The Friends of Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves are pleased to support many projects implemented by the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves and the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. These projects have ranged from bat houses and removal of exotics on the land for the Preserve State Park and projects described below for the Aquatic Preserves.
Seagrass Rack Card

The estuaries that make up the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves are dynamic and ecologically complex. Seagrasses, mud flats and oyster bars lie beneath the shallow, inshore waters of these estuaries. These submerged resources provide numerous ecosystem functions within the estuaries of southwest Florida and are often used as the measure of overall estuarine health. In addition to being essential fish habitat, oyster reefs bio-assimilate nutrients, filter water, reduce turbidity and stabilize shorelines. Seagrass beds actively produce oxygen and store carbon as well as provide shelter for many commercially important marine species. They also maintain water clarity and stabilize habitat bottom where they grow. Degradation of these habitats can negatively affect water quality, the stability of surrounding habitats and the species that depend on them for food and habitat.

Impacts from boat propellers to these natural resources have become a concern both statewide and within the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves. Boat propellers can tear up seagrass beds, also known as prop scarring. It can take 5-10 years for a seagrass bed to recover from one prop scar incident. Boat wakes can erode the shoreline and disturb oyster reefs while boat props can drag along the bottom and dislodge oyster clumps. In addition to environmental costs, running aground can be costly for boaters. Increasing damage to seagrass beds from improper boating techniques led to the passing of legislation in 2009 making it illegal to cause destruction to seagrass beds in Florida aquatic preserves. Destruction of seagrass within an aquatic preserve can carry a penalty of up to $1,000. This is in addition to damage that may be inflicted to a boatʼs prop or lower unit during grounding events.

The public is encouraged to enjoy the aquatic preserves while employing proper boating techniques to help preserve the natural resources for future generations to enjoy. Prop scars can be reduced by operating your boat in appropriate water depths, using a navigation chart, depth finder and becoming familiar with the local waters and changing tides. Boat operators should watch for buoys which mark the edges of some seagrass beds, travel in marked channels, abide by manatee and other slow and idle zones and read the water. A seagrass bed often appears as a large dark shadow underwater relative to the surrounding areas. If you do run aground, turn off the engine, raise the motor and walk, or pole, your boat back out to deeper waters. Boat U.S offers a free boating safety course, approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and other boater resources are available.

CHEVWQMN

Volunteers needed!
Call 941-575-5861 if interested (ask for Arielle) or email Arielle.taylormanges@FloridaDEP.gov.

The Charlotte Harbor Estuaries Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Network is a coordinated system of volunteers who regularly conduct water quality monitoring throughout six local aquatic preserves in southwest Florida, including Lemon Bay, Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound, Matlacha Pass, San Carlos Bay, and Estero Bay estuaries.

The project is a cooperative effort of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Charlotte Harbor and Estero Bay Aquatic Preserves Offices, the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, the Southwest Florida Water Management Districtʼs Surface Water Improvement Management Program and the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program.

The program:

• Includes monitoring sites in all six of the aquatic preserves in the Charlotte Harbor estuaries
• Builds on and expands existing volunteer monitoring programs
• Provides both scientific and educational functions that are accessible by all
• Includes critical quality assurance, data management and training components necessary for providing credible data and long-term volunteer support

Volunteers are the critical component to the success of the monitoring program. Educating volunteers and the general public about the values of estuaries through monitoring will lead to active, self-supporting citizens support organization. The volunteer monitoring program was initiated in October 1996, and now more than 80 volunteers monitor 46 locations within the estuaries.

Once a month, volunteers sample 14 field parameters including dissolved oxygen (DO), water temperature, wind speed and direction, pH, air temperature, precipitation, salinity, water clarity, weather and water surface conditions, water color, water depth, and tide stage.

In addition to the 14 parameters measured in the field, samples for six additional parameters are collected by volunteers and analyzed at the DEP Central Laboratory in Tallahassee. These parameters include fecal coliform/e.coli/enterococcus bacteria, chlorophyll a, turbidity, color, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus.

Volunteers receive initial classroom training on the importance of estuarine environments and the need for their monitoring results. They learn how the estuaries change according to location and throughout the year. They also receive classroom training on the tested parameters and the techniques used. Every month, volunteers record the data onto data sheets. The data is then entered into a database and transformed into graphs and tables. Graphs and tables give an understandable picture of the water quality of the sites over time. All of the data is uploaded into a federal database that is made available to scientists, state and local government agencies, policymakers and citizen organizations.

Data from this project has determined base level conditions throughout the estuary where little data previously existed. The data is available for uses in resource management, which includes activities such as permitting, recreational decisions, watershed land use, and infrastructure decisions, determining permit compliance as well as determining future monitoring needs. In conjunction with other water and resource monitoring project designs, there is a better understanding of estuarine conditions in the local aquatic preserves.

Charlotte Harbor estuaries and tributaries are generally in good condition with higher levels of nutrients and color associated with summer rain and natural events. Lemon Bay tributaries have naturally lower dissolved oxygen and higher spikes in nutrients than the estuary itself. The data is used to set baseline estuary health conditions, long-term trend analyses and to identify specific areas needing further scientific study or management actions. The data has been used to help identify impaired waterbodies and set nutrient criteria standards. It also has been published in scientific journals, agency reports and is entered into the national STORET water quality data base. It is also available online for viewing or graphing at the Charlotte Harbor Water Atlas.

Seagrass

Seagrass is a submerged habitat that serves as an indicator of estuary health. Seagrasses provide primary food sources as well as shelter, spawning and nursery habitat to a great diversity of aquatic organisms. They also reduce turbidity, facilitate sediment stabilization and aid in nutrient cycling. Seagrass health depends on good water clarity and quality. Changes in water quality, hydrology and salinity directly affect seagrass distribution, abundance, and diversity.

Annual seagrass monitoring was established in 1999 at 50 transect sites throughout the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves to characterize conditions and record trends. Data is collected just after the growing season (August-October), starting from the shoreline to the deep edge of seagrass beds to determine species type, abundance, shoot density, blade lengths, maximum depth, and sediment type. With help from research partners and the use of aerial photography, the seagrass data is examined for changes over time and by aquatic preserve. The results are presented regularly at scientific conferences and have been published in Florida Scientist and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissionʼs Seagrass Integrated Mapping and Monitoring reports.

Overall, seagrasses appear to be relatively healthy and stable throughout the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves, although there had been estuary-specific declines in some years that were associated with natural events like hurricanes and stronger than average rainy seasons. Healthy seagrass beds support fisheries and the local economy, as 80 percent of commercially and recreationally important fish and shellfish depend on seagrass habitat at one point in their life cycle.

FDEP Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves received a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Fishing for Energy grant in September 2019 to remove derelict fishing gear and other debris from four artificial reefs in the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves. A total of 4,262 lbs of debris was removed and turned into energy. Local partners helped make this project a success including the Lee County Volunteer Scientific Research Dive Team that assessed the reefs before and after removal; ScubaQuest provided dive gear; West Coast Inland Navigation District provided match and boat captain; Charlotte County assisted with assessments and removal efforts; Florida Marine Works and Fantasea Watersports sorted, catalogued and removed the debris; Covanta recycled the waste; Pelican Media produced the video. Funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundationʼs Fishing for Energy Program, with support from NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta and Schnitzer Steel.

Learn more in the interactive story map.

The Fishing for Energy grant from the NFWF provides funding to the DEP protection so scuba divers from Florida Marine Works and others can retrieve debris found engulfed within four artificial reefs in the harbor.

Approximately 47,000 wading bird nests were initiated during the year, according to the 2020 South Florida Water Management District Annual South Florida Wading Bird Report. Wading birds, one of the bellwether species used by scientists to gauge the overall health of ecosystems, are studied each year to count the number of nests and determine the success of their nesting activity. 

“This latest reporting year is about an average year for nesting activity. This is expected to happen some years because of climatic conditions. Drier than average conditions for most of the nesting season followed by a large rain event in May created unfavorable conditions for nesting,” said SFWMD Dr. Mark Cook, lead editor of the SFWMD Wading Bird Report. “In past years these conditions could have led to a very poor nesting year but this was average. Things have improved over the past decades because we are improving water management and building additional restoration projects.” This “announcement shows we are moving in the right direction with Everglades restoration.”

The report shows that three of the four wading birds species studied by SFWMD, including the Great Egret, the White Ibis and the Wood Stork, continue to meet their three-year average targets prescribed in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. It also shows that 25percent of all nests found were in coastal areas, a region where scientists have been trying to restore nesting for years. Five to 10 years ago, as little as ten percent of all nests were found in these areas.