Bay County's ecosystem is one of its most valuable assets and it's getting full-time attention these days.
The county's new Sea Grant Program includes several new initiatives this year, all having to do with the water. Fara Ilami is the local agent for the program, which operates through the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension.
Ilami's 2014 action plan includes a focus on artificial reefs. "Artificial reefs bring in fish and so we enhance the fishery by adding more fish that are available for recreational fishing but also for the general ecology of the system," Ilami said.
There are hundreds of artificial reef sites off the Bay County coast and more are planned. This spring, Ilami said, reefs will be deployed at several sites and materials will include the display jets removed from the city marina and Gulf Coast State College.
"Different sizes of reefs and kinds of reefs will attract different populations of fish," Ilami said. "If you diversify, then you'll be able to have an ecosystem where you've got different kinds of fish."
Another priority for the Sea Grant program is controlling the proliferation of the lionfish, a predatory reef fish first observed in the waters off Apalachicola in 2010. The species is not native to the Gulf of Mexico but its population is growing at an alarming rate, Ilami said.
"Two years ago, no one was seeing any lionfish around Bay County waters," Ilami said. "Now, there's tons and tons of sightings."
Ilami said lionfish, which can grow to about 15 inches in length, can consume fish up to two-thirds their body size and have been known to eat up to 20 fish in one hour. That voracious appetite puts desirable species at risk.
"Eating the juveniles of an important species like snapper is going to create a huge dent in our snapper fishing population," Ilami said. "Lots of these fish that are important for our ecosystem are going to be decimated by the lionfish."
The Sea Grant program will assess the lionfish population and work with local divers to keep its numbers under control. "Many studies have shown that with an appropriate amount of control, you can keep the rest of your fish populations from having a large damage in their populations," Ilami said.
Oyster reef restoration is another priority of the program, not for harvest or consumption, but to improve water quality in West Bay. Ilami plans a three year project to establish oyster reefs in the west end of the bay, an area aversely affected by pollutants and toxins.
"We're trying to bring back or at least restore to somewhat of its original level the water quality and sea grasses." Ilami said. "The oyster beds are a way to do that because oysters naturally filter water."
Click here for more information on the Sea Grant program and how you can get involved in championing water quality issues.