‘Mini reefs’ installed under docks at Ken Thompson Park boat ramp as pilot project

City of Sarasota becomes first public entity to take such a step, city manager says

Mini reefs have been installed under the docks at Ken Thompson Park on City Island in Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The City of Sarasota has begun a pilot project at Ken Thompson Park to determine the effectiveness of devices called “mini reefs” in improving water quality.

In his Jan. 31 newsletter, City Manager Tom Barwin wrote, “Over the years, artificial reefs have become a safe, effective way to boost fish and crustacean populations while naturally filtering water. Now, a Florida-based nonprofit, Ocean Habitats, has devised a unique twist on the artificial reef concept. Essentially, a cluster of shelves is attached in the vacant space beneath a boat dock, and it naturally transforms into a mini living reef.”

Barwin added that after staff learned about the system “and the positive impact on marine habitat,” the city’s Sustainability Division team “decided to launch a small pilot program.” As a result, he continued, eight mini reefs are hanging under the docks at the Ken Thompson Park boat ramp just north of St. Armands Circle.

While it typically takes six to nine months for a mini reef to attract marine life, Barwin added, “we’re told there could be new habitat activity within just a few weeks.”

Along with habitat creation, Barwin noted that the mini reefs “will help filter and clean the water in our precious Sarasota Bay.

“As the first public entity in Sarasota to install these mini reefs,” Barwin noted, “we’re continuing to take active measures to protect and improve Sarasota Bay’s ecosystem …”

An aerial map shows the location of Ken Thompson Park, near Mote Marine Laboratory. Image from Google Maps

The city will track the results of the mini reef program in collaboration with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Program in Sarasota County, he added.

The mini reefs have been a focus of two presentations during Siesta Key Association (SKA) meetings in recent months. Sandy Gilbert, chair and CEO of Solutions To Avoid Red Tide (START), explained in December 2019 that his nonprofit is working with the Bay Park Conservancy on a mini reef project that will be part of Phase 1 of The Bay waterfront park on 53 city-owned acres. On its website, START says that the Carbon-Life Nutrient Barrier concept on which it is working with the Conservancy will filter out nutrients in the estimated 8 million gallons of stormwater for every 1-inch rain event. The initiative also will restore the clam and oyster population in The Bay’s lagoon, the website notes.

The Conservancy hopes to break ground on the Phase 1 amenities before the end of this year, its chief implementation officer, Bill Waddill, told the County Commission in mid-January.

Siesta Key Association’s continuing efforts

During the Jan. 9 SKA meeting, President Catherine Luckner told members that she has been working with Gilbert and Phil Chiocchio of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, who hope to see mini reefs installed on docks on the northern part of Siesta Key, which is in the city of Sarasota.

The city has given the go-ahead for property owners to use mini reefs, Luckner added.

However, she reminded members that Sarasota County environmental staff thus far has not been willing to issue permits for the devices.

Howard Berna, manager of the Environmental Permitting Division, told The Sarasota News Leader in December 2019 that he continued to await a formal decision from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) on whether mini reefs should be allowed in coastal waters.

In response to a News Leader request for follow-up on Chiocchio’s comments at the SKA meeting in early October 2019, Berna wrote in an email that county Planning and Development Services Department (PDS) “staff attended a demonstration installation earlier [in 2019] with the owner of Ocean Habitats at a location in Manatee County. Ocean Habitats [has been] working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to determine how the state might permit or exempt [mini reefs]. PDS is waiting to hear the outcome from the state.”

A slide Phil Chiocchio showed SKA members on Oct. 3, 2019 provided footage of fish at a mini reef at the Mar Vista Restaurant (left) on Longboat Key, where mini reefs were installed in 2019, and a photo taken underwater in the Grand Canal (right) on Siesta Key. Chiocchio has been advocating for use of mini reefs to clean the water in the Grand Canal. File photo

In January, the News Leader contacted FDEP for more information about the status of the department’s review of the devices. On Jan. 17, Weesam Khoury, FDEP’s deputy press secretary, responded in an email, “We’re still working on this. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

Luckner added during the Jan. 9 SKA meeting, “We do have a letter from FDEP sharing that these [devices] are welcome in our state, and they’re being used in quite a few places.”

On Jan. 8, she continued, she and her husband, Robert, an SKA director, asked the members of the county’s Coastal Advisory Committee for their help in encouraging county staff to issue permits for mini reefs.

In response to a public records request, county staff provided the News Leader a copy of the letter Luckner had referenced. Dated Oct. 26, 2016, it went from FDEP to James Timmerman of Ocean Habitats in Fort Myers. That letter gave the nonprofit organization the go-ahead for a project entailing the installation and maintenance of “approximately 275 habitats under existing docks upon written approval of upland residential riparian owners at locations in Marco Island in man-made canals …” Formally, the “exemption verification” from FDEP was based on information Ocean Habitats had provided the department, as well as “the statutes and rules in effect when the information was submitted,” the letter said.

FDEP required that Ocean Habitats submit monitoring reports to the department on an annual basis. Those reports were to “include chronological analysis over multiple years to establish the durability and longevity of the habitats, as well as potential improvements to materials and design,” the letter added.

This state statute was included in materials Ocean Habitat submitted to FDEP in 2016. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The letter was signed by Megan Mills, administrator of FDEP’s Permitting Program for its South District.