Proposals for improving water quality in the Grand Canal a focus of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, Siesta Key Association members learn

Forum advocating for installation of ‘mini reefs’ under docks to filter out pollutants

A slide Phil Chiocchio showed SKA members on Oct. 3 provided footage of fish at a mini reef at the Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant (left) and a photo taken underwater in the Grand Canal (right). Rachel Hackney photo

The Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum is working on a number of ideas to improve the degraded quality of Siesta Key’s Grand Canal so the water once again will support an abundance of fish.

A member of the forum, Phil Chiocchio of Sarasota, especially is advocating for the use of “mini reefs” under docks along the canal, which he says would filter out pollutants.

In May, three mini reefs were installed under the dock at the Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant on Longboat Key, he told about 30 members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) during their Oct. 3 meeting. Lucky’s Market provided the Fisheries Forum a grant for that project, Chiocchio noted. In the ensuing months, he pointed out, crabs have been hiding their offspring in the reefs, and mangrove snapper are coming into the area, in turn, drawing dolphins that feed on the fish. He showed the SKA members a video of fish swimming around the mini reefs.

“We’re going back in November to do our next follow-up to see how this is working,” Chiocchio added.

In the meantime, he said, the forum members plan to install 10 mini reefs at the Holmes Beach Pier.

Phil Chiocchio makes a point during the SKA meeting on Oct. 3. Rachel Hackney photo

In introducing Chiocchio, SKA President Catherine Luckner said he has been a program content creator for the University of Florida’s Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants since 1986, having made more than 800 scientific videos. Earlier this year, Chiocchio initiated a water quality project at Indian Beach Park in the northern part of the city of Sarasota, Luckner added.

In making his case for a mini reef project in the Grand Canal, Chiocchio offered a history lesson about that island feature.

Chiocchio emphasized that he calls the water body “Archibald’s Canal,” referencing a merchant named I.G. Archibald. Along with Sarasota’s first mayor — A.B. Edwards — Archibald created the heart-shaped Palm Island on Siesta. (As former Sarasota County historian Jeff LaHurd has written, Palm Island was dubbed “the heart of Siesta.”)

Archibald went on to dig the entire Grand Canal in 1925, Chiocchio indicated. “Everybody was buying and selling property as fast as [they] could,” he added.

The Grand Canal is 9 miles long, Chiocchio pointed out, but it has only one outlet, into Roberts Bay. Yet, a shoal in Roberts Bay blocks 50% of the flow, he said, leading to “extremely low dissolved oxygen. On the bottom is a dead zone.”

The goal with the creation of the Grand Canal, Chiocchio said, “was for developers to sell waterfront property and notto create fishery habitats.”

Water quality in the canal has continued to decline over the 80-plus years it has been in existence, he told the SKA members. “At some point in the near future,” he added, the canal “will become a greater health hazard.”

The level of dissolved oxygen in the waterway is so low, he stressed, that it is almost at the point where “most things won’t survive.”

A slide shows results of a New College ‘float study’ undertaken about 1973 in the Grand Canal, which demonstrated the low level of water flow. Rachel Hackney photo

“The Grand Canal is not happy,” he said. “It wants to be a productive estuary.” If its water quality were improved significantly, he added, the canal could be come a healthful environment for blue crabs, snook and tarpon, which are popular catches for recreational fishermen in the area.

Proposals for progress

Relatively inexpensive solutions are available to improve the situation, Chiocchio continued.

First, Chiocchio said, the shoal should be removed from the mouth of the Grand Canal at Roberts Bay. “It has been there as long as anyone can remember, and no one seems to know how it was formed.”

Another shoal blocks water flow near the bridge over the canal on Midnight Pass Road, he noted. That shoal also should be removed, he added.

A third approach would be aeration of the canal, though Chiocchio acknowledged that that “could be a permitting nightmare,” referencing state and county entities that supervise activities involving waterways.

Chiocchio said that one of his ideas is to use a solar-powered boat that would carry two aeration hoses, similar to a street-sweeping truck. Volunteers could drive the boat through the canal.

Finally, he talked about the mini reefs, showing the SKA members several slides depicting the structures.

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

In response to one audience member’s question, Chiocchio said the mini reefs are made of polypropylene, a plastic that is considered to have a life of 500 years — quite different, he stressed from “a garbage bag or a milk jug.” After barnacles have encased a mini reef, he explained, the structure does not break down, as other plastics do, into micro particles. “It’s almost like a glue,” he said of the effect of the barnacles.

With two mini reefs at every dock on the Grand Canal, Chiocchio pointed out, “You’ve added some filtration” and are able to remove nutrients from the water that feed organisms such as the red tide algae.

Yet, the concern is whether agencies will allow mini reefs to be used, Chiocchio said.

Approximately 3,000 of the mini reefs have been put into use around the state, he added.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) does not require a permit if a person just wants to tie a bait bucket to the person’s dock, for example, he noted.

However, Howard Berna, director of the Environmental Permitting Division of Sarasota County, told Chiocchio that he was awaiting guidance from FDEP before making a recommendation on how county staff should handle mini reefs, Chiocchio pointed out during his presentation to the SKA members.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for follow-up on Chiocchio’s comments, Berna wrote in an Oct. 7 email that county Planning and Development Services Department (PDS) “staff attended a demonstration installation earlier this year with the owner of Ocean Habitats at a location in Manatee County. Ocean Habitats designed floating ‘reef’ systems that can be installed under docks and [company representatives] are working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to determine how the state might permit or exempt these devices. PDS 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 we have received input from the state.”

Chiocchio told the SKA members that the City of Sarasota and Manatee County do not require a permit for any structure that floats. However, if something is going to touch the bottom of a waterway, he added, then those local governments do make the property owner apply for a permit.

The prospect of grant funds

The WCIND homepage features this among its images. Photo from the website

During the course of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum’s research involving mini reefs, Chiocchio said, Jack Merriman, a member of the board of the Sarasota Bay Foundation, suggested Chiocchio look into the potential of winning funds from the West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND). A multi-jurisdictional organization, WCIND provides grants for a variety of projects.

The mission of WCIND, its website explains, is “To preserve and enhance the commercial, recreational, and ecological values of waterways within the District we serve.”

“Archibald’s canal is that,” Chiocchio pointed out after reading that mission statement aloud to the SKA audience.

The district, the website adds, encompasses Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and Lee counties. A commissioner from each of those counties serves on the WCIND board. Sarasota County’s representative is Charles Hines, who is chair of the County Commission.

SKA directors expressed their support for the Fisheries Forum to apply for one of the annual WCIND grants, which are funded by property tax revenue dedicated to the work of the district.

Noting that he has become well acquainted with WCIND’s work over the past few years, SKA Director Robert Luckner said he felt a mini reef project for the Grand Canal would stand a good chance of winning WCIND support.

Each mini reef costs about $300, Chiocchio said.

That information prompted Luckner to point out that if volunteers could be found who would be willing to install up to two-dozen mini reefs, perhaps an application for WCIND funding could be submitted to Sarasota County staff for consideration.

SKA President Catherine Luckner also talked of the potential of winning interest in the mini reefs from among other members of the Barrier Island League. That is a consortium of nonprofits representing other islands, such as Casey Key, along with the Siesta Key Association. It meets when significant issues arise that are deemed worthy of collaboration, Luckner has explained.