Cleaning up the Sister Keys

Sister Keys Clean Up
Larry Beggs positions his barge so volunteers Benny Parrish, Becky Parrish and Taylor Wilson can unload their kayaks. - Submitted | Sun

Sarasota Bay Watch (SBW) conducted its annual Sister Keys Clean Up on Saturday, April 28. The event was hosted by the Chiles Group and held on the beach at the Mar Vista Dockside restaurant. On this beautiful morning, 80 volunteers organized by SBW Events Coordinator Ronda Ryan worked for four hours on the island and around the mangrove fringes collecting 1,300 pounds of trash and 80 recyclable items.

At the start of the event, I, as Sarasota Bay Watch Chairman Emeritus, gave the volunteers a brief history of the Sister Keys. The islands were originally slated for development in the early 60s and were once again threatened in 1989 when they went on sale for $1 million. That spurred a group of citizens to form the Sister Keys Conservancy in an attempt to buy and preserve the islands as a nature preserve.

After three years of lobbying, bake sales and two music in the park events, the group had only raised $50,000 towards the $1 million sale price. They then went to the town of Longboat Key, which needed additional open space for its comprehensive plan. The town consummated the sale in 1994, assuring the keys would not be developed.

The islands underwent a million-dollar mitigation in 2007 that removed all invasive species, planted native flora and created a two-acre wetland. In the last decade, 6-foot mangroves have grown from seeds recruited naturally from the waterways. The rest of the uplands have matured, making the islands one of the best examples of a thriving native marine environment in coastal Florida.

The cleanup would not have been possible without the support of The Chiles Group, Mar Vista and the town of Longboat Key. Longboat Key Manager Tom Harmer and his wife, Dee, attended and participated in the cleanup, and Longboat Key Marine Officer Nick Renno patrolled the Intracoastal Waterway to slow boaters.

There were many kayakers present and shore-bound volunteers were ferried to the island by local fishing guide Capt. Casey Lamb and village resident Mark McBride as well as SBW board members Al Jeffery, John Ryan and Steve Martin. Larry Beggs with Reef Innovations brought a barge where volunteers could offload their trash.

Back at the Mar Vista, volunteers created a human chain to load the debris into a truck provided by the town of Longboat Key. One of the people pivotal to the event’s success, James Linkogle, wasn’t able to attend. Linkogle and public works employees cleared and marked trails in the days leading up to the cleanup. Linkogle is projects manager for the Longboat Key Public Works Department.

Volunteers found a wide range of debris including a bed frame, boat cushions, umbrellas, life vests, a boat hull, a tackle box, multiple buckets, crab pots, fishing poles and buoys. All plastics and cans were collected in separate green bags and recycled.

At 11:30 a.m., everyone headed back to the Mar Vista where they were treated to a complimentary lunch of hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, Caesar salad and all the trimmings. Before everyone left, SBW Co-President Larry Stults explained the mission of Sarasota Bay Watch, the motto of which is “A Healthy Bay Is Everybody’s Business.”

SBW has been conducting a scallop restoration project for many years and this year will be releasing 200,000 Southern hard-shell clams into bay waters. The clams are being raised by a clam farmer in Pine Island Sound and will, hopefully, kick-start the return of clams, which have been disappearing from bay waters.

At the end of the day, volunteers expressed their enthusiasm for a day of camaraderie, good deeds and a new appreciation for the importance of working to create a healthy bay.