Relocating certain animals is not unheard of at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve, as it is done several times a year on land.
But now there’s an opportunity to help relocate another type of animal, the sea urchin, in the other preserve, St. Joseph Bay Aquatic Preserve.
Jonathan Brucker, manager of the aquatic preserve, and Paul Carlson, lead researcher from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Research Institute, are inviting people to help relocate these sea urchins on Saturday, May 22.
This is a great opportunity to spend a day enjoying St. Joseph Bay and help preserve the sea grass in the bay. Check out the poster at www.stjosephbaypreserve.org, or see the Facebook page for The Star, to view the event information.
Locals and visitors to Gulf County in recent years are aware of the lack of scallops in abundance in St. Joseph Bay. Turns out sea urchins disturb many seagrasses, such as turtle grass, in the bay that support marine life. A natural part of the St. Joe Bay ecosystem, these sea urchins eat seagrass leaves. When the ecosystem is in balance, seagrasses grow faster than the urchins can eat their leaves, but when the sea urchin population exploded sometime around 2013, and numbers still remain higher than in previous decade, urchin overgrazing has led to a decline in the seagrass area in southern St. Joe Bay by 1,500 acres.
A new project began in 2020 when permits were granted to FWC scientists to jump start recovery of seagrass in overgrazed areas.
Will the loss of these sea grasses affect the recovery to a healthy state in St. Joseph Bay? Not necessarily. Why? First, turtle grass is the most abundant seagrass in St. Joseph Bay. Due to the physical environment and other added stressors in the southern area of the bay, the recovery might not happen – without help.
A second reason the recovery is likely to be successful is the location of sea urchins in the bay. Since they are in relatively shallow water at the “head of the bay,” the relocation efforts are made easier.
Partnerships are usually a good thing. In this case, a partnership between two state agencies – FWC and FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) will prevent further loss of these valuable sea grasses.
Over the past five years these populations of sea urchins have increased to the point of extreme concern.
How to accomplish this task of relocating sea urchin to deeper territory? Ask for the public’s help in controlling sea urchins. Hence a “rodeo,” or roundup became an idea that would work. In past efforts of environmental concerns in the bay the public has been a great help.
While relocating the urchins is not the only effort to make improvements, it will hopefully jumpstart the recovery.
Planting Thalassia seedlings collected from other locations in the bay is another way to help with a natural recovery.
Water clarity will improve with sea grass being replenished. Researchers have a goal of restoring 20 percent of the sea grass lost in the next two years. They will measure the turbidity and phytoplankton chlorophyll concentrations on a quarterly basis.
The FWRI researchers are Allison Patranella, Liz Johnsey, Will Sladky, Laura Yarbro, and Paul Carlson, and they are working closely with Brucker.
“This project aligns with the Gulf of Mexico Program Priority Area II, which is to protect, enhance, or restore habitat, and biologists have designed it to do all three tasks. Researchers will protect existing sea grass from future damage by removing sea urchins, they will enhance and restore grazed areas by using exclosures to give surviving patches of sea grass time to recover without additional urchin grazing, and they will restore lost sea grass area using the exclosures and seedlings collected from turtle grass in other parts of St. Joseph Bay,” Brucker said.
For those who have enjoyed using St. Joseph Bay for many years, you might have noticed the number of sea urchins increasing more than ever before. Since they are destructive to the sea grasses resulting from overgrazing, they will be relocated to deeper water.
You can help! Participate in the Sea Urchin Roundup on May 22. Registration will take place at the Frank Pate Park boat ramp with check-in beginning at 8 a.m. ET. Bring your boat and snorkeling gear, and make sure you wear hard sole booties or old tennis shoes that can get wet. Please also make sure you and your crew have personal flotation devices and Coast Guard-required safety equipment.
Once checked in, boats will head to the Sea Urchin Roundup area south of Blacks Island. There will be a large red balloon denoting the rendezvous point in the head of the bay. Maps and GPS locations will also be given to participants. Buckets and gloves will be provided, and you will be set to start collecting
Check-in is at 5 p.m. Mark your calendar, get your boat ready, get out on the bay and enjoy the day while helping the health of the bay! And don’t worry if you miss this event: there will be another in September.