Chair of nonprofit Solutions To Avoid Red Tide tells Siesta Key Association members about initiatives to clean up waterways, including use of ‘mini reefs’

Sarasota County Environmental Permitting staff still awaiting direction from state before approving installation of mini reefs in Grand Canal

This is one of the website banners on START’s homepage. Image from the website

A nonprofit organization called Solutions To Avoid Red Tide (START) is working on a variety of measures to remove from waterways the nutrients that feed harmful algae such as the one that produces red tide, Chair and CEO Sandy Gilbert told members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) on Dec. 5.

For example, he said, by the end of 2020, START will have seeded about 1 million clams in Sarasota Bay just north of the Ringling Bridge, as each clam can filter 20 to 30 gallons of seawater a day. Additionally, he pointed out, “They don’t die in red tide.”

In Manatee County, START has been collecting oyster shells from restaurants for another program.

START’s website explains that the Gulf Coast Oyster Recycling and Renewal program began in 2017 “to bring back this vital species to our waterways.” The oyster shells, the website says, “form the structure for a new oyster reef.”

Additionally, Gilbert explained, START has been collaborating with the Bay Park Conservancy, which is managing The Bay project on about 53 acres of City of Sarasota waterfront.

This graphic on START’s website explains details about the initiative in collaboration with the Bay Park Conservancy. Image courtesy of START

START is funding the first stormwater nutrient barrier, which will be included in Phase I of the design of the park and cultural and arts amenities in the area of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Gilbert noted. The goal is to filter harmful nutrients out of stormwater before that water moves from the park to Sarasota Bay, he added.

START also will be putting clams and oysters into the lagoon on the property, he pointed out.

Sandy Gilbert looks out over the SKA audience on Dec. 5. Rachel Hackney photo

Yet another initiative START is promoting, Gilbert told the SKA audience, is the installation of “mini reefs” under private docks. Made by a company called Ocean Habitats, each mini reef is 24 inches by 36 inches by 24 inches deep, Gilbert added. It floats about 3 inches above the water line, he said, which makes the device pretty much invisible to neighbors.

Every mini reef has four shelves. “You’re creating a hotel for sea life …”

START has three primary objectives, Gilbert explained: It works with policymakers to “try to get them to fund things that would take nutrients out of the water”; it undertakes in-water projects to filter out nutrients; and it engages in community outreach to educate members of the public about steps they can take to reduce red tide.

Phil Chiocchio of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum — who talked about mini reefs during an October SKA presentation — joined Gilbert for the Dec. 5 discussion.

Although Sarasota County Environmental Permitting Division staff still will not issue permits for mini reefs, Chiocchio explained, the Town of Longboat Key and the City of Sarasota are allowing their residents to use the devices.

As he had in October, Chiocchio again noted the success of a project involving mini reefs at the Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant on Longboat Key. “Bring your mask and snorkel” to the restaurant, Chiocchio invited the SKA members,” ’cause it’s a great show. You can just sit there and watch all these mangrove snappers” that come in to feed on the smaller creatures living in the mini reefs.

“That’s why people like these,” Gilbert added, referring to the mini reefs.

Moreover, he noted, “They filter about 30,000 gallons of seawater every day. … You’re simulating mangrove roots. … You’re creating a place [for sea creatures] to hide, a place to light. You’re creating food [for fish]. … You’re creating the habitat.”

Gilbert reiterated points Chiocchio made in October: A mini reef is made of polypropylene, which “doesn’t deteriorate.” About 3,000 mini reefs have been installed throughout the state, he continued. Most have been in place more than 10 years; about a dozen, as long as 25 years.

This is a mini reef. Image from the Ocean Habitat website

“None of them have collapsed,” Gilbert stressed, except in one situation during a hurricane. In that case, he added, the dock itself collapsed.

Furthermore, Gilbert said, “They’re not a lot of work to you.”
He suggested that anyone who installs a mini reef check under the dock once a month, just to ensure it is still floating as it should.

As for the expense: Ocean Habitats charges $235 right now, Gilbert continued, plus the 7% state sales tax. However, he noted, the price is expected to go up by the end of this year.

The installation fee is $50, he added, which makes the total $300 for each mini reef.

If a person buys a mini reef through START, he pointed out, the person essentially can save $50, as the person will get a receipt for a $50 tax-deductible donation to the nonprofit.

“The City of Sarasota is about ready to order 20 of them,” Gilbert continued. “We’ve been working with them.”

Constraints and opportunities

In response to a question from SKA Director Joyce Kouba, Gilbert said that he has an agreement with Howard Berna, manager of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division, not to sell mini reefs for installation in county waterways.

When The Sarasota News Leader checked with county staff following the Dec. 5 SKA meeting, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported that the information staff gave the News Leader in October — after Chiocchio’s presentation to SKA members — remains current.

Staff of the Planning and Development Services Department “attended a demonstration installation earlier this year with the owner of Ocean Habitats at a location in Manatee County,” Grant wrote in an email. Ocean Habitats has been working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) “to determine how the state might permit or exempt these [mini reefs]. [Planning and Development] is waiting to hear the outcome from the state. Currently these structures are not exempt in Sarasota County and those interested in these devices are encouraged to wait until the county has received input from the state.”

This section of the START website explains more about the nonprofit. Image courtesy of START

During the Dec. 5 SKA meeting, Gilbert told the audience, “[Berna] would love [for the FDEP] to give a statewide waiver.”

Legally, Gilbert continued, the mini reefs are like boats. A property owner has to have a permit to construct a dock, he said, but not a permit for a boat, because the boat just floats at the dock. “It doesn’t touch bottom.”

“It’s pretty much up to the governments,” Gilbert continued, referring to questions about whether the mini reefs are legal.

Gilbert encouraged the SKA members to call Berna if they are interested in installing the devices.

When an audience member asked whether Gilbert had any information regarding the economic benefits of the mini reefs, Gilbert responded, “Our result … is biological.” Economic impacts from using the devices, in terms of the reduction of harmful nutrients in the waterways, Gilbert added, are “very, very tough to measure.

The water around a dock where mini reefs have been installed will be clearer in a radius of 12 to 15 feet, he noted.

In response to another question, Gilbert said, “Mote [Marine Laboratory] is using [mini reefs]. Mote’s also making their own.”

That nonprofit has installed a number of the devices in the Boca Grande waterways, Gilbert reported, with some success.