THE GUANA TOLOMATO MATANZAS NATIONAL ESTUARINE RESEARCH RESERVE
March 17, 2006 — The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve is part of the NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve System, a network of 26 protected coastal areas located in diverse biogeographic regions along the United States coast from Alaska to Puerto Rico. These reserves promote informed management of the nation’s estuarine and coastal habitats through an integrated program of scientific research, education and stewardship.
Established in 1999, the GTMNERR is the nation’s 25th reserve. It encompasses more than 60,000 acres of tidal wetlands, estuarine lagoons, publicly-owned forested uplands and coastal ocean waters. Located within St. Johns and Flagler Counties in northeast Florida, the GTMNERR is comprised of a northern section and a southern section separated by the historic city of St. Augustine. The GTMNERR derives its name from the three lagoon type “rivers” (i.e., Guana, Tolomato and Matanzas) contained within its boundaries. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas is NOAA’s state partner in the administration of the GTMNERR. In addition to the GTMNERR, CAMA is responsible for the administration of the Apalachicola and Rookery Bay NERRs, located on the northwest and southwest Florida coast, respectively, as well as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the state’s 41 Aquatic Preserves. (Click NOAA image above for a larger view of Moses Creek within the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Florida. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA/GTMNERR”)
The Guana, Tolomato and Matanzas Rivers are part of the Florida Upper East Coast Drainage Basin and form a system of “bar bounded” estuarine lagoons westward of the coastal barrier islands of St. Johns County and north Flagler County. Both the St. Augustine and Matanzas Inlets provide tidal exchange with the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a maintained inland navigation route through the Matanzas and Tolomato Rivers. Canals dug when this waterway was originally constructed early in the last century link the Tolomato River to the St. Johns River northward, and the Matanzas River to the Halifax River southward. (Click NOAA image to the right for a larger view of the map showing the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Florida. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA/GTMNERR”)
The GTM estuarine ecosystem contains a broad range of habitat types. The major upland communities are pine flatwoods, maritime hammock, coastal strand, beach dune and forested wetlands. Freshwater marsh and cypress swamp communities are also represented. Salt marsh is the major tidal habitat occupying approximately 25 percent of the total land cover of the GTMNERR. Patchy distributions of black mangrove, representing the northern extent of this species, are also a significant feature of the marsh landscape in the southern section of the GTMNERR. Other tidal communities include oyster bars, tidal flats and open water.
This diversity of communities provides habitat for a wide variety of plant and animal species. A list compiled for the Guana River Marsh Aquatic Preserve, which occupies the same footprint as the northern section of the GTMNERR, indicates the presence of numerous plant and animal species. Those of commercial and recreational value include oysters, clams, crabs, shrimp and a diverse assortment of finfish including mullet, spotted sea trout, gag grouper, flounder, black sea bass and red drum. GTMNERR habitats support some 30 species of animals listed as “endangered,” “threatened,” or “species of special concern.” These include the roseate spoonbill, the endangered wood stork, three sea turtle species (loggerhead, green and leatherback), the shortnose sturgeon, the West Indian manatee and migratory North Atlantic Right whales during the winter calving season. (Click NOAA image to the right for a larger view of GTM research staff conducting a salt marsh delineation survey at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Florida. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA/GTMNERR”)
The GTM estuarine system has been used by humans for over 5,000 years. Artifacts found in the area range from an arrowhead of the late Archaic (2,500-1,000 BC) to pottery of the 19th century. Today, as in so many coastal regions of the United States, development is rapidly transforming the landscape of St. Johns and Flagler Counties. Indeed, recent population data identified Flagler County as the fastest growing in the nation, and St. Johns County is in the top ten nationally. Clearly, a major challenge for the coastal management community in northeast Florida is how to effectively counterbalance the cumulative impacts of development pressures on water quality and ecosystem health within this coastal watershed.
The GTMNERR-Marineland Office is located on the River to Sea Preserve at Marineland, in close proximity to the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, a state of the art cell and molecular biology research institute of the University of Florida. Research and education partnership opportunities abound within the GTMNERR.
Environmental Education Program
GTMNERR manages public access and recreational use of more than 10 miles of beaches, more than four and a half miles of oceanfront sand dunes and coastal strand with four beach access parking areas, a recreational fishing area at Guana dam with two boat ramps, a trailhead picnic area and 10-miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails. In coordination with other agencies, the GTMNERR Stewardship program is involved in habitat restoration, controlled burns, monitoring of endangered and threatened species and management of invasive exotics. Identifying environmentally sensitive lands for public acquisition and advancing best restoration and resource management practices are central goals of the GTMNERR’s stewardship section.
A key objective of the GTMNERR SWMP effort is to quantify the spatial/temporal variability and trends, both seasonally and as a function of tidal action, of selected abiotic and nutrient parameters within the GTMNERR and to explore how these patterns are related to weather data collected by the Reserve.
SWMP is a principal component of a national initiative to link coastal ocean observing systems operated by federal, state and academic entities. This integrated ocean observing system aims to coordinate existing and new observing systems in order to facilitate data sharing, advance the ability to detect trends and improve decision making. As this integration is implemented and progresses towards real-time data access, GOES satellite telemetry is slated to become a part of the NERRS SWMP water-quality and weather station equipment in the near future. The GTMNERR is scheduled to have this telemetry in place for the weather station and one of the water quality stations (Pellicer Creek) in early 2006.
In addition to the SWMP initiatives, several other research and monitoring programs exist within the GTMNERR, including fisheries studies, GIS-based analyses of human use patterns, bacterial source tracking in shellfish harvesting waters and invasive species monitoring. Many of these studies have been performed by, or in collaboration with, partnering agencies of the GTMNERR. For example, work with the St. Johns River Water Management District has resulted in:
Other research and monitoring efforts by GTMNERR staff and/or academics include seasonal monitoring of sea turtle nesting activity, the development of molecular tools to detect select microbes in estuarine waters and an ongoing invasive species monitoring study involving crabs and mussels.
The Advanced Weather Information Systems research group at the University of North Florida is working with the GTMNERR to design and build a low-cost, web-enabled wireless communication system for data collection in the field.
Research studies within the GTMNERR have also involved a number of graduate students from various institutions. Several of these have been funded through the NERR’s Graduate Research Fellowship program. One GRF project was a study of the southerly fall migration of bluefish to wintering grounds in northeast Florida estuaries. This work included the use of novel analytical techniques to analyze the otoliths (“ear stones”) of the bluefish as a means of tracking growth and migration history. Another investigation recently completed was a GIS study of shoreline erosion within the GTMNERR. Analysis of historical aerial imagery in the southern section of the GTMNERR provided strong evidence for significant marsh erosion caused by the wave energy of boat wakes. A GRF project currently in progress is focused on understanding the growth patterns of native mangrove species and Brazilian pepper, an exotic species that competes with mangrove. The study will involve modeling mangrove forest dynamics under different climate and sea level rise scenarios. (Click NOAA image to the right for a larger view of researcher in the field at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Florida. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit “NOAA/GTMNERR”)
As the GTMNERR research and monitoring program matures in concert with that of the national program and the IOOS initiatives, detailed information regarding the physical, chemical and biological processes of the GTM estuary will grow and provide the fabric from which an increasingly integrated and comprehensive understanding of our coastal natural systems can evolve. It is upon this foundation of knowledge that prudent, ecosystem-based management decisions can be formulated.
The Friends of the GTMNERR is the official citizen support organization for the GTM Reserve. Many community involvement projects and volunteer activities are coordinated with the Friends group, a private, not-for-profit organization. Private donations, fund raising events, social activities, support of GTMNERR programs and the operation of the GTMNERR Nature Store in the Environmental Education Center are part of the Friends of GTMNERR’s many important roles.