When you visit Gainesville’s creeks, it’s easy to hear the chorus of rushing water running past. It’s a relief to breathe in fresh air, feel the crunch of sand under your shoes, and enjoy a moment of serenity away from the city without ever leaving it.
But it’s also easy to spot deep gouges in the creek-bed, gaping wounds left behind by a once-harmless hobby.
Shark tooth and fossil hunting in Gainesville’s creeks has been an old and popular pastime for many of the city’s residents. And many want to share those fond memories of unearthing prehistoric treasures while exploring the city’s creeks. It’s a hobby that even draws in people from out of town.
But as Gainesville’s population grows, and methods of fossil hunting become more sophisticated, Gainesville’s creeks suffer.
“It’s all about finding ways to explore nature without harming it,” said Stacie Greco, water conservation coordinator at the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.
Heavy human activity harms these water systems, and fossil hunting is no exception. The stirred-up sediment and left-behind holes erode the creek-bed, compromise the water quality, threaten the wildlife and impair the overall health of the creek system.
The creeks are also not often safe to enter. The city’s old sewer system runs underneath these waterways and can leak. Stormwater also finds its way into the creek system. As a result, the creeks are loaded with high levels of harmful bacteria.
According to Greco, “You can’t see there’s bacteria in the water. It might look clear and seem like it’s clean. But if you get it in an open wound, you can definitely get sick.”
“People think it’s like a beach,” Greco continued. “It’s not. There are ongoing water quality issues. The GRU does a really good job of keeping the system safe, but mishaps happen.”
Many also don’t know that most of Gainesville’s creeks cut through private property. So it’s not just an issue on the creek’s health, or visitors’ health, but an issue of trespassing.
Forrest Eddleton, Senior Planner at the Environmental Protection Department at Alachua County said, “People have these memories of coming to the creeks and collecting fossils, but they probably were on private property without permission. It’s tricky.”
Eddleton stressed that the best way for people to participate in the hobby was to ‘leave no trace.’
“Get a guide, get permission, and leave the creeks like you found them,” he said.
Both the city and county are working to combat the issue through clear communication and restoration efforts.
“We’re trying to make clear what kinds of recreation is sustainable. What the expectations are when visiting natural spaces,” said Geoffrey Parks, Nature Operations Supervisor at the City of Gainesville’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs Department. “We’re also growing some native plants that we can put back in those areas to try to revegetate and restabilize the harmed creek banks.”
Alachua County has also made efforts to inform people on the hobby’s dangers to their health, to the creek’s health, and have notified private property owners on their rights to the creek.
“It’s a challenging message,” Greco said. “We definitely want people to connect with nature, to enjoy our parks, and to appreciate our water. But it needs to be done in a way that’s sustainable.”