It has been another busy year at the Apalachicola NERR and you will see a multitude of accomplishments highlighted in this issue of the Oystercatcher, which serves as our annual report. With things not slowing down this fall, I would like to take this opportunity to look ahead and highlight some upcoming events.
The staff are currently completing the periodic review for our Biosphere Reserve designation. The Research Reserve was designated as an UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 1983 due to its high biodiversity and conservation value. Once the review is completed, members of the Reserve Advisory Committee (RAC) and the public will have an opportunity to comment on the review document at the regular RAC meeting in the fall.
We are working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to extend the closure period of the St. George Island Causeway Critical Wildlife Area (CWA). Because of its value for nesting shorebirds, the Causeway was designated as a CWA in 1990. Since then, the nesting areas (and now the entire causeway) have been closed to the public from April 1 through August 31. Regular surveys by Florida Audubon have shown that certain species are nesting earlier than April 1st and some birds are not fully fledged until after August 31, hence the need to extend the closure period. The proposed date change for the Causeway, as well as the designation of new CWAs around the state, will be voted on at the November Commission meeting.
In October we will have a new exhibit at the nature center titled “A Walk on the Beach.” Dr. Robert Simmons will be displaying his photography and found object art which focuses on marine debris found in our local waters and along our shores. His use of microscopy will show how the smallest particles of debris make their way into our environment and impact our ecosystem. As Dr. Simmons describes his photographs, “some of them are quite beautiful and others may be a bit frightening.”
Lastly, please join us for Estuaries Day on Friday, September 23rd. As always, there will be games and touch tanks for kids and exhibits for adults. This annual event is an opportunity for us all to celebrate our amazing estuary and all it provides to us.
The Stewardship program protects Reserve-managed lands from impacts that degrade natural communities and water quality. It focuses on habitat restoration/maintenance, listed species protection, invasive species control, land acquisition, protection of cultural resources and provides public use/access of suitable upland recreational areas. A Coordinator, GIS/Field Specialist, two Park Service Specialists and a part-time Environmental Specialist II form the team. They work with the Research, Education and Coastal Training Program sectors to promote and practice informed stewardship of upland and aquatic resources to conserve the area’s natural biodiversity and cultural resources through applied research and education. The Reserve relies on partnerships with land managers and conservation groups to accomplish the common goals of conservation land restoration.
Public Use – Stewardship staff produced the Road Map to Recreation – A guide to exploring the recreation opportunities of the Apalachicola River and Bay Basin. It promotes a “Leave No Trace” message, highlights a variety of public recreation opportunities and provides information on encountering wildlife, safety and conservation, and regulations. The guide promotes low impact recreation to minimize impacts on our natural and cultural resources and is available at the Reserve’s Nature Center.
Three primitive hiking trails totaling over two miles were added on Little St. George Island to Sikes Cut, Government Dock and West Pass trails. They provide visitors the unique opportunity to explore an undeveloped barrier island and native natural communities such as oak scrub, flatwoods, intertidal swales, and coastal grasslands. The staff also continue to develop interpretive signage for these trails and maintain kiosks at Sike’s Cut, the Marshall House and West Pass sites.
A local Boy Scout troop and staff cleared a trail from the Government Dock on the bay side to the Gulf and continue working together on trail maintenance, campsite additions, and beach clean ups.
An existing observation boardwalk at Nick’s Hole on SGI was upgraded and an additional 10-foot wide viewing platform was added.
Prescribed burning – Reserve staff assisted the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve with prescribed burning efforts and burned over 500 acres with no previous burn history under state management. They worked together to burn the old St. George Island causeway to improve one of the most important nesting sites for terns, American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers.
Staff participated in “S-131 Firefighter Type 1” and “S-133 Look Up, Look Down, Look Around” training conducted by the National Wildlife Coordinating Group and hosted by The Nature Conservancy. They also attended the annual North Florida Prescribed Fire Council meeting.
Natural Communities – Staff monitor nine photo-points on Little St. George Island and compare across different time periods to assess changes in natural communities and shorelines over time. Photographs are taken at fixed locations and repeated over time to provide a means for assessing changes in the landscape.
Emergent Vegetation Monitoring – Biannual, long-term monitoring of emergent vegetation continued at two marsh locations on the Little St. Marks River and Little St. George Island. Marshes are unique and productive ecosystems that serve as wildlife habitat, fishery nursery areas, and sources of food for nearshore finfish and shellfish populations. They filter pollutants from upland drainage and buffer shorelines from flood and storm damage, and are excellent sites for education and recreation. They are critical components of the NERR system.
Staff continued to map mangrove habitat along the islands to establish baseline distribution maps of black and red mangroves. Information on location, height, health, and reproduction status guide monitoring protocols. Surveys are coordinated with land managers such as St. George Island State Park and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Stewardship and Research sectors teamed up to assist visiting researchers interested in this area’s mangrove population.
Invasive Plant Control – Prevention is the best strategy in protecting the Reserve’s managed lands from invasive species. Staff treated over 300 stems and sprouts of Chinese tallow on three acres adjacent to ANERR’s headquarters. The invasive species population continues to decline with these annual treatments. Staff developed an Invasive Species Management Plan for Reserve-managed uplands, maintains a location database, and provides updates to Early Detection Rapid Response and EDDMaps reporting systems.
Stewardship staff worked with ANERR’s Coastal Training Program, the Nature Conservancy and the Florida Natural Areas Inventory to host an invasive species workshop. The purpose was to discuss threats to native ecosystems, species identification and methods in minimizing the spread of invasive plant species.
Cultural Resources – The Reserve hosted the second annual Archaeology Day. The Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) staff were present to identify artifacts and share information on local fossils, pottery and historic tools from the area. University of South Florida archaeology students spoke about the prehistoric and early residents of the Apalachicola valley.
Staff conduct annual surveys to assess and monitor cultural resources sites within the Reserve’s boundaries. The Apalachicola River and Bay Drainage Basin, which includes the Reserve, contains over a thousand archaeological sites and historic structures.
Restoration – The Army Corp of Engineers (ACOE) provided a grant to construct a 500’ living shoreline, consisting of oyster shell breakwater and native vegetation, on Little St. George Island. This will aid the restoration of the eroding shoreline and provide long-term protection to the historic Marshall House. This effort will also conserve and improve habitat and ecosystem function.
Stewardship staff attended the 2016 South Atlantic’s first regional summit on living shorelines. The summit in Jacksonville nurtured new partnerships, strengthened existing ones and provided information on recent research and development, best practices, solutions for advancing implementation, federal agency initiatives, and education tools and outreach.
Listed Species – Monitoring of the gopher tortoise population on Little St. George Island continued this year. Data on tortoises, along with other listed or species of interest, are now submitted to Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) program. Additional monitoring of reptiles and amphibians using passive coverboards on Little St. George Island, Nick’s Hole, and Unit 4 will begin this year.
GIS – Reserve staff attended the ESRI Developer’s Summit in Washington D.C. to learn more about the tools and technologies for creating and enhancing mapping applications in the future.
Staff submitted photos taken at the Reserve for the National Estuaries Week photo contest and won recognition in the categories of “Fliers,” “Play,” “Miscellaneous,” and an honorable mention in “Vistas.”
Partners/Outreach – The Reserve hosted the Apalachicola Regional Stewardship Alliance’s (ARSA) spring meeting at the Reserve. The Stewardship sector is an active participant in ARSA and collaborates with partners on land management, conservation, land acquisition, restoration, prescribed fire and invasive species monitoring.
The Reserve’s Stewardship section and St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve participated in several events this year: in particular, the National Public Lands Day and shoreline cleanup at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Annual Coastal Clean-up events in Franklin County, ANERR’s Estuaries Day, Bay Day at the Buffer Preserve and the Buffer Turns 20 Celebration.
Stewardship staff hosted Emmy award-winning filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and his son, screenwriter Nic Stoltzfus, on Little St. George Island to highlight the Reserve’s management activities on the barrier island for an upcoming, short documentary the Reserve is producing for the Nature Center.
The Research section has been busy this past year! Please read on for highlights from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016.
The 2015 Little St. George sea turtle nesting season wrapped up with a total of 218 nests, including 212 Loggerhead nests and six Green sea turtle nests. This was our second highest nesting year on record and the highest number of Green sea turtle nests recorded in a single season on Little St. George Island. All nests were marked and monitored by staff throughout the season and hatch success was conducted on 178 nests as part of FWC’s Nest Productivity Assessment Program with 5,140 hatchlings emerging. The past several years’ high nest numbers reflect a growing trend, indicating these important threatened species are increasing their nesting and utilizing the state owned and managed island as important nesting habitat.
The Environmental Cooperative Science Center - ANERR partnership with Delaware State University saw several projects come to a close this year with 2016 being the DSU group’s fourth year conducting field research on ANERR lands, St. George and St. Vincent Islands. The group from Dr. Christopher Heckscher’s lab is studying neoarctic songbird use of barrier island ecosystems as stopover sites during migration. Dr. Lori Lester, a (now former) post-doctoral researcher with the lab, published an article in the scientific journal PLOS One entitled “Use of a Florida Gulf Coast Barrier Island by Spring Trans-Gulf Migrants and the Projected Effects of Sea Level Rise on Habitat Availability.” Masters students Alan Kneidel and Mariamar Gutierrez-Ramirez also successfully defended their thesis about their research on St. George Island, entitled respectively “Spring Stopover and Migratory Connectivity of Songbirds at Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, Florida” and “Use of a Florida Gulf Coast Barrier Island by Spring Trans-Gulf Migrants and the Projected Effects of Sea Level Rise on Habitat Availability.” The students also presented their work at the April “Reserve Wednesday” Seminar. Collectively the group and its publications are the first to demonstrate that the eastern Gulf is an important stopover habitat for this group of birds like better known sites in the western Gulf of Mexico. This body of work is just the first chapter in this field of research, with two additional Masters students and Dr. Heckscher continuing to explore questions related to these topics, and Mariamar Gutierrez-Ramirez continuing research in the area as a Ph.D. student at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Research staff coordinated with the Gulf Coast Conservation Corps/Franklin’s Promise team in developing potential projects and materials acquisition. The projects provide job skill development and training to local youth while also providing the Reserve with no-cost labor dedicated to conservation and restoration projects of benefit to the Reserve. Most notably, the young men helped install boardwalks at the lower river marsh surface elevation table (SET) sites, which greatly help researchers access the SETs and reduce injury from falling in hip-deep holes in the marsh.
Research divers have completed 542 dives from 7/1/15 through 6/30/16. This includes dives for conducting oyster research, data logging instrumentation maintenance, DEP check-out and training dives, as well as two EPA scientific diver training dives for Nikkie Cox and Hanna Garland. Not only have we logged this many dives, but we have done so throughout the year, in harsh conditions, and have completed arduous research without any emergency or injury.
Recently, the Research section was able to upgrade an existing microscope for one third the cost of a new comparable microscope. The upgrade now provides staff and visiting researchers with a high quality stereo microscope with much broader applications than were possible before the upgrade, especially pertinent to identification of zooplankton species collected during the recently implemented zooplankton project.
From July 2015 to June 2016, Research section volunteers logged a total of 2121.5 hours of service to the Reserve helping with research field projects, lab work, and turtle beach surveys.
Over the past year more than 30,500 people visited the Reserve Nature Center or took part in educational programs provided by Reserve staff. Visitation and participation continues to increase with the 2015-16 fiscal year seeing a record number of visitors to ANERR. The majority of participation was from walk-in visitors which accounted for 27,530 visitors. Staff-facilitated educational programs for student and adult groups account for the additional participants and represented another busy year working to foster stewardship of the Apalachicola Estuary. Following is a summary of programs conducted over the previous fiscal year.
Group Programs – During the past year education staff has been very busy leading educational programs with participants for school students, Franklin County residents and our seasonal visitors. Addressing our primary mission, to foster stewardship of the watershed, program topics included many topics such as the ecology of oyster reefs, sea turtles, seining the littoral zone for juvenile fish and invertebrates, water quality sampling, trips on the Tideline to study river floodplain ecology and many more topics. The primary venue for activities has been the Reserve’s center in Eastpoint, including our new outdoor classroom and regular sessions at Cat Point behind the Visitors Center. Programs are also conducted on lands managed by the Reserve partners including the U.S. Forest Service and FDEP’s Division of Recreation on St. George Island. Overall there were 3,150 people who participated in staff-led activities at the Reserve.
School Activities – ANERR Education Programs primarily focused on K-12 students and teachers in Franklin County are designed to support the long tradition of stewardship of Apalachicola Bay. The rural nature of Franklin County provides a unique opportunity in that each year every student in Pre-k, first, third, fifth and seventh grades participates in standards-aligned ANERR Education Programs that focus on the ecology of Apalachicola Bay and its value to the community. Facilitated by our education staff, sessions over the previous year were: Pre-k, A Home for Hermit Crab, first grade, Beach Scavenger Hunt, third grade Saltmarsh Seining and Oyster Discovery Dig; fifth grade, Living Shoreline Assessment and Planting; seventh grade, Salt Marsh Food Webs and Soil Profiles. Special thanks goes to our Friends of the Reserve citizen organization for providing funding for transportation and substitute teachers to participate yearly in ANERR Education Programs.
Oyster Substrate-Settlement Research Study – This year marked the fifth year of ANERR education staff conducting an oyster settlement assessment with local tenth graders. In March the students measure the size and number of oysters that settle over the previous 10 months in trays on three different substrate materials: river rock, fossilized shell and processed shell. The substrate materials are uniformly quantified and arranged in trays and submerged the previous May at Cat Point, a regular oyster harvest location adjacent to the Reserve center. The May to March timeframe coincides with the two primary seasonal settlement periods for oysters. The students compare the productivity from year to year based on the total number of oysters settled on each of the three substrate materials. The class activity provides an opportunity for the students to experience authentic science and supports a content-rich discussion about the conditions necessary for a healthy estuary.
Living Shorelines / Fostering Stewardship – Education programs at ANERR working with the students across multiple academic years provides an opportunity to build stewardship through experiences that promote awareness, understanding and ownership of the watershed. One example of the stewardship connection between grade level experiences are the activities that connect grades five and seven. Each year the new crop of fifth graders participate in a living shoreline restoration program by planting plots of Saltmarsh Cord Grass behind the main Reserve Building at Cat Point. The students also make careful measurements to assess the ongoing status of restoration with the initial goal of planting the grass being the protection of the shoreline from erosion. An additional and significant benefit of the fifth graders’ work is that restoring the grass beds also supports the development of new habitat for a host of estuarine fauna. This development of habitat was the foundation for a new seventh grade program that began in October of 2015. Seventh graders return to the scene of their fifth grade restoration work to measure the development of the habitat they restored two years prior. The measurement is accomplished by counting an indicator species, marsh periwinkle snails, across measured transects. The periwinkle snails ascend the grass stalks at high tide for protection from predation and as such can be counted as a total population within a measured area. The abundance of snails represent an essential link in a food web that begins with the sun and connects through the snails to a host of animals that depend on them for food (crabs, other species of snails) or their empty shells for homes (hermit crabs). The take away message for students is science content as well as a recognition of their role and contribution to the health of Apalachicola Bay.
Presentations – Summer Turtle Talks continued with a full house every Wednesday afternoon with nearly 600 visitors checking in for one of the 2:00 pm talks. Our new natural history lecture series, Reserve Wednesdays, also continued with regularly scheduled educational programs from September through May on the third Wednesday of each month. This year the public lectures were presented on a diverse range of topics: Local Wildflowers, Coastal Birds, Monarchs, The Art of Plankton, Marine Debris, Tupelo Honey and Apalachicola Oysters.
Publications – Two issues of the Reserve’s newsletter and an annual report were printed this year and distributed to nearly 900 subscribers.
Teacher Training – Education staff at the Reserve hosted the Creeks-to Coast teacher program from the Georgia Aquarium. The group travels the length of the watershed to learn about water use throughout the system and applies what they learn to lessons with their students. The teachers participated in a series of activities that emphasized fundamental components of an estuary that connect as essential components to support productivity of the system.
Highlights included a “hands-on discovery dig” through large clumps of live oysters to locate the myriad of invertebrates that depend on the oyster habitat to make their home, seining the near shore tidal marsh for
a firsthand look at the amazing numbers of shrimp, crabs and juvenile fish to demonstrate the bay as a nursery and integral to the area’s seafood industry. There were 18 educators in attendance.
Estuaries Day – Estuaries Day at the Reserve this year attracted nearly 700 visitors to the center and involved 30 staff and over 50 volunteers coordinating and staffing many fun, learning activities. The Reserve is grateful for the support from businesses and community groups contributing in this celebration.
The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve’s (ANERR) Coastal Training Program (CTP) seeks to bring the best available science to decision makers in our watershed. Decision makers include elected and appointed officials, planners, volunteer boards, business owners, residents and nonprofit groups. Over the past year, CTP Coordinator Anita Grove and CTP Specialist Emily Jackson offered seventeen formal training programs on topics ranging from living shorelines and Blue Carbon to understanding FEMA regulations and bay friendly landscaping. We also provided many hours of technical assistance to community boards and city and county staff.
Training – The CTP offered thirteen formal evaluated training programs accommodating 385 participants between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. This equaled 101 hours of training.
Highlights from this year’s programs include delivering a daylong workshop on Blue Carbon in conjunction with Restore America’s Estuaries and the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training Program. This training brought three leading experts in the field of Blue Carbon from around the country to the ANERR for a full day workshop. Steve Emmett-Mattox with Dr. Stephen Crooks explained the greenhouse gas benefits provided by tidal wetlands, salt marshes, seagrasses, mangroves, and other coastal ecosystems, and how these concepts can be used to support land conservation and restoration goals, plus generate new revenue opportunities. Participants included representatives from the Florida Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Florida Fish & Wildlife and the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.
CTP staff also collaborated with DEP’s Living Shoreline Manager to host a workshop on living shorelines. The workshop was well received and resulted in an increased knowledge and awareness of using living shorelines methods for shoreline stabilization.
In January, CTP hosted Planning and Facilitating Collaborative Meetings with the NOAA Office for Coastal Management. Thirty-four participants met for two days and learned how to design effective and collaborative meetings that enhance problem solving, reach decisions, and minimize conflict.
CTP staff collaborated with ANERR Stewardship staff to stage three meetings with area eco-tour providers to establish stronger ties and discuss ways we can collaborate on conservation.
We have also worked with the local realtor’s association, Realtors Association of Franklin and Gulf Counties, to design a four-hour credit course that real estate agents can take and gain knowledge about local development regulations and the uniqueness of the area.
CTP introduced a new bay friendly landscaping workshop that incorporates green infrastructure, Florida Friendly Landscaping™ techniques, stormwater runoff and alternatives to traditional lawns. CTP will offer this course several times per year.
We also hosted another very successful SciCafe workshop on the invasive lionfish in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a local fishing guide and a local restaurant. This well attended workshop was highly effective resulting in over 60+ participants increasing their knowledge of this highly invasive fish, and participants ate the lionfish prepared several different ways by a local chef.
Performance Measures – Participants at most of the training events fill out a two-page evaluation. The evaluations are analyzed to gauge the effectiveness of our training programs and for reporting to the NOAA Performance Database.
Meeting Needs – The CTP Coordinator regularly attends meetings of the Franklin County Commission, Apalachicola City and Apalachicola Planning and Zoning to stay up to date on area needs and revise the 2012 Needs Assessment survey.
Getting the Word Out – CTP and the Communications staff used a variety of media to engage decision makers including calling and emailing targeted audiences, posting on web based calendars -NOAA CTP calendar, ANERR state website, the Gulf CTP training site, Friends of the Reserve group email list, Gulf of Mexico Alliance list-serve, and living shorelines list serve. A press release is written for each training and is sent to local newspapers and radio stations, and sent out via the State of Florida government delivery to all media outlets in the panhandle. We also post the trainings on Facebook and send notices to the local chambers of commerce.
Outreach – CTP staff interacted with decision makers on a regular basis and offered information and technical assistance to the City of Apalachicola Planning and Zoning Board and staff, Franklin County Local Mitigation Strategy Committee, the Flood Mitigation Assessment Program (FMAP), the Franklin County Tourist Development Council, and the Friends of the Franklin County Library.
Engagement with National, Regional and Local Partners – CTP staff works with its counter parts at the five Gulf NERRS. To expand the CTP capacity these Gulf NERRs collaborated on a three-year EPA grant to hire a Regional Training Coordinator in the fall of 2015. The Regional CTP Coordinator works in collaboration with all the Gulf CTPs. She researches, finds funding for and helps implement trainings that are relevant and timely to the NERRs. The Blue Carbon training in July was sponsored in part by the Regional CTP grant.
CTP staff collaborated with the other Florida NERRs on managing statewide Green Industries Best Management Practices (GI-BMP) training program until the program ended in January. This highly successful program offered workshops to landscape professionals in best management practices for the application of pesticides and fertilizer in our portion of the state. CTP staff also worked with the Weeks Bay and Grand Bay NERRs, The Nature Conservancy, University of Central Florida and Louisiana State University on a grant, Connecting Scientist to Citizens Regarding Sea Level Rise. This two-year grant included the development of a mapping tool for local leaders to use to discuss sea level rise with their communities. The CTP Coordinator also participated in planning the NERRS 2016 meeting and made a presentation at the annual NERRS meeting in Mobile. The CTP Coordinator and the CTP Specialist attended the CTP conference calls and webinars.
Locally, the CTP Coordinator assisted with Franklin County Emergency Management EXPO, a daylong event featuring exhibits and activities that increased participants’ awareness of disasters and steps they can take to make their homes and families more resilient. We also participated on the Local Mitigation Strategy committee. The CTP Coordinator also served on the advisory committee for the IFAS Extension/ SeaGrant program.