunting, food safety begins in the field. The goal is to have safe meat for you and your family to eat.  Here are a few ways to keep your food safe:

  1. Shot placement – that’s right. Food safety begins with an accurate shot. Your goal should be to prevent the contents of the digestive tract from touching the meat. A gut shot can quickly ruin meat and make cleaning the animal harder.
  2. The quicker you get the meat chilled the better. Improper temperature is meat’s number one enemy. The recommended storage temperature to prevent bacterial growth is 35-40°F.
  3. Handle the knife with one hand and the carcass with the other. The hide can harbor dirt and pathogens so care should be taken to prevent contamination of the meat.
  4. Have vinegar water and chlorine water on hand. Vinegar water (50/50) can be sprayed on areas where hair or hide touch the meat. Rinse hands and tools periodically in a bucket of sanitizing solution of 1 tbsp of chlorine per gallon of water.
  5. Think food safety through the whole process. Prevent cross contamination by keeping anything from contacting the meat unless it has been sterilized. Keep the digestive tract intact and prevent the contents of it from contacting the meat. Chill the meat as quickly as possible. When further processing, continue to use sterile surfaces and tools.

Many hunters age deer meat to increase tenderness and improve flavor. This is safe if done properly.  There are two ways to safely age meat.  Dry aging in a walk-in cooler or refrigerator is the best but not feasible for all hunters.  The walk-in cooler or refrigerator must be clean and have good air circulation and proper temperature control (34-38°F).  The meat can aged for 7-21 days depending on the amount of moisture in the cooler.  Too much moisture can increase microbial growth on the meat which should be cut away before further processing.  There will also be a layer of dry meat that will need to be cut away.

An ice chest can also be safely used to age meat. First, fill the clean ice chest with ice and water.  Add meat immediately to ice water and soak for 12-24 hours.  This will quickly cool the meat to the proper temperature.  Then drain the water out of the cooler and add more ice.  Keep cooler drained of water and full of ice for 5-7 days.  There may be “freezer burn” on the outside of the meat that can be cut away before further processing.

Remember food safety when further processing and storing. Wild game food safety begins in the field and ends with consumption.

For more information about safe handling of venison:

http://www.noble.org/ag/wildlife/propercareofvenison/

http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/food/food_safety/handling/hgic3516.html

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Author: Jennifer Bearden – bearden@ufl.edu

Agriculture Agent Okaloosa County

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/11/18/deer-processing-safety/

Morrison Springs Park – Walton County, Florida

Morrison Springs Park – Walton County, Florida

Snorkeler at Morrison Springs Park

Snorkeler at Morrison Springs – Laura Tiu

Morrison Springs Bald Cypress

Morrison Springs Bald Cypress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are over 1000 springs identified in Florida. In the Panhandle, the majority of the springs are karst or artesian springs rising deep from the Floridan Aquafer System within the states limestone base.  Springs are unique and can be identified by perennial flows, constant water temperature and chemistry, high light transparency.  This yields a freshwater ecology dependent on these features.  Springs are classified based upon the average discharge of water but can exhibit a lot of variability based on water withdrawals and rainfall. These springs are some of our most precious water resources, supplying the drinking water our communities rely on, as well as providing great recreation opportunities.

Morrison Springs is a popular spring in northwest Florida and is one of 13 springs flowing into the Choctawhatchee River Basin. It is a large, sandy-bottomed spring surrounded by old growth cypress.  The spring pool is 250 feet in diameter, discharges an average of 48 million gallons of water each day from three vents into the Choctawhatchee River as a second magnitude spring.  The spring contains an extensive underwater cave system with three cavities up to 300 feet deep and is popular for scuba diving, swimming and snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing and fishing.  Historically, it was privately owned and was a popular swimming hole for locals.  In 2004, the state of Florida purchased the land containing the spring in the Choctawhatchee River floodplain.  The land was leased to Walton County for 99 years.  The county created a 161-acre park with a picnic pavilion, restroom facilities and a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk.  A down-stream boat ramp provides access to the river away from swimmers and divers.  There is no entrance fee.

Morrison Spring is filled with abundant fish and plant life. Fish include largemouth bass, spotted bass, hybrid striped bass, bluegill, sunfish, redbreast sunfish, warmouth, black crappie, striped bass, catfish, alligator gar, bowfin, carp, mullet and flounder or hogchoakers (freshwater sole).  It is also home to some nocturnal freshwater eels that swim around the vent and delight the divers. Most are gray, about an inch in diameter and maybe a foot or two long.  The spring supports many trees, plants, and grasses including bald cypress, live oak, red maple, pawpaw, red and black titi, Cherokee bean, sweetbay, blackgum, juniper, red cedar, southern magnolia, laurel oak, tupelo, hickory, willow, wax myrtle, cabbage palm, saw palmetto blueberry, hydrangea, St. John’s wort, mountain laurel, water lily, pickerelweed, pitcher plant, broad leaved arrowhead, fern, and moss.

Morrison Springs was previously considered one of the cleanest springs in Florida until 2010 (Florida Springs Initiative). All of Florida springs are currently at risk as the state population continues to increase.  Spring flows are decreasing as the result of increasing extraction of groundwater for human uses.  Development, and the resultant over pumping, and nitrogen pollution from agriculture both have impacts on the aquifer recharge areas.  Existing groundwater pumping rates from the Floridan Aquifer in 2010 were more than 30% of average aquifer recharge (Florida Spring Initiative).  The University of Florida IFAS Extension Agents in the Panhandle occasionally conduct interpretive guided tours of the Springs to help citizens understand the importance of protecting this unique water source.

 

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Author: Laura Tiu – lgtiu@ufl.edu

Sea Grant Extension Agent – Okaloosa and Walton Counties

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/11/18/morrison-springs-park-walton-county-florida/

Thanksgiving and the Sea…

Thanksgiving and the Sea…

I was trying to think of a topic that could connect Thanksgiving and our marine environment. Like many others, when I think of Thanksgiving images of Pilgrims and native Americans come to mind.  There is the turkey – and I wrote about “turkey fish” (another name for lionfish) last year.  So I continued to think.  One thing I do know about the native Americans who lived in this area, they liked oysters.  We find middens (piles of oyster shell) in many places around the Gulf coast.  These were discard piles from their consumption of the animal.  Lots of these indicate, at least to me, that they enjoyed them… and we do also.  Oysters are a part of Gulf coast culture and many have them with their Thanksgiving meal.

Oysters are one of the more popular shellfish along the panhandle. Photo: FreshFromFlorida

Oysters are one of the more popular shellfish along the panhandle.
Photo: FreshFromFlorida

Oysters are animals – meaning they lack cell walls and must consume their energy. The food of choice is plankton, sounds good doesn’t it!  They possess two tubes called siphons which basically filter seawater.  One brings water in, the other expels it.  As the water enters their body they filter it for food and oxygen.  As it leaves they expel waste and carbon dioxide.  At times sand is sucked in and becomes lodged – they cannot expel.  This “irritant” is covered by a material called nacre and becomes a pearl.  Most are not round nor pretty but occasionally there are nice ones…  Pacific oysters make better pearls.  Amazingly a single oyster can filter up to 20 gallons of water in a day during the warmer months.

 

They are invertebrates and belong to the phylum Mollusca – meaning they have a soft body. Many invertebrates have a soft body, but what makes mollusks different is that they have bilateral symmetry (a head and tail end), a coleomic cavity (which allows organ development and increased size), and unique to them is a tissue called a mantle (which can secrete a calcium carbonate shell – and most mollusks do this).

 

Oysters are in the class Bivalvia – meaning they have two shells connected by a hinge at a point called the umbo. Other bivalves include the clams, scallops, and mussels.  All of these are popular seafood products.  Oysters differ from other bivalves in that they are cemented to a structure and cannot move around (sessile).  Many mussels are sessile also but oysters differ in that they use calcium carbonate to literally cement themselves to the substrate, where mussels use a series of threads to do this.  Cementing to the substrate means that they are picky about their habitat – it needs to have a hard substrate, sand will not do.  We all know this.  Place a piling, clay pot, board, or boat in the water… and oysters find it.  Typically, they will attach to each other and form small clumps of oysters.  These clumps form larger structures we call oyster reefs (or oyster bars) and this is what the commercial oysterman is looking for – and the recreational boater is trying to avoid!

 

So how do these oysters, who are sessile, find these habitats? Well, when it is time to reproduce oysters (which are hermaphroditic) release their gametes into the water.  The sperm and egg that find each other form a planktonic larva called veliger.  To increase the chance of finding each other the oysters release their gametes at the same time – a mass spawn.  There are a variety of factors that trigger this but water temperature seems to be an important one.  The veliger drift in the currents, developing into juveniles, and then settling out as small oysters called spat.  If the currents have brought them to a good location, the spat settle on a hard substrate and the next generation begins.  If not, they die.  So literally millions of fertilized veliger are produced from individual adults.  In many cases the suitable substrate are other oysters.

An oysterman uses his 11 foot long tongs to collect oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay Photo: Sea Grant

An oysterman uses his 11 foot long tongs to collect oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay
Photo: Sea Grant

Today oysters seem to be in trouble. Large bars have disappeared due to dredging and over harvesting.  Hurricanes certainly do damage to some and poor water quality alters their growth and development.  Recently problems in Apalachicola include the lack of river water reaching the Gulf.  The higher salinities created by the reduction of river flow have increased the number of oyster predators (starfish and snails) as well as diseases.  All of that said, they are still a popular seafood item and enjoyed by many during the holidays.  The cooler months mean less bacteria in the water and fewer problems consuming them raw.  Cooked oysters have few problems… period.

 

I hope all have a Happy Thanksgiving and if you have not tried oyster dressing, maybe this year could be the year.

 

Happy Holidays.

PG

Author: Rick O’Connor – roc1@ufl.edu

Sea Grant Extension Agent in Escambia County

Panhandle Outdoors

Permanent link to this article: http://gulf.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2016/11/18/thanksgiving-and-the-sea/

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