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Cottage offers lodging for visiting scientists, scholars

By Staff | Nov 29, 2017

University of New Hampshire Senior Research Technician Krystin Ward, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Director Eric Milbrandt and University of New Hampshire Research Professor Ray Grizzle. MEGHAN MCCOY

A family who believes in the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, purchased a cottage for the nonprofit, which has enabled the organization to grow its visiting scientist and scholar program.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Lab Director Eric Milbrandt said the fact that University of New Hampshire Research Professor Ray Grizzle and Senior Research Technician Krystin Ward were visiting last week is the whole reason why they have the cottage.

“To be able to collaborate with people who bring expertise and equipment and knowledge from other places to Sanibel . . . being able to have visitors here is a tremendous benefit to this island,” he said. “We are small and we are never going to be able to be experts in everything, so this is the way to go.”

Grizzle, who started working with the foundation about 10 years ago, was the first guest at the Wilmeth Cottage in 2015.

“When you fly in here with colleagues and you don’t have lodging you can be looking at a lot of extra money in your budget. This allows us to make our research go further, so to speak, because we don’t spend as much money,” he said.

The proximity to the SCCF Marine Lab is another benefit.

“It really is just a huge plus,” Grizzle said, adding that before the cottage became available they stayed at a hotel in Fort Myers. “We do bring some expertise that they don’t have, so to speak, and of course they have some expertise that we don’t have. But, the way they treat us the boats, the colleagues. It’s just a win-win situation for us.”

The visiting scientist program is another benefit for Grizzle and Ward because for six months of the year oysters, which are the focal point of their research, are hibernating in New Hampshire, where they are from.

“This allows us to expand our research and come to an area where you can basically work for 12 months. It does provide us with a different environment for the same species, the eastern oyster, but it definitely enhances our overall research program,” Grizzle said.

In the last two years around 30 visiting scientists and scholars have stayed at the cottage, which is set up for teams of people to visit, due to twin beds located in the rooms and two bathrooms.

“Most of our visitors come for a week or two. Typically most of our visitors cannot be away from their home institutions for more than a week or two,” Milbrandt said.

One of the longest residing scientists were a team of turtle researchers this past summer who did the night tagging program during sea turtle season. Others who have stayed at the cottage included a scientist from Mote Marine, who studies iron flux the movement of iron from the rivers to the sea in September.

“That is important because iron is thought to be a limiting nutrient for red tide formation. He’s trying to link the river and the estuary to the red tide blooms,” Milbrandt said.

When the Wilmeth family recognized a need for the foundation, it enabled SCCF to fulfill part of their strategic plan of having a visiting scientist program.

“They stepped forward and purchased this house. It took about eight or nine months of renovation,” Milbrandt said, which included a new air-conditioner, floors and painting.

Two SCCF board members largely responsible for the renovation were Debra La Gorce and Mary Ellen Pfeifer.

“They were definitely instrumental in making it a livable, visiting scientist cottage,” Milbrandt said.

Grizzle and Ward arrived on the island last week to further research oysters – quantifying the amount of water that they filter.

“We are focusing on how the restored reefs that Eric and the foundation have gotten money to restore, how they compare to the natural reefs that are there,” Grizzle said. “The logic behind it is at some point we will be able to say they are equivalent to a natural reef.”

He explained when a reef is put out there it is a pile of fossilized shell, with no oysters originally.

“Then the oysters begin to develop on it. We don’t know how many years, but in theory, at some point, we will be able to say that after x amount of years, they are functioning like a natural reef,” Grizzle said.

Grizzle and they have sampled both natural reefs in the area and the restored reefs created.

During their stay field work was done at the restored reefs in San Carlos Bay and Tarpon Bay. The Tarpon Bay reefs were constructed in December 2015. With their research starting before the Tarpon Bay Reef was created, Grizzle and Ward had pre-construction measurements.

“This is the first post construction. Hopefully we will be able to take more at one to two year intervals,” Grizzle said of measurements.

The University of New Hampshire team was faced with windy conditions and the continued discharge of brown water from the Caloosahatchee River during their stay.

“We did see some significant measure uptake,” Grizzle said at the Tarpon Bay reef. “Then if you look at the numbers that the lab is collecting, the reef really looks good. There are some big oysters. We are providing some estimates of how much water that reef is filtering.”

Despite the reef looking good, Milbrandt said Hurricane Irma did some damage to the estuary, due to the flows from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee, some 60 to 70 days following the storm.

“The natural reefs that are over on Punta Rassa, we couldn’t really measure. We couldn’t see uptake. They are not feeding,” he said. “They are probably just stressed out, waiting for those conditions to return to equilibrium. Right now they are just sitting there in brackish water holding on.”

Grizzle said oysters are adaptive to hurricanes, especially when salinity goes to zero because they can close up and isolate themselves in their shells from the environment.

“But not for 60 to 70 days. The salinity level is still not up to optimal level for them. I would be very surprised if they weren’t stressed. We are not sure they are feeding. They will feed sporadically, but there is not much food in the water that we are measuring. That constant discharge like that definitely has an effect, but it’s hard to say exactly what kind,” he said.

Grizzle said oysters are found in up estuaries where there is a lot of salinity fluctuation. He said although they can stand zero salinity to more than full strength seawater, they are not functioning in the same way.

“Once it gets to a certain level of brackish, they close up and isolate themselves,” Grizzle said. “They don’t feed and they are basically in a resting stage. They can only do that for a few days, unless it is really cold, and it’s not really cold throughout most of their range. So, if the salinity does not go up to where they can open up and function, then they are really stressed. They can only go without their food for so long.”

Although the conditions are not optimal, he said the oysters are quite resilient.

“Let’s say if you do have a reef, or some portion of the overall population goes extinct and several reefs die, there would be larval dispersal at some level and they would begin to come back,” Grizzle said.

Milbrandt said the reefs in Pine Island Sound are far enough away from the Caloosahatchee that they will be able to provide sources for new colonization.

While they were in town from Sunday to Saturday Ward and Grizzle were out in the field with Milbrandt every day conducting their research.

“A typical day, you are out most of the day, sometimes long days, six to eight hours or more, but then you come in and then you have all this stuff you have to do. We are downloading data for a couple hours and processing it,” Grizzle said.

Grizzle began working with oysters in Brevard County in 1972, followed by researching oysters during his doctoral work. He’s been researching oysters for 40 years, 20 of those years as a research professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“We have looked at a lot of different aspects of it,” Grizzle said.

With Ward, who began working with Grizzle in 2005, having an oyster farm, the duo researches oysters for food, as well as their ecology.

“It kind of opens the door to other avenues, which is nice. It keeps it interesting,” Ward said.