To pair with the rest of our educational content in each Earth to Florida newsletter, we bring you monthly updates on statewide environmental news. Read on below to see what we found for the month of June:
12 Florida Stories to Watch
- Though previously declared eradicated in 1975 and 2021, the invasive giant African land snail is back in the state. The mollusk, which can reach up to eight inches long, was spotted by a Pasco County gardener in June — the first sighting of a live snail since 2017. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services started a pesticide treatment program and placed a quarantine on a portion of the county, prohibiting the movement of lawn material and yard waste in or out of the county. Like most other invasive species, this snail has no natural predators in the area, can reproduce extremely quickly, and has already cost the state millions of dollars in eradication efforts. A potential human health threat, this species can also carry rat lungworm, a parasite that causes meningitis in humans and animals.
- A federal lawsuit was recently filed by conservation groups seeking stronger protections for Florida bonneted bats. The endemic species is threatened by rising sea levels and urban sprawl, and the plaintiffs say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to designate critical habitat for the bats, even though they were listed as endangered in 2013. Areas that are determined as critical habitats require special management and protection plans. The agency did publish a proposed rule in 2020 that would have established the habitat, but it was never finalized.
- Manatee County recently purchased specialized boats that will help county workers remove dead fish from the water more efficiently after a fish kill. During the red tide algae bloom of 2018, workers removed 450,000 pounds of dead fish from the shore. Engineers have also been testing a new machine called the algae harvester which sits on the shore and sucks water in, separates algae, and returns clean water to the original water body. The algae collected could be used to fertilize plants and crops. These technologies could provide help in a state constantly dealing with multiple types of blooms. Large amounts of macroalgae are currently blooming in Tampa Bay, but environmental officials are still working to better understand the impact on Florida’s waters.
- One of the most destructive fruit flies has been discovered in Pinellas County. The oriental fruit fly attacks more than 436 different fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services placed a quarantine on the county, warning nurseries and households in the area to handle produce carefully and restrict the movement of fruits and vegetables within their property. Additionally, insecticide and bait traps will be used to kill existing flies.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved a permit for an offshore aquaculture demonstration project off the coast of Sarasota. The approval comes after the Corps issued a nationwide permit for finfish aquaculture facilities in an effort to keep up with the country’s seafood demand. Several organizations and groups plan to sue the Corps stating that these types of facilities can harm marine life and potentially increase noise and light pollution.
- The newest draft of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Restoration Blueprint would add 1,000 square miles to the protected area, increasing the overall size by 25%. The blueprint also adds new zones for coral nurseries and coral transplant areas.
- During this year’s session, a new state law was passed to clean up per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in Florida waters. Often called “forever chemicals” these highly stable manmade chemicals do not naturally degrade, causing them to accumulate in the environment and in living organisms. Now researchers at Florida International University have found that every oyster they sampled in Biscayne Bay, the Marco Island area, and Tampa Bay was contaminated with the substances. Out of the three areas, oysters in Biscayne Bay contained the highest concentrations of contaminants, which scientists believe are also impacting the oyster’s growth. It’s unknown what the risk to human health might be, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recently issued new health advisories surrounding the chemicals in drinking water.
- In hopes of flushing out excess nutrients and other pollution from the Indian River Lagoon, state lawmakers and the Florida Institute of Technology are looking at a project to create tidal inlets to the water body to help pump in more ocean water. But some fish scientists worry this move could skew the natural balance of the estuary, change the ecology of the lagoon, and negatively impact tarpon and other lagoon-dwelling populations. Scientists with FIT say similar pumping projects have seen success before, and that the project could be one tool in solving this complex puzzle.
- In 2020, Orange County voters approved a charter amendment created to protect the rights of nature. This legal doctrine aims to prevent development and promote ecosystem conservation by granting personhood status to natural resources, like rivers and lakes. The amendment sparked a lawsuit that would have blocked a housing development over wetlands in the area. Recently, a judge dismissed the suit, stating the amendment is preempted by state law. Now environmental groups say they are planning whether to appeal the judge’s decision.
- Despite opposition from environmental groups and residents, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners has approved a new development that would include 10,000 homes, 240 hotel rooms, and many commercial businesses. The proposal also includes plans for 3,287 acres of restoration and conservation. The developer originally bought the former citrus grove to establish a large-scale lime rock mine, which the county denied. The developer sued the county, and to settle, the county has approved what residents are calling “another city at the end of Corkscrew Road.” Environmental groups have voiced concern that the development area sits on top of an important groundwater recharge area. Read more about the back story in this commentary by journalist Craig Pittman.
- A team of researchers led by the University of South Alabama is embarking on an $11.7 million study of greater amberjack fish. According to NOAA Fisheries, the species is overfished despite rebuilding efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, but the population is stable in the South Atlantic. The research team will fit some greater amberjack with acoustic tags that emit signals unique to each fish. These signals are then recorded by underwater listening stations. Other greater amberjack will be fitted with traditional tags. Researchers are asking anglers who catch fish with a traditional tag to call the phone number printed on the tag and return it to the project team along with some recorded data for a reward of $250 per fish. Meanwhile, the FWC plans to ban all fishing within 1,000 feet of three known goliath grouper spawning sites in South Florida from July 15 to October 15 each year.
- The FWC has made changes to the “Vessel Turn-In Program,” which aims to remove boats that have been abandoned or wrecked in state waters. According to the FWC Division of Law Enforcement captain Travis Franklin, these vessels cause harm to wildlife habitats and raise concern for public safety. The program will now pay for the removal and destruction of the watercraft for those who have received three notices within the past 18 months and don’t owe any money on the boats.
The Good News
- Recently, researchers on an expedition near the coast of Elephant Island, northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, found the largest documented gathering of Earth’s second largest creature, the fin whale. According to marine mammal ecologist Helena Herr, the rebound of their population is “a sign that if you enforce management and conservation, there are chances for species to recover.” The fin whale had been hunted to the brink of extinction until whaling was banned in 1982. The species’ resurgence also benefits the marine ecosystem, as the iron they excrete boosts phytoplankton, microscopic organisms at the base of the marine food chain, and brings krill to the water’s surface that can feed other predators.
- The state recently purchased more than 3,600 acres of land in the Florida panhandle that will be part of the state’s wildlife corridor. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the acquisition will help restore a native longleaf pine forest and provide additional habitat for threatened and endangered species like the Florida black bear and the Eastern Indigo snake.
- According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Florida has more solar panels installed by utility companies than any other southern state. NextEra, the company that owns Florida Power and Light, has also unveiled a Real Zero decarbonization plan. If successfully implemented, the plan would cut the company’s emissions by 70% (compared to its 2005 emissions) by 2025 and 100% by 2045.
Things You Can Do
- Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and the Florida Forest Service are accepting applications for a state-funded grant that will provide landowners with incentive payments to establish and protect forest lands. Applicants to the 2022 Sequestering Carbon and Protecting Florida Land Program can request funding for site preparation, seed purchasing and tree planting on a minimum of 20 acres up to 250 acres. The program is in its second year.
Florida Research News
- Researchers from Florida Atlantic University have developed a new multi-sensor tag, giving insight into the day-to-day activity of goliath groupers – one of the top predators in Florida’s offshore reefs. This minimally invasive tag has already allowed the researchers to identify 13 behaviors, 9 of which were classified using machine-learning and deep-learning methods. Tracking the behavior of goliath groupers and other wild species as they encounter different habitat types and human activity will allow for more informed management decisions in the future.
- A University of Florida professor and student recently discovered that southeast pocket gophers are underground farmers. They create underground tunnels where roots flourish, fertilized by the gophers’ waste. These root crops are the rodents’ main food source, providing an average of 20% of their daily energy needs.
- With sensors attached to their cars, community scientists in Jacksonville are helping develop a heat map of the city as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Urban Heat Mapping Campaign. The NOAA project, which started five years ago, aims to provide cities with data that can help them be more resilient in a warmer climate. This year, Jacksonville is the first and one of the biggest cities participating, and the map is set to be complete by September. Since the start of the program, other Florida cities that have been mapped include West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
- A team of researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University, the University of Switzerland and the World Health Organization is developing an app to help people quickly identify snakes and whether they are venomous. Once the app is live, scientists hope that it can help decrease the number of deaths and severe injuries caused by snake bites, especially in a place like Florida.
- UF/IFAS plans to conduct research that will inform updates to best management practices for crop fertilization to help limit environmental nutrient loss. The overhaul is needed due to advancements in crop production. Researchers will initially study five priority crops; tomatoes, potatoes, citrus, grain corn and beans. The project is expected to take two to three years to complete.
- Brought to Florida by the exotic pet trade, the number of tegus, a lizard native to South America, has been increasing in the Everglades National Park since its first appearance in 2017. In the wild, these invasive lizards can grow up to four feet long and feast on native species’ eggs before they hatch. A tegu trapping team comprised of park staff and graduate researchers is currently working to trap, retrieve, and study tegus in Everglades National Park before they can damage the ecosystem. In an ecosystem already threatened by invasive plants, pythons, and human behavior, controlling the tegu population could be critical for preserving the Everglades.
- President Joe Biden’s new program for offshore drilling would ban the practice off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but leave parts of the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Alaska open for new drilling. The U.S. Department of the Interior is considering 11 drilling auctions, but the plan has not yet been finalized.
- As the summer season continues, multiple wildfires have erupted in Nevada due to record-breaking temperatures. Average temperatures in Reno have risen by 10 degrees since the 1970s, making it the fastest warming city in the country. Nevada is one of many states experiencing wildfires due to the high summer temperatures. Along with wildfires, there have been severe droughts and heat-related medical emergencies around the country. The elderly, young, and low-income residents are among the most impacted groups. Based on research from federal agencies, temperatures are projected to continue to rise, and residents are urged to prepare for abnormal weather for the rest of summer.
- Since 1990, the United States has caused over $1.91 trillion in damage to other countries through its greenhouse gas emissions, according to an analysis by researchers at Dartmouth College. The analysis found that the U.S., China, Russia, India and Brazil are responsible for an 11% decrease in the annual global gross domestic product, since 1990. The scientists say while most of the economic repercussions stem from richer nations in northern latitudes, they are disproportionately felt in poorer countries located in the tropics and low-lying Pacific islands. Researchers are hopeful that the results of this study will pivot towards accountability on a global scale.
- A report by environmental groups found that 10 commercial logging projects in old-growth forests on federal lands are expected to continue this year despite an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Earth Day. Old-growth forests are home to large, old trees, usually at least 150 years old, that are undisturbed by humans. These forests serve as important carbon sinks and scientists say they are an important tool in the fight against climate change. But, the definition of what constitutes an old-growth forest has been under debate for some time.
- In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling that limits the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions that fuel climate change. Now, the EPA and the Biden administration are developing other regulatory methods to curb emissions. Energy experts say utility companies are steadily moving away from coal anyway, which may serve as a buffer to the decision. Two weeks after the court ruling, talks surrounding the nation’s response to climate change seem to have come to a halt.
The More You Know
- A team from the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) is using the genome editing tool CRISPR to create new crop varieties that will funnel more carbon into the soil than other plant life. There is still a lot of research and testing to be done, but scientists are hopeful that their efforts will be met with success.
- The U.S. Geological Survey led a study of 166 U.S. estuaries to evaluate how rapid sea level rise will impact the landward migration of coastal wetlands in the coming decades. Saltwater is expected to encroach on freshwater wetlands, croplands, forests, pastures, and grasslands. Researchers hope that these findings will help decision-makers to take actions that will help to preserve coastal ecosystems.