Local Leaders in Conservation

From farming worms to help reduce restaurant waste to creating new ways to protect our waters and their inhabitants, these four folks deserve a big hug from Mother Earth

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Mark Perry, photo by Jason Nuttle
Photography by Jason Nuttle

The Life Preserver

Florida Oceanographic Society’s Mark Perry continues his mission to redirect water flow to optimize filtration and ultimately restore the seagrass, oysters, and reefs in our local estuaries

As one of the leading voices in water preservation for more than 40 years, Palm City resident and Florida Oceanographic Society Executive Director Mark Perry is a critical player in the fight against the algal blooms and freshwater discharge harming the St. Lucie Inlet and Indian River Lagoon. 

“We started seeing [algal blooms] coming into the estuary from Lake Okeechobee water releases back in 2005,” says Perry, who earned his degree in applied marine science and oceanography and began working at the Florida Oceanographic Society as a grant writer in the 1970s. “There’s a lot of concern about how to stop the nutrient loading into Lake Okeechobee from the north, which is the driving factor for these algae. Along with the right water temperature, it creates these particularly harmful microcystin.” 

Florida Oceanographic Society—a 57-acre nonprofit marine life nature center and research institute on Hutchinson Island, which Perry’s father helped develop in 1964—plays a large role in protecting and preserving local estuaries. It uses its property and staff of scientists to propagate new seagrass and spawn oysters to repopulate the beds and reefs that have been damaged by too many nutrients and too much fresh water. The nonprofit recycles an estimated 25 tons of oyster shells from local restaurants each year to create new reefs for oyster larvae. 

“We’ve lost a lot of seagrass, we’ve lost a lot of oysters, and it’s very unfortunate,” Perry explains about the habitat that is critical for the survival of more than 300 species of crabs and fish. “Our advocacy is to send the water south from the lake. It used to flow through river grass, through the Everglades, and into the Florida Bay very slowly so it could filter out all of the nutrients. The flow used to go naturally south, so that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Florida Oceanographic Society’s campus recently expanded to include an Ocean EcoCenter, Waterworks Exploration Zone, and observation bridges overlooking the 750,000-gallon gamefish lagoon to better engage its more than 60,000 annual visitors and roughly 250 active volunteers. Educational programs and internships are available to anyone who wants to help with one of the dozens of projects currently being implemented in the St. Lucie Inlet and beyond.   

“What’s really gratifying to me is seeing volunteers helping us with oyster reef restoration or seagrass restoration, and they’re really excited because they’re doing something that makes a difference,” says Perry, who is also president of the Everglades Coalition and the Rivers Coalition. “They’re not just writing letters to congressmen; they’re out there doing something to help restore the ecosystem, and that’s really inspiring. That’s what keeps me going.” —Tracy Marcello

Dr. Edith Widder, photo by Jason Nuttle

The Scientist of the Seas

Deep-sea explorer Dr. Edith Widder has devoted her career to protecting our local ecosystems, first as a scientist with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and now with her own organization, ORCA

When it comes to protecting local waterways and underwater ecosystems, St. Lucie County and Martin County locals can rest assured knowing they have a driving force in the marine science industry working tirelessly on their behalf. 

World-renowned deep-sea explorer and bioluminescence expert Dr. Edith Widder has spent the past 15-plus years using her unique skill set at the micro level to transform the landscape of the Indian River Lagoon through the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), which she founded in 2005 after a 16-year career as lead scientist at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

“This is an estuary that was once called the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States, an estuary of national importance, and it was clear that it was collapsing,” the Fort Pierce resident says. “I felt like, if I can’t help here, then I’m not going to be able to help anywhere. So we started to focus our efforts locally.”

Along with a team of staff scientists and trained volunteers, Widder conducts fieldwork in the lagoon to map water pollution, monitor and restore marine life habitats, and prevent shoreline erosion, among other things. A particularly important aspect of her restoration efforts is the construction of living shorelines to provide a habitat for native plants and animals and improve water quality—two of the most critical components of fighting pollution and toxic algal blooms. 

“The lagoon has really deteriorated a lot, but it’s still in a state where we could turn it around,” Widder says, stressing the need for waterfront homeowners and local officials to get involved. “A lot of it is just trying to get people informed about what a huge difference low-impact development can make in the quality of our local ecosystems. Replacing a seawall with a living shoreline is less expensive and becomes a natural filter that cleans the water and breaks up stormwater damage.”

Widder says waterfront residents can help by bagging grass clippings, avoiding fertilizers that could run off into local waterways, and replacing sloping grass lawns and seawalls with swales and deep-rooted plants. They can also get involved with ORCA’s Citizen Science Initiative, a program used to train local volunteers to conduct pollution mapping and habitat restoration in the lagoon. “Volunteers go through a pretty rigorous training program, and then they help us collect data,” Widder explains. “Just the way you need a well-informed citizenry to have a healthy democracy, you need a science-literate public to have a healthy ecosystem.

Aside from her work with ORCA, Widder continues to do deep-sea submersible dives and recently published a memoir, Below the Edge of Darkness, about her bioluminescence research, her experience as the first person ever to capture footage of a giant squid, and her determination to protect the ocean and its inhabitants. 

“To be an explorer, you have to be an optimist, and you have to be willing to fail,” says Widder. “But we have to have a clear-eyed view of what we’re facing here. The only thing that’s going to save us is science. We have to have a much better appreciation for science and for what it takes to sustain life on an ocean planet.” —T.M.

Dean Lavallee, photo by Jason Nuttle

The Zero-Waste Worm Farmer

At Sublime Soil in Palm City, restaurateur Dean Lavallee is using worms to redefine how his industry handles food waste  

As the owner of eight Park Avenue BBQ Grille restaurants on South Florida’s east coast, from Boynton Beach to Port St. Lucie, Dean Lavallee generates a lot of waste. 

“Food, paper, glass, plastic, even metal…” Lavallee is pointing out the various culprits at his Indiantown Road location. “Restaurants have a big waste stream.” 

It’s a reality that didn’t sit well with the Jupiter resident, who was born and raised in Palm Beach County. “My mom was the secretary of Pine Jog Environmental Education Center, so I’ve been into conservation my whole life,” he says.

Eight years ago, when some of his younger employees started asking what could be done about all the garbage generated by the restaurants, Lavallee was prompted to take a fresh look at his waste stream. “Right now, waste has negative value; we’re paying someone to take it away,” he remembers thinking. “I wanted to find a way to give it value.” 

The solution came in a bucket of worms. Eisenia fetida (more commonly known as red wriggler worms) are often used for fishing—but the critters are also great at consuming waste. “They eat half their body weight every day,” says Lavallee. “So I bought 20 pounds of worms and started a worm farm in my backyard.”  

The backyard experiment thrived. The worms were eating restaurant waste and generating their own waste, called “worm castings,” which, in turn, made for excellent fertilizer. Lavallee experimented with what to feed the worms, mixing paper waste with various food waste. He learned the hard way about the importance of getting just the right mix for the worms’ food: After a diet of too much sugar caused a fly explosion inside his guest house, he began looking for a new home for his worms. 

In 2014, he bought five acres in Palm City and dubbed his farm Sublime Soil. Today, the farm is home to more than 100,000 pounds of worms. (Worms double their population every 90 days.) With more mouths to feed, Lavallee has installed “masherators,” or giant blenders, in his restaurants to process food waste, which is trucked back to  Sublime Soil a few times a month. 

There’s another benefit to all of this: The worm castings enrich the soil at the farm, helping Lavallee grow fruits and vegetables that he then ships back to his restaurants to use on the menu. 

He also purchased glass crushers and a kiln and repurposes beer bottles and glass containers into glass dishes and stained-glass windows, many of which are installed in his restaurants. And currently, he is working on creating a liner for the plastic buckets restaurant condiments come in with the goal of making the buckets reusable. 

The end goal for Lavallee is to achieve a zero- waste stream at his restaurants. “I am in a position to change one industry forever,” he says. 

With the help of his thousands of fat, wriggling friends, he may just do it.
—Valerie Staggs

Joe Cardenas, photo by Jason Nuttle

The Pompano Protector

Aquaco founder Joe Cardenas is bringing a sustainable supply of Florida pompano to the restaurant industry through aquaculture 

At 38, investment banker Joe Cardenas made a slightly odd career move: He traded his
wing tips for a pair of fishing boots and became a fish farmer. 

“I was bored with banking,” the Jupiter resident says with a shrug. “I wanted to get into an industry early on that had potential to grow.” Cardenas explored numerous businesses but was eventually drawn to the aquaculture industry. As a kid, he remembered fishing on Singer Island and loved the idea of raising Florida fish through aquaculture. 

He leased 10 acres of land just off the Intracoastal in Fort Pierce and founded Aquaco in 2015. “This all started on spreadsheets,” he says in typical banker style. “I wanted a fish that tasted good, was local, and in demand.” He settled on the Florida pompano. 

The flat-bodied, pan-sized fish has a sweet, mild flavor and is easy to eat whole. Prior to 1995 (when Florida imposed a net-fishing ban), the pompano, described by gourmands as the world’s most edible fish, was in danger of depletion. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission still considers it to be overfished today.

At Aquaco, Cardenas provides a new source for Florida pompano, one that is wholly sustainable and has no impact on the natural supply. “These are the royalty of Aquaco,” Cardenas says as he points through the window of a large tank where full-sized fish can be seen gliding by. He explains that the females in the tank spawn eggs that are quickly fertilized by the males. The fertilized eggs float to the top, where employees gather them for harvesting. 

“All of these fish are microchipped so we can build a history of viability,” says Cardenas. “Think of it like breeding cattle. You look at one of them and say, ‘That’s a big one!’ and you can track where it came from. Then you selectively breed for the perfectly sized fish.”

Getting the perfect fish is no easy task. The eggs go to a hatchery for their first six weeks of life before being moved to Aquaco’s nursery for four months, where they are sorted by size. “The smallest ones are not viable commercially, so places like Loggerhead Marinelife Center use them for food,” he says. The high quality of the fish, he explains, is a wonderful snack for recovering turtles. 

The larger fish eventually grow to about a pound and are harvested twice a week. Trucks arrive on harvesting days to deliver the pompano around Florida, Texas, and Georgia. Cardenas sells out weekly and plans to scale up operations to accommodate the demand. “Not only are we providing a way to sustainably produce Florida pompano, but we are also giving restaurants a regular supply of fish with a taste and size that are consistent,” he says. “They can’t get that with wild-caught fish.”

While Cardenas hopes to see Florida pompano on more restaurant menus, he limits his personal consumption to once a month. Too much of anything, as we know, isn’t always a good thing. “The worst thing that could happen would be if I got sick of Florida pompano,” he says with a laugh. —V.S.

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