Camille S. Yates’ Wild Side column explores the unique natural areas and wildlife in the Indian River Lagoon region.
STATE OF THE LAGOON
Snook SpeciesBY CAMILLE S. YATES
When the Indian River Lagoon was designated as an Estuary of National Significance in the early 1990s by the National Estuary Program, the newly formed agency quickly adopted the common snook as its icon.
Now championed by the St. John’s River Water Management District, the Indian River Lagoon Program has been the leader in restoring the lagoon. In 1998, the State of Florida approved the Indian River Lagoon license plate, which has a color rendition of a snook on it. Those who buy the plate contribute a portion toward lagoon conservation.
The snook is a fish that can live in saltwater, freshwater and brackish water, a mix of both fresh and saltwater. Up until 2004, four different species of snook could be found in the lagoon, including the swordspine snook (Centropomus enciferus), large scale fat snook (Centropomus parallelus), tarpon snook (Centropomus pectinatus), and the common snook (Centropomus undecimalus). A fifth species, the small scale fat snook (Centropomus mexicanis), was discovered in 2004 by fish ecologist Grant Gilmore.
“No other place in the U.S. can say that their body of water has 5 species of snook,” Gilmore says.
Young snook larvae that hatch near the inlets and beaches drift for several days before finding refuge in estuaries, salt marshes, creeks, and mangrove islands. Snook become sexually mature when they are 2-4 years old and about 18-24 inches long. Snook are hermaphroditic, which means they exhibit male-to-female sex reversal as they become older. In order to survive life threatening events such as cold weather, drought, or limited food sources, the snook changes its sex to avoid having its population destroyed. As a result, most of the larger, older adult fish more than 30 inches are female and most of the younger, smaller adults are males. Upon reaching sexual maturity, snook migrate each summer to inlets and near-shore waters to spawn. Spawning occurs each year from May through September.
Although adult snook can live in freshwater habitats, they are unable to spawn in fresh water, as sperm become activated only in saline waters. In the early 1980s, Gilmore and other scientists observed snook traveling through culverts and into the area’s impounded marshes to breed.
“People didn’t realize how important these impoundments were to snook,’’ Gilmore says. “Fishermen were upset when the marshes were impounded for mosquito control because they felt that it destroyed fish habitat. We found that once culverts were placed into the impoundments, snook began traveling into the impoundments regularly. At Jack Island in St. Lucie County, we recorded 1,500 snook entering the impoundment through a single culvert during a three-hour period.”
They also found that spawning activity correlates with monthly rainfall patterns, but not necessarily with either temperature or salinity. Since more prey are abundant during heavy rainfall, spawning patterns most likely are related to food availability.
Most people who have eaten snook, say it is one of the best fish they have ever tasted. Its white meat is light and flaky if cooked properly.
My brother-in-law, Bill Yates, and his friend Sam Crutchfield are experts at frying snook. They take a can of beer and stir it into about a cup and a half of Bisquik. After drinking a few cans of beer, they set aside a bowl of dry Bisquik and begin heating a pan of oil.
While the oil is getting hot, they drink a few more beers. Once a case of beer is empty, they save the cardboard flat — this is the important part. They line the flat with a bunch of paper towels and prepare the fish for frying.
They dip strips of snook into the beer batter and coat the fish well. Next, they coat the fish with the dry mixture and slowly drop the pieces into the hot oil. When the snook “fingers” are golden brown, they go into the beer flat to drain. Their flat soon becomes full of fresh fried snook.
But not for long.
RARE SIGHTBY CAMILLE S. YATES
The table is set. Your family is gathered. And the holiday bird that’s been cooking in the oven for hours is ready to be carved.
Even though most people buy their turkey at the store, some Treasure Coast families prefer serving wild turkey. Just like snook can be found in local waters, wild turkeys roam area woods, including citrus groves, cypress swamps and oak hammocks. And some wild turkeys have even been spotted in developed areas, like the PGA Village in Port St. Lucie.
Unlike domestic turkeys, wild turkeys have keen senses and are always on the lookout for predators. They are quick to escape situations that a domestic turkey would be oblivious to. Because wild turkeys are so alert, they are a challenging game animal to hunt or even photograph. In contrast, domestic turkeys cannot fly or even run very fast. They are fairly docile, which makes them ideal for being raised on a farm.
Before European settlers came to the New World, wild turkeys were abundant. American Indians regularly hunted them as a staple food for their diet. Scientists have found evidence that as long as 4,000 years ago, these early Americans used a turkey wing bone to mimic the wild turkey call, luring the bird in for the kill. But after settlement began in America, the wild turkey population declined dramatically because of habitat destruction and commercial harvest.
Indeed, the wild turkey was close to becoming extinct in North America in the early 1930s. As a result, wildlife agencies and farmers began raising domestic turkeys to supplement the wild population. This effort failed because the pen-raised domestic turkeys were an easy meal for foxes, bobcats and other predators. Later, biologists developed methods to trap wild turkeys and relocate them where populations were sparse. Continuing relocation efforts have been very successful, bringing the United States wild turkey population from 30,000 birds in the 1930s, to more than 7 million today.
North America has five subspecies of wild turkey. The Eastern subspecies is the most abundant with more than 5 million birds roaming the entire eastern half of the United States. The Osceola is found only on the Florida peninsula. Its population numbers between 80,000 and 100,000 birds. In the western states, more than 1 million Rio Grande turkeys range through Texas and into Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, as well as parts of the northwestern states. As many as 344,000 Merriam’s subspecies live in the Rocky Mountains and the prairies of Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. Finally, the Gould’s subspecies has a small population of about 800 birds located primarily in the central portion of Mexico with some birds ranging in the southernmost parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
In the late 1800s, noted Harvard ornithologist W. E. D. Scott was roaming the woods of Florida studying the ivory-billed woodpecker. During his research, he encountered numerous wild turkeys and found them to be different from those in the Northeast. In 1890, Scott announced his discovery of the new subspecies and named it for the famous Seminole war chief, Osceola. It was Osceola who led his tribe against the Americans in the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842.
The Osceola turkey is similar to the Eastern subspecies, but is smaller in size and darker in color. There are no whitish triangular patches on its wings when folded back, as seen on the Eastern. The Osceola subspecies also exhibits remarkable iridescent coloring in its feathers. When lit by the sun, the feathers show more iridescent green and red colors, compared to the Eastern, which shows more bronze. The ends of their tail feathers are tipped in brown, similar to the Eastern, whereas the three western subspecies have much lighter tips on their tail feathers. The adult female Osceola, or hen, is smaller than the male, also called gobbler, with duller and lighter coloring throughout, except the wing feathers, which are darker.
Turkeys are omnivorous, foraging on the ground or climbing shrubs and small trees to feed. Their diet consists of acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds and small reptiles like salamanders.
Since wild turkeys are on the move so much, they are very lean, unlike their domestic cousin. As a result, rather than roasting them, most people will fry the whole bird in a large pot of oil, which seals in the juices and keeps it moist. Others will marinate the turkey breast in Italian dressing and grill it. Either way, if you are lucky enough to have a wild turkey on your table this holiday, every bite will be memorable.
Delicate BalanceSTORY AND PHOTOS BY CAMILLE S. YATES
Reel in a record bass at the Savannas Marsh. Catch a glimpse of a brilliant roseate spoonbill feeding in the shallows of the Indian River Lagoon. Paddle the ancient St. Lucie River. Land a snook at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park. On Florida’s east coast, you can enjoy these and many more outdoor experiences.
More and more people boat, swim, and fish on the Treasure Coast in the Indian River Lagoon, Atlantic Ocean and the region’s many lakes and rivers. As the popularity of water recreation in Florida increases, the potential for conflict between humans and animals becomes more frequent.
Wildlife plays an important role in maintaining the health and beauty of Florida’s natural environments. But, because of the growing human population, many wildlife species in Florida are protected from harassment by state and federal laws. Our freedom to enjoy our waterways and natural areas depends on how well we, as humans, respect the plants and animals living there.
he time of year when birds are nesting, particularly water birds such as pelicans, ibis, egrets, and herons. Large breeding colonies of several hundred birds can be found on islands throughout the lagoon. Take care not to disturb nests and nursery areas. Enjoy watching the wildlife, but keep your distance.
When boating, try to be sensitive to your surroundings. Reduce the throttle to “no wake” speed when close to a shoreline or in creeks to help prevent erosion. Slow speed zones have been established to protect slow moving marine animals such as manatees. At high speeds, both motor boats and jet skis can kill manatees upon impact.
If you are in shallow water, make certain that your boat prop doesn’t hit the bottom. Prop dredging destroys seagrasses which are home to many organisms that game fish, such as snook and redfish, feed on. Before leaving the waterway, make sure to remove any stray pieces of vegetation hanging on your boat or trailer. Failure to do so may transport non-native plants from one waterway to another disrupting the natural balance of the environment.
Several decades ago, it was common for boaters to toss their garbage overboard. Now we know that human refuse is harmful to the environment. If you simply toss your trash into the water, it will be around for years. Did you know that it may take 100 years for tin cans to disintegrate? If the can is aluminum, it will be around for 200 to 500 years. Plastic six-pack rings or any other plastic may take 450 years to decompose.
Small amounts of petroleum products spilled in the water can have a large impact. One gallon of gasoline can contaminate 750 gallons of water. One single quart of oil, when spilled, can create an oil slick as large as three football fields and remain in the area for up to two years.
Time spent on the water fishing for either the trophy fish or just a few to pan-fry can be relaxing. If your fishing line happens to get caught on rocks or tree limbs, try to retrieve as much line as possible. Fishing lines and plastics are deadly for fish and birds and should never be discarded in the water or near shore. If you are enjoying a cold one, make certain that plastic six-pack holders are taken out of the boat, since they can trap or strangle birds, fish, and other wildlife. Because birds and other animals frequent garbage landfills, when disposing of the holders on land, please snip each circle of the holders with scissors to prevent entanglement.
With your cooperation and a heightened awareness of our wondrous, but fragile natural resources, the organisms that live in our coastal ecosystems will have a chance to survive for generations to come.
Ais thrived on Indian River until arrival of EuropeansBY CAMILLE S. YATES
Thousands of years ago, Florida’s eastern shoreline supplied a bounty of food for Indian tribes, and today, the area still provides fish, shellfish, and other sources of food for multitudes of people, both local residents and others who live far away. The Indian River Lagoon and its historic native people have fascinated historians for centuries. “From the locations of Indian mounds and middens, we can find sites of the native villages,” says Treasure Coast historian Lucille Rights.
Rights and archaeologists found that from first-hand experience when they conducted a dig at Mount Elizabeth in Jensen Beach, digging six feet from the top of the 30-foot mound, they found materials dating back 4,000 years. “We have learned that the people who lived along the Indian River Lagoon were hunters and gatherers,” Rights says. “Much of what they ate, such as clams and oysters, came right from the estuary. They discarded shells in a specified dumping ground within the midden or village, which eventually formed a mound.”
The narratives of Spanish explorers in the 1500s first documented the tribes that resided along the Indian River. The Ais (pronounced Ah-YEES) Indians were the predominant tribe which settled the shoreline from what is now Cape Canaveral south to the St. Lucie Inlet. In 1951, Irving Rouse, an anthropologist at Yale University, visited the area and researched the culture of the lagoon’s Indian tribes. His book "A Survey of Indian River Archeology, Florida” detailed the various tribes that lived along the shores of the Indian River.
This region was referred to by the Spanish as the Ais Coast, or Barra de Ais, so later came the name of the estuary, which we now call the Indian River. The Ais people were not a friendly bunch and presented problems for the Spanish explorers. As a result, the Spanish attempted to cajole, pacify and convert the recalcitrant Ais tribe, but had poor success in doing so. Little was known of the Ais culture until Jonathan Dickinson and crew were shipwrecked and captured by the fearsome Indians.
Dickinson’s journal, published in 1697, gave great insight into the appearance, diet and customs of the Ais. He wrote that the Ais “neither sow nor plant any manner of thing whatsoever,” but fished and gathered palmetto, cocoplum and seagrape berries. He documented the fishing method used by the tribe. “[The chief] sent his son with his striking staff to the inlet to strike fish for us. Sometimes he would run swiftly pursuing a fish, and seldom missed when he darted at them. In two hours time he got as many fish as would serve twenty men.”
Rights says that the reason that the Ais lived here was because the Indian River was such a food basket. An ingenious tribe, the Ais “made rope from Spanish moss or the fiber from cabbage palms to construct fishing nets,” Rights says. In addition to berries and fish, their diets were also rich in clams, oysters, turtles, sharks and an occasional manatee. They also hunted on the land for deer and alligator.
From Dickinson’s journal, we learn that the chief's houses were large, and measured 40 by 25 feet. Each structure apparently consisted of a wooden frame "covered with palmetto leaves on both top and sides. There was a range of cabins, or a barbecue on one side and two ends. At the entering on one side of the house a passage was made of benches on each side leading to the cabins.”
Shortly after Dickinson was released by the Ais, European diseases and raids by the English and their Indian allies from Georgia took their toll on the Ais population. In “The History of Brevard County,” Vera Zimmerman succinctly summarized what happened to the Ais after their encounters with the Europeans. “In 1715 when the Spanish set up a salvage camp near the Rio San Sebastian to recover gold and treasure from their shipwrecked fleet, they mentioned seeing only a few Ais fishermen. When the Spanish left Florida in 1763 they carried with them to Cuba, 90 Indian families, the last of the native Floridians.”
ILLUSTRATION BY ERIC ZELINSKI
TO FIND OUT MOREThe St. Lucie County Historical Museum has begun preparing for the construction of a new outdoor boating and fishing heritage exhibit which will feature the Ais tribe. For more information on this upcoming exhibit, call the St. Lucie County Cultural Affairs Department at (772) 462-1767.
To learn more about the archeological features of the Treasure Coast, contact the Southeast Archeological Society of Florida based in Stuart. For more information, visit www.sefas.org or call (772) 286-3511.
The Sea Life Runs Through ItBY CAMILLE S. YATES
In November, Congress enacted the Water Resources Development Act by overturning President Bush’s veto. The new benefits the Indian River Lagoon because it provides more than $1.3 billion for restoration projects that will help improve the lagoon’s water quality by removing nutrients and muck that have polluted seagrass and oyster beds. Having clean water in the lagoon is important since it contributes to healthy fish and shellfish populations that play a role in the area’s prospering economy.
What exactly is water quality and how is it measured? Scientists evaluate several parameters of the water, including nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and seagrass coverage to ensure that the water body is healthy. Runoff, drainage, and discharges of water from agricultural and urban lands are loaded with fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides which harms the lagoon’s water quality. When nutrient levels are high, drift algae and two other algae known as ephiphytic macroalgae and benthic microalgae grow and choke the native seagrasses. Fish and shellfish populations decline when seagrasses decline.
Light is also an important factor affecting water quality and the distribution of seagrasses. Any pollutants that diminish water transparency, thereby reducing light penetration, will negatively affect seagrass coverage. Turbidity is a word often used when the lagoon's water quality is discussed. In simplest terms, turbidity describes the cloudiness of the water. The more turbid the water, the less light reaches the sea grass. Runoff can contain soils and other materials that reduce the ability for light to penetrate through the water.
Fish and other organisms need oxygen to live. There are several factors that affect the concentration of dissolved oxygen in a water body. Oxygen can be introduced by wind, diffusion, photosynthesis, and inflows from tributaries. Dissolved oxygen concentrations are lowered by processes that use up oxygen from the water, such as plant respiration and decomposition, and by additions of water with lower dissolved oxygen. Scientists hope that by reducing excess nutrients, populations of harmful algae will decline and as a result, total suspended solids will also decline. This should allow the ecosystem to exhibit a natural dissolved oxygen regime.
Water quality has always been important to an active group of business owners and residents called the Rivers Coalition, which is based in Martin County. In November 2006, the coalition filed a federal lawsuit seeking an end to discharges from Lake Okeechobee that in most years send hundreds of billions of gallons of muddy, polluted fresh water into the St. Lucie estuary. The action targets the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the control structures at Lake Okeechobee.
This legal action contends that the corps has degraded the riparian property of waterfront land owners along the estuary amounting to a "taking" of property without compensation. The waterfront property of 22 plaintiffs named in the suit is appraised at $50 million, and overall waterfront property in Martin County alone is valued at more than $6 billion. The individual plaintiffs, however, are not seeking any monetary damages. The Rivers Coalition’s goal is to get the discharges stopped and to have the estuary restored.
Dr. Grant Gilmore, a renowned biologist consulting for a number of agencies, says the St. Lucie River was the most biological diverse estuary in North America until the discharges periodically changed its fundamental estuarine character into a muddy and dangerous fresh water body. The muddy discharges have caused lesions on fish, deaths of millions of oysters, extermination of seagrasses, muck buildups and the loss of forage for dolphin, eagles, turtles and other marine life.
It takes very little human activity to upset the fragile balance of the lagoon. Our land-based activities that occur miles from the estuary can have a great effect on it. Follow these tips to help keep lagoon waters clean. Reduce or eliminate using fertilizer on lawns. Take used antifreeze, motor oil, gasoline, or solvents to the landfill in containers. If you own a boat, keep it well maintained and do not let toxic substances such as oil, paint or any trash ever get into the water.
The Walking TreesBY CAMILLE S. YATES
PHOTOS BY CAMILLE YATES
Mangroves are salt-tolerant trees that grow worldwide on tropical coastlines where the average temperature is more than 66º F. That is why the Indian River Lagoon area, especially the southern boundaries, has the potential for thick mangrove forests.
In Florida, three species of mangroves dominate the marine influenced wetland areas: red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle); black mangrove (Avicennia germinans); and white mangrove (Luguncularia racemosa).
Each species has different characteristics that help it thrive in its environment. Red mangroves, which are the farthest from the shore, have characteristic prop roots, or stilt roots, which grow from the trunk and drop roots which stem from the branches. The prop roots and drop roots serve to support the red mangrove in the loose soil and aid in respiration, because much of the time these roots are exposed to the air. The prop roots contain pores called lenticels which allow oxygen from the air to diffuse into the plant. Red mangroves also have characteristic dark green leaves that come to a point at the end.
In contrast, black mangroves have root systems that consist of a series of roots that grow up from the ground like straws sticking up through the soil drinking in the oxygen. Their leaves are rounded at the end.
White mangroves grow farthest from the shoreline. Because they have access to more oxygen they don’t need specialized roots like the red and black mangroves do.
Why are they called the "walking trees?" Because all three species trap, hold, and stabilize sediments that come in with the tide. They aid in holding the soil in place, especially during extreme storms. As the soil builds up, the trees migrate toward the water. If storms are few, the trees move out into the water increasing the land mass. They also protect the shoreline. During extreme storms and hurricanes, mangrove forests protect landward coastal area by mitigating damage from waves, currents, and winds.
A wide variety of species utilize mangrove habitats. Coastal birds such as pelicans, spoonbills, and osprey use the mangroves as a nesting site, and the mangroves are home to many food sources for the birds. In the waters around the mangrove roots, especially the prop roots of the red mangrove, a variety of juvenile game fish can be found. Algae and marine invertebrates such as sponges, corals, and anemone attach to prop roots while clams, sea snails, shrimp, and other organisms use the mangroves for shelter and a feeding ground.
Florida mangrove communities provide habitat for a number of threatened and endangered species. Among the Florida endangered species are the wood stork, American crocodile, which is found in the Keys, hawksbill and Atlantic ridley sea turtles, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and Atlantic saltmarsh snake. Species that are declining, such as the little blue heron, white ibis, snowy egret, and loggerhead sea turtle, also rely on mangroves.
Unfortunately in recent years, humans have severely threatened the health of mangroves. A variety of stresses on this unique habitat has included dredging, filling and dining; oil spills; herbicide and human waste runoff.
In Florida, scientists are able to evaluate habitat changes by analyzing aerial photographs from the 1940s and 1950s compared to recent satellite imagery and aerial photography. Frequently, these images illustrate loss of mangrove acreage. Research has shown that these losses are often attributed to human activity. In the Indian River lagoon, 76 percent of the existing mangrove areas are no longer productive as fisheries habitat, while 86 percent of former mangrove areas have been lost for fisheries use since the 1940s.
In search of the manatee
By Camille S. Yates
It's the time of year when Florida's northern waters become cold and manatees swim south to seek out a warmer environment. During the summer, some manatee populations stay as far north as Virginia. But as water temperatures drop manatees, like birds, migrate to Florida's rivers and estuaries – including the Indian River Lagoon – and stay during the winter.
Since manatees are mammals they need heat during cold weather to regulate their body temperature. When water temperatures drop below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, manatees can get cold stress, stop feeding and die if they are not able to find warmer water. For nearly 50 years, manatees have relied on power plants, such as the ones in Vero Beach and Fort Pierce, which produce warm water outflow. When the plants are running, groups of 20 to 30 manatees congregate nearby to soak up the warmth.
Cold weather is just one of several threats that have reduced manatee populations. Increased development has eliminated habitat and feeding grounds. The growing number of boats and jet skis increase the chance of manatees colliding with watercraft. Manatee deaths are also caused by outbreaks of red tide and entanglements in fishing lines and canal locks. Nearly 400 manatees were found dead in Florida waters last year. Thirty-three of those were found along the Treasure Coast. Scientists don’t know exactly how many die each year because not all deceased manatees are recovered.
Even though threats to manatees continue to increase, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted last June to remove the manatee from Florida's endangered species list. This move gives people the false sense that manatee populations are rebounding. What occurred, however, is that the state lowered the criteria for listing species as endangered.
A count of 2,861 manatees during 2006’s statewide survey, done under optimal conditions, suggests an actual decline in manatees, from the 3,276 counted during a similar survey conducted under optimal conditions.
In April 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission adopted new guidelines for classifying species based on International Union for the Conservation of Nature standards. But the FWCC did not align its criteria for endangered status with the IUNC’s. Those species in Florida that are now listed as endangered would fall into the category of critically endangered using the IUCN guidelines. And those that are listed as threatened in Florida would be listed as endangered at the IUCN level. So, at this point, we can't breathe a sigh of relief that manatees will be swimming in the Indian River for years to come.
Under the FWCC criteria, a species may have to undergo or be at the risk of undergoing an 80 percent decline in its population to be listed as endangered. Even the critically endangered northern right whale, whose population numbers about 300 animals, would likely not qualify as either endangered or threatened under the FWCC current definitions.
Although the state voted to remove the manatee from the endangered species list, it is still protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act, and manatees are still listed as federally endangered. Also, no state laws have changed regarding speed zones. So, if you plan to go boating in the Indian River be on the lookout for manatees and be prepared to slow down in certain areas.
Camille S. Yates’ Wild Side column explores the unique natural areas and wildlife in the Indian River Lagoon region.
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