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Protecting Sanibel's Shoreline

By J. Bruce Neill

Living shorelines are to our natural communities, what skin is to living individuals. More than just a border, it is a living, dynamic conduit that not only protects, but also allows energy and nutrients to flow between the land and the sea.

Mangrove forests are a vital component of the marine communities in Southwest Florida. That means that healthy mangroves are of the utmost importance to the health of our economy and a sustainable future. They carry out a number of ecosystem services necessary for our natural resource base. These services include: capturing energy from the sun and making it available for animals in the ocean, providing critical habitat for many marine and terrestrial species of plants and animals, stabilizing our shorelines against erosion, and minimizing the impacts of storms.

The four species of mangroves in our region are: red mangrove, white mangrove, black mangrove and buttonwood. They are found in tropical and subtropical marine environments throughout the world. Mangrove trees have come up with solutions to the challenges of living in the harsh environments along the edge of the ocean. In scientific jargon, mangrove forests are called mangals.

During the early years of our area’s more recent development, the importance of mangrove communities was not fully appreciated; they were viewed as worthless swamp land—best cut down and filled in to create more valuable, dry ground area. We now better understand their vital role in our natural community and our economy, and we are working to maintain and restore the mangroves in our region.

Coastal Watch, a nonprofit environmental group based on Sanibel Island, focuses its efforts on conservation initiatives. Its objective is to execute local, but significant, initiatives that help our communities better integrate with nature to provide for a more sustainable future. In order to preserve our coastal heritage for future generations; members of the organization realize that the first step is to maintain our rich natural resource base.

As sea-level rise impacts more community infrastructure, mangrove restoration and management projects are becoming more important and more common. Partnering with the City of Sanibel, Coastal Watch has embarked on a program to fortify existing mangroves along a section of road that is subject to erosion and shoreline degradation.

“Woodring Road is an area of Sanibel that is vulnerable to erosion from high wave energy generated by winds and storms,” explains Dana Dettmar, environmental specialist for the Natural Resources Department of the city of Sanibel. “The goal of this project is to mitigate the impacts of erosion using mangroves to absorb wave energy. Mangroves have an extensive root system that will help stabilize the shoreline and reduce the potential for erosion at this location.”

 Coastal Watch has collected local mangrove propagules and has grown them for a little more than a year. In early 2020, they will be planted in areas to help slow down erosional losses and buffer the area from high wave action. The next phase will occur in the winter of 2020 and 2021 when additional plantings will be made and physical structures will be placed to create a vibrant, protective living shoreline. 

Dettmar points out that mangroves are one of Sanibel’s most valuable resources. “Protecting mangroves and creating additional mangrove habitat is critical to maintaining a healthy ecological balance on our sanctuary island,” she stresses.

Through small integrated projects close to home and community building through wise natural resource management and utilization, we will propel our heritage into the future, trying to leave our natural resources just a little better.

 To learn more about Coastal Watch and the mangrove project, visit


J. Bruce Neill, Ph.D. is an ocean advocate and executive director of Sanibel Sea School.