In 1987, the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve was managed by the Florida Department of Natural Resources in cooperation with NOAA. At that time there were 3 full time staff responsible for managing 9,000 acres. The mission of the Reserve was to promote informed coastal decisions about estuaries through research and education, and staff conducted water quality monitoring, environmental education programs for local students, and supported visiting researchers with their studies.
Rookery Bay staff envisioned a way to achieve a better outcome with limited resources by establishing a local non-profit Friends group that could help engage local community volunteers and raise funds to help support ongoing work at the Reserve. The Friends of Rookery Bay started with a handful of local residents who cared about the Rookery Bay estuary. The original steering committee included a science teacher, a college professor, an attorney, and a real estate agent. Each donated $10 cash towards the filing fee.
Early efforts sponsored by the Friends included some interesting fundraisers: one was a 24-hour relay in which runners, including Board members and Rookery Bay staff, each ran a mile and passed the baton to the next runner, then catching some sleep before having to take the baton and run again. Funds were raised by getting local business interests to donate funds on a per mile basis.
Fast forward to today: the Friends of Rookery Bay, Inc. now has about 800 members and is considered to be one of the largest Citizen Support Organizations in Florida. The Friends now play an instrumental role in working directly with the Rookery Bay Reserve, now managing 110,000 acres with 40 staff, to help ensure that sufficient resources are available to accomplish the Reserve's important mission. Over 25 years, the Friends learned many lessons in fundraising and partnership development, and today brings in over $100,000 annually to help match federal and state funds for the Reserve.
When state funds for Rookery Bay were cut nearly 50% due to the recession, the Reserve was forced to cut a number of staff positions and reduce research, stewardship and education programs. The Friends played a vital role in helping the Reserve weather the budget crisis by significantly stepping up their fundraising. One notable example is the annual "Batfish Bash for the Bay", a signature evening event hosted at Rookery Bay, including dinner, live music, and a silent and live auction. Now in it's sixth year, the Batfish Bash has become a notable local event, and a great opportunity to raise awareness and funding for the Reserve's mission.
Another important aspect of the Friends of Rookery Bay is their capacity to help recruit and sustain active members from the local communities of Naples and Marco Island. Friends members serve as trained volunteers, assisting staff with everything from sea turtle monitoring and shark tagging research in the Ten Thousand Islands, to teaching young students about estuaries in the Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center, and assisting maintenance staff with work projects.