As part of an ongoing project, Erika Zambello is visiting all National Estuarine Research Reserves in the continental United States. Established by NOAA, the sites work together toward long-term research, education and coastal stewardship.
At first glance, the waterways within Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RB NERR) seem pristine. While I kayaked with a RB NERR tour, I traced the mangroves that border the water and create their own islands, spotted mullet leaping from the shallows and gazed through binoculars at wading birds of all shapes and colors. Other than the occasional dock, overhead airplane or quiet angler, we were surrounded only by the natural world.
However, the waters and land within the reserve are directly affected by drainage and human development projects upstream, begun decades ago and still ongoing. Canals, roads, and flood-control structures like weirs change the traditional ways water moved across the landscape, giving some bays more fresh water while creating higher salt water conditions in others.
Fakahatchee Bay remains the most natural, benefiting from a relatively unchanged river flow and drainage, and its conditions are often used as a comparison for the bays receiving fewer natural flows. It is the easternmost bay inside the Reserve’s boundaries, next to Everglades National Park.
An adjacent bay, just west of Fakahatchee Bay, receives more freshwater flows than it did in the past. Faka Union Bay is entirely fed by a large canal that receives water from many of the upland areas. During the wet season, water flowing out of the Faka Union Canal can be almost completely fresh; throughout the year the salinity levels fluctuate wildly, which can make survival difficult for many marine species. Farther west, Pumpkin Bay now receives less fresh water and has higher salinity levels. Ecologists monitor the trends by recording salinity levels and other water chemistry parameters, using data loggers that collect information at fifteen-minute intervals twenty-four hours a day.
But wait, how did we get here?
Drainage and Development in Picayune Strand
Take a look at the map of Rookery Bay Research Reserve, then picture zooming out to the 55,000 acres north of the reserve. From the air, the land appears as a grid, cut into rectangular parcels by roads and canals. In the 1960s, a developer purchased the property to create a brand new development. They advertised the house parcels to those who had never seen them, let alone the state itself, and who probably thought of Florida as a paradise. Many of the lot sales were long-distance transactions, and buyers were only given a chance to see their new property from the air, during winter when water levels were at their lowest. To make a long story short, the development failed, but the environmental legacies of the roads and canals remain.
A few days after my kayak tour of Rookery Bay, I climbed onto a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) swamp buggy. Think of a golf cart, double the size and put the cab on the gigantic tires necessary to navigate the wetland landscape of what is now called Picayune Strand State Forest, where the proposed housing development would have been built more than 50 years ago. As part of a fellowship program, my colleagues and I set off to explore the site’s restoration efforts, which are part of the larger Everglades Restoration Plan.
As we drove down a series of restored roads — once built up, now graded down and full of water — wetland plants grew in thick clumps on both sides, cypress and larger deciduous trees stretched to the sky behind them. Like my kayak trip, the buggy ride revealed an enormous diversity of plants and wildlife. If I close my eyes, I can picture the masses of egrets, herons, anhingas, storks, and roseate spoonbills as they spread their wide wings and swirled in the air as one flock.
In addition to the road restoration, some of the canals have been partially filled in to restore natural flows and weaken the currents running in straight lines downstream. The restoration initiative is nowhere near finished, and includes the building of flood control infrastructure to prevent flooding in nearby human settlements.
I witnessed some of the changes in Picayune Strand, but the impacts also extend down the watershed, into the bays and along the coastline.
Effects on Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
That’s where Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve comes back into focus. In addition to collecting water quality data, biologist Pat O’Donnell and his team monitor fish populations and communities as well as sharks in particular. Water quality data collection began in the 1990s, fish and shark data in 1998. Because restoration only began in 2004, scientists have extremely valuable baseline data that can be used to measure post-restoration effects.
For example, given the ranging salinity levels of the three bays described above, fish and shark communities differ among the three bays. During the wet season, bull sharks can survive in Faka Union Bay, as they tolerate the freshwater levels better than other species. O’Donnell samples for sharks using nets and long-lines, and entire forays pass with only bull shark encounters. Contrast that to the two other bays, where a greater diversity of species is caught during monitoring. Similarly, a large community of fish are found in the other bays, far more diverse than Faka Union. When traditional water flows are partially or fully restored, how will these marine species assemblages change? O’Donnell and his team are determined to find out.
There are many definitions of “success” in the Picayune Strand and wider Everglades restoration initiatives. While researchers at the Rookery Bay NERR don’t define success for everyone, they do have freely accessible data and can show stakeholders how close the bays come to emulating the conditions of the more natural Fakahatchee Bay. Having such a long period of baseline data is rare, and can play an instrumental role not only in judging the results of the project, but also by providing real-time information that can be used to improve project design.
To read more about Erika’s estuary adventures, see VoicesforBiodiversity.org!
Erika Zambello is a writer and photographer currently living on the Emerald Coast of Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, where she specialized in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer, completing four trips to the Maine North Woods in each of the four seasons, Fall 2015-Summer 2016.
In addition to acting as the sole blogger for the entire Florida State Park system, she is a regular contributor to the Duke Nicholas School, the Maine Sportsman, Bangor Daily News, and 10000 Birds. In the past she has published in BirdWatching Daily, the Florida Sportsman, National Geographic Adventure, Guy Harvey Magazine, Coastal Angler, and more. Finally, she is the founder and managing editor of the travel website One World, Two Feet, co-founder of TerraCommunications, as well as the co-managing editor for the award-winning online magazine Voices for Biodiversity.
Follow her daily adventures on Instagram, or zambellophotography.com.