Researchers see Gulf environment healing 6 months after Ian

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

WINK News spent a week traveling through the Gulf of Mexico with a team of marine researchers documenting how Ian changed our oceanic environment and, by extension, Southwest Florida’s waterways.

While we rebuild on land, our environment does the same at sea. Scientists like Eric Milbrandt, director of the marine laboratory at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, are looking to learn from it, just like we did from Charlie and Irma.

“I’ve been through three major landfalling hurricanes since I’ve started my career in Florida,” Milbrandt said. “And, yeah, we learned something about mangroves the first one; we learned something about water quality the second. So, you know, I hope we can learn something from this catastrophic event.”

Since Ian struck, Milbrandt and researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University have voyaged through the Gulf three times, studying the water immediately after the storm and documenting its recovery until now.

“The main thing is the nitrogen levels after the storm are significantly higher than pre-storm, and that comes from a lot of places,” Milbrandt said. “There were some wastewater spills. There were people’s possessions that were washed into the estuaries and out to the coastal ocean.”

A handoff of water and nutrients between land and water left our Gulf filled with nutrients that exacerbate the natural growth of Karenia brevis—red tide.

“Immediately after the storm, we saw a lot of turbidity and then beginnings of red tide patches,” Milbrandt said. “The last time we were out, in January, we saw much larger blooms happening. And then, as we left last week, we started seeing a diminishing of the red tide bloom.”

The water clarity has improved, and mangroves are slowly but surely recovering. Now, researchers’ eyes are turned to what’s happening below the water.

“We’ve seen some oyster reefs that look like nothing happened and some that are buried and scoured,” Milbrandt said. “We’re still conducting those assessments right now.”

FGCU Dive Safety Officer Calli Johnson dove into these waters before the storm, immediately after, and now. Ian’s strength was clear, while the water wasn’t.

“One of our artificial reefs was standing vertically, and it’s now horizontal on the bottom, which in 60 feet of water is a huge change,” Johnson said.

Twenty-four miles off Fort Myers Beach, the natural reef was unrecognizable, covered in sand with just a few corals poking through.

​”Where sediment was scoured off the bottom, it’s refilling now; the species that we expect to see both on the bottom and swimming around are returning,” Johnson said.

And invasive species like lionfish that moved in after the storm appear to have gone away, at least temporarily.

“So it just goes to show, like, Mother Nature can throw a lot at us,” Johnson said. “But then, also, she can ensure that there’s resiliency and rebuilding.”

While the environment hasn’t returned to where it was pre-Ian, it looks better than it did six months ago and should look even better in another six months.

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