Woody Miley, Director, Apalachicola National Marine Estuary (talking with reporter Joshua Azriel)
I’m with Woody Miley of the Apalachicola National Marine Estuary. Now are you the director? Yes.
How many years have you been the director? 18 years.
Are you from this area? um, not originally. I’ve had this job, um the program was established in 1979 and I was hired as first staff in 1981.
Where are you originally from? I was born in Mississippi. I came here from the University of Florida.
Okay, my first question to you is more of a general question. What makes the Apalachicola River so special compared to other rivers in Florida? The Apalachicola system the river and bay is an absolute miracle system. It is intact, the flood plain is intact, the marsh is intact, it has unimpeded flow as it leaves the Georgia-Florida line; the bay is shallow; the positioning of the barrier islands are perfect for the incorporation of the nutrient laden fresh water coming down the river so the nutrients are incorporated into the estuary food web. So physically and geographically this system is perfect for estuary and riverine productivity.
Take me through how the river is connected to the estuary which is connected to the bay. Well, an estuary by definition is nothing more than when fresh water and salt water meet and mix. But in order to be a productive system you have to include all the other habitats as a functional system. So from a functional standpoint the Apalachicola estuarine system starts about 80 miles north of Atlanta in the foothills of the Blueridge mountains at the head waters the Chattahootchee. Then as it comes down here everything interacts and everything works as a dynamic functional system.
Can you explain to me the range of marine life that one encounters in the Apalachicola? Um, the marine life... An estuary is an exceptionally productive area with high species diversity; with a lot of different critters. However, true estuarine species are fairly rare. The largest component of animals within an estuarine system are marine animals that can stand a little bit of fresh water. The second largest component are fresh water animals that can stand a little bit of salt water, and by far the smallest component as far as number of species, are true estuarine species. There are a few fish here that are a true estuarine species, and oysters are a true estuarine species. Everything else just spends portions of there lifecycles or portions seasonally here.
Well, obviously the Apalachicola is famous for its oysters. What other sea life is there besides oysters that is perhaps unknown? Well, not unknown. um oysters, we claim Apalachicola as the oyster capital of the world and it is certainly justifiable but shrimping here economically, is more important than the oyster industry, although it employs fewer people so its really hard to say who’s king. But our shrimping industry here is very very healthy and very very productive and lucrative. We also have a blue crab industry here and a fen fish industry. Economically, they are dwarfed by the shrimping industry but they are still very important to the local economy.
Talk to me about the range of plant life that one might find in the estuary. In the estuarine system, um ...in the Apalachicola drainage we have documented over 13-hundred species of higher plants . 107 of those are listed as federally or state threatened or endangered species, and just a few years ago a new species was identified here; the Apalachicola daisy. In today’s world in a modern country when you can identify a new species that you don’t have to look at under an electron microscope, it tells you something about the pristine natural conditions of the area.
How did you all discover the Apalachicola daisy? Through research done by Florida State University and doctor Lauren Anderson was contracted to do a vascular plant survey in the Apalachicola in the research reserve and he discovered this new species during his studies.
I understand that, and please correct me if I’m wrong but, the tupelo honey is grown along the river itself or some of the estuaries? Along the river into the upper estuaries and all of the tributaries and distributaries of this system, the lower Apalachicola river mostly contained within the Apalachicola research reserve has the largest natural stand of tupelo in the world and is roughly a half million dollar a year industry within state boundaries for bee keepers to maintain and they do a lease with the state and work the tupelo season.
What is it about the ecosystem that makes the tupelo honey so special? Well its the species of tree and the grade of honey that comes from it but the Apalachicola flood plain is perfect for the growth of tupelo trees and it is a major constituent in the plant species along the river and it makes a light very very high quality honey
What kind of trees grow where the honey is produced? In with the tupelo? Yeah. The tupelo is one of the flood plain hardwood you’ll also find Cyprus, bay, there are two species of tupelo in there, the ogeechee tupelo, and the water tupelo, uh a lot of bays some magnolias sable palms both the sable palm and the dwarf sable palm uh, a lot of uh, saw palmetto. The species diversity in the Apalachicola flood plain is very high including tree species.
Is it more diverse than any other system in Florida? Uh, yes it is more than any other in Florida and with some groups of animals it is more impressive than that. For example, we have the highest species density of amphibians and reptiles in all of North America north of Mexico.
Can you give me a rough comparison versus like Louisiana, Mississippi... As far as species diversity...uh. Species diversity here for amphibians and reptiles exceeds that of any place in North America north of Mexico. We are as productive from an estuarine harvest standpoint as anywhere else. In fact, Apalachicola estuary is one of, if not the most productive estuarine systems in the northern hemisphere based on a production per acre basis. We’re even more productive than the Chesapeake although that wasn’t always true.
Now take me through how the Gulf of Mexico as a body is affected by what goes on through the bay and estuaries and river. That’s an excellent question. The bay, the estuary is a nursery ground for offshore gulf of Mexico species. A very important nursery area, spawning area. 42 percent of all seafood harvested in U.S. waters comes from the Gulf of Mexico, that’s more than either the Atlantic or the Pacific. And within the Gulf 95 percent of all species harvested commercially and 85 percent of all species harvested recreationally have to spend a portion of their life cycle in an estuarine system. Blue crabs, for example, migrate as much as 300 miles to spawn in Apalachicola bay. They send their larval and juvenile stages in our marshes and then they scatter out all over the Gulf. So do shrimp and so do fen fish. So the productivity of the Gulf of Mexico is almost totally dependent on coastal productivity, estuarine productivity and Apalachicola is among the best.
Can you give some examples of the different types of marine life that one would find in salt water down here as opposed to fresh water? Uh sure, the fish are the most notable species. You’ve got grouper, snapper, flounder, sharks, amberjack, dolphin, that are all marine species, although some of those, the grouper and snapper, some species of grouper and snapper spend their larval and juvenile stages in the estuarine system. Some are offshore. Freshwater; bass, brim, catfish are all freshwater species and then there are some that do a little bit of both. The anadromous species, the sturgeon and striped bass are two noticeable ones, move in from the open gulf way up the river into the smaller creeks and spawn, or at least they did before the dams were placed on this system and uh, a long time ago Apalachicola had a caviar industry, because the sturgeon was such a plentiful fish but now their spawning grounds are blocked by these dams so not only did we lose a caviar industry we have a highly endangered species with the sturgeon in this system.
How big was the caviar industry here? I don’t remember the numbers of it but is was a commercially viable industry here.
How long ago was it? uh, late 1800’s early 1900’s.
What are the differences in the plant life one would find down the river? Plant life changes rapidly as you come down this river. As you’re coming down through the flood plain it will change with the elevation of the ground and a 6-inch elevation can change the species composition. Then as you get on down the river the less salt tolerant species drop out and the more salt tolerant species are still here, but even the ones that are still here, their growth is retarded by salt influence and uh, the live oak is probably a good example. There are live oaks here that you could almost reach around with both hands that are as old as some of the patriarch oaks in the interior but it’s the same species
The river, fresh water right? Yes. Okay, the river is fresh water then the bay right here. What is that salt? Brackish. Brackish? A mixture. An estuary is where fresh water and salt water meet and mix so a bay is a type of estuary, so the salinity in an estuary and a bay fluctuates depending on how much fresh water is coming down the river or how much salt water is coming in from the Gulf. It also depends on the direction and velocity of the wind because that’s what mixes the fresh water and the salt water. So the salinity in an estuary fluctuates greatly while the salinity in a fresh water system is zero; the salinity in open water gulf is 35 parts per thousand and it can range anywhere in-between in an estuary.
So the water that we see right now, that’s a mixture? That’s correct. Okay then we get out to the Gulf, its salt? Right.
Okay now lets change subject a little bit and talk about some environmental impacts to Apalachicola. One of the things I have learned since undertaking this project is that there’s a lot of pollution going on up in Georgia that a lot of people are concerned about down here especially in the Chattahootchee and Atlanta is a growing city and there’s a lot of dumping going on…. What is the potential environmental harm that can come to the Apalachicola down here in Florida? Because a lot of people might think well, we’re here in Florida, Atlanta’s so far to the north, what would the two have to do with one another? From a water quality standpoint, Atlanta doesn’t have much of an effect on us at this point in time although it is a future consideration for us. The reservoirs that are in Georgia act a sump, the pollution basically stays in the reservoir system and once it gets into Florida our flood plains and our marshes are relatively intact they filter pollution that would otherwise end up in our bay. The potential problem for Apalachicola bay relatively to upstream water usage is water quantity. That’s the discussion that’s going on now between Florida, Georgia and Alabama, the Corps of engineers the tri-state compact the water allocation. So our more immediate problem is losing amounts of fresh water, decreasing the quantity and decreasing the timing of the water. This system has evolved over at least 10-thousand years the way it is now and to change the amount of fresh water coming in or to change the timing, the seasonal changing of the fresh water would have adverse impacts on Apalachicola Bay.
I’m still learning about the tri-state agreement as I go along. As it is right now, how much fresh water under the agreement will be allocated to Florida as opposed to Alabama and Georgia? That is the charge of the tri-state compact. All the user groups have until December 31, 1999 to come up with their version of a fresh water allocation for each of the user groups in the system. These numbers are still being generated by all the user groups and then sometime before the end of this year the negotiations will take place and hopefully there will be some type of equitable allocation of this finite resource.
Were you involved in any of the negotiations? We’re involved here from a technical support standpoint and on advisory subcommittees and generating some of the data that’s used in the negotiations.
Do you work with any environmental agencies in either Alabama and Georgia and if you do what kind of information exchange goes on? Most of that information exchange is done by the compact members themselves, although we certainly have conferences and meetings and discussions and we work with some of the groups in Alabama, but not really the negotiations, that’s done by the compact.
It sounds like you essentially supply the technical information to those who are on the committees of negotiation. Would that be right? Yes, our research staff members here are on committees that uh advise and supply information to the decision makers.
As someone who has worked on this river for now 18 years what is the number one potential threat to the river and estuary and the Gulf? The number one potential threat is changing the fresh water flow into this system. Uh, we have always known that and there hasn’t been a whole lot of data in the scientific literature, but with the demise of the soviet union and our access to their scientific literature and their scientists, they have done years and years of work on the effects of changing the fresh water flow into systems and uh, the Aerial Sea lost a 1.2 billion dollar a year seafood industry. Same horror story for the Azov the Caspian the vast Vulga delta and the number one culprit in their research was changing the fresh water flow into those systems.
And if the fresh water inflow changes then I assume the chain effect would be uh, the fishing industry can go down; is that correct? Yes and that is a major concern but certainly it’s not the only concern, the flood plain plants and animals are a concern for Florida. Here we talk more about the seafood industry but it is not the only concern in fresh water allocation on this system. But it would greatly effect, it certainly has the potential to greatly effect the seafood industry. In particular things like oysters, uh, the fresh water that comes down maintains a salinity gradient within livable parameters. But if we lose fresh water and the bay goes more salty, then all the parasites predators and diseases in the Gulf move in and devastate the oyster bars. With the exception of Blue Crabs, all parasites, predators and diseases of oysters require high salinity. So if we lose that fresh water inflow, the ameliorated effect of the fresh water on the salinity, we have a problem at low flow and we have to have the peak flows, we have to flood the main food source the main energy source of Apalachicola bay is the leaf litter that falls on the river swamp. That’s the gasoline that runs the engine in the bay. So without peak floods we lose the transport mechanism that brings those nutrients to the bay and its called the tridus, that main energy source here is called the tridal food web. So if we don’t flood we lose that main transport mechanism if we lose water at low flow then we lose the salinity balance in the bay.
If I’m to understand this correctly then, the leaves from the trees, when they fall into the bay they act as nutrients for the fish? But they fall on the flood plain floor in the swamp and then the flood waters take them into the river into the bay and then they go through, they’re consumed by bacteria, something bigger eats that, something bigger eats that and standing at the top of this ‘something bigger’ scenario is humans. But the product isn’t going to be there if we don’t pay attention to the functional relationship between upstream and downstream.
Switch to another topic for a few minutes. Talk about the development in Franklin County around the river and the estuaries. Now St. George’s Island in recent years has seen an influx of beach houses and condominiums built there. From what I understand they’re all on septic tanks. Is there an environmental consequence to the bay from all this development in one spot that’s so concentrated? Our biggest water quality threat, is a local threat. However, Franklin county has a very good comprehensive land use plan and we have density restrictions so especially on a relative scale we’re doing great. On St. George’s island septic tanks are no longer legal. You have to use aerobic systems which are much more environmentally friendly and even if you have a septic tank if it fails you can’t replace it, you have to put in an aerobic system. So steps are being taken although from a water quality standpoint, the threat is local.
What is the difference between a septic tank and an aerobic tank? A septic tank is just a holding facility that releases lots of bacteria, lots of nutrients. An aerobic system pumps oxygen into the system, stirs it, actually burns some of it and releases less in the way of pollutants (Okay) considerably less in the way of pollutants.
And therefore if less pollutants are released, the bay is not quite in danger right? Yes, the bay needs some nutrient enrichment. So what happens if you get too much of a good thing then you go into algae blooms, you get no light penetration, you lose your sea grasses and you’ve got so much pollution there that even if the oysters grow they are unfit for human consumption. So its too much of a good thing is what we’re looking at.
Are there other development areas along the Apalachicola river that are under consideration that could pose a threat to the river system? Very little, there’s’ very little industry, very little development right on the Apalachicola. most of the flood plain is intact and a considerable portion of the flood plain is in public ownership.
To the best of your knowledge how much of the land in Franklin County is either state or federally owned? Uh, the land in Franklin county...just a guesstimate, maybe forty percent of the land but now, when we talk about land we’re not necessarily talking high, dry buildable land. Uh, for example a portion of the flood plain that is owned by the state and federal government is annual flood plain that means it floods every year its not a place that should be available for development any3ay and a lot of the other lands that have been bought are marshes. Which, if you looked at how much developable land in Franklin county that percentage would be much much lower.
The land surrounding the river in general, how much of that is under environmental, protection by either the state or the federal government? Uh, there is an active acquisition program going here and within the flood plain ...uh within the flood plain at present...uh, there’s at least 100-thousand acres of flood plain that is protected by being public lands. State of Florida owned? Uh, collectively state owned, yes.
How much of the land around the bay and the river has potential to be developed versus that which is automatically protected, you know, by the government? Uh, the numbers I gave you are just a guesstimate on my part. I can certainly come up with those numbers or you might ask...okay...I don’t know those numbers.
All right, to conclude here, is there anything in general you’d like the listener to know about the Apalachicola river system that I didn’t ask you but that you feel is important for them to know? Well, yeah, this is their resource too. This is a regional resource it’s going to take all three states and if we’re gong to manage this system in a way that all the user groups can continue to use it and everyone needs to realize that a fish fillet does not originate at Publix. If they want to eat fresh seafood then we’re going to have to maintain these systems in some type of productive condition or we’re going to lose a major resource.