Pine Island is at the center of the Charlotte Harbor estuary — historically one of the healthiest estuaries in the nation. Estuaries — the place where fresh water from land meets salt water from the sea — play a key role in the life histories of many species, certainly too many to list here. But rest assured that the target species of many of our recreational anglers spend part or all of their lives in our estuary and that they rely on having healthy seagrasses and mangrove shorelines that provide much-needed protections for their early life stages. Our healthy estuary depends in large part on the pollution controls in place for the huge watersheds that feed the three rivers that affect our estuary: the Peace, Myakka and Caloosahatchee.
Mangroves are one of the most important habitats on our island. They serve as storm buffers, protecting shorelines from hurricane storm surge. They also stabilize those same shorelines, which helps reduce erosion and — because they filter pollutants — mangroves improve water clarity. Mangrove prop roots are also home to filter feeders such as oysters, barnacles and tunicates, which also help remove pollutants from the water.
In addition to providing a home for filter feeders, mangroves are also essential habitat for hundreds of animal species, including many recreationally and commercially important fish and invertebrate species. Even their decaying leaves are important, forming the base of the estuarine food chain.
Pine Island’s salt marshes are in-between habitats: low-lying areas between dry ground and the estuary that can be flooded by fresh water after heavy rains and salt water during high tides. Plants in salt marshes must be salt-tolerant and include red, black, and white mangroves, buttonwood, cordgrass, marsh elder, seaside goldenrod and sea oxeyes. Animal inhabitants of Pine Island’s salt marshes include fiddler crabs, shrimp, blue crabs, sheepshead minnow, longnose killfish, sailfin mollies, pinfish, American alligators, diamondback terrapins, Alabama red-bellied turtles, Gulf salt marsh water snakes, marsh rabbits, rice rats, possums and raccoons. On a negative note, salt marshes are also home to salt marsh mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass have some of the healthiest seagrass meadows remaining in Florida. Seagrasses are species of submerged aquatic vegetation (i.e., plants that live underwater). The main types of local seagrasses are turtle grass, shoal grass and manatee grass. Seagrass meadows are extremely important habitat for many juvenile and adult fish species, including redfish, spotted seatrout, mangrove snapper, snook, gag grouper and goliath grouper, and invertebrates, including stone crab, blue crab, shrimp, lightning whelk, horse conch, scallop, crown conch, Southern quahog and banded tulip. You will also see dolphins, manatees, loggerhead sea turtles and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in our seagrass meadows.
Our island is called Pine Island because — you guessed it — it has lots of pine trees, specifically slash pines, that make up the native habitat known as pine flatwoods, which are the most extensive terrestrial ecosystem in Florida. In addition to slash pines, Pine Island’s pine flatwood plant community is made up of saw palmetto, cabbage palm, wax myrtle and live oak. Flatwood mammals include bobcat, possum, coyote, raccoon and cotton rat. Bird species include bald eagle, osprey, red-shouldered hawk, pileated woodpecker and great horned owl. Gopher tortoises, box turtles, anoles, Eastern indigo snakes and diamondback rattlesnakes also hang out in Pine Flatwoods.
Tropical hardwood hammocks
These are areas that are higher than the surrounding land. On Pine Island and the estuary islands, they consist of subtropical plant species such as cabbage palms, live oaks and tropical plants such as gumbo limbo, mastic and ficus. Hammocks develop at elevations high enough to prevent seasonal flooding and can occur in marshes, pine flatwoods, mangrove swamps and the interiors of wetland tree islands. Hammocks make their own climate: Shade created by the dense vegetation keeps the hammock’s interior several degrees cooler than the surrounding habitat during the summer, and the vegetation shelters the hammock’s interior from northerly winds during winter cold fronts. Because hammocks are high and dry, they have been aggressively targeted by developers, and few are left in Southwest Florida. Among the last remaining hardwood hammocks on Pine Island are Calusa Island, York Island and Big Jim Creek Preserve, all of which are owned by the Calusa Land Trust.
In fact, the Calusa Land Trust plays a very important role in protecting critical Pine Island habitats and the GPICA supports its mission. For more information, visit the Trust’s website.