Central Panhandle Aquatic Preserves manages the non-regulatory “Caution Shallow Seagrass Area” buoys in St. Joseph Bay. The purpose of the buoy system is to make it easier for boaters to remain in the natural deep-water channels, and therefore reduce the risk of damage to the seagrass.

The buoy system has been in place for over a year, and many boaters are using the buoys to navigate the southern end of St. Joseph Bay.

This project is the first phase of a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Seagrass Recovery Project that aims to restore two acres of seagrass in St. Joseph Bay.

Seagrass communities are considered to be the most productive ecosystems in the world. They are a vital component of Florida’s coastal ecology and economy. Seagrass habitat is an integral part of the St. Joseph Bay system and an important natural resource that performs a number of significant functions.

Seagrasses provide nurseries, nutrition and shelter for a wide variety of commercial and recreational fish and invertebrate species; they provide critical habitat for animals such as wading birds, manatees and sea turtles; and their extensive root systems stabilize sediments on the bay bottom, helping to improve water quality and clarity which in turn, keeps the bay healthy.

The health and status of many commercially and recreationally important seafood species such as shrimp, crabs, scallops, redfish, trout and mullet is directly proportional to the health and acreage of seagrass habitat.

One of the main threats to seagrass beds is propeller scarring from motorized boats. Prop scarring occurs in shallow water when a boat’s propeller tears and cuts up seagrass roots, stems and leaves, leaving a long, narrow furrow devoid of seagrasses.

This damage can take 8 to 10 years to repair, and with severe scarring, these areas may never completely recover.

Recovery time is different for each species and depends on the type of growth of each species, the degree of damage, water quality conditions, and sediment characteristics. The amount of destruction, depends on water depth and the size, speed, and path of the vessel. Some vessels create scars in areas at low tide that would not do so at high tides.

In order to reduce the risk of creating prop scars in the seagrass areas of southern portion of St. Joseph Bay, boaters can simply follow the numbered buoys to their destination, keeping in mind that they may have to double back to stay in the deep water channel.

Two “fringe” buoys are located on either side of the channel in some areas to further aid boaters to stay within the channel.

Three kiosks with a map of the buoy system, as well as information about seagrass, have been installed at three local boat ramps. A “Boating and Angling Guide to Gulf County” has been designed through a partnership with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the buoy system, with coordinates, is included on the map portion of the guide; the public can obtain the boaters guides at the kiosks or the Gulf County TDC.

Informational brochures with a map of the buoy system will be available soon and will be distributed to local marinas and outdoor recreation vendors, as well as the Gulf County TDC.

For any questions about the buoy system, please contact Jonathan Brucker, Central Panhandle Aquatic Preserves manager, at (850) 670-7723 or Jonathan.Brucker@dep.state.fl.us.