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SCCF marine lab construction continues, first floor soon to be poured

By Staff | May 31, 2017

The bottom floor of the new Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation laboratory is taking shape. In addition to outdoor experimentation areas, the ground level will also house the organization’s boats and trailers. MEGHAN MCCOY

The $1.6 million Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation laboratory will soon have a first level floor as the progress of the new facility continues to take shape.

SCCF Marine Laboratory Director Eric Milbrandt said he was told by their development director that they have met their target for equipment fundraising to fill the lab with what they need.

“With that equipment we will have increased capability to analyze nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, which we don’t have now. We actually take those samples and pay another lab to do the analysis,” Milbrandt said.

Some of the equipment will also afford SCCF staff with the ability to analyze water and life in the water in a more sophisticated manner than currently.

Another addition, which Milbrandt is looking forward to is the outdoor experimentation area. There will be tanks and running sea water, so staff can do experiments, as well as students and volunteers looking to help SCCF staff.

The area will provide staff with the opportunity to test different nutrients and salinities to see how it affects seagrass, oyster reefs and algae.

So far, the construction of the new laboratory is making progress. The piles have been driven, the ground level beams that connect the pilings together have been poured, as well as the pouring of cement columns because of its requirement to be above flood levels due to hurricanes.

The cement floor on the ground level has also been poured, which will be used for boat parking. Milbrandt said they will be able to back their boats and trailers underneath the new laboratory building for storage, and to do periodic maintenance on the vessels.

As of Friday, May 19, they were working on tie beams, which are cement beams that tie together the tops of the columns. He said they were also putting the rebar in Friday and Saturday. Another set of beams were scheduled to be poured Thursday, May 25.

“Then the first week in June they are putting the first level floor on,” Milbrandt said. “Framing is expected to start the Fourth of July.”

A tentative December move in date has been shared.

“I think most of the uncertainties are out of the equation. We are moving along,” he said.

As they wait for the facility to be completed, SCCF staff continues to conduct their research.

Milbrandt said they are gearing up for a project with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission through a grants program.

“We are building another oyster reef, a bigger one, this summer. We are going to have some volunteer opportunities probably at the end of the summer for folks who want to move oyster shells,” he said.

SCCF collects oyster shells from such restaurants as Lazy Flamingo and the Timbers, which are all collected into a pile. So far they have about a dump truck full that will be taken into Tarpon Bay at a site that has previously been worked on, but needs a little more shell.

Another larger reef will be constructed near Merwin Key, about five miles away from Sanibel, at a site SCCF has been monitoring for a few years. Merwin Key is part of the islands that are clustered to the left while exiting Sanibel in-between St. James City and Punta Rassa.

“We built a similar size reef about a half mile away from it and it seems to be doing well. So, we are going to kind of repeat the same strategy,” Milbrandt said. “Historically there were a lot of reefs there. We are slowly working towards a goal and a plan where a bunch of organizations got together a couple of years ago to restore oyster reefs in the area.”

By 2025, the goal is to have 20 acres of oyster reefs. So far, SCCF has personally done three acres.

“The reefs we did build are doing well and we continue to monitor them. Especially the ones in Tarpon Bay and San Carlos Bay are doing very well,” Milbrandt said.

SCCF is also working in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge as part of their monthly water quality study. He said they just finished counting seagrass from Wulfert Flats to the east end of Tarpon Bay.

“I suspect that it will be better than last year because we have had a much dryer winter. What we have seen in the past, throughout the whole region, is when you have a dry period, like we just had, you’ll see increases in seagrass density,” Milbrandt said.

He said they are interested in studying seagrass because they integrate various stressors in the environment, whether it’s salinity, or turbidity, or grazing by things they want to have there, like manatees, or propeller scaring.

“They are out there sort of like canaries in the gold mine. They are sitting there growing and existing and when they change we are seeking to understand the rate that they are changing,” Milbrandt said. “We are in the process of doing that kind of investigative work.”

Since the Caloosahatchee is a major driver in the area, the discharge especially, Milbrandt said, they sort of know what is going to happen to seagrass.

“As you get closer to the Caloosahatchee it declines every year as the discharges start to get higher over the summer months. The ability for those to recover, it’s something we have been looking at for five, or six years. Some sites are really resilient. They will basically hit the reset button and the next year it will be the same as what it was the year before. Other areas will show a longterm decline,” he said.

Seagrass are good indicators of the environment’s health. Milbrandt said they believe since they are nursery areas for shrimp, and fish, they are important for the ecosystem to continue the production of younger fish to larger fish.

The water quality monitoring system is important for SCCF to maintain because they provide weekly summaries of the data for evaluating the condition of the Caloosahatchee.

“This year we have had really clear water in the lower estuary. What that means is in the upper estuary there is too little fresh water, so we have actually be asking for some discharge to help maintain the salinity gradient in the island and upper Caloosahatchee,” Milbrandt said. “It’s kind of a different problem, but one that we have been fortunate to have a few key rain events that have helped keep that salinity gradient in the right place.”

With water shortages being reported in many places, he said that leads to a low priority for any extra water for the environment. Milbrandt said the water is mostly going to agriculture and municipalities.

“We have been reporting all of the data and showing it to our water managers and they ultimately make the decision, but we have been trying and emphasize the environment is still an important piece,” he said. “We need that water to sustain our tape grass, which is the low salinity emerged aquatic plant.”