Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Central Gulf and Florida Panhandle Coast

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Central Gulf and Florida Panhandle Coast focal area.

Map of Central Gulf and Florida Panhandle Coast focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

The complex of coastal habitats (including barrier islands, bays, bayous, beaches and coastal dunes) that span Mississippi, Alabama and extend eastward into the eight coastal counties of the Florida Panhandle are major recreational economic engines as well as the first line of defense from storms originating in the Gulf. This focal area includes some of the most natural beach areas remaining along the Gulf, numerous large bay systems with extensive salt marsh, submerged aquatic vegetation and oyster reef habitats, and a series of barrier islands that protect these coastal systems. Rare features also exist, such as the 15 coastal dune lakes in Florida (characterized by having a dynamic, intermittent connection with the Gulf and designated as “imperiled globally” by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory) located within two miles of the beach.

A heron stalks the edge of a marsh.

Alligator Lake at Bon Secour NWR. Photo by Keenan Adams, USFWS.

The habitats that make up this focal area are shaped by a number of dynamic processes including freshwater inflow and movement of sediments. The mixture of freshwater inputs and the saline Gulf waters create a series of highly biologically diverse coastal systems across all three states that support both freshwater and saltwater species. Beaches and dunes also provide wintering and nesting habitat for many wildlife species, including the federally listed piping plover, the red knot, the rare Gulf Coast solitary bee, four species of federally endangered beach mice and four species of sea turtles.

The protection, conservation, and persistence of these coastal areas and their mosaic of habitats represent some of the greatest needs in this focal area. Coastal development, extensive recreational activities, alteration of the natural longshore transport of sediments, and altered hydrology of the local bays and bayous has led to habitat fragmentation and other challenges. For example, 15% of the coastal marshes south of Interstate 10 in Mississippi and 90% of their oyster reefs have been lost since the 1950s. The Service is engaged with partners to implement existing species action and recovery plans within coastal counties that can achieve the appropriate balance between human use and a sustainable environment. In addition to the High Priority Actions presented below, implementing measures to address the High Priority Actions discussed in the Central Gulf Lands and Florida Panhandle Lands focal areas will ultimately have cumulative landscape level benefits in the coastal systems that improve and increase habitat for foraging, nesting, migrating and wintering fish and wildlife species that use these beaches and their associated habitats.

At least 93 species of both resident and migratory birds were exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil in multiple habitats across all five Gulf states, including open water, islands, beaches, bays and marshes. Restoration planning will address the broad diversity of injured bird species; in doing so, we will identify where restoration would provide the greatest benefits within their geographic ranges. For example, approaches to restoring injured bird species include conserving bird nesting and foraging habitat; creating, restoring, and enhancing coastal wetlands; restoring and enhancing dunes and beaches; creating, restoring and enhancing barrier and coastal islands and headlands; restoring and enhancing submerged aquatic vegetation; protecting and conserving marine, coastal, estuarine, and riparian habitats; establishing or re-establishing breeding colonies; and preventing incidental bird mortality.

Target Species

A tiny greyish brown mouse on sand.

Perdido Key Beach mouse, one of five species of endangered beach mouse found in this focal area. Photo by Melody Ray-Culp, USFWS.

Implementing projects that restore or maintain a more natural mosaic of coastal dunes, beach and shoreline components will benefit multiple species guilds, including foraging and nesting habitat for endangered beach mouse species, nesting substrates for breeding shorebirds and sea turtles, and valuable foraging habitat for many wintering shorebirds, including piping plovers, red knots and American oystercatchers. Natural beach habitats also provide appropriate sand compaction for the burrowing Gulf Coast solitary bee, which is endemic to a narrow band of coastline between eastern Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle.

Conserving additional acreage and reducing disturbance to sensitive beach and dune areas will improve the potential for achieving recovery goals and population objectives for the following federally listed species: the Alabama, Perdido Key, and Choctawhatchee beach mouse (self-sustaining populations in critical habitat areas; ≥50 percent of the critical habitat protected and occupied); the green sea turtle (average of 5,000 nests/year in Florida for at least six years, with >25 percent of available nesting beaches in public ownership and accounting for 50 percent of nesting activity); and the loggerhead sea turtle (annual rate of increase over a generation/50 years is > three percent resulting in a total annual number of nests of 4,000 or greater for the Northern Gulf of Mexico recovery unit).

A tiny sea turtle hatchling resting in the sand.

A loggerhead sea turtle hatchling. Photo by USFWS.

In addition, such actions will increase the possibility for achieving the population objectives for other species such as the black skimmer (3,408 pairs); the least tern (9,606 pairs); and the Wilson’s plover (a portion of 5,000 individuals across the Southeast Coastal Plain, Peninsular Florida, and the Caribbean).

Other than sea turtles, most of our trust resource species in this focal area are terrestrial, but many of the proposed actions to protect or enhance the beach and dune habitats that support them will also have significant benefits to other species. For example, restoration actions that we view as protective measures, like creating living shorelines, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds, will improve water quality and provide better foraging and nursery habitat for blue crabs, mollusks, and many marine prey species. Those actions will also provide important angling opportunities as they attract many recreationally popular species like red drum, speckled trout, and black drum. Additionally, installing appropriately sized culverts will improve access to coastal lake resources for commercially and recreationally important fish species.

High Priority Actions based on the Service’s Vision

Reduce disturbance in important beach mouse, shorebird and sea turtle nesting areas (e.g., implement beachfront lighting programs and control non-native and nuisance wildlife to reduce nest predation)

Next Steps

An overhead light with led bulbs.

LED wildlife friendly light installation. Photo by USFWS.

  • Implement mechanisms to reduce year-round highway mortality for multiple susceptible wildlife species, especially during primary nesting seasons to prevent road kill of shorebird species.
  • Continue implementation of a Wildlife Friendly Lighting Program on beachfront public and private lands to reduce impacts of artificial light pollution on nocturnal species. The program should include an assessment of problem lighting, and the development of a lighting reference guide that provides recommended retrofit solutions based on the most current technology.
  • Expand the scope and funding (beyond the beach) for Wildlife Friendly Lighting Programs on public and private lands to potentially benefit all nocturnal species by reducing impacts of artificial light pollution throughout coastal counties (e.g., partner with local power companies to replace traditional street lamps with improved light sources on coastal county roadways).
  • Develop a permanent funding mechanism to annually operate predator and exotic species management programs for beach and dune habitat, primarily on public lands (e.g., perpetually fund the existing USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service predator control efforts that remove targeted predators and the installation of predator-proof trash receptacles at designated beach access points).
  • Support and conduct public outreach to reduce human activities that result in the increased presence of common predators near nesting beaches, such as outreach efforts aimed at informing the public about the impacts of feeding gulls.
  • Continue to implement annual programs (e.g. “post-and-rope,” site stewards and other outreach techniques) in targeted areas of beach and dune habitat to remove direct human disturbances.
  • Continue to enforce existing protective measures (e.g., dog prohibitions and/or leash laws; violations within “post-and-rope” nesting or wintering shorebird areas; walking on dunes; and vehicle speed limits on coastal barrier island roads containing nesting shorebirds) for the benefit of important trust resource species on public lands.
  • Secure funding for necessary research, data support and outreach to potentially develop a multi-species conservation approach for federally listed sea turtles, shorebirds, beach mice and the solitary bee.

Work with landowners to acquire, protect, and conserve beach and coastal dune system habitats important for nesting sea turtles, shorebirds and beach mice through voluntary agreements.

Next Steps

  • Work with willing sellers to acquire (via fee acquisition or conservation easement) inholdings within the acquisition boundary of Bon Secour NWR, and lands adjacent to other public lands (e.g., Gulf State Park, Bureau of Land Management and Fort Morgan Historic Site) to protect habitat, maintain connectivity, provide storm protection and provide recreational benefits.
  • Support the establishment of a coastal buyout program for willing sellers of undeveloped coastal properties and storm-threatened or damaged homes to augment conservation land across the coastal landscape.
  • Establish and/or expand programs to provide native plants (e.g., Grasses in Classes, USDA’s NRCS’ Plant Materials Centers) and sand fencing for public and private lands to encourage use of landscaping that can help reduce the impacts of coastal erosion.
  • Increase habitat for nesting, wintering and migratory bird use by using dredge material to create or expand existing areas, including the creation of foraging mud flats on the bayside and dune habitats (as appropriate).
  • Manage and/or maintain native habitats (including on private lands) to improve habitat connectivity for federally endangered species such as beach mice that require intact systems for dispersal.
  • Improve habitat conditions for coastal forested habitats and grasslands through mowing and/or prescribed fires on private and public lands within coastal counties to benefit migratory birds, marshbirds and multiple at-risk species.
  • Support cooperative partnerships (e.g., Six Rivers Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area and other Cooperative Weed Management Areas) established to control invasive species throughout the focal area on both public and private lands.
  • Replace/enlarge undersized culverts that are acting as barriers to enhance passage for managed fishery species and improve connectivity and water quality for other fish and wildlife species and adjacent salt marsh habitat.
  • Restore habitat structure (e.g., by removing invasive woody plants), species diversity (e.g., by planting native carnivorous bog plants and orchids) and ecological processes (e.g., applying prescribed fire) to wetlands in the coastal dune lakes watersheds, thereby reestablishing historic levels of submarine groundwater discharge to the Gulf and nutrient poor soil conditions that favor seepage slope and wet prairie communities.

Work with federal, state and local governments, and other landowners to minimize detrimental impacts of beach, dune and shoreline management activities (i.e., hardening, nourishment, and wrack removal) and encourage use of living shoreline stabilization techniques to protect eroding shorelines in Gulf bays and bayous as appropriate.

Next Steps

  • Create public educational media campaigns and outreach programs to increase the protection of wrack (organic material including sargassum that is cast up onto the beach by surf, tides and wind) that serves as a food source for many species is a foundation for dune establishment and an inhibitor of erosion.
  • Provide outreach that encourages the use of best management practices in beach renourishment projects such as those involving natural dune restoration components and timing (e.g., conduct renourishment activities outside of sea turtle and shorebird nesting seasons).
  • Promote the use of lightweight folding chairs that can be placed in overnight storage boxes during sea turtle nesting season rather than large, heavy wooden beach loungers which impede nesting turtle access; and increase awareness of how beach trash attracts predators.
  • Identify and prioritize eroding bay and estuarine segments that are susceptible to shoreline hardening for eventual voluntary application of living shoreline treatments by landowners. Develop living shoreline education and outreach information for public and private property owners, thereby steering protection towards softer alternatives and away from hardening.
  • Establish best management practices for living shoreline treatments (including saltmarsh and oyster reef components) in bays and estuaries to ensure installation only where needed and appropriate and to increase probability of successful shoreline stabilization with natural habitat elements.
  • Establish nursery plant supplies that include a diverse mix of native species suitable for planting along the entire wetland-to-upland living shoreline profile, as well as the sandy dune profile for beach mice (where applicable).
  • Where appropriate (i.e., water quality is sufficient), restore oyster reefs to provide enhanced nursery habitat for commercially and recreationally important species.
  • Establish oyster shell recycling programs to provide material for oyster restoration efforts.
  • Encourage the implementation of proactive projects that could decrease post-storm related recovery and response efforts (e.g., replace gravel driveways whose materials scatter across coastal dune systems during tropical storms with more environmentally friendly materials).
  • Facilitate natural recovery of seagrasses and other submerged aquatic vegetation by means such as estuary-based planning for key watersheds.