South Florida Fisheries Habitat Assessment Program (FHAP-SF)
In 1995, FWRI researchers Drs. Margaret Hall and Michael Durako started the Fisheries Habitat Assessment Program (FHAP) to track the status and recovery of essential fish habitat (i.e., seagrasses and macroalgae) in Florida Bay following the unprecedented mass mortality (or “die-off”) of Thalassia testudinum (turtlegrass) that took place there from 1987-1991. FHAP is now a component of the Monitoring and Assessment Plan of RECOVER (Restoration, Coordination and Verification) within the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), and with continued support and funding from the South Florida Water Management District, FHAP has become one of the longest running benthic monitoring programs anywhere in Florida.
Today, FHAP documents seagrass and macroalgal communities in 19 basins distributed throughout Florida Bay and the Lower Everglades. To do this, FWRI seagrass scientists, in collaboration with University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), visit 29-31 random locations in each basin every year, at the end of the dry season (May–June) when heat and hypersalinity begin to threaten the ecosystem. Twice a year, we sample 15 permanent transects, once at the end of the dry season (May-June) and again after the wet season (October–November). This allows us to capture important seasonal variability in seagrass shoot density and biomass. In all, we visit more than 500 locations and gather thousands of detailed observations regarding the environmental and ecological conditions. To help us, we use a modified version of Braun-Blanquet scale, which scores seagrass and macroalgae based off the number of individuals and how much of a 0.25-m2 square they cover.
We also collect turtlegrass shoots for leaf morphometrics (the quantitative analysis of form and shape), and for epiphyte biomass. Along the 50-m transects we collect Braun-Blanquet data, count seagrass shoots, and harvest seagrass above and belowground biomass using PVC cores. Samples are brought back to the lab for processing. At every site, we record water, sediment and Secchi depths, and measure light quality, water temperature, pH, salinity, and dissolved oxygen.
Long-term monitoring programs like FHAP provide ecological and historical context with which to understand ecosystem responses to meteorological, climatic, and human-related disturbances, as well as planned management action, such as those possible under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Florida Bay has undergone significant changes in the last 100 years and will no doubt continue to be a dynamic place as resource managers attempt to restore more natural water flows to South Florida, and as the region responds to climate change and sea level rise. FHAP data and analysis offer a consistent and objective contribution to management discussion and public discourse regarding the status and trends of seagrasses within this iconic estuary.