Environmental Win

Under the Mangroves

Conservation groups rally to restore and protect Florida’s vital coastal trees.

BY May 1, 2022
Two ibis forage along Florida Mangroves
(Getty Image)

Mangroves take care of people in ways almost too numerous to count. They serve as nurseries for fish, filter excess nutrients from water, capture and store carbon, prevent soil erosion and act as coastal barriers against wind and waves.

Globally, however, these watery forests have been disappearing. But there’s good news: The rate of decline has slowed and efforts to protect and restore mangroves have surged. That’s evident locally thanks to two significant undertakings.

On Marco Island, the region’s largest restoration project broke ground last fall along San Marco Road, about a mile west of Goodland, where 64 acres of mangroves have perished since the road’s installation in 1938, and another 160 acres are critically damaged. “It’s the largest continuous patch being affected in our area,” says Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Kathy Worley, whose research in Rookery Bay since the 1990s has been pivotal for local conservation.

The Fruit Creek Farm Mangrove Restoration Project—which has been decades in the making—installs culverts under San Marco Road to restore the natural flow of water, so it carries in fresh oxygen and nutrients and expels waste, explains Corey Anderson, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which is managing the project along with the City of Marco Island and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. With the improved hydrology, the damaged trees are expected to regenerate.

Meanwhile, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is enlisting the community in its rehab efforts in the Pine Island Sound, where mangroves never recovered from 2004’s Hurricane Charley. With a $150,000 grant from the FWC, last year, volunteers helped install oyster reefs using fossilized shells that act as natural seawalls for the islands and give trees a chance to take root. (Mangrove ‘foster parents’ tended tiny trees at home until they were big enough to plant.) A survey last January found hundreds of new trees flourishing where restoration is underway.

Among the many anticipated benefits of these efforts are improved fishing and better storm protection. As an example of the mangroves’ critical role, Worley recalls Hurricane Irma in 2017: “If we didn’t have the Ten Thousand Islands and its mangroves, we’d still be trying to put ourselves back together.”

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