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Hurricane, rise in sea level changed Big Panther Key

Feb. 9, 2013
Smooth cordgrass on Big Panther Key.
Smooth cordgrass on Big Panther Key. / Kevin Lollar/
Succulent salt marsh on Big Panther Key in Pine Island Sound. / Kevin Lollar/

10 ways to help

Rising sea levels are threatening area salt marshes. Jim Beever, principal planner for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council offers 10 ways to help save salt marshes.
1. Maintain existing marsh migration corridors.
2. Buy and protect buffer zones to let habitats and wildlife to migrate inland.
3. Restore existing salt marshes by removing exotic vegetation, backfilling ditches and removing barriers to tidal connection.
4. Stop hardening shorelines with seawalls, bulkheads, riprap and living shorelines backed by riprap.
5. Re-engineer vertical shoreline infrastructure such as seawalls and bulkheads to sloped, soil-based shorelines.
6. Restore natural hydrology to allow sediments to build up naturally.
7. Make roadway berms permeable to salt marsh migration and hydrology.
8. Backfill mosquito control ditches.
9. Backfill or reslope shores of borrow pits, agricultural pits and spreader waterways to let salt marshes and migration corridors become established.
10. Add sediment to salt marsh areas in a sediment slurry (sediments mixed with water).


Over the past eight years, Big Panther Key in Pine Island Sound has shown what sea level rise and storms can do to salt marsh habitat.

Big Panther is a doughnut island: It has a mangrove fringe and an open interior.

Until 2004, the fringe was an outer edge of red mangroves, inside of which was a thick black mangrove forest.

The island’s interior was a type of salt marsh known as saltern.

Hurricane Charley made landfall Aug. 13, 2004, in northern Lee County with 140-mph winds, and Big Panther started to change.

“When Charley came through, red mangroves on Big Panther died first,” said Jim Beever, principal planner of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. “The wind twisted the leaves off. For red mangroves, all the growth is at the tips of the branches, and twisting the leaves off kills them.”

Black mangroves have roots called pneumatophores that extend horizontally above the sediment to provide oxygen to the underground root system.

Charley’s storm surge covered these pneumatophores, and the trees died.

“Sea level rise contributed to that, too,” Beever said. “With sea level rise, the storm surge was higher than it would have been with a lower starting point.”

Storm surge also washed out the island’s interior saltern habitat — the interior is 1 to 1.5 feet lower than before Charley.

Now, the interior is succulent salt marsh and smooth cordgrass salt marsh with an area of open water.

That doesn’t mean the present habitats are better or worse than the pre-Charley habitat.

“They do different things,” Beever said. “The area of open water makes habitat for little fishes. The high marsh was more for things like fiddler crabs. We’ve lost the fiddler crabs, but fish like larval tarpon have gained shallow water areas.

“The saltern was an important stop-over place for migratory birds. There’s no place for them to set their bottoms down now.”

But with the open water now in the island’s interior, shore birds have a good feeding area.

Salt marshes are important coastal habitats that are being threatened by sea level rise.

While salt marshes on the mainland can migrate landward ahead of rising water, salt marshes on Big Panther Key and other doughnut islands will be drowned.

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