Water Quality Issues
A light, southwest breeze and clear, dark blue skies signaled the start of another beautiful day in Vero Beach.  Leaving Riverside Park and rounding Dritenbas Point, the Hewes Redfisher 18 was pointed south and quickly planed out on the calm waters of the Indian River Lagoon.  Dolphins, manatees, pelicans, common terns and leaping mullet welcomed me as I began my day on the water with Captain Paul Dritenbas to observe firsthand some of his habitat restoration projects.  It quickly became abundantly clear why Paul was chosen as CCA’s Habitat Hero as we detoured from our destinations several times to pick up trash from the water. 
Over the years hundreds of CCA chapter members have volunteered countless hours helping with various habitat projects and helping acquire the funding for these projects.   Our members clearly recognize that without this ongoing effort, both our habitat and our fisheries would suffer greatly.  Because of this, CCA will begin regularly recognizing in SeaWatch some of the people that have gone above and beyond to help protect and restore our fragile coastal resources.  Captain Paul Dritenbas is one of those individuals, who for years has been tirelessly helping protect and restore Vero Beach’s fragile marine environment.  So much so that his first habitat project took almost 2 ½ years just to get permitted!  There was no reimbursement for the time that he spent and there was never any expectation of getting reimbursed.  Paul does it because of his love and passion for the environment and for the underprivileged youth in the Vero Beach area.

The saying, “actions speak louder than words” becomes a little less cliché once you get to know Paul better.  Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Paul and his family moved to Vero Beach in 1954 when he was just three years old.  His grandfather was an avid fisherman and often took Paul out on the lagoon in his 10 foot wooden rowboat to fish and clam around the spoil islands.  This is also the time when Paul began developing his deep respect for the environment.  He went on to get an architecture degree from the University of Miami in 1978.  He returned to Vero Beach after college and joined the firm Edlund, Dritenbas, Binkley Architects and Associates, PA., where he continues to work today.  Paul has been an active Rotarian for many years and an active member of Treasure Coast Chapter of CCA.  Paul’s passion for the environment, hard work and countless volunteer hours have earned him many accolades including the 2012 Rotarian of the Year, the 2013 Environmental Citizens Award from the Pelican Island Audubon Society, the 2013 CCA Conservationist of the Year, and the 2015 CCA Heart of the Lagoon Award.  Paul also serves as a commissioner for the Florida Inland Navigation District (F.I.N.D.), representing Indian River County.

The idea for Paul’s first habitat project came after the seagrass die-off in 2010, when there was virtually no seagrass left north of Vero Beach.  The seagrass disappeared from there to north of Sebastian Inlet and appeared as though it was not coming back.  Paul and several local fishing guides approached Dr. Grant Gilmore, a Senior Scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc., to assist in several seagrass studies in the area.  It was at this time that Paul realized that something also had to be done to protect the remaining seagrass, especially in the environmentally sensitive, shallow and heavily used area known as the Moorings in Vero Beach.  After much research, Paul came up with the idea to surround the 350-acre seagrass bed on the Moorings flat with 24 large, floating buoys labeled, “Caution Seagrass Area.”  His efforts, along with the help of fellow Rotarians and CCA Treasure Coast members, resulted in a project called the Rotary Initiative for Submerged Seagrass Awareness (RISSA) that now surround the grass flats with a ring of seagrass warning buoys to protect it from damage by powerboats.   Paul designed the unique buoys himself so they could withstand storms, large boat wakes, and the harsh saltwater environment.  He also assisted with an oyster restoration in the middle of the Moorings.  He spent over 2 years obtaining permits with four different agencies, with a large part of that time spent obtaining buy-in from the adjacent communities per the permit requirements.  The results have been much better than anticipated and now boats slow down or troll through the seagrass area instead of running full speed and often damaging the seagrass.
Paul’s habitat restoration efforts continued with the tedious planning and permitting of 3 oyster reefs in the Indian River Lagoon.  Paul collaborated the oyster restorations sites, named CCA #1, CCA #2 and CCA #3, with CCA Florida, CCA Treasure Coast Chapter, and the Rotary Club of Vero Beach Sunrise.  Paul received all permits for CCA #1 by March of 2014 and together with volunteers installed the oyster mats in April 2014.  A total of 912 oyster mats (each measuring 16 in. x 16 in. x 5 in.) containing an area of 1,614 square feet were successfully deployed.  The site location was strategically placed in an idle speed area along a tidal spit between two spoil islands in St. Lucie County.
CCA #2 consists of a low profile oyster reef that will contain 1,020 mats when deployed this spring.  CCA #3 consists of a low profile oyster reef that will contain 221 mats.  The mats at CCA #3 will be deployed this fall instead of spring because of a bird rookery on a nearby island.  These oyster reefs will both be located within the Indian River-Malabar to Vero Beach Aquatic Preserve, adjacent to 2 spoil islands in Indian River County.  Believe it or not, Paul is already looking for new oyster reef areas and has his homemade spat traps ready for deployment at 3 additional sites in the fall!

In addition to all of his habitat restoration work, his full time job, and his guiding, Paul still manages to find time to take kids fishing. Every year for the last 15 years, Paul and the Rotary Club of Vero Beach Sunrise take underprivileged children fishing from the Youth Guidance Program in Indian River County, where over 700 kids are enrolled.  This annual rotary club event takes place in the summer and pairs one adult with each child that goes fishing.  The children are provided with everything they need for an exciting and new experience on the water as most have never been on the river before.  And as if that weren’t enough, Paul volunteers every year for the CCA annual river cleanup.  Paul spends this time cleaning up trash and marine debris from the jetties along the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Ft. Pierce.

As the daylight faded, Paul and I headed back to the boat ramp and I quietly reflected on the great day I shared with him on the water.  It was a humbling experience to be around someone who outwardly cares so much for life and the environment.  So next time you are fishing in the Vero Beach area and the boat in front of you suddenly comes off a plane, give a wave because it is most likely Paul Dritenbas stopping to pick up trash from the water.   After all, what else would you expect from a Habitat Hero?!
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