BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. - When you think "ice hockey," you probably think skates, pucks and sticks. But what about oysters?
It may sound weird, but "retired" hockey sticks are being used to grow oysters that are cleaning up our local waters!
It's called the Rink 2 Reef program, and it's based at FGCU's Vester Marine & Environmental Science Field Station in Bonita Springs.
"Everyone would question it at first," says student Brandon Galindo who's involved in the project. He paraphrases what people would often say: "'Hockey sticks and oyster reefs? Like, that doesn't make it sense.'"
But it did made sense to the FGCU Hockey Club which just won its 4th National Championship.
The 'Aha' Moment
A few years ago, some of the players were putting in some volunteer hours at the Vester Station when the "aha" moment came. They were hanging out with their assistant coach, Bob Wasno, who is also a researcher at the Field Station.
"He and the hockey players were just sitting around one day and lamenting on broken hockey sticks and how they would end up in a landfill," says Dr. Mike Parsons who runs the field station.
"And so they were wondering if they could re-purpose the broken sticks."
"So they came up with this idea of forming these oyster habitats," says Parsons.
"I particularly liked (the idea) because I'm actually an avid hockey fan," says Brandon who's studying marine science. "I've been playing quite some time and lot of guys out here - they like hockey too."
"So we were like, 'Why don't we combine both of them and see what we can do with them?' and it fit perfectly."
Building the mini-reefs
The sticks are cut with power tools and then strung together with strong filament to create a mini-reef. Each mini-reef is about a foot long, a foot wide and two feet tall. That's plenty of surface area for oysters to set up shop and do what they do best - filter dirty water and make it cleaner.
Student Tatiana Mrazik says oysters are powerhouses of water filtration even though she admits they don't look like they're doing much of anything. "They seem so small and they're not cute, they're not fun," she says. "They kind of just sit there, but they're so important."
"Oysters are filter feeders, so they'll clean the water they filer out particles," says Dr. Parsons. "They eat plankton," he says.
And they can help with something that's plagued Southwest Florida's waters: algae.
"It's all to help the environment and the local waters here," says student Jessica Schroeder, who coordinates the volunteers for the project.
"When you look at an adult oyster, they can filter tens of gallons of water a day - maybe up to 100 gallons," says Dr. Parsons.
The mini-reefs are designed to expand that cleaning power, explains Wasno, the researcher and assistant hockey coach. He says the reefs are created to allow for maximum "oyster condo units."
"What really makes them practical is the amount of area - the Lincoln log configuration creates more space for oysters," says Bob. "And more oysters means more water cleaned."
"If you have 100 oysters on on a unit times a 100, you're looking at 10,000 gallons of water a day per unit," says Dr. Parsons.
Even when oysters are dead, they're still helping. They provide "a substrate" - or surface - for other things to grow on them like barnacles, for example, and they're cleaning the water, too.
You may be wondering if the fibers in the hockey sticks might adversely affect the marine environment.
"We looked into that because it's been a concern across the board," says Dr. Parsons. "They're made of carbon deposit and have a resin that contains lactic acid. That's a derivative of milk," he explains. "It's natural and inert."
"We have them had in the water for over two years now and they're doing well," he says of the hockey sticks.
He adds they've checked again and again to make sure no marine life is "trying to eat it or choking on it."
"It's not breaking down," he says.
The students pulled up one of the reefs to show us how much marine life one mini-reef can support. They showed us living oysters, barnacles, mud crabs - even a tiny Goby fish that dove back into the water after the reef was raised to the dock.
"I've also seen a bunch of seahorses on one," says Jessica who adds the mini-reefs are also come to young fish.
The mini-reef is small enough to fit under a backyard dock. In fact, FGCU students like Samantha Schwippert will even install them for you and come back to check and make sure things are going as planned.
Samantha has been well aware of the need in our local waters for years. "I was born and raised here and I've seen it deteriorate," she says.
Now she has a role in being part of a solution to the long standing water challenges. "It's just nice to come here and being able to help out the water quality in Southwest Florida," she says.
The NHL is also a part of the program through it's NHL Green initiative.
The program has even heard from a company that makes hockey sticks. The company says it's ready to donate sticks that might go un-used or don't quite meet specifications for competition use on the ice.
And people around the country are now going to the Rink 2 Reef website to get instructions on how to build mini-reefs in their region.
"People are building them in Cape Cod and deploying them," says Dr. Parsons. "Also in New Jersey and Texas."
If you'd like to volunteer, donate sticks or money, or request a reef in your backyard canal, just contact the Vester Field Station. They can definitely use the volunteer help as they embark on a new project.
They're collecting discarded oyster shells from local restaurants, putting them in biodegradable bags and dropping them into local waters to create even more points of filtration.
The students are excited to see the program get such an enthusiastic reception in Southwest Florida and beyond. "More people are going to start to care, says Tatiana who acknowledges the algae crisis and other challenges in our waters.
But she says it's not too late. "There is still time to make a change at this point," she says.
"These waters can get cleaned up," she adds as she gestures to the tranquil waters and mangroves around the field station. "But the way to get them cleaned is by having people care,"