Rob Moher, CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, fighting to preserve natural barriers in SWFL

Reporter: Lindsey Sablan Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

Just like we harden our homes for hurricanes, we have to harden our coasts. How? One man has spent two decades fighting to protect the natural barriers that help keep Southwest Florida’s coasts safe from hurricanes.

Rookery Bay in Collier County is one of the crown jewels of Florida’s protected regions. While it wasn’t immune to the effects of Hurricane Ian’s wrath, it is remarkably intact compared to other coastal areas. Why does it not look like those other devastated areas despite weathering a storm surge of over 8 feet?

“Mangroves, they help to prevent further storm surge, right, so they sort of take the brunt of the wave action in the storm surge,” said Rob Moher, CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

If mangroves existed along Fort Myers Beach, then, how would that area look?

“When you are taking an almost-Category 5 storm head on, there is very little that you can do to stop that; however, what the research and the pictures I’ve seen in imagery shows is that the areas that had more mangroves and natural dune systems and natural protections fared better than those that didn’t,” Moher said.

Bayview Park in south Naples overlooks a perfect example of allowing people and nature to work together. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida fought to protect around 20 acres of mangroves there in Hamilton Harbor. The marina which was built on only a half-acre was largely protected during the hurricane because mangroves surrounded it.

While Moher is currently working to protect all mangroves, this mission started with the Conservancy of SWFL 60 years ago, when a group of locals banded together to fight what they dubbed “the Road to Nowhere.”

“They were opposing a road that was going to be built from Naples down to Marco Island,” Moher said.

In the waters of Rookery Bay, one will pass kayakers and wildlife not likely to be spotted in other parts of Southwest Florida post-Ian.

“These are rookeries,” Moher said. “These are places where thousands of birds at sunset come back to these islands.”

The mangroves protected bird and fish habitats, keeping our ecotourism and fishing industries alive. The Conservancy also took in animals from CROW on Sanibel after the storm, since its building was damaged.

“A lot of native animals are impacted by storms as well,” Moher said. “We see the local population bringing in injured animals less than 12 hours, 20 hours after the storm.”

And after the storm, Moher helped raise $70,000 in a matter of minutes for the YMCA on Marco Island. The previous month is just a snapshot of how he’s been an integral part of the Conservancy and preserving our natural beauty for the last 20 years. It’s one of the reasons Gulfshore Life named him a man of the year for 2022.

But Moher is humble about such recognition.

“It’s not about me, it’s about what perhaps I represent as the CEO of the Conservancy, and perhaps that mission of the Conservancy has never been more important,” Moher said. “When I reflect on the storm, I reflect on the assets of Southwest Florida. I think every acre of mangroves we have we need to keep, and then we need to restore those that have been damaged.”

If you want to read more about Rob Moher or the other men and women of the year, head to the Gulfshore Life website.

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