Volunteers help plant seagrass test sites along the Indian River

The Brevard Zoo’s Restore Our Shores program relies on volunteers to staff projects

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – For more than a decade, the Brevard Zoo has been getting results, and protecting the Indian River, through their Restore Our Shores program.

Staff and volunteers regularly converge on the river for environmental projects. In this Getting Results Award segment, we met up with one group as they started their latest research project.

Olivia Escandell, conservation manager with the Brevard Zoo, is overseeing a project to place 17 seagrass test beds up and down the Indian River.

“This is a community engagement pilot scale research project,” Escandell explained. “We’re not planting really large beds, we’re not expecting that every single site will be a beautiful meadow of seagrass. I hope that will happen, but realistically I think it’s going to tell us more about where we should and should not do seagrass restoration in current conditions.”

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Right now those conditions in the lagoon are stressed. Escandell told News 6 the Indian River Lagoon has lost, in some areas, 90% of its seagrass coverage since the “super algae bloom” that took place in 2011.

“Unfortunately with too much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution into the lagoon, we have had large algae blooms that have shaded out seagrass, you can’t grow a plant in a closet,” Escandell said.

Escandell and a small group of volunteers gathered around a folding table just feet from the shoreline in Grant-Valkaria.

The group spent the morning separating Shoal Grass seedlings and preparing them for planting.

“It’s a beautiful seagrass,” Escandell said, as she pulled individual strands out of what looked like a mound of green spaghetti. “It has long bright green blades and it’s not very picky. That’s why we chose this grass.”

Bill Little waded out into the river to help place PVC markers where the grass will be planted. Little has been volunteering with the zoo for about 2 years.

He’s lived in Brevard County since 1985 and would drive across the river just about every day when he worked at the space center.

“I never knew a whole lot about it,” Little said, " So when I started volunteering with Restore Our Shores it was a whole new world. One that I’d been living right next to for 38 years.”

Little said he worked as a computer scientist and spent a short time with the Advanced Life Support Group working on the space station.

“They’re the guys doing proof of concept and prototype work on the plant growth systems. They’ve grown lettuce, peppers and such,” Little said.

Now retired, he’s still trying to grow things. Only now it’s seagrass and unlike those space experiments, there’s very little control over this environment. “Here we’re kind of at the mercy of what the river will do,” he said.

His time waist-deep in the saltwater has given him a better appreciation for the river. He’s learned there’s more here than he could see from the causeway. “It’s a much more dynamic place than I ever thought.”

Escandell said projects like this wouldn’t be possible without volunteers like Little.

“We’re a small team but we’ve worked with 70,000 volunteers since 2009,” she said. “We probably have 20 staff members. So imagine all that power and labor that’s going into restoring the lagoon through different projects.”

The Restore Our Shores website lists projects as diverse as using shoreline solutions that restore populations of native, filter-feeding oysters to the lagoon, growing protective mangroves, seeding restorative clam beds, replacing nutrient-rich seagrasses, restoring and building new reefs, and creating buffer zones to stem pollution and algae blooms.

Escandell has hope that projects like this will help lead the way to a healthier lagoon. “We’re making progress on removing nutrients from the water and we’re hoping to see less and less of these large-scale blooms. We know we’re not going to plant our way out of this seagrass problem but maybe we can accelerate recovery with projects like this.”

And with the help of volunteers like Little who tells us he’s happy to be giving back. “You end the day filthy, wet, smelling like the river and exhausted. But you look back at what you did and say I helped,” he said.

About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.