NewsProtecting Paradise


Conservationists in Florida's Panhandle fight to save aquatic wildlife

'We are going to lose it, and I'm not real optimistic we are going to save it,' Jack Rudloe says
Posted at 1:20 PM, Nov 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-31 07:21:53-04

Across the state of Florida, our waterways are being impacted by a host of issues: rising temperatures, pollution, development, among other problems. But some areas are feeling it more than most.

Reporter Sophia Hernandez and photojournalist Antony Sherrod traveled across the state for a special series of reports we are calling "The State of our Seas."

In the state's Panhandle is where the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab is located.

It's an environmental education center that began in the 1960s originally to help research labs and schools better understand the ecosystems of the Panhandle.

The center's work is more important now than ever.

"It's a little paradise, a little treasure all by itself, and it's being threatened," Jack Rudloe said.

To some, Rudloe is a cynic.

"Start treating the amazing lands that we have as the gems that they are," Rudloe said. "We are going to lose it, and I'm not real optimistic we are going to save it."

But to most, he's a pioneer in the conservation community.

"You see a perfectly productive habitat full of fiddler crabs, and grass shrimp and all that stuff," Rudloe explained. "They are there one week, and then the next thing you know, it's all ripped to pieces. It's gone, and it's turned into a big mud hole."

Rudloe has written seven books on the region. The first few specifically focused on the landscape. He said the biggest driver has been development.

"All good shape until man starts getting involved with it," Rudloe sarcastically said.

He's talking about the wetlands, the primary nursery for all things that come in and out of this region. Since the 1970s, Florida has passed extensive legislation to protect wetlands.

The Florida Wetlands Program regulates "any dredging, filling, or construction in, on, or over waters and wetlands that are connected, either naturally or artificially, to 'named waters.'" That includes the Gulf of Mexico, its estuaries and lagoons.

But there are still problems.

Wakulla Springs was where the 1950s movie "Creature from the Black Lagoon" was filmed. It is one of the largest freshwater springs in the world and has been around for more than 12,000 years.

But in recent months, talks of putting a 16-pump gas station near the springs has sparked lots of pushback, including from Rudloe.

It's caused the company to put a pause on their permits.

"We've basically punched holes in the tires, so they are still going down the road going flop, flop, flop and we are still losing habitat," Rudloe shared. "But it's still a fight."

The fight also remains with runoff.

One example Rudloe shared is a new golf course.

"They put in a spray field to fertilize the golf course, but where is that water going to go but into our aquifer and into our creeks, which is going to result in more fish kills," Rudloe said.

Like many things on the water, there's the bad.

"So, now you don't see seahorses anymore like you used to?" Hernandez asked.

"Not much, not like how you used to see them," Rudloe answered.

But occasionally, there's some good news.

Loggerhead sea turtles might be threatened, but their largest home is in the Gulf of Mexico where they are protected.

"All of the nesting groups on St. George Island, Alligator Point, Cape San Glass, they've done quite a bit," Rudloe stated.

What he said is most important now is educating. That's why he started the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, to show others just how vital these marine animals are.

"It’s such a big ocean, and there's so (many) questions about what's going on with individual species, you can't come up with easy answers," Rudloe said.

But he's doing his best to understand what he can and try to show others that leaving these critters and the place they call home alone, he believes, is best for everyone.