By Jo Nguyen
A 10-mile boat expedition across Sarasota Bay and a trek through brackish waters…members of New College faculty and students have been making these trips to the mangrove swamps of Tidy Island for the past three years.
Tidy Island’s 188 acres of mangrove swamp store mass amounts of carbon that helps the trees grow, filters the water, and feeds the fish (and lots of mosquitoes).
Back in the 1950s and 1970s, the Mosquito Control District created mosquito ditches in an attempt to make it easier for fish to eat mosquitoes and reduce mosquito populations. Their attempt also made Tidy Island a breeding ground for invasive species before it was signed over to the New College Foundation in June 1984.
Two New College professors: Brad Oberle, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and environmental science; and Jayne Gardiner, Ph.D., associate professor of biology; have been researching Tidy Island since receiving a three-year grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Gulf of Mexico Division program grant in the spring of 2018.
“New College hadn’t been very active in doing research or teaching there until about four years ago,” Oberle said. “We really started to recognize how important Tidy Island is to our campus as a valuable resource and to the broader community.”
Oberle and Gardiner both heard about this research opportunity through alumna Julie Morris, the retired associate vice president of academic affairs at New College. Morris identified Tidy Island restoration through the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), one of the partners in the project.
“When we were getting started with that part of the project, 95 percent of all the fish died [because of red tide]. That was a challenge but also an opportunity,” Oberle said. “Then COVID complicated the ability to do some of the work on the grant but, despite these obstacles, we’ve strived and gotten to learn some great information.”
In conjunction with the EPA grant, Oberle and Gardiner received funding for four interns over the summer through the Cross College Alliance (CCA), sponsored by the Community Foundation of Sarasota, to aid in their Restoration and Recovery of Estuarine Systems Research. New College thesis students Simon Bustetter and Tom Smith, along with two University of South Florida (USF) Sarasota-Manatee students (Sandra Sherrod and Mariah Robison), are participating.
While the other three interns began their research in the summer, Bustetter started as a research assistant to both professors more than two years ago. Bustetter has helped with the EPA grant writing on standard operating procedures (SOPs), following the quality assurance project plan (QAPP), and running lab work on Tidy Island.
“It’s been cool to go canoeing out to Tidy Island and actually be somewhere where you’re witnessing nature do its thing,” Bustetter said. “It’s not human-controlled.”
Bustetter, along with the other interns, are helping Oberle and Gardiner tag trees and marine life to monitor the species on Tidy Island. The interns are also helping the professors with other research avenues, such as analyzing the invasive and native species growth patterns (growing the seedlings of those species to see what reproduces and survives the best).
Their monthly excursions monitor where different species of fish are, how much time they are spending in the mosquito ditches, and the water quality in two mosquito ditches. This project, supported by the EPA and CCA grants, is one of the few studies that is also funding the monitoring for restoration results.
“As a marine biologist, I would’ve never envisioned myself working with a plant biologist on a project—especially not Dr. Oberle, who came here originally being this completely terrestrial plant guy,” Gardiner said. “Probably one of the best ways we can solve some of the biggest problems that we have right now, environmentally, is with interdisciplinary approaches. Plus, it’s just a whole lot more fun.”
Though the internship has ended, the interns are still continuing their work on the research project as they pave the way for new interns to help with the introduction of mulch into the ditches to restore Tidy Island.
“When we do the restoration activity [in early 2021], we’re looking both at how the activity itself impacts the fish, and also the effects of how decisions we make about how we deal with the woody debris that comes from getting rid of all those invasive plants,” Gardiner said.
The EPA grant ends in the spring of 2021, but Oberle and Gardiner are currently trying to coordinate with the EPA to extend funding to properly monitor the restoration progress and pursue other research questions.
“But [our current research] is just one part of the puzzle, right? It’s a fantastically messy place,” Oberle said. “We’ve already spun off some really cool additional research questions and, I think the more people we get involved, the more answers we start to get. I’m really excited to facilitate that work for the months and years to come.”
Jo Nguyen is a writing intern in the Office of Communications & Marketing.