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Stay clam and carry on: Brevard Zoo works to restore Indian River Lagoon

 Adam Klingenberg (top right) and a volunteer homeowner (top left) look down for a clam bed, so Virginia Wine (bottom left) and Iven Webb (bottom right) can retrieve it.
Avery Joens & Ronald Perretti
Adam Klingenberg (top right) and a volunteer homeowner (top left) look down for a clam bed, so Virginia Wine (bottom left) and Iven Webb (bottom right) can retrieve it.

The Brevard Zoo is widely known for nursing animals back to health. But many don’t know that it’s also playing a major role in nursing the nearby Indian River Lagoon back to health.

A team of conservationists at the zoo has been working to make a remarkable impact on the lagoon through a conservation field project called “Restore Our Shores.’’ It’s been a sustained, long-term effort because the lagoon didn’t get damaged overnight.

In 2010, the Brevard Zoo began working in the Indian River Lagoon to help bring balance back to the ecosystem, which is one of North America's most biologically diverse estuaries.

Over 4,000 species of animals and plants call the Indian River Lagoon home, and they depend upon the water's health and quality for survival. The lagoon is sick, according to scientists at the Brevard Zoo.

Faced with habitat destruction and damage caused by pollution, the Indian River Lagoon has experienced devastating algal blooms and fish die offs. In hopes of bringing the lagoon back to good health, the Brevard Zoo created the “Restore Our Shores” conservation field project.

“We've been having troubles with the Indian River Lagoon for a long time,” said Adam Klingenberg, conservation construction lead at the Brevard Zoo, “but more recently, it’s come into the forefront.”

The Restore Our Shores field project is comprised of several projects that focus on varying aspects of restoration. These projects range from oyster and clam restoration to seagrass and marsh grass restoration.

The latest effort in the project involves clams. The team of conservationists began wrapping up their clam restoration project in November. Clams are a vital part of the Indian River Lagoon’s ecosystem as they are filter feeders, “they’re consuming the algae, and then they're releasing clean fresh water,” said Klingenberg.

The conservation team also partnered with volunteer homeowners who live alongside the Indian River Lagoon. The homeowners volunteered their docks and water space to the conservation team, allowing them to place 100 individual baby clam beds in November 2021.

Over the past year, the team has come by each clam bed to check growth, measure survival rates, and take water samples. The Indian River Lagoon is an estuary, meaning fresh water combines with salt water, making it very biologically diverse. The team takes this into account when collecting their data, “because the tide shifts every six to eight hours, they're getting a full saltwater bath,” said Klingenberg.

As the team wraps up this project, they are looking at ways to improve their efforts in future projects. “Going into bagging as opposed to beds with nets will really help them with predation and bring higher success for them,” said Virginia Wine, conservation field technician at the Brevard Zoo.

Along with their fieldwork, they also have several other conservation projects that involve breeding endangered species at the zoo. The team is working with endangered animals such as the Perdido Key beach mouse, the Florida scrub jay, and frosted flatwood salamanders.

The conservation team puts its focus on endangered species that are native to Florida, in hopes of reversing their decline. “We really like to focus on conservation in our backyards,” said Jody Cassell, the director of conservation at the Brevard Zoo. “If we're not going to take care of our backyard then who is,”.

Kelly Currier, a conservation coordinator at the Brevard Zoo, said, “the biggest threat to animals in Florida is habitat loss.” When habitat loss is occurring due to neighborhood building and construction, the conservation team is able to help translocate the species of animals living in those environments.

Another factor impacting Florida’s wildlife is hurricanes. During Hurricane Ian, many new sea turtle hatchlings were washed back ashore. Fortunately, the Brevard Zoo’s Sea Turtle Healing Center was there to help “we had hundreds of hatchlings in that we were taking care of,” Currier said.

Next up, the Brevard Zoo’s conservation team is looking ahead to the opening of a manatee rehabilitation center and an aquarium in Port Canaveral. These new additions to their conservation efforts will be placed front and center at the aquarium, Cassell said. “This is an opportunity for guests to learn and see rehabilitation as it happens.”

This story is part of the"Sounds of Central Florida" project, a partnership between WMFE and UCF's Nicholson School of Communication and Media.

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