300 Tower Road, Naples, FL
COLLIER COUNTY — The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve isn’t only about science.
There’s also a lot of fun to be had within the preserve.
That’s the message Rookery Bay officials hoped to get out during the attraction’s first media and tourism day.
Robin DeMattia, director of marketing and development for Friends of Rookery Bay told a group of about a dozen who attended the event, “we want to show you ways to get out, see what it is, and how to enjoy it, responsibly.”
The day began with a tour of the Environmental Learning Center, which hosts fourth-grade field trips during the school year. The two-story building teaches young and old alike about estuaries, coastal habitats and area history through interactive exhibits.
The working labs and offices house 32 staff members, the largest staff of the 27 National Estuarine Research Reserve sites in the United States.
An estuary is the tidal mouth of a river where the tide meets a freshwater stream, as saltwater and freshwater mix to become brackish.
Rookery Bay also runs daily educational programs for drop-in visitors, shows a looping movie about the reserve in the auditorium all day and has a 2,300-gallon aquarium. From the second story, one can bird watch or step out onto the elevated bridge to cross Henderson Creek.
Once across, visitors can wind through a mangrove forest on the new half-mile Snail Trail loop, which will reopen on National Estuaries Day, Sept. 25. It is wheelchair accessible.
Rookery Bay is a working research facility that is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The National Estuarine Research Reserve system is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Established in 1978, the reserve is working on solutions to remedy impaired water quality, especially in Naples Bay. The staffers are also involved with counting shark nurseries, fish monitoring programs and keeping an eye on the dwindling number of Southwest Florida’s three species of sea turtles.
They also focus on ongoing systemwide water monitoring programs and Best Management Practices Certification, which all professional landscapers must take.
“It’s actually good for their businesses because they save money by not using more fertilizer than they have to,” said Renee Wilson, a Rookery Bay staffer who oversees the program. Too much fertilizer is bad for estuaries and the Gulf, causing algae blooms that rob the ocean of oxygen.
During the boating and trawling portion of the tour, Brooke Carney, an education coordinator with Rookery Bay, piloted the reserve’s 28-foot research boat, the “Megalops,” through Hall Bay and out into the estuary near Cannon Island where the group participated in a “scientific trawl.” The net trawled a half mile of muddy bottom and hauled the catch back on board.
Carney carefully pulled each species from the trawl net: three juvenile catfish of two different species, several cone jellies, porcelain and stone crabs, reef squid, parchment tube worm, sea sponge, a flounder, a tunicate or sea squirt, a lizard fish, a mojarra, a lane snapper with tiny silver baitfish and a bat fish.
“Eighty-five percent of all the marine species humans interact with here in Southwest Florida start in the estuaries,” Carney said.
The health and number of these species is constantly monitored, especially indicator species such as stone crab, which will tell researchers if there is a problem with the water. Shark monitoring is done much the same way, being at the top of the food chain; if there is a problem, it will start to show in counts of the young.
Five automated water-monitoring systems dot the reserve, which send a signal every 15 minutes to a satellite then back to researchers. The instruments will relay salinity, alkalinity, temperature, depth and more.
“This data that has been collecting over the years establish baselines for scientists from Rookery Bay, FGCU, and professionals around the world for study,” Carney explained. “We can’t know if something changed drastically unless we have something to compare it to.”