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FGCU program makes homes for mollusks in Estero Bay

By Staff | May 9, 2018

Vester Marine Station Lab Director Mike Parsons partnered with Bob Wasno, facilities manager and assistant hockey coach, and Bob Brinkworth, FGCU hockey head coach, for the Rink 2 Reef program. JESSICA SALMOND

A Florida Gulf Coast University program is hoping to clean the bay, one oyster at a time.

And it hopes to partner with local businesses and waterside residents to make it happen.

Students and leaders at Vester Marine Field Station on Bonita Beach Road have developed a new way to make an oyster bed, and are calling the program “Rink 2 Reef.”

Using broken or worn out hockey sticks, students are stringing together 40-inch by 20-inch “Linkin log” type structures that can be hung in the water under docks to create a bed for oysters.

“The idea was to duplicate artificial reefs, but for under docks, and repurpose materials that would otherwise be in landfills,” said Mike Parsons, the Vester lab director.

FGCU senior Brett Sutton is launching a project to study oyster filtration rates. JESSICA SALMOND

The idea was born from a brainstorming session nearly three years ago, but Bob Wasno, the Vester facilities director, said the project has really snowballed in the last year. Hockey players for FGCU’s teams volunteer at the station as part of their graduation community service requirement. At one point, some of the players were trying to think of a cross-over project between hockey and marine research – and Rink 2 Reef was born.

Hockey sticks are made of a carbon fiber that doesn’t decompose. Unless someone is making a DIY project, they end up in landfills forever, Parsons said.

Now, with an abundance of hockey sticks to work with, the program is offering to install an oyster bed for an individual or business who wishes to sponsor the program. NHL Green has partnered with the program to make sure they always have a stick supply.

A private resident can give a donation of $200 to get one of these oyster beds; a business, $250. Then, it’s up to the oysters to make a home. Oyster “steward” students would come to periodically check the bed’s health and make sure the contraption is in working order.

“We have 20 deployed now,” Wasno said.

The new oyster beds are made of hockey sticks strung together with monofilament and recycled plastic. JESSICA SALMOND

The Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce has an example set up in its office for interested sponsors.

Oysters are an important keystone species that can foster a habitat for other animals on the food chain. Oyster beds attract smaller fish to feed on the different plants that often grow around it; they can also serve as protection for baby fish when hiding from predators. New oysters, or “spat” will also settle on older or dead oysters, so as the mollusks grow, so does the habitat.

One of an oyster’s most important functions is acting as a natural water filter. These creatures can suck up “nutrients” out of the water and help clean it.

That’s where FGCU Senior Brett Sutton is starting his final project: testing how much water different sized oysters can filter a day, and creating a formula to determine how much water can be filtered from one Rink 2 Reef bed. An adult oyster between 2 and 3 inches can filter 40 to 50 gallons of water a day.

“This is a keystone species I can have an impact on studying,” he said.

Lab Director Mike Parsons pulls up one of the test beds to see what's been living on it. JESSICA SALMOND

But Sutton’s connection to the Vester station is a little more than biology: he was also a hockey player. He wanted to do a final project that would go with both his hockey background and his biology degree, so it was only natural for him to get involved with Rink2Reef.

“This one hit home,” he said.

Sutton may be a biology major, but he’s an outlier among the rest of the hockey players involved in the program.

That’s one of wasno’s favorite things about the program: it draws students from across disciplines into the water.

“We’ve got 12 majors involved right now and none are biology,” wasno said. “But they come down here and work, and now they understand the importance of oysters to our quality of life.”

Lab Director Mike Parsons points out an oyster growing on one of the test beds. JESSICA SALMOND

Over the last few years, other hockey programs have visited FGCU and the Vester station – and now they’re building beds, too.

The Eastern oyster’s range is from Florida to Canada. wasno said he’s researched and found 400 oyster restoration programs between Lee County and Virginia.

“It’s a natural coupling, hockey and oyster programs,” he said.

Parsons would love to see the idea spread, with FGCU being the leader in tracking the data and keeping a record of all the beds and what their oyster stewards record. They even have all the information needed on their website if someone wanted to build their own,

For now, though, they’re focused on Matanzas Pass and trying to work with businesses and residents to install the beds. Anyone interested in sponsoring can contact Wasno at 738-6222 or rwasno@fgcu.edu.