■ BY SUE ERWIN
Dozens of aquariums filled with a variety of sea creatures line the walls of Lemon Bay High School’s aquaculture laboratory located at its Englewood campus.
On Monday, April 1, the Bocilla Islands Conservancy along with Lemon Bay Conservancy presented a check for $500 to the LBHS Marine Research Club to assist in efforts to plant seagrasses in Turtle Bay and Catfish Creek, just south of Boca Grande.
A group of 15 students help maintain the equipment and study local marine life throughout the school year. They will be releasing the critters back into Lemon Bay, where they were found, during the last week of school.
Science teacher Mrs. Mia Conlon leads the marine research program at the school and said this is the second year the students have been conducting research at the laboratory. The facility itself was funded by Charlotte County Schools.
“When we planned for the campus renovation, having an aquaculture facility was part of the agreement,” said Conlon. “The ongoing funds come from a variety of organizations. The County gives us some funding, and then we hold fundraisers for the remainder of it.”
The students have held bake sales, a T-shirt sale and a raffle so far this year.
Conlon said maintenance is low and very self-sustaining, because all of the organisms in the lab are native to Lemon Bay.
Students get to capture the creatures, study them and care for them properly while conserving them and returning them to their habitat.
“We have a special activities license from the State of Florida, so the kids actually catch much of what we get and we also get a lot from Florida Fish and Wildlife,” Conlon said. “At the end of the year, we do a big release party, and we put everything back into the bay.”
The students do most of the maintenance, which helps them learn more about marine habitats. They begin by learning about water chemistry and ecology, and later they learn about breeding species that are becoming less popular in local waters.
“They really do learn a lot … they get hands-on experience, and it’s really a lot of fun,” Conlon said. “There are not many schools that have programs like this. We were probably the first one in the state to have a facility that was designed and built for what we do.”
The Marine Research Club is well into the planning process of planting seagrass in Turtle Bay, just north of Boca Grande. The students chose this area to restore because some local fishing captains explained how much boat traffic there is in the area, and how much damage has been done.
The plan is to lay down PVC pipe into the sand and plant new sea- grasses.
“It’s kind of a pioneer species, so new plantings can grow stronger and hardier and will be able to withstand a lot more than naturally grown turtle grass,”” Club Secretary Laura Keller said. “It’s important that we restore the seagrasses so that animals like grass shrimp and seahorses still have a home.”
There will be rows of PVC pipe sticking up in the water where the sea- grass is planted, to warn boaters to maintain a “no wake” speed so they don’t interfere with the project. The students plan to lay the tubes and the plantings into the sand this summer, and they expect the plants will sprout within a couple of months.
They’ve already raised about $1,000 for the summer project, and they’ve been purchasing supplies based on the money they’ve raised.
“And thanks to you all, we’re going to be able to purchase more supplies, and from there we’ll be able to estimate what we’ll need to get to the next level,” Conlon said at the check presentation.
The permitting process for this kind of a project is quite timely, Donlon said.
She recently received an email from DEP that stated their application is currently under review – which is good news. To help offset costs of the project, local captains are donating their time to transport their students to and from the project site.
“It may seem like a small step, but it’s an important one, and it’s a really great thing – especially because of the area in which we live,” said LBHS Marine Research Club President Natalie Brown. “We could not have done this without the support of our terrific teachers and the community.”
The Gasparilla Island Kids’ Classic Tarpon Tournament helps fund the LBHS science summer camp, and the students help with the festival in Boca Grande each year.
“We’re very fortunate to offer students scholarships to the STEM summer camps, thanks for the generosity of the tournament organizers,” Conlon said.
Conservancy President Barbara DeYulio said, “Our board of directors is impressed with the dedication of the students and their teachers to take affirmative steps to halt the decline of the ecosystem that supports plant and animal life which makes this area a special place. The Club’s goals are aligned with those of our organization. More importantly, educating and involving our students in the fight to protect and preserve our fragile natural surroundings is imperative for this area’s future.”