Assessments continue on the coastal dune lakes of Walton County.

The Mattie M. Kelly Environmental Institute and the Chotawhatchee Basin Alliance are working together to conduct tests on the local lakes to better understand their fish populations. Their project's goal is to expand the available academic literature on these unique bodies of water and protect them for future generations.

A. Challen Hyman, the MKEI/CBA research scientist in charge of the fish population study, said the organizations have already conducted a pilot study, examining the lakes' (Morris, Oyster, Western and Eastern) chemistry and fish communities.

They found that bluegill dominated Morris Lake, while Oyster Lake had the most bay anchovy. Largemouth bass were prominent in Western Lake, and Eastern Lake contained large amounts of pinfish.

"In my opinion, the biggest threat facing the coastal dune lakes is the potential threat of unrestricted development," Hyman said. "However, Walton County has done a great job, up to this point, of keeping development around the lakes in check, especially with their policy of prohibiting development within 100 feet of lake shoreline."

Hyman said the organizations are looking over the numbers from the pilot test and working on a report, along with prepping for a long-term study that will specifically focus on Western Lake, which has three distinct lobes that average different salt concentrations annually.

"While these lobes are technically all a part of the same water-body, they are separated from each other by channels, which can be thought of almost as choke points that effectively keep their water chemistries distinctive from one another," Hyman said.

In addition, the lakes' connections to the Gulf of Mexico are sporadic throughout the year. For example, Hyman said Eastern Lake connects with the Gulf more often than Morris Lake, leading to higher salinity levels.

"There is much to learn about these gems along the Emerald Coast," Dr. Dana Stephens, Director of Mattie M. Kelly Environmental Institute, said. "We are excited for the opportunity to scientifically understand the ecological form and function of these systems and, most importantly, share our results with others."