About 140 Mini Reefs installed in Siesta Key’s Grand Canal over past year, as Siesta Key Association team has worked to improve water quality

Recruitment of more interested homeowners to continue in 2022, project leader says

This slide, presented to SKA members on Dec. 2, shows how many Mini Reefs have been installed in four sections of the island. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

During the Nov. 5, 2020 meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Phil Chiocchio of Sarasota and Director Margaret Jean Cannon won support of the nonprofit’s board of directors for a program for which Chiocchio had advocated for more than a year.

Christened the Grand Canal Regeneration Project, the goal, Chiocchio and Cannon said, would be to try to dramatically improve the quality of the water in the 9-mile-long Grand Canal.

In previous presentations to SKA members, Chiocchio had talked of the potential of devices called “Mini Reefs,” which are produced by a Southwest Florida nonprofit called Ocean Habitats based in Micanopy.

With dimensions of 3 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet, a Mini Reef can be installed under a dock, he pointed out. By drawing algae, which, in turn, attracts crabs — which are known as “filter feeders” — a Mini Reef can filter as much as 30,000 gallons of water a day, Chiocchio had explained.

Fish would be drawn to the other sea life making itself at home in a Mini Reef, Chiocchio noted, leading to the creation of a juvenile fish nursery. Ultimately, he predicted, more recreational fishing in the area would result from expansive use of Mini Reefs.

Cannon encouraged SKA members to provide contributions for the program, as each Mini Reef costs $300.

This graphic shows the four project areas imposed on a map of the island. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

Thirteen months later, on Dec. 2, Cannon reported to SKA members that 174 — or about 14% — of the 878 homes located on the Grand Canal have Mini Reefs. At the outset of the project, she noted, about 35 Mini Reefs were in place.

“Our goal is to get over 70%,” Cannon added. The team had just installed 45 in November, she said.

In an area on Sandy Cove Avenue, Cannon noted, a person who has had two Mini Reefs installed has been casting for fish off his dock. He caught one tarpon that was 22 inches in length, she pointed out.

In an email follow-up with the News Leader, Cannon wrote, “This hasn’t happened in the canal for a long time. Others on this canal also reported seeing [tarpon] in the area.”

This map shows the location of Sandy Cove Avenue. Image from Google Maps

Additionally, she noted, she and Dave Vozzolo, another member of the SKA project team, “saw two schools of middle-size fish when we checked on his reef. … So this year, we are seeing more variety and more marine life in the canal …”

As she has during her monthly updates for SKA members, on Dec. 2, Cannon provided a slide showing how the project team had divided the Key into four areas: Grand Canal Section, Palm Island Section, Siesta Isles Section and Ocean Beach/Sarasands Section.

These stills from a Feb. 9 video show a Mini Reef that has been in the water for a year (left) and a Mini Reef that has been under a dock for six weeks. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

The area with the fewest Mini Reefs is the last one, Cannon said. Another slide reported that of the 12 homes in that section, only 4% have Mini Reefs. “That’s a little shallow,” she explained of the canal in that area.

Because of the U.S. Harbors and Rivers Act of 1899, Chiocchio has pointed out, Mini Reefs cannot be installed on the bottom of a waterway; they must float under docks.

The project’s page on the SKA website explains that the standard Mini Reef needs 24 inches of water depth.

The portion of the island with the highest number of Mini Reefs is the Grand Canal Section, with 28% coverage.

Cannon also reported that the project team members had worked with students of the Out-of-Door Academy to label storm drains on the Key, to remind the public that what goes into those drains ends up in waterways.

This is one of the storm drain stencils. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

With the holidays ahead, Cannon told everyone, “Mini Reefs make a great Christmas present.” Any homeowner who installs one under a dock, she added, will “have entertainment for the year.”

Further, Cannon encouraged members to contribute to the Siesta Key Environmental Defense Fund, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Those tax-deductible donations will assist the project team in purchasing the digital measuring tools they need to demonstrate the efficacy of the Mini Reefs, she explained. “Citizen scientists” can learn to test the water, she noted, and then the project team can compare the data collected in areas with Mini Reefs to segments of the Key without the devices.

In fact, this fall, the SKA won $9,000 from the Sarasota County Neighborhood Initiative Grants Program to install 30 Mini Reefs in the Grand Canal under 18 docks at homes located on Commonwealth Place. The project team will compare water quality testing results around those docks to samples taken across the canal, in front of homes on Commonwealth Lane, Cannon has explained.

The team plans to produce monthly reports on the environmental impact of the Mini Reefs, Cannon has told SKA members.

Fish swim around a Mini Reef that has been in the water for 155 days. Image courtesy of Phil Chiocchio, via YouTube

Chiocchio, a member of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, offered remarks on that undertaking when he appeared before the County Commission on Sept. 29, prior to its approval of the grant. Board members ended up engaging him in discussion, which typically does not happen during the Open to the Public periods of their meetings, as Chair Alan Maio and other commissioners have pointed out.

Maio asked Chiocchio to come back to the board in a year to provide an update on the grant initiative.

On Dec. 2, Cannon told the SKA members present for the meeting at St. Boniface Episcopal Church that she hopes to make presentations about the Grand Canal Regeneration Project to island homeowner associations — including those for condominium complexes —in 2022.

These are among the project team’s plans for 2022. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

Additionally, she said, the team would like to work with county staff, the Out-of-Door Academy and other local schools to plant or grow food habitat for sea life. She pointed out that manatees especially like sweet potato vines, which grow over seawalls on the Grand Canal.

SKA President Catherine Luckner has offered praise for the work of the team throughout this year. During the SKA’s regular meeting in November, she called Cannon, “the super leader” in water quality.