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MARCO ISLAND — Over the past century, said Robin Lewis, development has destroyed something like 150,000 acres of mangrove wetlands in the state of Florida. Now, he and a coalition of private and government groups are trying to restore a couple of hundred acres to health.
Thursday morning, Lewis met with team members including Liberta Scotto of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, surveyor Scott Rhodes, and Marco resident Bob Olson, at the site along State Road 92. Over 225 acres of mangroves are dead or dying, giving the appearance, said Olson, that “a nuclear bomb went off,” leaving a forest of skeleton trees, and at times a strong odor of rotting vegetation.
Roy “Robin” Lewis, head of Coastal Resources Group, a non-profit NGO, or non-governmental organization, is one of the world’s foremost mangrove restoration experts, said Jeffrey Carter, stewardship coordinator and aquatic preserve manager at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (RBNERR). Rookery Bay manages the land in question, between the City of Marco Island and Goodland, adjacent to the Stevens Landing and Key Marco developments.
“Robin has done hundreds of mangrove restorations, all over the world, and had a lot of success,” said Carter. “He did the Clam Pass project in Naples,” which was more difficult, because of the density of residential development in Pelican Bay surrounding that ecosystem.
Lewis announced during the gathering that they are beginning physical restoration efforts, with work scheduled to start Feb. 12, and hope to have final permits in hand within two weeks – a Christmas present for the environment. Permit approvals have been winding through a web of overlapping government agencies as labyrinthine as any mangrove roots. In addition to Rookery Bay, the City of Marco Island, which maintains SR 92, and Fish & Wildlife, the state DEP, South Florida Water Management District, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must all sign off on the work.
Olson, dubbed a “citizen scientist” by Lewis, has been part of the team as a volunteer, helping to raise awareness of the need for the restoration. He has been instrumental in raising funds for the project, said Lewis. “Bob has been responsible for most of the private donations that have come in,” he said. Olson stressed that, while the city is a co-applicant, and part of the team, absolutely no City of Marco Island tax funds are being sought for the project.
“This is a problem that can be solved,” said Olson. “It’s not rocket science, it’s basic plumbing.” The building of SR 29 left the mangroves without the regular flushing by the ebb and flow of the tides, and essentially drowned them in major rain events, notably Hurricane Andrew in 1992, said Lewis. The goal of the restoration is not to plant mangroves, other than a few for demonstration purposes, but to restore the tidal flow that will allow them to thrive.
“Mother Nature plants mangroves much better than you and me. We need to restore the natural water flow, and create conditions where they can flourish,” said Lewis. With the man-made alterations to the ecosystem, the mangroves actually choke themselves, and channels must be cut to allow the water to flow. The primary method for providing tidal flow is through the installation of culverts under the road, and this is where the need for funds comes in.
“First, we had to get the research done. We did. Now, we’re going to be needing community support,” said Lewis.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, through their Coastal Program headquartered in Vero Beach, has provided key funding. The Federal government will allocate more money, with a three to one match of private dollars, putting up $450,000 if the local community can raise $150,000, to cover the approximate total of $600,000 needed.
“People need to understand how this is connected to fisheries,” said Scotto of Fish & Wildlife. “This is the basis of the food chain. Without the estuaries, you don’t have anything.” Fish species including snook, spotted sea trout, and Goliath grouper, as well as shrimp and crabs, all use the mangroves as a nursery, said Lewis.
Once the correct hydrology is in place, said Lewis, “we’ll get some re-vegetation in three to six months, and significant mangrove re-vegetation in one to two years,” although it will take up to 20 years for complete restoration.
Those wishing to help with the project can contact Coastal Resources Group, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization, at (352) 546-4842, write a check to CRG at P.O. Box 30, Marco Island, Florida 34146, or go online to www.marcomangroves.com.