A project is underway at Seacrest Country Day School that may hold a key to rejuvenating lifeless freshwater ponds and streams.
Students from Seacrest’s Upper School (grades 9-12) recently placed an artificial freshwater mini-reef on the bottom of a stagnant retention pond on the school’s campus. The installation is at the heart of a one-year-long independent study project being conducted by an Upper School marine biology class. The ultimate goal is to determine whether the artificial mini-reefs can spur the return of aquatic life and good health to the small body of water.
This is the first time the mini-reefs have been deployed in a freshwater environment. They have proven successful in restoring diverse aquatic life in saltwater canals, including some on Marco Island, which served as the first large-scale deployment of the mini reefs.
“We’re not sure what it’s going to do in a freshwater system, but we’re hoping to actually find out that it’s going to be effective in helping improve the health of this retention pond,” said Dr. Caron Staples, who teaches marine biology, and Advanced Placement Environmental Science and Sustainability at the Upper School.
Spearheading the project is its designer, Reilly Peel, a Seacrest senior and lead instructor for the class in ichthyology, the branch of zoology devoted to the study of fish. He also designed the class over the summer, along with a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, where he worked in the school’s marine laboratory.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” said Peel. “I’ve been waiting for a project of this size and this much impact to for a long time and I’m very excited to have an impact on my community, rather than just for myself.”
The mid-morning deployment saw students from the class and Peel scurrying around the pond’s edge, readying the mini-reef, taking water samples and making other preparations. They were joined by Staples, the class’ co-instructor, and Jim Timmerman of Marco Island, whose children attend Seacrest. He’s serving as a parent-advisor for the project.
Timmerman is a co-founder and director of Ocean Habitats, the Gainesville-based company that created and manufactures the mini-reefs. During the school year, students from Marco Island Academy, Florida SouthWestern State College’s Collier County campus and Seacrest took part in building the devices and installing them. They also monitored water quality near the installed artificial reefs and the presence of the aquatic creatures that they attracted.
The lightweight mini-reefs are constructed of fiberglass, PVC pipe and polypropylene rope. They’re designed to provide habitat for organisms, such as larval and juvenile fish, crabs, shrimp and lobster, which consume the phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants – that can discolor water. Cleaner water can also allow for the growth of the underwater grasses that provide important aquatic habitat.
According to Ocean Habitats founder David Wolff, each saltwater habitat can support 60 different marine species and when fully developed after 18 months, they can clean 30,000 gallons of seawater every day by giving filter feeders a place to live.
For saltwater environments, they are installed under docks by attaching them to pilings, where they rest just below the water’s surface, suspended by crab-trap floats. For freshwater environments, weights are attached so that the mini-reef rests on the pond’s bottom, where the organisms reside.
“This pond will be the first time we’ve taken that marine application and turned it into a freshwater pond application,” said Timmerman. He was overjoyed to have what he called “the beta test,” take place at Seacrest. “One of my goals in being part of Ocean Habitats is to involve the community, specifically children, and here we are,” he added.
The class project also involves aquaculture, cultivating fish indigenous to Florida, such as bass and crappies, for eventual transfer to the pond. It also involves cultivating and stocking the pond with the smaller creatures these species consume. They’ll all be raised in two small tanks stationed outdoors, near the pond.
Students used kayaks to place the mini-reef near the pond’s center, where it can provide habitat for any existing creatures and those produced by the aquaculture project.
“Our first goal is to have the ecosystem populated by microbial invertebrates,” said Staples. “So we want snails, we want different kinds of algae to start growing on it, we want all those microbial shrimp, we want all those invertebrates that are vital to the health of this. We don’t just want the mollusks and the crustaceans. We want a diverse community and the place those organisms live is the bottom. So they’re in the sediment and directly above the sentiment.”
It was Peel who designed the aquaculture system and also networked to the secure funding and donations of equipment that have enabled the project to become a reality, said Staples.
Staples said the small pond’s aquatic life hasn’t recovered after being decimated a few years ago when the pump that circulated the water failed.
“It doesn’t really have a lot of upper-level organisms in the food web, so we’re trying to figure out what the carrying capacity for the pond is and then we’re looking at how many we can raise, what variety and diversity are native to Florida and how we should restock this pond,” she explained.
Peel said underwater footage of the mini-reef will be shot at four-week intervals with a GoPro camera to track progress.
“We’ll also continue to test water quality to see how the primary producers on that system are affecting the lake in general and all of our tests as a class are going to see how that system along with our others are working together to create a healthy ecosystem,” said Peel, who envisions a career in ichthyology. “Everything we’re doing here, every individual project, works together for a common goal.”
Peel has applied to have the project certified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. “They’re going to come and do a site visit and they’re going to help to mentor this program,” said Staples.
He became intrigued with the mini-reefs after seeing a presentation at the school given by Timmerman.
“I know, first hand, how much of a problem our canals are and how much of a problem mangrove destruction is and I’m very passionate about that,” said Peel. “So we just connected and talked and the project sprang from there.”
He is trying to raise additional funds for the project. Anyone who would like to provide assistance can reach Peel at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the school at 239-793-1986. For more information about Ocean Habitats, visit oceanhabitatsinc.com.