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Vol. 15 No. 14 - January 28, 2015

reel time

Healing the Bay

Reel time

rusty chinnis | sun

The Sister Keys today supports a host of new flora and fauna

A primeval afternoon sea breeze powered by a scorching sun uplifted air over the mainland, drawing in the cooler Gulf air. A rush of wind drove a lone mangrove propagule (seed) across the submerged seagrass flat to its final resting place among debris on the partially exposed flat, a small beginning that would lead to a wonderful habitat. It held fast though cycles of rising and falling tides, eventually sinking its roots in the surrounding substrate.

Over the years the debris from the surrounding area multiplied around the rooted mangrove, trapping other propagules that clustered together to form what would eventually become a mangrove forest. That mangrove forest would become known as the Sister Keys although not much is known about its history.

Perhaps vegetation built up to a point that it was able to support the first land plants or maybe that was left to the dredging of the Intracoastal waterway in the 40s, a project completed to protect shipping from having to ply the open Gulf during the war years. There is little doubt that dredging spoil created at least a portion of the high ground on the north end of the Sister Keys and probably most of the two smaller islands along the Intracoastal waterway to the south. The larger two of the four islands may have been the only natural islands that didn’t depend on human intervention to shape, but hundreds of years passed before anything resembling the Island we see today would be formed.

In the 1970s, local Longboat businessman Herb Field purchased the islands, and in the 1980s, they were marketed by a group of investors, including Field. Known as the Intermarketing Corporation they intended to transform the islands into a tropical resort. Named Shangri-Isle, the development was only realized in a brochure touting a marina, luxury homes, a conference center, hotels and even an air strip.

Fortunately the times were not right for such a development, and the islands supported only native and invasive flora and fauna brought in with the birds, tides and the wind. The keys would remain that way until the group put them up for sale in 1989. At the time it was advertised that there were 73 buildable acres. A spurt of development came to the area at this time. Tidy Island on the east shore of the bay sprouted homes at the expense of the mangroves, and Jewfish Key to the north was also undergoing development as blue septic tanks were deposited along the shore demarcating the newly platted lots.

The development galvanized citizens who worked to protect the Sister Keys from development. This group of like-minded citizens asked the question, “Can’t we have at least one island in the bay that didn’t have a house on it?” This lead to the formation of the Sister Keys Conservancy (SKC), a group committed to buying and protecting the islands from development. The asking price: $1 million.

In its infancy, the group did whatever it could to spread the word, creating ads in the local newspapers and courting the local news media. It appealed for help from local, state and national politicians and groups including the Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Lands and the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, the state of the islands did not fit the model for preservation established by these groups, although they did support the purchase in concept.

Admittedly somewhat naive about what it would take to raise a sum as large as one million dollars the SKC worked on raising money directly, as well as holding a number of fund-raising events including a music in the park series and bake sale. The Conservancy even had a song and video that was developed by key supporter and SKC stalwart Virginia Sanders. Her son –in- law wrote the song, and images that Sanders shot of the Sister Keys and its wildlife were converted from a slide show into a video production.

After three years of working every angle they could think of, the Conservancy had raised just $46,000 and realized that in order to make the protection of the keys a reality the town of Longboat Key would have to lend its support and funds to the effort. The Conservancy took its case to the town, where on Thursday June 18, 1992, the commission voted unanimously to buy the keys for $975,000. The sum was made up of the Conservancy’s $46,000, a transfer of $720,000 from the town’s open space acquisition fund and $209,000 from the infrastructure surtax fund. Based on a recommendation from then commissioner Charles Savidge, the commission agreed to a deed restriction stating that camping, picnicking and similar activities would not be allowed on the islands. The Sister Keys were safe from development.

When the town purchased the Keys, they were covered in Australian pines, Brazilian peppers and many other exotic and invasive species. Species like the pines left a dense mat of vegetation on the island, preventing native species from establishing. The keys stayed in that condition until 2007, when a deal was struck with St Joe Paper Company to perform a $1 million mitigation. This was in return for dredging that would adversely affect oysters and mangroves at a site St. Joe was developing on Manatee Avenue. Mitigation eventually removed all of the invasive species from the keys, planted native plants and created a two-acre wetland where exotic vegetation had existed.

The wetland was planted with a species called Spartina grass, also known as cord grass. Initially the grasses had trouble becoming established, but once it did it quickly formed a dense colony that covered the wetland area. Soon after, an unusually high tide brought mangrove propagules into the wetlands where they lodged in the dense grass. Mangroves naturally propagated over time, establishing a thriving ecosystem. Exploring the wetland today reveals a wealth of life including sea grass, crabs, minnows, shrimp and wading birds that take advantage of the abundant food.

The restoration of the Sister Keys demonstrates the potential for creating healthy ecosystems that will keep Sarasota Bay thriving in the face of development and loss of valuable habitat. The success points to the need to protect areas that can be restored to a natural state. The islands are now one of the best examples of a thriving native marine environment on the west coast of Florida.

It is critical to protect and enhance the natural areas we have, not only for their ecological, but also their economic value. The Sister Keys will bring bird watchers, kayakers and nature enthusiasts to our area in increasing numbers. They spend money in our hotels, restaurants, marinas, as well as providing an income to people who make a living renting to and guiding eco-tourists.

Buying, protecting, and restoring areas like the Sister Keys is just the start. To preserve their new natural diversity, they will have to be monitored for the regrowth of invasive species. Birds, winds and tides will all contribute to the re-introduction of invasive species, which will need to be monitored and removed in order to keep the keys in a natural state.

In 2010 Sarasota Bay Watch, a nonprofit environmental group adopted the Sister Keys through an agreement with the town of Longboat Key. Yearly clean ups are conducted on the islands, and plans are underway to combine forces to maintain the islands’ natural diversity. The Sister Keys are a striking example of how humans can harness the restorative power of nature, a way to ensure the continued health of the resource while providing an economic benefit to the local economy.

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