I. What is the State of the River Report?
The State of the River Report summarizes the “health” of the Lower St. Johns River Basin (LSJRB). By “health,” the authors are referring to several factors that impact human well-being, recreation, the economy, and the environment. These aspects of the river basin’s health include:
- Water quality in the St. Johns River and the streams and creeks that flow into the river in northeast Florida;
- The condition of fish, crab, and shrimp populations in the area; and
- Whether river, swamps, and marshes support thriving populations of plants and animals, while also providing economic, recreational, and health benefits for the people who live in northeast Florida.
The State of the River Report also includes valuable guidance for teachers in grades K-12. Such guidance includes:
- A section entitled, Highlight: Emerging Contaminants: Microplastics, that identifies major ways that data and findings from the report can be used to enhance the school curriculum and connect K-12 teaching to standards on teaching in the sciences;
- K-12 lesson plans for teachers, covering such topics as Aquatic Health, Aquatic Organisms, Communities, Macro Inverts and Patterns.
The authors of the State of the River Report include researchers from Jacksonville University, the University of North Florida, Florida Southern College, and West Chester University of Pennsylvania. The entire State of the River Report is available online at http://www.sjrreport.com, and as a short brochure.
II. What Does the State of the River Report Say?
- Water quality in the main part of the St. Johns River in northeast Florida is generally suitable for boating, fishing, and other forms of recreation.
- There are plenty of redfish (“red drum”), trout (“spotted seatrout”), mullet (“striped mullet”), and some other popular species of fish. There is uncertainty about populations of some fish, such as catfish and largemouth bass.
- Populations of some rare animals such as manatees, bald eagles, and wood storks appear to be unchanged, and increasing in some cases.
- There are reasons to be concerned about the health of the river:
- Water quality in some of the tributaries is too poor to allow the safe consumption of fish from these streams or to allow swimming.
- Pollution threatens human health, the economy, and the ecosystems that support plants, animals and recreation. Stormwater run-off from roads, residential and commercial development, and agriculture adds nutrient pollution to the LSJRB. Contamination by metals, pesticides and PCBs remains a serious concern.
- Various activities threaten valuable local wetlands. Urban development and agriculture contribute to the loss of swamps, marshes and other wetlands. Pollution, run-off, and invasive species also threaten the health of wetlands.
- A variety of factors (including sea level rise) have contributed to increased salinity in some locations and a decrease in submerged aquatic vegetation. Submerged seagrasses and other vegetation are currently below levels desired to support fisheries, prevent erosion, and provide flood protection.
- Some undesirable, non-native animals and plants, like Asian clams, blue-green algae, and hydrilla, are threatening ecological systems and/or the local economy.
- Dredging of the river will likely cause some changes in salinity and a negative effect on submerged aquatic vegetation in the northern parts of the LSJRB (USACE 2014b). The ACOE also acknowledges that its current project to deepen the St. Johns River by 7 feet near Jacksonville could increase water levels in a 100-year storm surge by several inches in the mainstem of the river (Monroe and Hong 2018).
- Local governments and partnering state agencies have improved water quality by funding or replacing failing septic tanks, improving wastewater treatment plants, and conducting other measures to reduce the flow of pollutants into local waterways. Their efforts will continue, depending upon the availability of financial resources.
III. What Does the St. Johns River Mean for You?
The St. Johns River is vital to the people, animals, and plants that live in northeast Florida. Since the early 1900s and the days of steamboat travel, the St. Johns River has made Jacksonville one of the largest, most vibrant cities in Florida. Today, the river supports the economy through the Port of Jacksonville and the businesses, schools, and other agencies that have located here. The river also draws thousands of boaters, fishermen, paddlers, and others who like to enjoy this vast, slow moving waterway. As Jacksonville University marine biologist Quinton White notes, “There are so many outstanding opportunities to enjoy the river that there really isn’t a good excuse not to” (White 2015a).
Here are just a few things that the St. Johns River means for the general public.
Boaters have always enjoyed the St. Johns River. Today, one can operate motor boats, sailboats, kayaks, paddleboards, and other craft on the St. Johns and many of its tributaries. However, anyone boating on the river should remember the following guidelines:
- Obtain the proper boating license, depending upon your age. According to the FWC, “For anyone born on or after January 1, 1988, who will be operating a boat in Florida waters with an engine of ten (10) horsepower or more, the law requires them to complete an approved boating safety course and obtain a Florida Boating Safety ID ” See https://myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/id/;
- Watch the weather forecast for storms and pay attention to tides. See National Weather Service forecasts at: http://weather.gov/jax;
- Wear a properly fitting life jacket, and provide a life jacket for every adult in a boat. For vessels under 16 feet, all children younger than 6 years of age must wear an approved life jacket;
- Avoid mixing alcohol and boating;
- All boats are required to carry certain kinds of safety equipment. This may include fire extinguishers, distress signals, and other devices, depending upon the size and configuration of a vessel. Visit https://myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/ for all the information you need on boater safety (FWC 2018a).
- Observe posted rules at all times, including no wake zones.
- Pay attention to rules regarding protection of manatees and dolphins. For more information on manatees, see https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/manatee/protection-zones/. Please exercise caution around dolphins. Never feed dolphins, and if fishing, avoid releasing your catch or throwing out leftover bait near dolphins. For information on proper behavior around dolphins, see https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/mammals/aquatic/dolphin/.
- Pay attention to other boaters, and slow down to reduce your wake if you are near kayakers or others in small boats.
- Exercise special care if boating with pets. Provide plenty of water and a place in the shade for your pets, and consider a life vest for your pet. For more information on boating with pets, see https://www.boatingmag.com/10-tips-boating-pets/.
- Please do not litter.
Special Boating Rules for the St. Johns River
- It is best to avoid fishing in some of the polluted tributaries and to avoid swimming at all in polluted streams. As the State of the River Report notes, some of the creeks that flow into the St. Johns River are badly contaminated with human waste, metals, and other materials that can sicken humans. Under the Clean Water Act, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has designated some tributaries of the Lower St. Johns River as “impaired,” a legal designation that means a particular waterway does not meet desired standards of use and that it is usually targeted for clean-up (DEP 2020b; EPA 2020b). However, even after DEP removes a stream from the “impaired” list and initiates clean-up, that waterway may remain polluted for some time. Due to pollution, please exercise caution around the following, selected list of streams (The reason they are impaired under the Clean Water Act is also noted, where appropriate):
- Big Fishweir Creek, Marine Segment (Dissolved Oxygen and Nutrients)
- Cedar River ( coli)
- Dunn Creek, Marine Segment (Enterococci)
- Goodbys Creek (Iron)
- Julington Creek ( coli)
- Moncrief Creek (Iron)
- Ortega River ( coli)
- Pottsburg Creek, Marine Segment (Nutrients)
- Strawberry Creek ( coli)
- Trout River, Upper Reach ( coli, Lead)
- For warnings about consuming fish from specific tributaries in the Lower St. Johns River Basin, see https://dchpexternalapps.doh.state.fl.us/fishadvisory.
- For details on pollution in the tributaries, see the State of the River Report, Sections 2 and 5 (online at http://www.sjrreport.com).
- Avoid boating near algae blooms. In some years, excessive stormwater run-off and wastewater provide large amounts of nutrients that cause algae to grow and “bloom” in the river. Some kinds of algae are toxic, killing fish and threatening human health.
- Be cautious around alligators and other potentially dangerous animals. During most of the year, alligators pose little threat to humans. However, you should always give alligators plenty of room, especially in the spring and summer mating season (Fenton 2020). Never feed alligators and always keep your pets on a leash if you are walking near bodies of water with alligators. Never swim near alligators and avoid swimming at dawn, dusk, or night.
Fishing has always been popular in the St. Johns River and the nearby waterways. Original inhabitants ate oysters, shrimp, and fish as a normal part of their diet, and fishing has remained important ever since, even if it no longer represents so much of what we consume (White 2015b).
General Guidelines about Fishing
- There are plenty of popular species of fish in the St. Johns River and in some of its tributaries (given the warnings about pollution). Redfish (“red drum”), trout (“spotted seatrout”), and mullet (“striped mullet”) populations are relatively healthy. There is also an enormous commercial and recreational blue crab fishery in the Lower St. Johns River, although data on crab populations is limited. In addition, there are a number of species of fish that can be caught offshore, some of which rely upon the St. Johns River and its marshes as a nursery. Fish caught in the river or offshore are safe to eat, within limits (see 4 below).
- You must obtain the proper license to fish in the St. Johns River, its estuary, or just offshore. See https://myfwc.com/license/ (FWC 2018b).
- Avoid fishing in some of the polluted tributaries. Pay attention to all posted warnings about fishing in a particular area.
- Be careful about how much fish you eat. While fish is a welcome addition to most diets, some people should be cautious about consuming too much fish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Health, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection work jointly to determine if certain species of fish pose a threat to health due to contamination. If so, they will issue an advisory about fish consumption. For more information on this, see http://www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/prevention/healthy-weight/nutrition/seafood-consumption/fish-advisories-page.html. As noted above, find warnings about consuming fish from specific bodies of water in the Lower St. Johns River Basin at https://dchpexternalapps.doh.state.fl.us/fishadvisory. See also Florida Sea Grant, at https://www.flseagrant.org/about/.
- Avoid fishing in areas with algae blooms.
Please exercise extreme caution before swimming in the St. Johns River. The currents are strong, and thunderstorms, winds, and tides can also make swimming dangerous. The water in the river is also dark and opaque, stained with the organic matter and sediments from the many streams, wetlands, and springs that feed the St. Johns. A lot of debris has also accumulated in the river, including abandoned crab pots, fishing equipment, and litter. All of these factors make swimming in the river potentially hazardous. The presence of potentially toxic blue-green algae also poses a health threat to swimmers. Avoid swimming in or near water that is “scummy,” or colored green or reddish-brown. Avoid swimming in polluted tributaries. Despite these hazards, some people do swim in the St. Johns River. For more on this, see (Woods 2018) https://www.jacksonville.com/news/20180327/mark-woods-for-spring-break-he-swam-st-johns-river.
Finally, please note that blue-green algae are also hazardous to pets and livestock. Pets and livestock should not be allowed to drink from or swim in water that is foamy or “scummy,” likely signs of blue-green algae. For more on the dangers of blue-green algae to animals, see http://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/health/other-wildlife/cyanobacteria/.
IV. How Can You Get Involved with the St. Johns River?
Members of the general public can get involved with the St. Johns River in lots of ways. In addition to boating, fishing, and generally enjoying the river, one can join clubs, volunteer with local groups, and find new ways to enjoy the river and its surroundings. Links to help get started include:
Hiking, Volunteering, and Other Outdoor Activities:
- City of Jacksonville, http://www.coj.net/categories/explore-jax/water-life; and https://www.coj.net/departments/neighborhoods/neighborhood-services-office/clean-it-up-green-it-up/keep-jacksonville-beautiful-(kjb)
- Duval Audubon Society, http://www.duvalaudubon.org/
- Johns Riverkeeper, http://stjohnsriverkeeper.org
- Sierra Club, Northeast Florida Group, https://www.sierraclub.org/florida/northeast-florida
- Timucuan Parks Foundation, https://www.timucuanparks.org/about-us/
Volunteering and Community Service through Government Agencies:
- City of Jacksonville, Environmental Protection Board, Volunteer/Internships http://duval.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/volunteer-services/index.html
- Fort Caroline National Memorial/Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, https://www.nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/foca.htm
- Jacksonville University, Marine Science Research Institute, https://www.ju.edu/msri/
- Johns River Water Management District, https://www.sjrwmd.com/
- The University of North Florida, College of Education, https://www.unf.edu/coehs/
- The University of North Florida, Environmental Center, https://www.unf.edu/ecenter/
Reporting a Problem:
- Report Algal Blooms: Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) at 855-305-3903. You can also contact the FDEP at http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3444948/Algal-Bloom-Reporting-Form.
- Report Chemical Spills: City of Jacksonville at https://myjax.custhelp.com/ or at 904-630-2489.
- Report Fish Kills: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) at 800-636-0511. Also, you can access the Fish Kills reporting system at https://myfwc.com/news/all-news/fish-kills/.
- Questions about Fish and Animals: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, https://myfwc.com/. To report an injured, stranded or dead marine mammal, abandoned calf, sea turtle, or stranded hatchlings, call the FWC Wildlife Alert Number at 888-404-FWCC (3922).
- Report Pollution in Streams:
- Report Sewage Overflows/Spills: JEA, http://www.jea.com/about/
Contact Following Jacksonville City Councilmembers to Advocate for the River:
V. How Can You Improve the Health of the St. Johns River and its Tributaries?