The Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival: Fishing for our Future

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. For one weekend in February, this tough and tiny village will open its doors to thousands of visitors to share the proud history and culture of one of Florida’s last true working waterfronts.

Settled by fishermen from North Carolina in the late 1800s, Cortez has never stopped fishing. Its people have withstood hurricanes, wars, recessions and storms of regulations. The village has had to adapt to shifting sands – but the perseverance and grit of the people have never wavered. Today it remains a true testament to the “real” Florida.

This region has supplied bountiful seafood to humans for thousands of years. Fishing here is good for a reason. Nestled among mangroves on Sarasota Bay, Cortez is positioned between two nationally accredited estuaries. Quick translation: the habitat here is pretty special. However, like so much of Florida, Cortez faces threats associated with an increasing human population and ever-encroaching development. But unlike so much of Florida, where similar places have simply been swallowed by the concrete, Cortez has been fighting back.

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Microplastics – What’s the big deal?

Plastics in toothpaste seen through a microscope. Source: Florida Sea Grant

We’re a month into 2017. Who made New Year’s resolutions? And, who is still keeping them? I typically don’t make resolutions, but this year I did. And, I’m still onboard. My resolution is to reduce my use of plastics. And not just plastic bags and bottles. I’m also ridding my life of the toothpaste with scrubbing bubbles (plastic) and my exfoliating soap (more plastic).

Our world is surrounded by plastic. Since the mid-twentieth century, plastic has been an integral part of our lives. However, plastic debris is a major concern due to its wide spread use and its persistence in the environment.

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Salty Topics: A Blue-Green Summer in South Florida

Weedon Aerial 2003

This past summer, Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and St. Lucie Estuary became sheathed in toxic algal blooms. Do you know why these toxic algal events occurred? This month’s Salty Topics speaker series welcomes you to learn about the context of these events in a discussion presented by Dr. Karl Havens.

During early summer 2016, a bloom of the toxin-producing blue-green alga Microcystis began for form on the surface of Lake Okeechobee. By July, it covered nearly 45% of the surface of the lake with a fluorescent green surface scum. The bloom was fueled by high levels of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in the lake water that come from agricultural runoff, and by warmer than average water temperature and good underwater light conditions that were favorable for rapid growth. At the same time that this bloom was happening in the lake, the US Army Corps of Engineers was releasing large quantities of water from the lake in order to lower water levels in preparation for hurricane season. They are required to do this by a federally-authorized ‘lake regulation schedule.’ The flood control releases carried nutrients and toxic algae downstream to the St. Lucie Estuary, where massive blooms also developed and included another toxic species called Anabaena. As of late August, the blooms persisted and the ecological, human health and economic impacts have yet to be determined. A perfect storm created this event, and to fully understand it one must have some context about the regional flood control system and about sources of nutrients – topics to be discussed as part of this talk.

Karl Havens is a Professor at the University of Florida and Director of Florida Sea Grant, which is a NOAA-funded program that is a partnership between the Department of Congress, the State University System of Florida and Florida coastal communities. The mission of the program is to support research, education and outreach to preserve coastal resources and economies. Dr. Havens has been studying lakes for over 30 years and has published over 160 journal articles, three books and numerous book chapters dealing with harmful algae and other topics related to human impacts on lake ecosystems.

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Sea stars, Sea cucumbers, Sea urchins and more…

Invert Trivia: What group of invertebrate species shares these three distinctive features? 1) A body with five-part symmetry; 2) an internal skeleton made of calcium carbonate; and 3) a water vascular system of fluid-filled vessels that manifests to the outer surface as structures called tube feet. Stumped? Here’s a few more clues. This group of species are entirely marine, and they lack a head, heart, brain and eyes. They have separate sexes but it’s generally impossible to tell them apart based on their outward appearance. And, they can regenerate body parts.

These awesome creatures can only be echinoderms. In Greek, echino means spiny, and derma refers to skin, and these spiny-skinned creatures comprise sea urchins, sea cucumbers, feather stars, sea stars, and brittle stars. Echinoderms have an ancient lineage that dates back at least 600 million years. Today, at least 6,500 species are recognized within six living classes which are highlighted below.


Red spined (aka conical spined) sea star, Echinaster sentus juvenile

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Frequently Asked Questions about Vibrio in Florida


Vibrio under a scope. Source: CDC

Two recent deaths in Florida have raised concern about the saltwater-dwelling bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus. MOST HEALTHY INDIVIDUALS ARE NOT AT RISK FOR V. vulnificus INFECTION, however, to ensure that your time on the water is safe and enjoyable, be aware of your risk and take steps to minimize becoming infected.

What are Vibrio?

The name Vibrio refers to a large and diverse group of marine bacteria. Most members are harmless, however, some strains produce harmful toxins and are capable of causing a disease known as “vibriosis.”

When and where are Vibrio found?

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UF researchers ‘find Dory’ by developing methods to farm blue tang in captivity

52 day old Blue tang in captivity - University of Florida Photo by Tyler Jones

52 day old Blue tang in captivity – University of Florida Photo by Tyler Jones

Scientists at the University of Florida have found Dory! Ok, they didn’t really find her, but they did learn how to spawn and raise blue tang in captivity. Why is this important? After the movie Finding Nimo was released, demand for clown fish sky rocketed. Until scientists learned how to raise them in captivity, the demand was filled through collection in the wild. Scientists knew when Finding Dory was released, the same type of demand would be likely, so their efforts to successfully spawn and raise Dory began long before the movie début. By rearing these fish through aquaculture, demand can be met, without the need to harvest from wild sources. Below is a link to a great article about the process of “Finding Dory”.

It’s Cephalopod Week!

Octopus from South Florida - Photo USGS

Octopus from South Florida – Photo USGS

June 17-24, 2016 is Cephalopod Week. So exciting! No we don’t get to take the week off from work, it’s not a real holiday, but it is a way to raise awareness about and celebrate octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus. This year, Cephalopod Week, created by NPR’s Science Friday will celebrate its third year running.

Taxonomically, cephalopods are a kind of molluscan and therefore closely related to clams, oysters, and snails. Cephalopods live throughout the world’s oceans, from surface waters to depths of more than 4 miles. The name “cephalopod” means “head-foot,” which refers to the fact that their limbs are attached to their head.

Why celebrate cephalopods? They’re cool, that’s why!

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Smalltooth Sawfish Research in Southwest Florida

This baby male smalltooth sawfish is about two weeks to a month old

This baby male smalltooth sawfish is about two weeks to a month old

Sawfish are modified rays with a shark-like body. Sawfish get their name from their “saws”, which are used for defense and to locate, stun, and kill prey; mostly fish. The earliest sawfish arose about 200 million years ago. These sawfish were distant cousins of the ones we see today which appeared about 65 million years ago. At one time sawfish were abundant; however, they have experienced significant declines due to decades of unintentional overfishing, mostly the result of entanglements in fishing gear. Sawfish saws (scientifically called rostrums) have also been popular trophy items, but when they’re removed, they don’t grow back and sawfish are unable to feed normally or defend themselves. Today, all sawfish species (five) are endangered, including the smalltooth sawfish which occurs in our area. The smalltooth sawfish historically ranged from around North Carolina to central Brazil, and along the western coast of Africa. Now, smalltooth sawfish are only found in south and southwest Florida, and the Bahamas. With few remaining, it is important to learn about their life history, biology, and ecology so that conservation efforts will be successful.

In Southwest Florida, smalltooth sawfish research began in the early 2000s with most research efforts focused in the Caloosahatchee and Peace rivers; research data and angler observations indicate these areas still support juvenile sawfish. Last month I accompanied FWC-Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) researchers on a directed sawfish trip in the Caloosahatchee River. FWRI’s sawfish research includes both random and directed sampling using a variety of net gear. We sampled in areas where anglers and shore observers had reported sawfish sightings (hence directed sampling).Sampling involved deploying a net and letting it soak for one hour. We had to check the net whenever anyone saw movement or after a half hour, whichever came first. Our first set resulted in nothing. We then cruised the shoreline looking for sawfish before setting a second net. We thought we were skunked a second time but finally at the end of our set, we got a sawfish!

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It’s cownose ray mating season again!

Cownose ray - image credit FWC

Cownose ray – image credit FWC

It’s cownose ray mating season. It’s also the time of year when I’m frequently asked “what kind of fish is that swimming at the surface with two fins out of the water?” That fish is a female cownose ray and if one looks carefully they will see at least one male, often several, following her at a slightly deeper depth. When a female cownose ray displays her pectoral fin tips above water she is ready to mate.

In Charlotte Harbor, cownose ray mating behavior can occur between October and June but mating usually takes place from April to June. Like all sharks and rays, fertilization is internal. Female cownose rays have two ovaries, but only the left one is functional. Males have modified pelvic fins called claspers that they use to deposit sperm when mating. During mating, the male bites the female to hold onto her. This often leaves visible wounds along the pectoral fins. Sharks and other rays also exhibit this biting behavior. Don’t worry, the wounds heal quickly.

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Green Algae on the Rocks

If you’ve spent any time fishing along shore or strolling in our parks along the shoreline of Charlotte Harbor, you’ve probably noticed all the green algae attached to the rocks and other intertidal structure. I walked along the shoreline at Bayshore Live Oak Park and noticed two species of filamentous green algae.  One species was closer to the water than the other in what biologists refer to as resource partitioning.  I suspect that the one closer to shore is probably better adapted to being periodically exposed at low tide.  The other is probably better at competing in deeper water.

Enteromorpha flexuosa found closest to shore at Bayshore Live Oak Park

Enteromorpha flexuosa found closest to shore at Bayshore Live Oak Park

Closest to shore I saw Enteromorpha flexuosa.  If it has a common name I don’t know what it is. Enteromorpha means “intestine-shape,” and this algae resembles hollow tubes much like intestines. Enteromorpha is light green, unbranched, and only about four to five inches in length, often shorter.  It grows in clumps or tufts at or near the low-tide line and is often found on rocks, mangrove roots, or other woody debris.  This species of algae has a wide salinity range and can be found in almost any shallow-water brackish or marine environment.

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