Holly Abeels, Florida Sea Grant agent for UF/IFAS Extension in Brevard County, has been awarded the 2015 Don Sweat Sea Grant Extension Award.
The award is presented annually to a Florida Sea Grant agent who takes initiative, creativity and leadership in his or her extension program. In her six years with UF/IFAS extension, Abeels has concentrated on establishing programs that help protect critical coastal habitats and the area’s economy.
One of her most impactful programs is addressing the decreasing water quality in the Indian River Lagoon by placing more filter-feeding oysters into the estuary. To do this, she teamed up with the Brevard County Natural Resources Department, the Brevard Zoo and the University of Central Florida to train 950 homeowners how to raise oysters in their own backyards.
Participants in the oyster gardening program attend a workshop where Abeels demonstrates how oysters filter and clean water in the estuary, provide critical habitat to marine life and protect the shoreline against storms. After their orientation, the residents are provided with supplies needed to grow oyster spat off their docks. The oysters grown are relocated to designated restoration sites around the lagoon.
Since the start of the program, 800 gardening sites have been established and more than 170,000 live oysters were returned for placement on oyster reefs.
“The oyster program exemplifies the strong collaboration both within and outside of the UF/IFAS community that is present throughout Holly’s work, and the effectiveness and strength of the relationships she establishes with her community,” wrote Bob Swett, Florida Sea Grant’s boating and waterways planning specialist, in his nomination letter.
Abeels also formed Space Coast Boating Adventures, an ecotourism business that offers two-hour environmental tours of the Indian River Lagoon. She teaches local fishing guides the principles of environmental interpretation, small business management, and nature tourism. After participating in the training, these fishermen can add an ecotourism option to their trips and possibly attract a larger clientele.
“This project is an excellent example of an agent identifying and developing an innovative project with an environmental and educational focus to address a clear economic need of a local business sector,” Swett said.
Abeels’ constant efforts to better her community have not gone unnoticed by her peers. Cris Wagner, past president of the Space Coast Regional Chapter of the Florida Master Naturalist Program, commented on her work.
“Holly is one of those rare, dedicated individuals that is incredibly involved with her work,” Wagner said. “She never hesitates to go above and beyond to support the community in efforts of conservation and education. While working with Holly, you get that sense of sincerity that inspires all those around her to be more and do more for the environment.”
Abeels’ name has been added to the permanent plaque on display at the Florida Sea Grant state headquarters at the University of Florida. Past winners include current Sea Grant agents Betty Staugler, Maia McGuire and Bryan Fluech.