Strategic habitat conservation in the St. Mary's River System
The St. Marys River flows from the Okefenokee Swamp as if influenced by the snakes there. Its serpentine path takes this remote blackwater stream 130 miles to reach the Cumberland Sound, with tides washing just 40 air-miles from the great swamp headwaters. This twisted stretch of water establishes the easternmost border between Georgia and Florida, and gifts the states with cypress and bottomland hardwood swamps, salt marshes, mud flats, and the diversity and abundance of plants and animals supported by these rich habitats. The St. Marys River is unique, and worth protecting. That is why the St Marys River Fisheries Restoration Committee (SMFRC) was formed.
Under the realization that many of the issues that need attention fall outside the jurisdiction of a single agency, the SMFRC partnership involves collaboration and cooperation with other agencies, organizations, private landowners, and political constituencies, to bring to bear the kind and amount of resources needed to protect the health of the St Marys River System.
“The St Marys River Fisheries Restoration Committee is strategic habitat conservation at work,” says Vincent Mudrak, SMFRC coordinator and director of the Service’s Warm Springs Regional Fisheries Center. “We are working collectively to implement adaptive management approaches on a landscape level.”
“I’m confident that through our shared purpose we will see increased resources, shared efficiency, innovative solutions, better communication, increased public support, and positive organizational morale, which translate to tremendous benefits for this river system,” continues Mudrak.
Restoration and preservation of aquatic habitats, both in quality and quantity, are high priorities for this river system. Partnership work is being planned to evaluate riverine habitat, and to restore natural conditions by mitigating the human caused disturbances that might affect the survival of native species.
Within the St Marys River System, some fisheries once plentiful have declined due to human activities over time. River species like striped bass, American shad, and Atlantic sturgeon are being considered for restoration. The Atlantic sturgeon has been accepted by the SMFRC as the target indicator species for restoration - analogous to the “canary in the coal mine.”
The Atlantic sturgeon require a strong founding population to fully recover, and the river must retain those aquatic habitat characteristics needed by the sturgeon to complete all phases of their life cycle (adult maturation, spawning habitat, egg incubation and hatch, larval development, nursery water conditions, and juvenile forage). SMFRC will work with conservation groups to secure aquatic habitat conditions suitable for Atlantic sturgeon, and will work to restore a genetically viable self-sustaining sturgeon population. In so doing, partners also will improve water quality and aquatic habitat conditions which will benefit many other aquatic species.
The partnership work by SMFRC will eventually build stronger coalitions with the angling community as various fish species respond to improvements in the aquatic habitat. The restoration of the sturgeon (a highly charismatic fish to some) brings a new aura of mystique to the river. The recent societal trend of non-consumptive public users, who embrace the ideals of eco-tourism and value rivers for their natural beauty, would be enhanced by the return of migratory sturgeon. Partners within SMFRC will collaborate to improve public access within the St Marys River System in ways that reflect a responsible approach to conservation.
“This organized conservation effort reflects a measurable outcome from the Regional Directorate's 2006 Cross-Agency meeting with Florida and Georgia. The Service’s Fisheries has taken the lead on initiating this effort, but the continuing accomplishment credit for SMFRC work goes to all partners,” says Mudrak.
The Service, along with Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service, St. Johns River Water Management District, and St. Marys River Management Committee, along with others, have partnered to establish the SMFRC, and are seeking status as a subunit under the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP), which is one of nine designated Fish Habitat Partnerships under the National Fish Habitat Action Plan.
For more information about the SMFRC, contact Vincent Mudrak, Vincent_Mudrak@fws.gov, 706-655-3382.
Submitted by Judy Toppins, Fisheries, Atlanta, Georgia