All posts by Heyward Mathews

SPC Dive Club Holds Beach Cleanup

beach cleanup

Though the St. Petersburg College Underwater Research Society, the College’s club for SCUBA diving enthusiasts, spends most of their time together under the water, they recently met on shore for a day of beach cleanup.

On Saturday, August 4, club members, including  Club Advisor Dr. Heyward Mathews, Club President Matt Bellant, along with Danielle Hartberger, Brooke Leonelli, Angel Warf, and  Laura and Mike Smith, met at Indian Shores Beach. From 9 a.m. to noon, the crew, with five-gallon buckets in hand, walked about a mile stretch of the beach, gathering up approximately 40 gallons of trash – roughly 80 pounds – from the water line all the way into the sand dunes. Some items they removed from the beach were single running shoes, orphaned flip-flops, styrofoam cups, dead fish and birds, lots of cigarette filters, remains from fireworks, and lots and lots of plastic in the form of straws, cup lids, and children’s sand toys.

The pollution of micro-plastics, especially straws, has been a hot-button item in the news recently. Mathews said that it is a terrible issue for marine life.

“The main problem with these plastics in the water is that many marine animals mistake plastics for food,” he explained. “They ingest them and die from clogged intestines.”

One of the pleasant aspects of the day were the number of beachgoers who thanked the group for their service. Some of the children’s sand toys were recycled by giving them to children further down the beach. One team member was lucky enough to find a beautifully bleached out and intact sand dollar. But the most unexpected treat of the day was arriving at a sea turtle hatching in time to watch the action.

Mathews said the group, along with SPC marine biology students, are not finished yet.

“Our marine biology students have done many beach clean up projects, both on the beaches and under water, with our scuba students on the artificial reefs and under
Pier 60 in Clearwater,” Mathews said. “We are now working under a Clearwater Marine Aquarium grant to study the impact of the current red tide bloom on two reefs we have been working for the last four years.”

SPC’s Reef Monitoring Continues

reef monitoring

In 2010 I, Dr. Heyward Mathews, and my colleague, Dr. Monica Lara, formed Reef Monitoring Inc.,  a non-profit corporation made up of several former St. Petersburg College marine biology students and current Clearwater Campus faculty. Reef Monitoring began teaching local sport divers how to conduct underwater fish and invertebrate counts to monitor the health of local natural and artificial reefs.

reef monitoringWhen these underwater surveys found that large amounts of old crab trap rope and fishing lines were becoming an entanglement hazard to marine birds, turtles and dolphins, Reef Monitoring began sponsoring artificial reef “Clean-Up” projects. Several of these reef clean-ups removed over 1300 pounds of old rope and fishing line. Later when these surveys began to observe the invasive lionfish becoming a problem on our reefs, Reef Monitoring began holding Lionfish Round-Ups. These round-ups are still removing thousands of these invasive lionfish every Fall.

In 2014, we approached the SPC grants office about a grant for the college to study several aspects of our artificial and natural reefs off of the Pinellas County coast. The staff at our grants office was surprised to find that the Florida Game and Fish Commission research grants could only go to State Universities and non-profit groups, not colleges. We then applied for a grant using Reef Monitoring Inc. to apply. This grant was for just under $18,000, and allowed our marine biology students to conduct extensive bi-monthly research dives on five local reefs, three artificial and two natural reefs.

A Three-Part Study

Part one of this study was to determine what role these reefs play in larval recruitment of important fish species. To determine this, light traps were set overnight above the reefs by scuba divers trained in our SPC scuba program. The following morning, the divers brought the traps to the surface and the larval fish and the zooplankton were preserved. Once back on campus, the students used microscopes to identify and count the tiny fish and invertebrates collected in the light traps. Some of these organisms have never been described as being caught in light traps in the open sea.

Part two of this study was to make fish counts of the adult fish on each of these five reefs. These fish surveys are part of a continuing practice of the studies that Reef Monitoring Inc. has been conducting since 2011. They give us a “baseline data” to measure future changes in these reefs.

Part three of this study was to determine the impact of these reefs on the populations of small marine organisms that live buried in the sediment and make up much of the food chain. This study consisted of taking sediment samples from adjacent to the reef out 100 meters from the reef structure. These samples were preserved out in the boat, and when returned to campus, the samples were analyzed for particle size and analysis of the invertebrates collected. From this data, we are able to identify what organisms form this part of the food chain and compare biomass and species diversity of artificial and natural reefs communities. This study shows that these reefs influence the ecology of the sea floor over 100 meters from the actual reef structures.

This project gave our marine biology students not only invaluable experience in data collection in the field, but also experience in preparing the data for presentation before an audience of their peers. Much of this information gained from this study was presented at a public symposium on April 15, 2016 in the Fine Arts Auditorium on the Clearwater Campus, sponsored by Reef Monitoring and the Scuba Club. Several of our students who worked on this project are now employed as marine biologists with the state research lab in St. Petersburg.

A New Project

I am now working with former Congressman David Jolly on an addition to
the Veterans Reef, an artificial reef off Dunedin shores started back in 1999. This new addition to Veterans Reef will be called a “Circle of Heroes” and will feature 24 life-sized
statues of military heroes in a circle on the sea floor ten miles out in the Gulf of
Mexico. In March, I obtained a small grant from the SPC Foundation to cover the total cost of the college scuba class, PEN22136, for five of our students who are veterans. The five student veterans who received the grants from the SPC Foundation have completed the college scuba class, and in the coming months will be placing small markers on the reef site to locate the spots for the military statues to be placed on the sea floor.

Dr. Lara and I will be enlisting new marine biology students in the fall for new research projects on the reefs off of the Pinellas County shores, as well as monitoring the
populations of marine life attracted to the new Circle of Heroes artificial reef. More
information about this Circle of Heroes can be found at brighterfutureflorida.org

Scuba Club Holds Third Annual Reef Cleanup

reef cleanup

On Saturday May 20, the SPC Underwater Activities Society (Scuba Club) conducted its third annual reef cleanup in the Gulf waters under Pier 60 in Clearwater. Old crab trap rope, fishing tackle and other debris accumulates around the pier pilings and becomes an entanglement hazard for marine birds, turtles, and mammals.

reef cleanupIn the months before the 2010 BP oil spill, Reef Monitoring Inc., a non-profit corporation, was formed. I enlisted SPC Marine Science faculty and students both current and former to be on the Board of Directors, and the main purpose of our group was to collect baseline data on the existing marine communities off Pinellas County.

Once we began doing these underwater surveys on local artificial reefs, we found that they were accumulating large amounts of old crab trap rope and fishing line, which poses a very real threat to marine birds, turtles, and mammals, including the now-famous dolphin, Winter, who lost her tail to old crab trap rope. To combat this problem, Reef Monitoring began in 2012 to host a series of Reef Clean-Ups, where we enlisted local sport divers to go out into the Gulf to remove as much of this material from the Clearwater Artificial Reef as possible.

In 2015, the City of Clearwater Harbormaster requested our group do a cleanup of crab trap rope that had accumulated under Pier 60, and the annual Pier 60 Cleanup was born.
This year, 14 club members arrived by car and boat starting at 8:00 a.m. for the event Our student divers used knives and shears to remove these materials and place them in a dumpster provided by the Clearwater Harbormaster.

Clearwater Fire Rescue team had their boat and divers standing by for safety and had their fire rescue truck in the parking lot at pier 60. Clearwater City Council member Dorene
Caudell is a diver, and she joined us for the dive.

By 11:00 a.m., the divers completed the task and the anglers on the pier could resume their fishing. The students were then treated to lunch donated by Hooters on Clearwater Beach.

This annual event has removed well over a thousand pounds of material from Gulf waters over the past three years.

SPC students to present reef research

A marine science student works on SPC's reef monitoring project.

In the spring of 2014, a small non-profit corporation made up of SPC faculty and former students started a research project funded by the Florida Game and Fish Commission. The study went for a year, and much of the information gained from this project will be presented by student researchers in a symposium on April 15 in the Fine Arts Auditorium on the Clearwater Campus at 7:30 p.m.

The study involved three artificial reefs and two natural reefs in the Gulf off of Pinellas County. Marine biology students from the Clearwater Campus traveled out to these five reefs once a month to collect samples of the larval fish with a “light trap” developed by Dr. Monica Lara. The goal was to determine what role these reefs play in larval recruitment of important fish species. The light traps were hung above the reefs overnight by divers trained in our SPC scuba classes. The following morning the traps were retrieved and the larval fish were preserved. Once back on campus, the students used microscopes to identify and count the tiny fish and invertebrates collected in these light traps.

A second part of this study was to make fish counts of the adult fish on each of the five reefs. These counts were made by having a pair of divers swim for fifty meters and count the fish on a two meter wide transect. These fish counts are a continuation of studies Reef Monitoring has been conducting since 2010. These counts give us baseline data to measure any future changes to the natural communities of our reefs.

A third part of the study was to collect sediment samples from adjacent to the reef and out away from the reef 100 meters in order to determine the impact of the reef on the populations of small marine organisms that make up much of the marine food chain. The sediment samples were preserved out in the boat and then returned to the campus for sorting by particle size and analysis of the invertebrate species collected.

This project not only gave our marine biology students invaluable experience in data collection in the field, but also experience in preparing the data for presentation before an audience of their peers. This type of hands on learning will be of great use once our students finish college and enter the work force.

Student divers bring up fish traps for the reef study.
Student divers bring up fish traps for the reef study.

Reef Monitoring teams with SPC for Pier 60 cleanup

Dr. Heyward Mathews works with a volunteer at a previous cleanup.

Update: The date for this cleanup has been changed to May 21 from 9 a.m. – noon. This event is free and open to the public. 

On May 21 this year, our newly-formed SPC Underwater Research Society on the Clearwater Campus will have around a dozen divers working under Pier 60 alongside non-diver members of the Science Adventurers Club to clean debris that has accumulated there from fishing and crabbing.

In the months before the 2010 BP oil spill,  I formed Reef Monitoring Inc., a non-profit corporation.  I enlisted several marine science faculty and several of my former marine biology students to be on the Board of Directors, and we began teaching local sport divers how to make underwater fish and invertebrate surveys.  Many of these local divers are ones I certified  in my SPC scuba classes (PEN 2136) over the last 40+ years.  The main purpose of our group was to collect baseline data on the existing marine communities off Pinellas County, so when we later have fish kills or man-made disasters in local waters, we will be able to evaluate and possibly mitigate the damage.

Once we began doing these underwater surveys on local artificial reefs, we found that they were accumulating large amounts of old crab trap rope and fishing line that poses a very real threat to marine birds, turtles, and mammals, including the now-famous dolphin,  Winter, who lost her tail to old crab trap rope. To combat this problem, Reef Monitoring  began in 2012 to host a series of Reef Clean-Ups, where we enlisted local sport divers to go out into the Gulf to remove as much of this material from the Clearwater Artificial Reef as possible.  I admit I am a bit partial to our artificial reefs because I founded the Pinellas Artificial Reef Program back in 1974.

In 2015, the City of Clearwater Harbormaster requested our group do a cleanup of crab trap rope that had accumulated under Pier 60, a favorite fishing spot on Clearwater Beach.  We removed several hundred pounds of old rope on a Saturday morning, but found the actual fiberglass crab traps were embedded in the sand and our divers needed to pull them up to remove them. So this year, the teams will work together with hooks and heavy ropes to pull the old crab traps up out of the sand.  We will have a local crab trap person pick up and recycle the fiberglass crab traps.  The students will then have a free lunch provided by Hooters, an organization that has been very supportive of all our clean ups and has provided lunches for these events.

Our choice of April 23 was simple: That is one day after Earth Day, when similar clean up events will be occurring all over the country.  Also, on that same day, the Natural Science Department is hosting an open house event for local high school seniors to encourage them to enroll in science classes for the fall. We hope to set up a large screen TV at the science building and have live streaming – both under and above water – of the clean-up event to spotlight our science-related studies at SPC.