Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve Turns 50!


    Golden Anniversary for The Gold Standard

    A group of concerned citizens forms a grassroots movement to safeguard the water quality around Fort Myers Beach for improved health, recreation, and fishing.

    As current as today’s headlines? Absolutely, only this one is more than a half-century old, and a true success story!

    The innovative and groundbreaking Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve celebrates its 50th anniversary with a gala on December 2. “It was the people of our community 50 to 60 years ago that made all this possible,” relates Terry Cain, an aquatic preserve volunteer. “Everything today is built on the shoulders of those who came before us – that is what this celebration is all about. The people here in the 1950s and 60s loved the island and fishing industry, and they noticed then a degradation of water quality and the loss of fish. It just shows that some things never change.”

    The original volunteer group to preserve the aquatic bay was true grassroots: “The dues to join was just $1, and that was brilliant,” Terry marvels. “Membership exceeded 4,000 people! This caught the attention of State leaders in Tallahassee because the entire Fort Myers Beach population then was just 2,500, meaning it had more members than residents.” Leading this impressive movement were Bill Mellor and Larry Shafer.

    Terry explains that it was “Bill, Larry, and their core supporters who were the squeaky wheels that finally got results from Tallahassee. They stood up and spoke out passionately because jobs and the way of life were in jeopardy. Their persistence paid off with recognition from lawmakers and especially the congressional staff, who got used to seeing them and eventually understood their cause.”

    A new problem arose – while there were preserves and state parks for endangered lands, no one knew what to do with a threatened water resource; before the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, nothing like it existed in Florida. “This did not happen overnight; it was not an easy thing,” says Terry.

    No Easy Days

    “I explain to young people today that everything about our beginning was difficult, even about seemingly mundane things like travel to Tallahassee,” she continues. “It is still a long drive, but try it in 1960 before I-75. It was tough even finding enough gas stations to safely make the trip, with the members pitching in for fuel and traveling expenses for there-&-home. There were no easy days!”

    The legislature eventually adopted the initial category of off-shore preserve, creating in 1966 the Estero Bay Offshore Preserve as the pilot program for the rest of Florida. In 1975 the State passed the Aquatic Preserve Act, with our local moniker updating to the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.

    “It is so important to have the Estero Bay Preserve State Park because this is 10,000 acres to filter stormwater to keep the bay clean,” Terry explains. “That is our mission for 50 years. It is a beautiful walking area and nature site.” There are public entrances from Broadway West and at Winkler Road year-round from 8 a.m. to sundown, “but the aquatic preserve never closes because people boat and fish all day and night.”

    Our Little Island

    Today Florida has 41 aquatic preserves encompassing 2.2 million acres, maintained in their natural condition for the enjoyment of today and future generations, “and it is so impressive that it all began here in our own backyard,” Terry says with awe. “We all owe a debt to those who started it here on our tiny little fishing island.”

    The Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve is under the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, with Stephanie Erickson the current manager. The staff does community outreach, bird monitoring, and oversees volunteer water testing at random spots, as well as providing guided walks for all ages at Lover’s Key State Park, “where everyone from kids to seniors learn the same message,” she offers. “The Beach Elementary School children are especially knowledgeable; they have excellent teachers who instruct the local environment. The younger they learn, the better. Plus once you get your hands wet and feet dirty, you buy into the beauty and importance of nature.”

    A newer volunteer group now assists this important mission, with the Estero Bay Buddies, a 501c3 nonprofit, founded in 1998. Terry along with Reggie and Dorothy McNeil are the last three original members; “The Oldsters” as Terry relates with a hearty laugh! “We have a wonderful Board and 60 very active members. Our mission is to educate people about the Estero Bay, with public outreach at events and programs.” For information see

    Lee County Commissioners at their November 15 meeting recognized the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve with a proclamation on its 50th anniversary. It received recognition as well from the communities of Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs, and the new village of Estero. “It is heart-warming to know we have that kind of local community support.”

    Living Waters

    To celebrate its Golden Anniversary, the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve gala is Friday, December 2, at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs at 5 p.m. Tickets are $75 per person that include a delicious meal plus one drink, with every guest getting a signed commemorative poster featuring the 50th anniversary image personally signed by renowned photographer Clyde Butcher, who will attend with his wife. Guests receive as well a t-shirt with the same image and an Estero Bay Buddies tote bag. Choose steak, chicken, veggie or vegan, with Cash Bar. Buy tickets and make menu selections by Tuesday, November 29, at 239-530-1005 or

    Heather Stafford, a previous Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve manager, will speak on its history. Rob Mody, a local fishing legend and radio host, will address its role today.

    A highlight will be the display of the collection: “The Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida by Clyde Butcher.” Terry calls the works “stunning! We are so excited to have it at our anniversary. This is the first time it is on display in two years, and for just this one night only, so it is a must-see event!” The other major component is the premier of a short video on the aquatic preserve’s story, featuring oral history interviews.

    “We invite everybody and anybody to attend,” summarizes Terry. “You will enjoy good people with a passion for clean water, the new video, the fabulous “Living Waters Collection,” receive the personally-signed poster, and meet Clyde Butcher. It will be an exciting evening and with our terrific silent auction items, you can even do some Christmas shopping all at the same time!” Moneys raised allows the Buddies to support the Aquatic Preserve’s educational outreach, water monitoring, and adjacent efforts.

    Terry thinks she can relate, at least a little, to how Bill and Larry felt in the beginning, all those years ago, because after a half-century, some things remain the same, with water quality more important than ever. “After 50 years we still work to save our water – it is pretty remarkable that we still fight this fight today!”

    Gary Mooney