For Florida’s waters to be healthy, other waterways that flow into them need to be healthy. For local wildlife to thrive, they need to be able to thrive no matter where they might go.
That kind of thinking is what led the Nature Conservancy to establish its Ocean and Coasts Network (OCN) program. Spanning nine southeastern U.S. states (Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas), the Gulf of Mexico,
and the Caribbean, the program takes a regional, science-based approach to issues such as sea-level rise, habitat degradation, and coastal resilience. It’s an important region to focus on, since it
contains more than half of the country’s contiguous shoreline and the majority of its saltmarshes.
“The Nature Conservancy has been working on coastal and marine conservation for decades,” says OCN director Mary Conley. “One of the things that we acknowledge is that the scale of impact and the movement of species goes beyond any single jurisdiction… So, the idea behind the Ocean and Coasts Network is that looking collaboratively across multiple states and across the region enables us to tackle some of those issues through a combination of science that looks regionally and can inform decisions at local levels, best practices that we can develop and share with one another, and thinking about the impact that moves beyond one place.”
Consider a single estuary that provides habitat for juvenile fish. “But the fish also spend part of their time offshore,” says Conley. “So how do we connect those and think about the overall life history throughout the space? How can we make use of our shared local resources to have a greater impact that correlates with the scale of the species and habitats we’re trying to protect and the uses and risks that are coming into that area?”
Map courtesy of the Nature Conservancy Ocean and Coasts Network shows areas of concern.
There are many ways OCN works to address those kinds of issues. Sometimes it’s large-scale work, like a regional assessment of marine habitats that can then be used for everything from examining the health of certain species to determining the best spots for offshore wind energy projects. Other times it might be a more localized project, but one that has wide-ranging impacts. “If you’re doing land restoration or wetland restoration, how is that influencing flooding within the watershed?” asks Conley. “And then how does that watershed influence what’s going on in the larger estuary?”
Florida occupies a unique and important position in the OCN’s efforts. “The region of the OCN goes from Virginia around to Texas and then links in with our Caribbean partners,” says Conley. “Florida really sits there in the center of that.”
OCN has been involved in projects and research all around the state, including the restoration of oyster habitat off the coast of Pensacola. Thirty-three reefs were created in East and Blackwater bays that not only serve to help the local oyster population, but also contribute to the health of area waters, the local fisheries, and the wildlife that frequent the area.
“The Nature Conservancy really engaged a wide array of partners… to think about what the future of oysters in the bay can be and where restoration can play a role,” says Conley. “They came up with a plan that identified a whole series of restoration opportunities to enhance a fishery that has been challenged… That system-level or estuary-scale work is really one of those best practices that can be expanded to other states and an opportunity to expand that work across the state of Florida in other estuaries.”
Another project area involves fisheries and recreational fishing in Florida and beyond. Recreational fishing in Florida brings in an estimated $6 billion in annual expenditures (versus $15 million for all other South Atlantic states combined). It’s an area where OCN sees the potential to make a big impact.
In Florida, 55 species of snapper and grouper are vulnerable to overfishing. When overfishing occurs, both the fish population itself and the ecosystem in which it lives are affected. Snapper and grouper tend to be found in hard-bottom habitats such as shallow and deep-water coral reefs, and they help control the population of smaller fish in their role as predators.
If these fish are caught out of season or are undersized, they need to be returned to the water. But if they’re not able to get back to the bottom of the ocean quickly enough, they run the risk of discard mortality through barotrauma. Just like scuba divers might get the bends, pulling a fish up from deep water causes the compressed gas in its body to expand. If that fish needs to be returned to the water, that excess gas can cause it to float on the surface and be unable to return to the depth needed.
TNC's Fisheries Project Manager David Moss holding a snapper.
“As an angler, there is nothing that really hits you in the heart worse than when you’ve done everything right according to the laws and regulations, and you release the fish and see it floating behind the boat because it couldn’t recompress itself,” says David Moss, fisheries project manager for Florida at the Nature Conservancy.
Moss leads the organization’s Deck to Depth program that is working to educate the recreational fishing community about a simple solution to the problem: a descending device. By using the device, anglers can help the fish recompress and get back quickly to the proper depth for release. And it’s not a pricey fix. Moss says the most expensive options run about $50 to $60 but that it’s easy to get a descending device for around $10 or even make your own.
“There is something we can do about our fishery while still engaging in the fishery,” says Moss, an angler himself. “It’s not always about shutting down areas and keeping people off the water; it’s about staying on the water and engaged in the fishery. And while you’re on the water, you can make a difference and affect the fishery in a positive way while still partaking in the resource that I love and would love other people to love as well.”
With so many people casting a line in the Sunshine State, bringing about positive change here can help lead the way and inspire anglers in other areas. “Florida has the largest recreational fishery in the United States,” says Conley. “It’s a key economic driver; it’s a social activity… Florida is really front and center [in the Depth to Deck program] given the number of fishermen in the region, and the Florida chapter is a real leader in our OCN activities on that topic.”
Even if you’re not into fishing, the health of the local fisheries impacts you. “We’re a tourist-driven economy,” says Moss. “Just looking at it from purely a financial standpoint, when we don’t have healthy fish populations it can really be a snowball effect of people not wanting to come down here and fish and enjoy the sunshine. It can have an impact on so many issues we try to tackle. As go fisheries, so goes the ocean.”
“We are intrinsically linked to nature, no matter where you live,” adds Conley. “And when you live on the coast and you live in a place like Florida, you often have chosen to live there because of the area around you… So much of our economy, our well-being, and our health is connected to that ocean space.
If the natural system is out whack or isn’t healthy, then we’re going to lose that ability to do some activities.”
For more information about the Nature Conservancy, the Ocean and Coasts Network, and the Depth to Deck program, visit nature.org.
WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
There are lots of ways to support the work the Nature Conservatory and its Ocean and Coasts Network are doing. A simple way is through your own actions, like recycling, putting trash in the right places, and examining your water usage.
“It’s about getting to know that you’re connected to the system, so what you do matters,” says OCN director Mary Conley. “These are some simple steps you can take to help our oceans and estuaries every day.”
Serving as a project partner or volunteer is another way to make a difference. “And we always welcome members to the organization,” says Conley. “That’s a way to give back and get involved.”Beth Luberecki is a Nokomis, Florida–based freelance writer who’s a frequent contributor to TOTI Media. Learn more about her at bethluberecki.com.