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Ongoing Shellfish Work at the New Crystal River Field Lab

Oysters, stone crabs, blue crab, and bay scallops – are important both ecologically and economically in the Big Bend region. The remoteness and expanse of the region make it difficult and costly to perform research and monitoring activities on a regular basis due to the distance from labs in Gainesville and St. Petersburg.  This results in extended travel to haul boats and gear to field sites, thus reducing field time. A decision was made to find a location in the region as a base of operations. We engaged with the Law Enforcement’s Crystal River Field Office to learn about the area and possible locations. This local insight and help making connections in a small community facilitated the effort, and in 2021 the Crystal River Field Lab (CRFL) became operational. 

The CRFL is located on the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve in Yankeetown, Florida.  This facility was underutilized by the Town and in need of regular occupation. The opportunity was a win for both the Town and the FWRI Shellfish group’s operations. Additionally, the relationship developed with the local Law Enforcement facilitated the understanding of operational resources in the community and shortened the learning curve of navigation in a challenging and dynamic coastal ecosystem where vessel operations take a high level of skill to be performed safely. While oyster surveys were the main driver of the move to a regional field lab, this provided and additional opportunity for other shellfish projects with work in the area to benefit from this base of operations. From this location, FWRI Shellfish research and monitoring activities are facilitated for oysters, scallops, stone crab and blue crab in coastal Dixie, Levy, and Citrus counties.

The shellfish research and monitoring activities in the Big Bend occur across a broad range of habitat. Oyster projects are conducted primarily in uncharted shallow and rocky estuaries, bay scallop work occurs in seagrass beds that extend far offshore in State waters, while stone crab operations occur in state and federal waters, up to 15 miles offshore. Below are the project specific focuses of the research and monitoring in the region.


(Crassostrea virginica)

Low view of a shoreline covered in oyster shells with mangrove roots and trees in the background.

The Suwannee Sound region is severely data poor concerning oyster resources. The fishery collapse and declaration of a federal fishery disaster for Apalachicola Bay in 2012 and closure in 2020, forced fishing pressure to increase in the Big Bend region. An abundance of concern that oyster reefs in the Suwannee Sound region could become overfished necessitated that work commence to understand the status of this resource. Funding from the Deepwater Horizon settlement through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Florida Trustee Implementation Group allowed this work to commence in 2021. The oyster research and monitoring, conducted at the CRFL,  is designed to fill the large data gaps in population status, fishery impacts, population demographics and mapping. Filling these data gaps and the development of resources such as updated maps, a Habitat Suitability Index, and Shell Budget Models we help to inform assessments and provide management advice on the condition of the resource. Additionally, this detailed understanding will facilitate our future large scale ($7.5 million) restoration project in Suwannee Sound.

Oysters are a unique organism that creates habitat in estuaries and provide a litany of ecosystem services. As such, one FWC group alone cannot survey all the aspects of oysters. Within FWC there are three groups that directly work with oysters, the other two are FWRI Ecosystem Assessment Restoration - Coastal Wetlands group and FWC Habitat and Species Conservation. This necessitates collaboration and coordination among FWC groups, so the products developed are useful across the agency and for outside organizations. Therefore, much of the information and products generated here will be made available through the Oyster Integrated Monitoring and Mapping Program.

Bay Scallops
(Argopecten irradians)

Close view of a bay scallop underwater showing numerous blue eyes.

Bay Scallops have a core population in the Big Bend region and sampling efforts are focused on better understanding of population dynamics in the region. A recently completed portion of the bay scallop project was designed to determine if a trawl survey could replace the labor-intensive diver-transect surveys that the FWRI Shellfish group has used in the past to monitor scallop populations. Currently, staff at the Crystal River Field Lab are using a new trawling protocol to provide an estimate of spawning stock biomass remaining after the recreational scallop season. Replacing diver surveys with a trawl will save time and money for the researchers and FWC. The bay scallop project works with Florida Sea Grant agents in the region and county biologists to provide outreach to the public and train those staff to preform ramp intercept surveys so the county can have more information about participation in the fishery and subsequent economic impacts on the region.

Stone Crab
(Menippe mercenaria)

stone crab on a boat deck

Around 20% of the commercial landings for stone crab occur in the Big Bend region. The expansion of the stone crab fishery out of south and central Florida and into the Big Bend region began in earnest in the early 2000’s. Funds derived from commercial license fees were used to establish stone crab Fisheries Independent Monitoring locations in this region beginning in 2005. The Stone Crab Fisheries Independent Monitoring (SCFIM) group maintains three trap lines in the region. From these trap lines the group can generate population and abundance trends that are useful in assessing the stock. Since this work began, the region has seen a change in commercial exploitation from small operations with a few hundred traps to larger operations with trap numbers in a single operation easily exceed 10,000. The SCFIM monitoring helps us to understand the population dynamics of stone crab in this region and the impact of this fishing pressure on the resource. Additionally, working locally and interacting with the commercial fishermen has allowed us to get to know the fishery and how it operates resulting in regular invitations to sample from fishing operations. These relationships are invaluable to the flow of information that allows the project to pivot and address emerging issues or trends in a timely manner.

Blue Crab
(Callinectes sapidus)

blue crab on a ruler

Blue crab fishing in the Big Bend region is big business. Landings from this region are the second largest in the state. Catch comes from both local crabbers that stay within the region and outside fishers that move tens of thousands of traps hundreds of miles into the fishery during times of high productivity. However, very little is known about the fishery operations or fine scale population dynamics of the blue crab in the region. One objective of the FWRI blue crab research project, funded by the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Management Act grant funding through NOAA, is to spend five years in each of the four main blue crab fisheries to profile the resource and fisheries by collecting Fisheries Independent and Fisheries Dependent data. This work is intended to better inform the regional assessment and management of these fisheries. FWRI’s work to profile of the St John’s fishery ends in 2023 and the project is moving to the Big Bend region by 2024. This move will represent an additional expansion of staff and projects at CRFL and further enhance our capabilities in the region.

Working toward ‘One FWC’

Overall, a key partner for the oyster, stone crab, and bay scallop programs – and for the new lab in general –is the local FWC Law Enforcement officers. FWRI biologists and researchers have been fortunate to develop a unique working relationship with the officers which is enriching for both groups. Law enforcement has allowed researchers access to their facility in Crystal River, including space for their vehicles and vessels in the officers’ secure parking lot, and they have been a wealth of local knowledge that helped in establishing the field lab and navigating new waterways. Lab staff have been able to do some basic skills training with officers, and occasionally lab staff have conducted stone crab monitoring activities from onboard a patrol vessel, giving both biologists and officers a better understanding of how each of our jobs result in resource conservation. During a recent case that involving over 500 unmarked stone crab traps, that needed to be removed and entered into evidence from a seasonally closed fishing area of the Big Bend stone crab/shrimping zones, stone crab staff coordinated operations with officers on duty to retrieve those trap.

The CRFL is a prime example of the different branches of FWC working together and achieving research and results that would have otherwise not been possible. Law Enforcement and FWRI both benefit working with each other and contributes to a cohesive FWC, where everyone understands one another’s role in a multifaceted wildlife agency. We continue to look forward to the opportunities that will present themselves.