Tolomato River, Florida

During the past two years, both SARP and ACFHP have supported marsh restoration/living shoreline projects on the Tolomato River in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR). These adjacent projects are located on the southern portion of the Guana Peninsula and are helping to create a contiguous swath of restored marsh that is improving and enhancing fish habitat, preventing shoreline erosion, and fostering opportunities for community stewardship and involvement that will provide benefits for years to come. They are also helping to address national conservation goals, regional habitat priorities and coast wide conservation objectives identified by SARP and ACFP, and that are found in the Southeast Aquatic Habitat Plan (SAHP).

The near shore of the Guana Peninsula along the Tolomato River in northeast Florida has provided welcoming habitat for the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, over the centuries as documented through findings of large oyster shell middens from pre-Columbia occupation of the area, and from historical record up through the late 20th century. In recent years the frequency and density of oyster reefs in the area have dwindled significantly. As in many coastal and estuarine areas, the impacts of over-harvesting, the expansion of human occupancy near the waterways, water pollution, increasing wave action as a result of river traffic and channel dredging along the Intracoastal Waterway, climate change and sea level rise have reduced the habitat compatibility for these important shellfish and associated species.

The Guana Peninsula and the adjacent Tolomato River are within the boundaries of the Guana Tolomato and Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR) and the Guana River Marsh Aquatic Preserve. The GTMNERR currently includes more than 73,000 acres of estuarine, marsh, upland and open sea environments which are owned or managed by several public and private entities. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas, manages approximately 12,000 acres in the northern component of the reserve, which includes the GTMNERR Environmental Education Center and staff offices, an extensive area of coastal scrub, beach habitats and the middle and southern portions of the Guana Peninsula.

The disappearance of oyster reef along the southern portion of the Guana Peninsula has created a domino effect of environmental destruction, with the elimination of the reefs contributing to the breakdown of the Spartina alterniflora salt marsh, and the disappearance of spartina allowing shoreline erosion to eat away at the upland habitat as well.

The GTMNERR project sites selected include declining saltmarsh, which is located inland from the reef placement site, and was included in the Spartina planting in this project for marsh restoration.

The responsible management of the reserve’s diverse habitats, plants and animals is a primary role of the GTMNERR, including restoration and conservation of habitat to support the reserve’s resident plants and animals which include more than 1,300 species. Of these species, eight plants and 48 animal species have been listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern. Included in the fragile species found in the GTMNERR estuaries, which could benefit from the restoration of oyster reef nursery habitat, are Shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum - endangered), Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus – candidate for listing), and the Opossum pipefish (Micropphis brachyurus – species of concern) among others.

Project Description:
Specifically, the goals of the SARP/NOAA CRP funded project were to:

1) Restore shellfish habitat to sustain and improve ecological benefits and ecosystem services;
2) Improve habitat hydrology and riparian areas of estuarine and inshore habitats to benefit threatened and endangered marine species or species of concern associated with the watershed;
3) Establish an oyster recycling program for the GTMNERR region;
4) Provide educational and community service opportunity for St. Johns Technical High School Students.

The SARP project successfully resulted in the construction of .071 acres of oyster reef, 1.8 acres of restored salt marsh, and 1.16 acres of enhanced benthic habitat. The project also fostered the development of a successful oyster recycling program and St. John’s County that has reclaimed a total of 106,463.57 lbs from participating restaurants and an impressive additional 19,550.80 lbs from other local donations, a grand total of 126,014.37 lbs of oyster shell. Through the work and dedication of many, this reclaimed shell is saved from our county landfill, was used to build and restore shoreline within the Reserve, and is now the source for more research and providing material for upcoming restoration efforts.
The ACFHP project successfully restored more than 1,000 linear feet of eroding shoreline with the construction of a living shoreline (using oyster shell reefs and coir fiber logs with ribbed mussels). These were constructed separately so as to be able to examine their relative effectiveness on erosion reduction, sediment capture and enhancement of success of Spartina plantings, marsh accretion, fish and invertebrate habitat usage by researchers and volunteers.

Project Benefits/Outcomes:
There have been numerous positive project benefits and outcomes. The Tolomato River (Intracoastal Waterway) on the Guana Peninsula in northeast Florida was once home to oyster reefs, important habitat for a number of resident and transient finfish species and emergent vegetation such as Spartina alterniflora that provided valuable feeding habitat to juvenile fishes and improved water quality. Over time, however, the area has been impacted by over harvesting, expanded human occupancy near the waterway, increased water pollution and wave action from river boat traffic and channel dredging, climate change, and sea level rise. The resulting disappearance of oyster reef and Spartina salt marsh has reduced habitat for important fish and associated species. The completed SARP and the ACFHP project that is underway will reduce shoreline erosion and restore and preserve damaged salt marsh. In the case of the SARP/NOAA CRP funded project, monitoring is showing that there has been a positive trend in both the abundance of animals and species richness at the project site over time.

The level of community involvement through the participation of volunteers on the project has been outstanding. For the SARP/NOAA CRP project, this has included the participation of 489 volunteers (3,238 hours) doing the on-the-ground restoration, outreach and education in the classroom with St. John’s Technical High School students (estimated at 930 hours) and restaurant staff (3,097 hours).

The SARP/NOAA CRP funded project was initiated in February 2012 and completed January 2014. Project monitoring and the oyster shell recycling program are ongoing. The ACFHP/USFWS funded project began in September 2013 and the living shoreline is mid-construction.

SARP/NOAA CRP Project - Friends of the GTM Reserve, GTMNERR, St. Johns County School District/St. Johns County Technical High School, SARP, NOAA
ACFHP/NFHP/USFWS Project - Friends of the GTM Reserve, GTMNERR, University of North Florida, ACFHP, US Fish & Wildlife Service

2014 Waters to Watch