UF IFAS Work In The Nature Coast
UF/IFAS has a long history research, teaching and extension programs in the Nature Coast region, along with an extensive track record of working with agency cooperators to improve the conservation and management of natural resources and communities in the region. These previous efforts have built a foundation on which the Nature Coast Biological Station will further develop the UF/IFAS mission of research, teaching, and extension in the region.
When Florida enacted a ban on gillnet fishing in state waters in 1994, it put hundreds of commercial fishers out of work. Using Job Training Partnership Act funding, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and UF/IFAS developed the technology and retrained these workers to culture hard clams. Today, the hard clam aquaculture industry is valued at $40 million annually and employs over 500 people in Cedar Key alone. UF/IFAS research and extension programs developed this program into a primary economic engine for communities in the Nature Coast. See http://shellfish.ifas.ufl.edu for background and up-to-date information on this valuable industry.
In 1997, UF/IFAS led a symposium and proceedings for the “Florida Big Bend Coastal Research Workshop”, held in Steinhatchee, Florida. Through a partnership with Florida Sea Grant, this workshop highlighted the unique physical and biological components of the region and described a need for ecosystem-level management to protect the pristine resources and enhance their value to the communities. This report included a comprehensive assessment of natural resources in the region and focused on processes influencing rivers, wetlands, estuaries, and reef habitats. The seminal workshop coalesced a diverse group of state and federal agency partners to identify key natural resource needs for the future. In many ways, this workshop was a precursor to the current NCBS and its mission.
Project Coast, a water quality sampling program along the Nature Coast, was initiated in 1997 by IFAS faculty in the Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences program. Since that time, water quality data have been collected monthly at nearly 100 sampling stations between Hernando and Taylor counties. This long-term baseline data combined with targeted diagnostic studies and research can guide the design of cost-effective monitoring that continually evaluates and adapts management actions to ensure healthy coastal systems that deliver value to citizens in the region.
UF/IFAS has worked with USGS on Gulf Sturgeon ecology and conservation over the past 25 years. Researchers from both groups have conducted extensive mark-recapture data and obtained population estimates for Gulf sturgeon, as well has developed reproduction and culture techniques. Gulf sturgeon can reach over six feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Today, the USGS scientists continue their work in monitoring the Gulf sturgeon in the Suwannee River, which contains the largest population of this giant fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
In September of 1997, the Senator George Kirkpatrick Marine Laboratory opened in Cedar Key. This lab houses FWC’s Division of Marine Fisheries FWC/FWRI, crustacean biologists (stone crab and blue crab work), and FWC/FWRI Fisheries Dependent Monitoring (FDM) staff. Their program has collected extensive data on estuarine fish and habitat quality in the region over the past 18 years. The lab also houses staff from UF/IFAS and from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS).
In 1991-1993 UF/IFAS faculty developed the Suwannee Regional Reef System and in 2011-2012 developed the Steinhatchee Fisheries Management Areas. These extensive experimental reef systems have allowed faculty and students to explore how the landscape of reef habitat quality influences reef fishes and the highly valuable grouper fisheries. These unique reef systems were constructed in cooperation with counties of the Nature Coast (Levy, Dixie, Taylor) and in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Beginning in 2009, UF/IFAS researchers began evaluating trends in oyster reef abundance in the region. Their work in collaboration with agency partners quantified the loss of oyster reefs in the region and postulated how oyster reefs provide ecosystem services by retaining fresh water in the estuary. Their ongoing research seeks to identify restoration methods for oyster reefs. Their research efforts included partners from the public who helped with logistical support and sampling.
UF/IFAS researchers have conducted numerous other projects in the region addressing wildlife (birds, mammals, sea turtles), seagrass ecology, shellfish, and fishery resources in the Nature Coast.
Our history shows that UF/IFAS has strong collaborations with state and federal agencies that have improved the conservation and management of natural resources in the region. The Nature Coast Biological Station will serve as a catalyst for even stronger programs and partnerships in the future.
In 2015 UF/IFAS constructed the NCBS facility, and wet lab and class space are also under construction. This new facility provides modern laboratory and classroom facilities for research, teaching, and public outreach. As of 2019 construction is still underway, but the lab is operational with a public education area, a wet lab for research, and offices/conference room for researchers and visiting faculty and students.