- Storms in general tend to bring an abundance of mussels – so Sanibel, the “Mussel Capital of the World,” could possibly see more mussels due to Ian’s impacts.
- But the presence of excess shells could mean that a lot of wildlife was harmed.
- One expert describes how hurricanes can negatively affect marine life in the long term, with molluscs, clam builders and oyster reefs among those hard hit.
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Despite Hurricane Iana’s wrath on Florida’s famed island, Sanibel may still be the place to be for seashells, but the storm’s effects could still spell bleak for the marine ecosystem.
After Ian’s landfall on September 28, some wondered what the storm’s 155 mph winds and 12-foot storm surge would have on Sanibel and its decorated coastline.
Thousands of people travel to the “Mussel Capital of the World” each year in hopes of catching a glimpse of the more than 250 species of mussel dotted along its 15 miles of beaches.
Experts note that storms usually bring an excess of clams. At the same time, it could signal devastating impacts on wildlife.
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More shells after Hurricane Ian
According to beach expert Stephen Leatherman, residents and clam seekers shouldn’t worry about Ian ruining Sanibel’s reputation as a prime spot for clam viewing.
He said storms in general usually bring an excess of shells, adding that Sanibel could possibly see more shells because of an incoming storm surge that carries sand and shells that scatter off its beaches and across the island.
“It can reduce it a little bit,” Leatherman said. “But normally I would think it would still be good. . . . I feel like Sanibel will still have its national reputation as the best sniping beach in the country.”
As for why the barrier island sees more shells on its beaches compared to others in the entire county, here’s the answer: it’s one of the few islands in Florida that runs perpendicular, which causes ocean currents to cause the beaches to primarily they flush the water down.
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Leatherman says that only offshore where the water isn’t clear does Sanibel have a sand-like area called a ground swell that forms and pushes shells onto its beaches mostly intact.
Ian’s impact on wildlife
While the seemingly odd glut of seashells on beaches after Ian may seem like a much-needed positive, it could signal a much darker storm to come.
José H. Leal, scientific director and curator at the island’s Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, said the presence of excess shells may mean that a lot of wildlife has been harmed.
“If you’re looking for seashells for your collection, you’ll be happy there for a little while, and besides us, we have to look at the situation from a bird’s eye view, that the seashells are there because they were hit by a storm. Leal said.
It details how hurricanes can negatively affect marine life over the long term, pointing to specific examples of hard-hit marine populations such as molluscs, microscopic plants and animals, shell producers, oyster reefs, and bivalves.
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According to the research he collected, hurricanes generate high waves, rough currents and shifting sand, all of which can harm marine life. These waves can reach up to 60 feet—combining to create cooler, saltier water and troubling areas where there isn’t much commotion.
“The resulting currents can extend up to 300 feet below the surface, which generally causes a lot of damage to marine life,” Leal explains.
This excess rainwater changes the salinity of coastal waters, depositing fine sand and silt affecting several marine invertebrates that live in specific areas, according to Leal.
He said the presence of excess sediment in coastal waters will prevent the post-hurricane growth of microscopic algae, which are food for filter-feeding molluscs such as oysters, clams and clams.
Other impacts will include wildlife such as dolphins, sharks and other fish evacuating the area after detecting barometric pressure changes ahead of an approaching hurricane.
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“Studies by the University of Miami and other research groups in Florida show that several species of sharks in shallow waters will move away from an approaching storm a day or two before coming ashore,” Leal said. “But slow-moving (or stationary) animals like molluscs simply can’t and will be severely affected.”
Finally, man-made structures also have an impact on wildlife after Ian says they can leak fuel, oil, battery acid and other chemicals into coastal waters.
Recovery will happen, but it will take years
Around this time of year, Leal said they usually prepare for the worst with each incoming storm.
The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum itself suffered 5 feet of flooding, significant wind damage to the roof and the loss of generators during Ian, resulting in only 25% of their marine life surviving the rescue.
Fortunately, none of the 550,000 shells in their collection were damaged. The team transported 30% of the storage on the third floor to the second floor where over 500 grenades are normally displayed.
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No timeline has been set for the museum’s redevelopment, but staff were grateful for the support both locally and around the world.
As for the island, Leal said it will be restored, although it may take some time. In the meantime, he says, he hopes the lost populations will recover to pre-storm levels and will sometimes add different species to replace some of those found before the hurricane.
“One thing to keep in mind is that those species have been there for thousands if not millions of years … and to some degree today, in the long run, they’re going to be able to come back,” Leal said.