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Captiva resident in the running of winning $375,000 grant

By Staff | Aug 5, 2015

Captiva resident Matthew Gamel holds black pearls produced by pen shells, which can be found in the Gulf of Mexico about 20 to 30 feet from the coast, or in sea grass beds in the bay when there are good tidal waves. MEGHAN McCOY

One Captiva resident is anxiously waiting to hear if his team’s challenge of growing a multifaceted industry around one of the largest bivalves in the world will take home the grand prize of a $375,000 grant.

“I think we have one of the most unique projects,” Florida Gulf Coast University master’s student and Gulf Coast Pearls founder Matthew Gamel said of harvesting pen shells for its meat, pearls and sea silk.

He entered a global challenge through the Gulf Coast Community Foundation dubbed the Gulf Coast Innovative Challenge, putting his team in the running to win the grand prize.

“Basically they are doing a series of these scholarship events with different categories. This is the first one,” he explained. “They are focusing on marine sciences. The goal of it is to try to drum up innovative marine science ideas, try to boost a green industry in the area and try to bring back jobs that are sustainable particularly in the agricultural sector.”

A native Floridian, Gamel grew up between Englewood and Venice where he spent a lot of time in the water, often times scuba diving. He said while scuba diving off the coast of Venice, he found enormous pen shells near huge fossil beds.

Pen shell pearls. PHOTO PROVIDED

“There are thousands of them out there,” Gamel said. “I kind of got curious about the pen shells. I read more about them because all I knew was they were really pretty.”

After stumbling across such interesting facts as they naturally produce a black pearl that has rainbow coloring, it sparked his curiosity and became his undergrad senior project, and later became the topic of the Gulf Coast Innovative Challenge.

“My first study was in 2012,” Gamel said of pen shells. “This project (Gulf Coast Innovative Challenge) came up and I thought it matched all the criteria it called for.”

The team has four PhD’s and two aqua culture experts, who are working at a hatchery in the Mediterranean.

Gamel’s team is comprised of Dr. Julien Vignier, a shellfish biologist and bivalve hatchery expert; Dr. Anne Rolton (Vignier) a bivalve and phytoplankton biologist; Josh Gravlin who works for Collier County Pollution Control; Vikki Nelson a graduate student of FGCU who studied psychology, biology and interdisciplinary studies; Dr. Edwin Everham, a professor of marine and ecological sciences at FGCU and Dr. Rob Erdman, an associate professor of biological sciences at FGCU.

Pen shells produce pearls and scallops. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We have a good team of people who are working with us on this and are very excited,” Gamel said.

The team created a video promo through YouTube describing their project, as well as a written business proposal about a month and a half ago. The proposal entered Gulf Coast Pearls into the next round of 18 to 20 groups from the initial 25 to 30. The next selection chose the top five groups.

“Each of those five get $25,000 and then they vie for the chance to win $375,000,” Gamel said.

Once the group was chosen, they were given time to create a prototype demonstration of their idea.

The team has developed a unique enclosure system that will protect the pen shells from predators, while still allowing juvenile fish the ability to use pen shells as a habitat in Pine Island Sound.

A baby octopus was found using a pen shell as its habitat. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We have a bunch of different sectors we can potentially make a profit on,” Gamel said.

The different areas include creating custom jewelry from the pearls, harvesting the pen shell for its meat, “kidney scallops” and utilizing its sea silk.

Gamel discovered the abductor muscle used to close the shell is huge and strong and therefore had to be anesthetized, so the muscle relaxes. Although it was challenging to find the proper anesthesia, Gamel said they had great success in opening the shells.

When doing grafting, the team had a 95 percent pen shell survival rate with the production of more than 300 small pearls.

The pen shells can regrow their shells in about a months time, with similar behavior for regrowth of pearls.

A sketch of a unique enclosure system that will be placed in Pine Island Sound for a pen shell farm. PHOTO PROVIDED

“For our study we showed that they had twice as fast pearl development rate as the fresh water Asian pearls,” Gamel said.

The most pearls the group discovered in one shell was 16 to 20.

“The larger the shell the larger the ultimate pearl,” he said. “We got really excited about the pearl side of this and all the potential attached to that. If we succeed we would actually be the first pearl farm in the entire continental U.S.”

In addition to the pearls, the team discovered that the pen shell produces a giant scallop named kidney scallops. Gamel said they will set up partnerships with other clam farms and the meat will be sold to local markets and restaurants.

Gamel said the group is also proposing to use the grant money to send students to Switzerland to study the art form of sea silk, created by the pen shells byssus thread. He said the students would learn the technique and keep the art form from going extinct.

“Venice has this big Italian American community, that’s why it’s called Venice, Florida,” Gamel said. “So we thought it would be really cool if we could bring back this dying Italian art form. Make them (Venice) the figurehead of this new art form and try to bring more community pride and a new sense of identity as a cultural revival thing.”

The groups research also revealed how pen shells benefit the ocean and other marine life.

“Pen shells have a tremendous potential as a way to help clean up the murky water we have on the Gulf Coast because they feed on algae and different kind of suspended sediment,” he said.

The pen shell buries only half of its shell at the bottom of the ocean leaving the top half exposed. Gamel said studies have revealed up to 60 species rely on the pen shell for its habitat. During his research he found a baby octopus living inside a pen shell.

Another benefit of creating an enclosure system for pen shells is reducing coastal erosion by allowing sediment deposition take form from the pen shells slowing down the movement of the benthic currents.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.