Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, Florida

Source: NOAA


caption Apalachicola Reserve boundary map. (Source: NERRS)

Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive estuarine systems in the Northern Hemisphere. The reserve protects the region’s biological diversity, as well as the economic value of the natural resources and pristine conditions.

The bay is within the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), a network of estuarine habitats protected and managed for the purposes of long-term research, education, and coastal stewardship. Established by Congress in 1972 as part of the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), the NERRS is administered as a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the coastal states.

Between 60 to 85 percent of the local population make their living directly from the fishing industry, most of which is done in reserve waters. Seafood landings from the Apalachicola Reserve are worth $14-16 million dockside annually. At the consumer level, this represents a $70-$80 million industry.

Understandably, research projects that target commercial fisheries management and the food chain are a high priority in the Apalachicola Reserve. In addition to its water quality monitoring program, the reserve has engaged in extensive benthic habitat mapping in Apalachicola Bay and has a highly sophisticated geographic information system (GIS), which is used to educate coastal managers and visiting researchers about the area and its ecology.

Other educational offerings include ongoing guest lectures for the community and coastal management workshops for environmental professionals. The reserve's K-12 educational activities are divided between classroom and on-site programs.

Site Description

The Apalachicola Estuary is a lagoon and barrier island complex. It has been classified as a shallow coastal plain estuary oriented in an east-west direction. Because of the placement of the barrier island complex, it could be called a coastal lagoon.

The Apalachicola Reserve's habitats include barrier island, estuarine, riverine, floodplain and upland environments. Major estuarine habitats found within the reserve include oyster bars, submerged vegetation, tidal flats, soft sediment, marshes and open water. Upland habitats include sandhills, coastal scrub, pine flatwoods and mixed hardwood communities. Wetland habitats include freshwater marsh, salt marsh, riverine, lacustrine, palustrine, open bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, the floodplain forest of mixed hardwoods, tupelo-cypress with mixed hardwoods, pine and mixed hardwoods and willow thickets create some of the most pristine bottomland forests in the southeastern United States. Major vegetative communities on the islands include beach/dune, slash pine flatwoods, oak-rosemary scrub and tidal marsh.


More than 1,500 plant species have been identified within the Apalachicola drainage basin with 107 of them listed as threatened or endangered. Also, the largest stand of tupelo trees in the world is found in the lower Apalachicola River flood plain. A variety of vegetative communities, such as coastal scrub, dunes, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, marshes, ponds and sloughs are found on the reserve's islands. Vegetation in the salt marshes is made up primarily of black needlerush, smooth cordgrass and saltgrass. Freshwater ponds and marshes are dominated by sawgrass and cattail.

Primary forest types found within the reserve are pine (slash, sand and loblolly); pine and mixed hardwoods (sweetgum, sugarberry, water oak, loblolly pine); mixed hardwoods (water hickory, sweetgum, overcup oak, green ash, and sugarberry); tupelo-cypress with mixed hardwoods (water tupelo, ogeechee tupelo, bald cypress, swamp tupelo, Carolina ash, planer tree); tupelo-cypress (water tupelo, bald cypress, ogeechee tupelo, swamp tupelo); and pioneer (black willow, swamp cottonwood).


caption (Source: NERRS)

The Apalachicola River drainage basin has the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the United States and Canada. The reserve lands are home to more than 40 species of amphibians and 80 species of reptiles. Among these many species are the southern dusky salamander, the gopher frog, Barbour's map turtle (which is endemic to the Apalachicola River), Atlantic loggerhead turtle, Apalachicola kingsnake and eastern indigo snake.

Mammals are also abundant within the reserve. More than 50 species are found within the Apalachicola basin. Opossum, bats, shrews, mice, moles, voles, rabbits and other small mammals are plentiful in the reserve. Other mammals sighted include foxes, weasels, black bears, mink, bobcats, coyotes, deer, feral pigs, bottlenose dolphin and the West Indian manatee.

The reserve and surrounding drainage basin are among the most important bird habitats in the Southeastern United States. Lying on the fringe of the Mississippi flyway, the reserve receives large numbers of birds from both the Midwest and the Atlantic Seaboard during migratory periods. The species list currently totals more than 300.

Over 180 species of fish have been documented from the river and bay system. There are eight anadromous species, four endemic species and seven introduced species included within this list. Fish found within the reserve include the Gulf of Mexico sturgeon, American eel, striped bass, bluestripe shiner and shoal bass. Common estuarine and marine species that are of local importance commercially include striped mullet, speckled trout, menhaden, red drum, flounders and sharks.

Endangered Species

The West Indian manatee, the Indiana bat and the gray bat are listed as endangered species and have been found within the reserve. Twenty of the reserve's birds are listed as endangered, threatened or species of special concern by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

The Georgia blind salamander is a species of special concern, as well as the American alligator, the gopher frog, the gopher tortoise, Barbour's map turtle and the alligator snapping turtle. Three sea turtles, the Atlantic ridley, the green and the leatherback, are listed as endangered, and the Atlantic loggerhead turtle and the eastern indigo snake are both listed as threatened species. Reserve fish listed as species of special concern include Atlantic sturgeon, Bluestripe shiner and shoal bass. More than 100 of the Basin's 1500 plant species are listed as either endangered or threatened.

Tidal Range and River Flow

Apalachicola Bay is in an area of transition between the semidiurnal tides of southwest Florida and the diurnal tides of northwest Florida. Its tides are, therefore, classified as mixed tides, which accounts for the number of tides, ranging from 1 to 5 daily. The normal tidal range in the bay is one to two feet with a maximum range of three feet.

The mean annual discharge of the river is approximately 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) 21 miles upriver, which includes the discharge of the Chipola River. Minimum and maximum flows average 6,000 cfs and 200,000 cfs respectively, though yearly flows vary considerably. Apalachicola River discharge accounts for 35 percent of the total fresh water runoff from the west coast of Florida.

Soil Types

The reserve is large and therefore contains a great number of soil associations. Following is a brief description of the main categories found, including the specific names within each category that are found in the reserve:

  • Soils of the low uplands and high flatwoods are somewhat poorly drained to moderately well drained (Albany-Blanton-Stilson)
  • Soils of the sandridges and coastal islands are excessively drained, moderately well drained and poorly drained (Mandarin-Resota-Leon, Corolla-Duckston-Newhan)
  • Soils of the flatwoods are very poorly drained to poorly drained (Plummer-Surrency-Pelham, Leon-Scranton-Lynn Haven)
  • Soils of the sloughs, low flatwoods and depressions are poorly drained to very poorly drained (Scranton-Rutlege, Pickney-Pamlico-Dorovan)
  • Soils of the river floodplains are poorly drained and very poorly drained, with frequent flooding (Chowan-Brickyard-Wehadkee)
  • Soils of the tidal marshes are very poorly drained (Bohicket-Tisonia-Dirego)


The Apalachicola embayment is the major structural feature that dominates the geology of the reserve and river system. This feature represents the downfallen block of land that is a relatively shallow basin between the Ocala and Chattahoochee uplifts. The large cusp of the entire Apalachicola coast is believed to have been built out by the Apalachicola River during the late Tertiary and Quaternary periods and has subsequently been modified by waves and longshore drift. The present structure of the bay system is considered to be less than 10,000 years old and the general outline of the bay has been stable over the last 5,000 years, except for the southward migration of the delta into the estuary. The present barrier island chain formation is thought to have occurred approximately 5,000 years ago when sea level reached its modern position.


The ANERR research and monitoring program promotes research within the Apalachicola Reserve utilizing a variety of methods. First, the research program provides the setting and basic equipment to attract and assist researchers to the area. Second, the Reserve tries to direct outside researchers to priority research topics which address important coastal management issues. Third, the program has developed in-house, management-oriented research and monitoring projects to address issues of local, state, and national concern. Finally, the research and monitoring program also spends time coordinating with local, state, regional, and federal agencies on local land development regulations and ordinances, dredge and fill projects, oil spill planning, large-scale development reviews, interstate water issues, coastal zone planning, threatened and endangered species protection and monitoring, and any other issues that may impact the resources within and adjacent to ANERR.

Projects research staff are currently involved in include red wolf reintroduction on Cape St. George Island, sea turtle nest protection and monitoring, listed bird species nest protection and monitoring, continuous water quality monitoring in the bay, meteorological monitoring, coliform source determination, development of a Geographical Information System (GIS), compilation of a computerized library system, completion of a site profile that characterizes the system, monitoring of erosion and accretion on barrier island beaches, erosion and accretion of local marshes utilizing sediment erosion tables (SET), monitoring of fish and benthic macroinvertebrates, and monitoring of local shoreline development. The wide diversity of projects and agencies involved attest to the variety of habitats and issues that are associated with ANERR. Within the last several years, more projects dealing with resource management issues have been undertaken than any other. This is related to the State of Florida’s efforts at better managing the resources within its jurisdiction as well as the research and monitoring section’s efforts at management-oriented results.

The research staff also work with regional universities such as Florida State University, University of Florida, University of South Florida, University of Auburn, and Georgia Tech, as well as other agencies on basic and applied research projects. Through efforts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), two graduate research fellowships are awarded annually to work on applied research in Apalachicola Bay. Basic field sampling equipment, boats, and a fully equipped laboratory are also available to researchers and graduate students to help in their scientific efforts. Technical and additional logistical support is available for many projects, especially those dealing with priority issues that threaten the health of the Apalachicola Bay system.

Resource Management

All facets of Resource Management by the Reserve are guided by the primary goal of providing protection, conservation, restoration and enhancement of habitats within the Reserve, as well as those outside Reserve boundaries which may impact Reserve communities. Private landowners have access to Reserve staff and other appropriate management agencies for assistance in determining their land management practices.

Key elements to success in this program include an active acquisition program and appropriate management of publicly-owned lands. Ongoing resource management activities conducted by Reserve staff are discussed below.

Prescribed Fire

Natural communities within ANERR, including scrub, wet flatwoods, marshes and mesic flatwoods are adapted to and/or dependent on fire to maintain species composition and diversity. Vast pre-Columbian Florida landscapes lacked the fragmentation caused by highways, canals, trails and other development. As a result, lightning-induced or aboriginal-set, fires were able to burn continuously across uninterrupted community types restricted only by natural firebreaks such as wet communities or waterways.

The fragmentation of these pyrogenic communities and suppression of natural fire has resulted in changes to plant species composition and diversity. These changes include high vegetation fuel load, suppression-induced succession and development of near mono-culture areas of woody species (e.g., pine with palmetto understory or titi fringed wetlands).

The primary objectives of the prescribed burning program on Reserve lands are to; restore and maintain pyrogenic natural communities; restore and maintain natural communities for listed plant and animal species; promote natural diversity in pyrogenic communities; reestablish lightning season burn regime; reduce the potential for detrimental effects of catastrophic wildfires, e.g., impacted air quality, loss of soils through erosion, liability associated with smoke management, loss of habitat diversity and to maintain ecotones or transitional zones between community types.

Exotic Species Control

Exotic species are those that did not evolve as part of Florida’s natural flora and fauna, and have been introduced to the state from other areas of the United States or foreign countries.

In its native range, each species has naturally occurring predators, disease or other environmental factors which keep populations in balance with its natural range. When a species is introduced into an area lacking those natural controls, it may exercise proliferation to a level displacing native species and degrading natural communities. Some species are able to survive without excessive proliferation and pose little threat to natural communities. Control methods may include manual / mechanical removal, physical controls, trapping or herbicides in combination or alone. Nuisance behavior by natives may also call for management activities on a case-by-case basis. Education of community residents regarding the impacts of invasive non-natives assists the Reserve in controlling immigration from adjacent lands.

The Reserve staff removes infestations of exotic species as they occur on Reserve lands, either by hand removal or application of herbicide on individual plants.

Cultural Resource Protection

The Apalachicola River valley is believed to have been occupied by humans for over 10,000 years and is believed to have been an ideal environment for large prehistoric human populations comprised of small hunting groups, farming peoples or aquatic species-based hunter-gatherers. Paleo-indian through Mississipian cultural sites are represented, as are historic settlements, structures and occupational sites.

The Apalachicola River and Bay drainage basin, which includes the Reserve, contains over 100 archaeological sites and numerous historic structures.

Several systematic intensive surveys have been accomplished or are ongoing within the boundary of the Reserve. An archaeological study funded by the Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (DHR) investigated the impact of record 1994 flooding on 24 newly located and 67 previously located sites within the Apalachicola River drainage basin. Several sites exposed by flooding, hurricane-generated wave action or coastal erosion were surveyed within the Reserve. Reserve staff assisted in the logistics required for this survey and helped record sites and conducted educational programs in conjunction with this survey. Upon discovery of cultural sites on Reserve managed lands, Reserve staff include protection measures for the site while conducting other Resource management activities.

Hydrologic Disturbance Restoration

Hydrologic disturbances may affect natural communities in several ways including changes to natural community species and composition, loss of soils through erosion, providing vectors for exotic species infestation and degrading the aesthetic value of a scenic vista. Channelization of runoff through ditches or plowlines lessens the ability of natural systems to filter contaminants from the water.

Hydrologic disturbances may occur on Reserve lands in the following forms, and may require listed action for restoration; four wheel drive, or woods roads; removal and restoration; removal of fill from stabilized or improved roads; closing unnecessary footpaths; filling and revegetating unnecessary ponds, or managing those ponds as natural waterbodies where beneficial; remove and allow drainage ditches to revegetate and restore old fire plowlines; and filling and replanting borrow pits. All activities are monitored for effectiveness and to prevent exotic infestation.

Cultural History

caption (Source: NERRS)

The Fort Walton people were the first natives encountered by the earliest Spanish explorers. Although there is no record of the first encounters with Native Americans of the region from written history, some European artifacts have been found in a few Fort Walton graves. Indians in northwest Florida, as elsewhere in the southeast, were rapidly devastated, not as much by Spanish weapons as by European diseases. Small pox and even something as harmless as the common cold or flu killed as many as 90 percent of native American groups, who had no natural resistance to foreign germs.

Native populations that did not completely disappear moved around a great deal, probably merging with the remainders of tribal groups to try to continue their way of life. By the late 1600s the Spanish had set up a chain of missions extending westward past Tallahassee, where the Apalachee Indians were settled. Florida's native groups died out rapidly, leaving northwest Florida fairly empty. We know only a few names, such as the Sabacola or Sawokli, the Tawasa and the Chatot. These may have been tribal names or titles of important chiefs or village leaders. Because the Indians had no written language, most of their oral history died with their storytellers.

Partners and Supporters

Apalachicola Reserve is operated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Other local, state and federal agencies also share the responsibility of managing the natural and cultural resources within the reserve, including Franklin County Government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Park Service, Florida Marine Patrol, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and Northwest Florida Water Management District. Friends of the Reserve is a non-profit organization that was established in 1987 to support program funding.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2009). Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, Florida. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/150141


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