Restoring Tidy Island is a New College Passion Project

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- by Abby Weingarten

Environmentalists from New College and the local community have long been engaged in a labor-intensive, research-heavy collaboration: ecologically restoring the College’s property on Tidy Island.

Late last month, over the course of several days, volunteers for the initiative made tremendous progress.

“I’m proud and humbled to report that our experimental ecological restoration of the College’s property at Tidy Island made an enormous leap forward [from September 23 to 26],” said Brad Oberle, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology and environmental studies at New College. “This is thanks to many wonderful people in our community who contributed real talent, valuable time and some serious sweat.”

These contributions have a lengthy history. New College faculty, staff, students and community participants have made countless 10-mile boat trips across Sarasota Bay to Tidy Island in Bradenton over the years. The Island’s 188 acres of mangrove swamps store mass amounts of carbon (which helps the trees grow, filters the water, and feeds the fish and mosquitoes).

In the 1950s and 1970s, the Mosquito Control District created mosquito ditches to make it easier for fish to eat mosquitoes and reduce bug populations (this also made Tidy Island a breeding ground for invasive species before it was signed over to the New College Foundation in 1984).

Oberle and Jayne Gardiner, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at New College, received a three-year grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Gulf of Mexico Division in the spring of 2018 to study Tidy Island, and partnered with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) on the project.

Research since then has involved tagging trees and marine life in order to monitor the species on Tidy Island, as well as analyzing the growth patterns of both invasive and native species (this includes growing the seedlings of those species to see what best survives and reproduces).

“When we do restoration activity, we’re looking both at how the activity itself impacts the fish, and also at the effects of decisions we make about how we deal with the woody debris that comes from getting rid of all of those invasive plants,” Gardiner said of the effort.

Volunteers have been a crucial component of that restoration activity, which significantly ramped up this fall.

On September 23, three contractors with five staff members, three New College personnel, two research assistants, two alumni and two student volunteers unloaded 4,630 plants from two sources at the South Coquina Beach Boat Ramp on Bradenton Beach. These volunteers delivered 3,962 plants to Tidy Island via two barge and boat trips, and sent the rest back to the College’s campus via a New College truck and a rental trailer.

Two days later, more than 30 community volunteers met New College’s colleagues from the SBEP. The group boarded four boats—operated by volunteer ferry captains—for the trip across the bay to Tidy Island (where Oberle was waiting with six volunteers who had paddled from home). The volunteers spent several hours planting eight native species for a large-scale, long-term revegetation experiment.

The next day, a different crew picked up where the Saturday team left off, and Oberle guided five student volunteers to the site to meet three more community members who had paddled from their homes.

“Overall, we planted 1,708 perennial plants, which was 75 percent of all of the plants allocated to the main revegetation effort,” Oberle said. “We still have a few more to go, as this is an ongoing ecological restoration. I’m thankful to everyone for their support of this important, impactful project.”

Many of those supporters were New College students, including third-year environmental studies students Ellie Jalbuena-Cook and Nicholas Beck, and first-year marine biology student Noah Tyler.

Jalbuena-Cook met her peers in the early morning at the Heiser Natural Sciences Complex on the New College campus, drove to Tidy Island and paddled by canoe to the research site.

There, the students were instructed to begin planting each plant by “digging a hole, filling it with half a cup of water-absorbing goo to water the plants, and sticking each plant in a hole,” she said.

“Partly, this experiment is to test which types of communions with the soil work best to reestablish the native ecosystem after it has been knocked off balance by invasive species. Super cool,” Jalbuena-Cook said. “There was such a satisfaction about being able to do work on a project that was meaningfully and visibly making a difference to the land I was standing on. I knew I was helping to create new knowledge there. It was so great, and I think we may have another volunteer session over fall break.”

Beck was involved in helping establish flagging plots to prepare for the community planting day on Tidy Island, and he found the process fascinating.

“Making a large-scale grid system using color-coordinated flagging is quite effective. Rather than handing out several thousand plants and telling the community to ‘go wild,’ community members must figure out the name of a plant, look up which color flags match said plant, find an area with the appropriate flagging, and then plant the plant anywhere within those flags,” Beck said. “This minimizes potential confusion and makes the whole process feel like more of an Easter egg hunt than a grueling day of volunteer labor. It shows the level of thought Dr. Oberle and other organizers of this initiative put into incentivizing community engagement above all else.”

Tyler enjoyed participating in such in-depth, advanced environmental research on Tidy Island, especially as a first-year student at New College.

“The work I did was very rewarding because I care a lot about the environment, and doing something like this is very beneficial. It’s important that we take control of invasive species and give a chance to native species to grow,” Tyler said. “I also appreciate that this is a dual-purpose project in that not only are we actively restoring the island with native species, but Dr. Oberle is conducting research using the species that we planted on how to best do this in the future.”

To get involved in the ongoing Tidy Island project, contact Oberle at 941-487-4390 or [email protected].

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.