Environmental restoration at home: Sanibel volunteers grow mangroves
Sitting in various corners and countertops in Sanibel homes, 140 young red mangroves soak up sunshine, waiting to be planted.
Volunteers caring for the plants learned about the important role mangroves play in Florida during recent online workshops. From protecting shorelines against storms to creating a nursery for a plethora of sea life, mangrove habitat is a vital resource.
The “walking trees” as they’re sometimes called, are part of Coastal Watch’s Back to our Roots initiative under the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s educational arm — Sanibel Sea School.
Kealy McNeal, the conservation initiative coordinator at the Sanibel Sea School, said the program was a way to get the community involved.
“Really, the biggest part of this is the education component of the initiative,” McNeal said. “Not only are we having the volunteers grow mangroves but we’re also having them understand why they are growing them: how animals rely on them, how they reduce erosion, manage water quality and create a buffer against storm damage.”
Why mangroves are important
Mangroves can absorb energy from waves and save beaches from erosion. Scientists predict an increase in storm frequencies and severity and a 2015 study says there is a “potential doubling in the frequency of Atlantic hurricanes as a direct result of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change … ” Protecting and growing mangroves can help alleviate both natural and economic damages from these storms.
These unique ecosystems, sometimes called “nature’s nurseries” are also the incubator of the $7.6 billion seafood industry in the state, which provides 109,000 jobs, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Mangroves not only provide benefits at the roots, but the tree's canopies provide habitat for birds, too.
Eric Milbrandt, SCCF’s Marine Laboratory director, has been identifying areas in the region that have been degraded, namely mangroves and oyster reefs, he said.
SCCF has been working to restore these habitats for the last 17 or 18 years, he said. Three places — Hemp, Benedict and Bird keys — were identified as part of this restoration project.
“One island really important for wildlife is Hemp Key,” he said. “It’s a major bird rookery and designated as protected place, but the mangrove canopy is almost gone.”
So the restoration project will not only help protect the islands from the effects of climate change, but provide beneficial habitat to birds and sea life.
Back to our Roots
The Back to our Roots program, in its first iteration, held virtual workshops since January that focused on “mangrove ecology and the threats mangroves face here in Southwest Florida,” its website says.
While the workshops have wrapped up for now, McNeal said more are planned later this year.
“We’re kind of wrapping up for the season now,” she said. But we plan on having that come back in the fall and get that going again with workshops and starter kits.”
The starter kits volunteers take home contain a one-gallon pot filled with soil and a red mangrove propagule, which is about 10 inches long and shaped like a string bean. Red mangroves, as opposed to the white or black species, are a bit easier to grow, McNeal said.
“Really, just make sure they are watered and receive some love every once in a while,” she said. “We’ve received really great feedback from volunteers on survival rates.”
One volunteer, Ira Grasgreen, said he became interested after receiving an email about the program.
“With all the climate change and obviously with hurricanes, it sounded like really cool initiative to help mangroves and oysters,” Grasgreen said. “SCCF has just been such fantastic organization over the years, and this seemed like a pretty cool thing.”
Grasgreen has been out volunteering to plant mangroves twice before, with a third trip planned Friday. He said he’s been in the horticulture business for about 33 years, so plants have been a passion of his.
“It’s pretty neat heading up to Pine Island and Benedict Key,” he said. “We spread the fossil shells and oyster shells and replant some of the mangroves.”
Even though the virtual workshops have ended, McNeal said there are still plants left.
Once the volunteers’ plants are ready this fall, they can join McNeal and others out to Hemp, Benedict and Bird keys in Pine Island Sound to plant the young mangroves.
“The reason why we picked those restoration sites is because of the damage they received from Hurricane Charley in 2004 — and they were almost completely decimated,” McNeal said. “They’ve been really slow to come back.”
More information about the program, Coastal Watch and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation can be found online at: sancapcoastalwatch.org/back-to-our-roots
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk