A Guide for the General Public

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. By “health,” the authors refer to several factors, which impact human health, the economy, recreation, and the environment. These aspects of the river basin’s health include:

  1. Water quality in the St. Johns River and the many bodies of water that flow into the river in northeast Florida;
  2. The condition of fish, crab, and shrimp populations in the area;
  3. Whether river and wetland habitats support thriving populations of plants and animals, while also providing economic, recreational, and health benefits for the people who live in northeast Florida;
  4. Whether there are too many materials like metals, pesticides, and other toxic substances in the environment.

The State of the River Report also includes valuable guidance for teachers in grades K-12. Specifically, the Highlight: K-12 Applications of the Report identifies four 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. The State of the River Report includes ten K-12 lesson plans for teachers, covering such topics as Aquatic Health, Aquatic Organisms, Communities, Macroinvertebrates, 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 (in 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?

To summarize:

  1. Water quality in the main part of the St. Johns River in northeast Florida is generally suitable for boating and fishing. At the same time, water quality in some of the streams that flow into the river (tributaries) is polluted, and unsuitable for boating and fishing. There is some good news. Local governments and private agencies have made some reductions by replacing failing septic tanks, improving wastewater treatment facilities, and conducting other measures to reduce the flow of pollutants into local waterways. At the same time, upstream nutrient pollution sources are increasingly undermining water quality and public/private investment.
  2. Numbers of redfish (“red drum”), trout (“spotted seatrout”), mullet (“striped mullet”), and other popular species of fish are unchanged. There is uncertainty about populations of some fish, such as catfish and largemouth bass.
  3. Numbers of rare animals such as manatees, bald eagles, and wood storks appear to be unchanged, and increasing in some cases.
  4. There are some reasons to be concerned about the health of the Lower St. Johns River Basin:
    1. Continuing pollution of the river by a variety of human activities threatens human health, the economy, and the ecosystems that support animals, plants, and recreation. Run off from roads, residential and commercial development, and agriculture adds nutrient pollution to the Lower St. Johns River Basin.
    2. Urban development and agriculture also contributes to the loss of swamps, marshes and other wetlands. Pollution, run off, and invasive species also threatens the health of valuable wetlands.
    3. Water withdrawals are increasing salinity in some locations, and leading to 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.
    4. Some undesirable non-native animals and plants, like Asian clams, blue-green algae, hydrilla, and other species are threatening ecological systems and/or the local economy.
    5. Dredging of the river will likely increase salinity, and reduce submerged aquatic vegetation. Increased vessel traffic—and especially the increased traffic that accompanies dredging—will threaten manatees.
  5. There are too many metals, pesticides, and other contaminating materials in the Lower St. Johns River and some of its tributaries. There is also little data about metal in other tributaries. Over time, metals, pesticides, and other contaminants may negatively affect plants, animals, and humans.

III. What the State of the River Report Means for You

The State of the River Report reminds us that the St. Johns River is vital to the people, animals, and plants that live in northeast Florida. The river supports the economy through the Port of Jacksonville and the thousands of businesses, schools, and other agencies that have located here. In fact, the St. Johns River has made Jacksonville one of the largest, most vibrant cities in Florida since the early 1900s and the days of steamboat travel. The St. Johns River also draws thousands of boaters, fishermen, rowers, and others who like to watch the sun rise and set on 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 a few specific things that the St. Johns River (and the State of the River Report) mean for the general public.

Boating

Boaters have always enjoyed the St. Johns River. Today, one can operate motor boats, sailboats, kayaks, paddleboards, etc., on the St. Johns and many of its tributaries. However, anybody boating on the St. Johns or any of the other streams in this watershed should remember a few basic guidelines in terms of:

Boater Safety

  1. Obtain proper the boating license, depending upon your age. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “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/ (FWC 2018a).
  2. Watch the weather forecast for storms and pay attention to tides.
  3. Wear a life vest, or at least provide a life vest for every adult in a boat. Children must wear a life vest.
  4. Avoid mixing alcohol and boating.
  5. If you operate a larger boat, make sure you bring along proper safety equipment, such as flares and fire extinguishers.

You can find all the information you need about boater safety at https://myfwc.com/boating/safety-education (FWC 2018a).

Boater Etiquette

  1. Pay attention to posted rules at all times, including no wake zones.
  2. Pay attention to rules regarding protection of manatees and dolphins. For more information on manatees, see https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/manatee/protection-zones/ (FWC 2019d) regarding manatee protection zones. Also, 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://southernstardolphincruise.com/dolphin-safety-awareness/ (Parker 2013).
  3. Pay attention to other boaters, and slow down to reduce your wake if you are near kayakers or others in small boats.
  4. Exercise special care if boating with pets. Provide plenty of water, 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/ (Colby 2015).
  5. Please do not litter.

You can find other information on boater etiquette at https://castawaysontheriver.com/fun-on-st-johns-river/st-johns-river-boating-etiquette-tips/ (CastawaysOnTheRiver 2018).

Special Boating Rules for the St. Johns River

  1. Avoid boating, swimming, or fishing in polluted tributaries. As the State of the River Report notes, some of the creeks that flow into the St. Johns River are badly polluted with human waste, metals, and other materials that can make you sick. Levels of dissolved oxygen are also too low in some tributaries.
    1. In some cases, the Florida Department of Health may post warnings about consuming fish from polluted bodies of water. For warnings about consuming fish from specific bodies of water in the Lower St. Johns River Basin, see https://dchpexternalapps.doh.state.fl.us/fishadvisory/ (FloridaHealth 2019).
    2. Due to pollution from human waste, nutrients, metals, and/or other contaminants, exercise particular caution when boating, fishing, or swimming near:
      • The Arlington River
      • Black Creek—South Fork
      • Butcher Pen Creek
      • The Cedar River
      • Doctor’s Lake
      • Dunns Creek/Crescent Lake
      • Julington Creek
      • McCoy Creek
      • Ortega River
      • Pottsburg Creek
      • Rice Creek
    3. For detailed data on pollution in the tributaries, see the State of the River Report, Sections 2 and 5 (online at http://www.sjrreport.com).
  2. Avoid boating in areas with algae blooms. In some years, excessive stormwater run-off and waste water provide large amounts of excess nutrients that cause algae to grow rapidly and “bloom” in the river. Some kinds of algae (blue-green algae) are toxic, causing fish kills and harmful effects to humans.

Exercise caution 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. No matter what you do, never feed them, 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

Fishing has always been popular in the St. Johns River and the nearby waterways. Original inhabitants ate oysters, shrimp, and fish as 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

  1. There are plenty of popular species of fish in the St. Johns River and in some of its tributaries (given the caution about pollution noted above). Redfish (“red drum”), trout (“spotted seatrout”), and mullet (“striped mullet”) populations are relatively healthy, based upon the results of the State of the River Report. 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 5 below).
  2. 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).
  3. Avoid fishing in some of the polluted tributaries. As stated above, pollution in some of the small creeks and streams is severe, potentially harmful to fish and humans alike. Pay attention to all posted warnings about fishing in a particular area. For a list of badly contaminated tributaries, please see the State of the River Report, Sections 2 and 5 (online at http://www.sjrreport.com).
  4. Avoid fishing in areas with algae blooms.
  5. 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 (FDOH 2019). For warnings about consuming fish from specific bodies of water in the Lower St. Johns River Basin, see https://dchpexternalapps.doh.state.fl.us/fishadvisory (FloridaHealth 2019).

Swimming in the St. Johns River

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. Over the years, 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. 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. Be very cautious about swimming in the tributaries.

Finally, please note that blue-green algae is 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/ (FWC 2019a).

IV. Other Ways to Get Involved with the St. Johns River

Members of the general public can also get involved with the St. Johns River in other 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.  Just a few useful links to help get started include:

Hiking, Volunteering, and Other Outdoor Activities

  1. City of Jacksonville, Things to Do, “Water Life,” http://www.coj.net/categories/explore-jax/water-life
  2. Duval Audubon Society, http://www.duvalaudubon.org/
  3. The St. Johns Riverkeeper, http://www.stjohnsriverkeeper.org/how-to-help/volunteer/waterway-cleanup-team/
  4. Sierra Club, Northeast Florida Group, https://www.sierraclub.org/florida/northeast-florida/get- outdoors

Government, Educational Agencies

  1. City of Jacksonville, Environmental Protection Board, http://duval.floridahealth.gov/
  2. Jacksonville Waterways Commission, http://www.coj.net/city-council/jacksonville-waterways-commission.aspx
  3. Duval County Health Department, Florida Department of Health, http://duval.floridahealth.gov/
  4. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, https://floridadep.gov/
  5. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, https://myfwc.com/
  6. Fort Caroline National Memorial, Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, https://www.nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/foca.html
  7. Jacksonville University, Marine Science Research Institute, https://www.ju.edu/msri/
  8. Florida Friendly Plant Database, http://floridayards.org/fyplants/
  9. Johns River Water Management District, https://www.sjrwmd.com/
  10. The University of North Florida, College of Education, https://www.unf.edu/coehs/
  11. The University of North Florida, Environmental Center, https://www.unf.edu/ecenter/

V. What Can You Do to Improve the Health of the St. Johns River and its Tributaries?

Here are a few suggestions for improving the health of the river and its tributaries.

Routine Activities

  1. Apply fertilizers responsibly.
  2. Limit use of fertilizer and pesticides.
  3. Conserve water.
  4. Install a rain barrel.
  5. Do not harm or harass protected species.
  6. Do not sweep or blow yard clippings down the storm drain.
  7. Wash cars and boats on lawn, not driveway.
  8. Protect wetlands.
  9. Do not release exotic plants or animals.
  10. Collect pet droppings.
  11. Monitor and maintain septic tank system.
  12. Conserve energy.
  13. Limit footprint of docks and bulkheads.
  14. Do not discard monofilament fishing line into the water.
  15. Practice proper catch-and-release techniques.
  16. Landscape with native plants.
  17. Place all litter and cigarette butts in trash cans.
  18. Discard hazardous household materials (gas, paint, drugs, etc.) at waste pick-up sites.
  19. Keep all vehicles maintained.

Water Quality, Fisheries, Aquatic Life, & Contaminants