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Date of Issue: December 22, 2005

Sandscript

Lots of big shrimp, lots of Florida panther dumbness to mull

Half empty.

Half full.

Bad news.

Good news.

Red tide is a abomination spawned by Satan that causes horrendous destruction of our marine ecosystem, killing marine creatures from our watery cousins the dolphins and manatees to trout, eels and even bottom-dwelling and harmless sand dollars and the lowly tube worm. Sea birds are suffering, too.

Or, red tide is a natural cleansing action that has spawned an increase of the normally small-sized shrimp and crabs in the bays to very, very large sizes and will result in an enhancement of the bay ecology, eventually resulting in a better, bigger fishery.

Pick any combination of the above. There's probably no wrong answer.

We're at the one-year mark of the red tide outbreak that we've had to endure. At times, it hasn't been pretty for residents, businesses or visitors, what with dead fish, stinky air and undue need to scrape beaches and bays of the detritus.

But there's been some oddities reported in the last week regarding the odd year-long red tide outbreak, too, that could mean … well, you go figure. Good news or bad.

My buddy and colleague Bob Ardren has told me that he's getting reports of trawlers working out of Sarasota Bay getting huge shrimp in their take. We're talking up to 6-inch-long shrimp here, bigger than you're gonna get at pretty much any Island restaurant I can think of, and far too large for a mess of pinfish to feast upon.

Bob's source, Dennis Hart of famed Hart's Landing by the Ringling Bridge, attributes the extra-jumbos to the red tide. Fish move out, what shrimp make it through the outbreak and survive, then thrive if they're not eaten.

Well, sure … maybe.

John Stevely is the area marine extension agent for the University of Florida and knows lots about fisheries issues, red tide and all things marine.

He said there have always been anecdotal data on red tide causing one fishery to have problems while another has ended up thriving. It's not all that complicated if you think it through:

Lots of dead fish, ending up on the bottom, result in something that crabs would find attractive to feed upon.

Lots of dead fish, eliminated from the food chain, leave lots of things they would normally feed upon alive, like shrimp.

No studies, though, so no hard-and-fast info.

So let's go to "ground truthing" and get some real-time data about the state of the bays.

Capt. Zach Zacharias out of Cortez has been fishing the waters off our shores for many, many years. He said that Sarasota Bay "got hit very hard, repeatedly, from the red tide last summer. It has taken quite a bit longer for the bay to come back but it has. There is an absolute glut of sheepshead available and other species, such as bluefish, ladyfish and pompano, have come back. Snook, redfish and flounder took refuge from the red tide in a lot of backwater creeks and bayous around the bay and are available there, but the open seagrass flats are still lagging behind."

Open grass flats, of course, are where the shrimp trawlers traverse and where the jumbos are being scooped up.

For the bad news, Capt. Zach said that trout are a wipe out in the Sarasota Bay system due to the red tide.

"Trout have literally been wiped out in the area from the mouth of the Manatee River down through Sarasota Bay to Venice," he said. "As is usually the case, both shrimp and blue crabs have exploded after the red tide and the shrimp are plentiful and huge all along the coast from Englewood to Cedar Key. The area is paved with blue crabs right now, too."

Jeez, Zach, "paved with blue crabs?" Get the steamer pot ready!

More critter tales

Not too long ago I had a small full-sized Doberman pinscher that let me feed her. She was one of the few mutts I've ever had that actually understood voice commands, so she was usually allowed out on the estate without a leash, but always with some form of adult supervision, such as I am.

One evening she started baying and howling. To cut to the chase, she'd cornered one of the several dozen raccoons that lurk through the property and neighborhood.

Dobie: 75 pounds.

Coon: Maybe 30 pounds.

Survivor: Both, but the big dog got a nice-size gash in her stomach for the effort.

Result: A much more watchful pet owner, and a much wiser dog when it came to wildlife interactions.

So it's with a little puzzlement that the following, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, comes to you. As a mostly responsible pet owner, I'm really puzzled about what the heck someone could have been thinking about caring for their animals.

"An investigation by FWC officers has confirmed an Immokalee homeowner's report that a Florida panther killed his pet Chihuahua.

"The homeowner said he shined a light out of his window after hearing the dog yelping. He said a few minutes later the panther retreated to the woods with the small dog. The homeowner reported the incident to the FWC, which dispatched law enforcement officers to investigate.

"When officers arrived, the panther and dog were gone, but there was blood on the ground. An officer and a biologist returned to the scene the following morning and found the fresh tracks of a male Florida panther.

"Before the attack, the Chihuahua and another pet dog were tethered by a cable in the side yard of the residence near adjacent woods. There was no fence between the dogs and the forest area. The property is surrounded by many acres of wildlife habitat, connected to areas often used by panthers."

OK, let's see: Panther country, a mere bite of a dog, no fence, left out at night … why am I thinking bait?

Incredibly, this kind of dumb action by pet owners is apparently not all that widespread, though.

According to the FWC, "This is the second report of a Florida panther attacking a domestic dog in 20 years. The last one was in the late 1980s, but the dog involved in that attack was not seriously injured. In 2004, a Florida panther killed two domestic goats and an emu near Ochopee.

"Interactions between Florida panthers and humans are rare. The cats hunt at night and generally are afraid of people. There has never been a reported injury or death of a human caused by a Florida panther."

It gets better, though. As the FWC said, "FWC law enforcement officers are paying repeat visits to the site where the dog attack occurred. The homeowner told officers he was particularly concerned because the family runs a small daycare center out of the house during the day. However, he said the family has taken measures to ensure the safety of the children."

Right. Remember the "no fence, bait" comments above.

Keep the growing going

Our friend Jane Morse has offered a few more plant tips to help us as we wind into the winter season. She's a University of Florida/IFAS Manatee County Extension Agent. She advises the following for keeping your plants warm and happy during the winter months.

First, as she puts it, "Proper plant selection and placement are the most important steps toward having a healthy landscape. Cold-sensitive plants should be placed in the warmest sites on your property, usually a south-facing area protected by walls, fences or evergreen plantings. Poorly-drained sites result in weak, shallow-rooted plants which are more likely to suffer from cold damage. Best choice - choose plants that will easily tolerate the temperatures you are likely to receive.

"Fertilize, if needed, at the right time. Plants in south central Florida can be fertilized in February, May, August and November. In the fall decrease the amount of fertilizer to half the standard rate because plants are not actively growing and use less water and plant nutrients. Always use slow-release fertilizers because they provide nutrients over a longer period of time and decrease the likelihood of nitrogen getting into our water supply.

"Plants in shady areas go dormant earlier and remain dormant later in the spring. Tree canopies also provide protection from "radiation" freezes, which occurs on cold, clear, still nights because heat ‘radiates' from objects into the air. Mulches help to protect the roots, and coverings such as cloth or plastic protect more from frost than from extreme cold. Covers need to be raised above the plant and go all the way to the ground. Cardboard boxes large enough to cover the entire plant work great."

Morse added that "Watering landscape plants before a freeze can help protect plants, but avoid having the soil saturated for a prolonged time." A little goes a long way, in other words.

She and the rest of the gang at the extension service offer really valuable resources to place next to your shovel or watering can, and you can tap into them - free - with a phone call at 722-4524.

Books for your friends, from our friend

Islander Gretchen Edgren will be signing a couple of her Playbooy books at 11 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 22, at Circle Books on St. Armands in Sarasota.

"They are updates of the original books published in 1994 and 1996, then called ‘The Playboy Book: 40 Years' and ‘The Playmate Book: Five Decades of Centerfolds," she said.

"The new volumes contain all the material from the earlier books about Hugh Hefner, the magazine, other Playboy Enterprises ventures and the Playmates (from December 1954's Marilyn Monroe onward), but continue on from there through the year 2004."

Gretchen interviewed nearly all of the ladies who had been Playmates from 1997 through 2004, and also revisited many of the vintage centerfolds to see what had been happening in their lives since 1996.

Sandscript factoid

From the FWC comes what could have been thought of as the obvious unless you've read the above issue about the pet owner.

"Panther experts advise parents living in Florida panther country to watch children whenever they play outdoors, and make sure they are inside before dusk and not outside before dawn. Parents should also talk with children about Florida panthers and teach them what to do if they encounter one, specifically, not to approach the cat, not to run and not to crouch down (which would make children appear smaller)."

If the obvious isn't obvious enough, you can access a fact sheet of "Living Safely in Florida Panther Country" at MyFWC.com/panther.

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