Freshwater vanishing from Sanibel due to Ian’s impact

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Paul Dolan
Published: Updated:

After Hurricane Ian inundated Sanibel with saltwater, its freshwater lakes and the wildlife relying on them are having difficulty bouncing back.

Carolyn and Thomas Braden bought a home on Sanibel three years ago.

“We just love it here,” said Carolyn.

“It’s just peaceful, very peaceful, and the nature,” said Thomas.

Saying this couple loves wildlife would not give them enough credit for their passion.

“Hey, Tony. He does his lizard push-ups and shows us his dewlap, and Tony is our resident lizard,” said Carolyn.

Thomas and Carolyn have a whole extended family of wildlife. There’s Tony the lizard, Allie the alligator and Steven the raccoon.

“We name all of the animals,” said Carolyn. “They are usually the same ones, and you’re just like ‘Steven, what are you doing?”‘

However, Hurricane Ian, along with its five feet of storm surge rushing over their property, changed everything. The freshwater oasis in their backyard turned salty, and that’s less than optimal.

“Before the storm, there was a lot of bass and, like, especially striped bass in there. I haven’t really seen a lot of fish since the storm,” said Thomas.

Certain fish, frogs and some of their lizards are gone and have been replaced by animals more acclimated to saltwater environments, like fiddler crabs.

“When the saltwater intrusion came in, it turned almost all of our wetlands into brackish water, some of it very brackish, and many of these freshwater species just have a hard time tolerating that,” said Chris Lechowicz, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation director of wildlife and habitat management.

SCCF’s Lechowicz told WINK News the most obvious impact is on the fish. Most or all of the freshwater fish in the lakes died after the storm surge, they couldn’t handle the salinity. Although, mammals are also feeling the impact of the saltwater.

“Like raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, they rely upon fresh water,” said Lechowicz.

Without much to drink, they wait on the rain, but that’s been hit-and-miss throughout the 2023 rainy season. The rain would also help the island’s salinity problem.

“When the island gets too much rainfall. They open up the Tarpon Bay weir, and it lets freshwater off the island,” said Lechowicz. “Well, that’s a way to get a lot of the saltwater off the island. It just has not happened because we have not had enough rain.”

It remains to be seen when things will go back to normal. Lechowicz is concerned it could take as long as a decade.

After the hurricane, SCCF documented animals that survived. Most were found over several months. As we approach 11 months since Hurricane Ian’s landfall, the question is how many are still around due to the lack of freshwater?

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