News | April 27, 2017

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Hockey players recycle broken sticks to heal ailing estuaries

Photo – Brett Sutton examines one of the Rink2Reef Oyster Restoration units deployed 7 months earlier. He and fellow hockey players, from left, Justin Kilker, Alphoso Diaz, Greg Russo, Tyler Reichl and David Cross count the oysters.


Researchers at FGCU’s Vester Marine and Environmental Sciences Research Field Station, FGCU’s Hockey Clubs and the NHL’s Green Initiative Program are teaming up to create the Rink2Reef Oyster Habitats Waterways Restoration Program – an innovative way to clean coastal waterways by creating artificial oyster reefs from broken hockey sticks.

First, let’s look at oysters, true environmental alchemists that change dirty water into clean water.

Many of the nation’s estuaries are plagued by excess nutrients, which can cause harmful algal blooms, and other pollutants. Oysters are filter feeders. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, which means 100 oysters in an estuary can suck in nutrients and pollutants and spit out crystal-clear water at a rate of 5,000 gallons a day.

Now to the sticks: If you’ve ever watched a hockey game, you know that hockey players break a lot of sticks.

If you’re environmentally inclined, you’d like to think those sticks are recycled, but they aren’t.

“These sticks are made out of a composite material,” said Bob Wasno, manager of the Vester center and coach of FGCU’s D3 Hockey Club. “It’s carbon-composite material; it’s not recyclable. So, basically, these sticks are going right from the ice into a dumpster and out to the landfills.”

This is where FGCU and the NHL have come together in a gloriously green idea: Collect broken hockey sticks from hockey rinks throughout North America (we’re talking NHL, NCAA, American Collegiate Hockey Association, high school teams and anybody else who plays hockey and breaks sticks) and use them to build oyster habitats that can be deployed under the docks.

The habitats look like the Lincoln-log structures you build as a kid, except each 40-inch-by-20-inch-by-20-inch unit is made from 12 broken hockey sticks, ¼-inch nylon rope, and stainless steel fender washers.

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Closeup of Rinks2Reef unit

Here’s how it works: When oysters spawn, their larvae swim around and feed on phytoplankton. After a couple of weeks, they look for something hard to settle on, and a nice carbon-composite Lincoln-log structure under a dock is ideal for setting up housekeeping – prototypes at Vester lab started recruiting oysters and other filter feeders, including mussels, barnacles and tunicates, in just a few weeks.

The 9.17-cubic-foot hockey-stick units can support as many as 400 oysters, and, given the 50-gallon-per-day filtering capability of a single oyster, that means a single Puck City oyster habitat could clean 20,000 gallons of water per day.

“I think this is cool,” said Win Everham, professor and program leader of FGCU’s environmental studies program. “There’s a lot of surface for stuff to adhere to. Conceptually, it should work great. If you put three of those things under every dock in the watershed, I’m convinced it would make a difference.”

The National Hockey League is enthusiastically on board with the program, Wasno said.

It started when members of FGCU’s Hockey Clubs called Paul LaCaruba, the NHL’s manager of public affairs, to float the idea. LaCaruba challenged the players to put a program together that could be used as a template and promoted throughout the league and many coastal communities. The program consists of introductory fliers, a unit construction manual, and community meeting announcements for local rinks.

“Through the NHL Green Initiative the league is committed to promoting ecologically responsible efforts that raise awareness of the unique connection between hockey and the environment,” stated Omar Mitchel, vice president of corporate social responsibility for the NHL. “FGCU’s innovative program to reuse and recycle broken hockey sticks for oyster habitats is one such example, and the NHL applauds these efforts and supports such initiatives.”

FGCU hockey players, who, Wasno said, are not only outstanding athletes (ACHA national champions in 2012 and 2016) but also outstanding students, built oyster habitat prototypes as part of the university’s community service program.

FGCU hockey players work on oyster restoration devices at Vester Field Station.

One of the key players has been FGCU hockey forward and finance major Gabe LaMontagne.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t care for the environment,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on the water, and if I can help clean it up, I want to do my part.”

Rink2Reef Oyster Habitats Waterways Restoration Program is also an excellent opportunity for community involvement – oyster reef restoration has become an important environmental effort, with more than 400 programs under way in America’s coastal states.

“This is a great, great project for Boys and Girl Scout groups, Eagle Scouts, Pee Wee Hockey, Bantam Hockey players, and high school biology clubs.” Wasno said. “This is a way that these folks can take something that is filling up landfills and do something productive with them.”

The structures help restore water quality, which improves commercial and recreational fisheries, wildlife, and tourism.

In addition to the positive environmental impacts, Everham likes the connections the Rinks2Reefs project makes.

“In a crazy, poetic metaphor, you use broken sticks – splints – to heal a broken leg, and they’re using broken hockey sticks to heal a broken estuary,” he said. “And I just love the connection between hockey and oysters: I’d love to be watching my Red Wings play, and have a stick break, and the fans start chanting, ‘Oysters! Oysters! Oysters!’”