Rinks to Reefs

Broken Hockey Sticks Find Second Life In The Sea As Oyster Breeding Grounds
Brian Lester

Eric Mabrie wasn't a science major while he was a student and playing hockey at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

Yet, he found himself involved in a project that is very much about science, and one that has proven to be vitally important to the environment while tapping into his passion for the game. 

The project is the building of reefs out of broken hockey sticks to serve as hotels for oysters. The structures, which require approximately a dozen sticks stacked in a pattern, are placed under docks in waterways around Southwest Florida and help revive a depleted oyster population while improving water quality significantly.

"It's a cool way to do something for the environment," said Mabrie, who played for the Div. II club hockey team at FGCU. "Even though not everyone involved is a biology major or marine science major, they enjoy doing it and it's been interesting to see what we can do for the environment with a project like this."

The project is the brainchild of Bob Wasno, a marine biologist and assistant hockey coach at the school, who was sitting around one day listening to his players complain about not having a use for broken hockey sticks.

Sticks break often in hockey, and in the past, landfills served as their graveyard. Because they are made of a carbon-composite material, they do not decompose, which has a big impact on the environment. And just like that, the reef to rink project was born. 

Because FGCU students are required to complete 80 community service hours, the opportunity to build reefs out of hockey sticks has proven to be a popular option.

"It's a lot of fun. You get to hang out with your friends and have a good time," said Mabrie, who has remained in the program even though he's graduated. "We're in our swimsuits and sandals and hanging out by the water building reefs and doing something positive for the environment."

It wasn't long before the project started picking up momentum. Wasno and his players contacted the NHL and the league's public affairs manager Paul LaCaruba thought the idea fit right in with some of the league's green initiatives.

"He loved it and challenged us to put as many as we could in waterways," Wasno said. "It's been working fantastically. There are a lot of oysters growing on them. Some areas have better recruitment than others but it's been going very well."

The Florida Everblades of the ECHL have been one of the biggest suppliers of broken hockey sticks. The Detroit Red Wings are among the handful of NHL teams that have sent Wasno boxes of broken sticks.

"It's been an eye opener to see other teams like that involved," Wasno said. "Ninety percent of the sticks we get are from the Everblades. They've been huge supporters of our program. We wouldn't be able to build even a third of the habitats if we didn't have their support. We're at a bottleneck right now. We're getting sticks and the boys are putting them together as fast as they can."

The stick structures are 40 inches long, 20 inches wide and 18 inches high with one-inch spacers in between the sticks. It takes very little time to build them.

"A couple of Junior hockey players out of Houston set the record for building one. They did it in 22 minutes," Wasno said. "They're very easy to build and easy to deploy. Then you just sit back and watch, and in no time, oysters will be drawn to them."

Oysters have had a tough time in recent years due to the effects of dredging and development. They need healthy waterways in order to thrive and survive. Wasno calls them the kidneys of the sea because a single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day. Multiply that by 400 oysters occupying these makeshift reefs and you're talking about 20,000 gallons of water per day.

"It's astounding how important oysters are," Wasno said. "It's crazy how something so small can clean up such big bodies of water. It's amazing to see the impact and the difference it makes."

The program has been going strong for three years and has recruited the help of local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops as well as various teams from other states that have ventured down to Fort Myers to build reefs.  A high school team from New Jersey has even come down to help out the last couple of years.

Wasno enjoys the fact that players involved in the rink to reef project are being introduced to something they might not have  taken an interest in otherwise.

"We've had people who don't know a lick about oysters and how important they are, but by participating in this program, they understand why oysters are important and have a greater appreciation of what the waterways are all about," he said. "They see just how fragile ecosystems are, and that's something they aren't getting in other classes."

Other hockey coaches approach Wasno to talk about the reef to rink project, and that includes at the national tournament last season in Ohio where FGCU won its third title. He's even had teams from the Great Lakes region contact him about building reefs. Though there aren't oysters in that part of the country, that doesn't mean reefs built out of hockey sticks won't serve other purposes.

"The idea is to get these reefs in as many places as possible," Wasno said. "There are over 400 community organizations geared toward oyster habitat restoration, and once they pick up on what we are doing, we hope that they will build these reefs. In turn, they'll enhance the oyster population and keep hockey sticks out of landfills." 




Brian Lester is a freelance writer based in Pensacola, Fla.




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