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SCCF moving into new marine lab

August 7, 2018
By TIFFANY REPECKI ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

A project that has been going on for nearly two years is finally coming to an end as staff with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation begin to move into their new marine laboratory.

SCCF is expected to move into the new $1.6 million facility this week, followed by a week or so of settling in before the team is fully operational out of it. Built on the bayside of Tarpon Bay Road near the Tarpon Bay Explorers, the 2,800-square-foot lab is elevated 12 feet and features a widow's walk.

The ground floor consists of storage, including a covered three-bay area for boats and gear.

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The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is expected to move into its new $1.6 billion, state-of-the-art marine laboratory on Sanibel this week. Constructed on the project started in September 2016.

The initial tentative move-in date was January, but Hurricane Irma came through first.

Marine Laboratory Director Eric Milbrandt explained that the new facility will enable SCCF to be more efficient and quicker at what it does, as well as expand its capabilities. The non-profit's focus is conserving coastal habitats and aquatic resources on the islands and in the surrounding watershed.

"With water quality and the depredation of the habitats around the islands as it is now," he said. "The new SCCF Marine Lab will provide greater research capacity to investigate water quality and conditions of seagrass, oysters and mangroves."

Milbrandt added that new equipment, added space for visiting scientists and increased lab space will provide the science necessary to face the water quality challenges impacting Sanibel and Captiva.

Created in partnership with the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the facility sits on federal land and is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. About $1 million in federal funding covered the base building, with SCCF raising approximately $400,000 to turn it into a laboratory.

SCCF has a 20-year agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to occupy the space. In addition, SCCF will continue its work with the refuge on water quality research and projects.

"We're really trying to give them data and science to better manage the refuge," he said.

Deputy Refuge Manager Nate Caswell echoed that.

"We are very pleased that construction on the new marine lab is nearing completion. It's been a long process, but we believe it will be worth the wait," he said. "We are excited for the scientific opportunities the new facility will provide and for the ongoing benefits of the work SCCF does on behalf of the refuge and the entire estuary. The refuge has a strong partnership with SCCF and, in light of recent events, that partnership is more important than ever."

The planning for the new facility, which began in 2012, stemmed from a grant received from the National Science Foundation in 2009. The grant brought in other marine lab directors from all over the United States to look at what SCCF had at the time, as well as to examine its scientific programs.

Milbrandt noted that the existing lab was found lacking in research and staff work space.

"And it needed to be a green building," he said of the environmental aspect.

The new lab will house SCCF's existing River, Estuary and Coastal Observing Network or RECON, which is a network of water quality sensors deployed throughout the Caloosahatchee and estuary. The sensors help provide real-time, water quality data to scientists, policy makers and the general public.

"It's space that we need to be able to run our sensory network," Milbrandt said.

There is a wet or seawater lab and a dry or analytical lab. Although a lot of the work is done in the field, samples are brought back. The wet lab is used to sort, sieve and filter water, as well as examine sea life specimens in a carbon-filtered air conditioned space. The dry lab has analytical equipment.

Staff will have the capability to analyze nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus in water samples.

"Which we don't have the ability to do now," he said, explaining that the existing process entails sending the samples to an outside lab for analysis. "It's a huge hassle, and it's expensive."

The equipment will enable staff to analyze water and life in water in a more sophisticated manner, as well as allow them to take plant, animals and algae tissues to identify nitrogen and carbon content.

An outdoor experimentation area will feature tanks and running sea water under sun and shade. Staff will be able to test different nutrients and salinities to see how it affects seagrass, oyster reefs and algae.

In terms of being green, the facility has a 5 kilowatt solar array, or panel system, and a rainwater harvesting system, which collects gutter water and stores it in a large below-ground cement tank. The water, which will be used to wash the boats and equipment, has a monitoring system linked to it.

The building also has sensors and a dashboard system to monitor power usage and such.

Storing the boats and gear under the facility has helped limit SCCF's footprint.

"Plus, it gets us out of the sun when working on the boats," Milbrandt of maintenance time.

There is also an ADA-accessible wheelchair lift and dive locker on the ground floor.

"We'll have a dedicated space with a shower," he said of staff's wet gear.

In addition to lab space, the main level contains office work space and a conference room. Milbrandt explained that a big component of SCCF's research is working in partnership with outside entities.

"An important part of what we do is communicate with each other," he said, adding that staff will partner with experts it unfamiliar fields such as engineering or fisheries. "We work as a team."

Above the main floor is an enclosed widow's walk that overlooks Tarpon Bay. While there is no funding at the time to finish the space, SCCF plans to use it for future growth, possibly as more office space or another conference room. Sliding glass doors are a hope to take advantage of the views.



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