Siesta Key Association wins $9,000 Sarasota County grant for its Grand Canal Regeneration Project

Team member explains mini reefs initiative to commissioners

This graphic provides details about how the SKA team will use the county grant. The houses with yellow markers have mini reefs; those with blue markers do not. Image courtesy Margaret Jean Cannon

The Siesta Key Association (SKA) is one of 10 recipients of the latest round of funding approved through the Sarasota County Neighborhood Initiative Grants Program.

The nonprofit won $9,000 for its project to install 30 “mini reefs” in a dead-end section of the Grand Canal in an effort to improve water quality.

The initiative has been planned for homes on Commonwealth Place, west of Midnight Pass Road.

The nonprofit’s Grand Canal Regeneration Project team reported that 420 volunteer hours would be devoted to the installation of the devices under docks near a stormwater drain. “Once populated,” the application said, “the mini reefs will filter nutrients and support colonizing of marine life. This concentrated ‘planting’ of mini reefs will act as a nutrient filter to improve water quality and reduce harmful algae.”

Further, the document explained, “The team will engage with citizen scientists, [a University of Florida] Sea Grant Agent, local marine scientists, and the neighbors in the project area.”

Team member Margaret Jean Cannon, who is the SKA’s secretary, has explained that the results of the initiative will be compared to conditions in a test area without mini reefs.

The application added, “This project provides an example for the Island and other communities on canals and how we can come together to make long-term changes for water improvement in the entire Sarasota Bay watershed.”

The value of the volunteer time for the initiative was put at $8,400, a county staff document showed.

A slide presented to SKA members in January shows how mini reefs work. Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

The SKA submitted the signatures of 65 members in support of the undertaking.

The Neighborhood Initiative Grants Program Advisory Committee awarded the proposal a score of 91 out of a possible 100 points, a county staff document noted. That was the highest score of all for this grant cycle, a county staff memo said.

In the fall of 2019, Phil Chiocchio, a member of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum, made a presentation to SKA members about the poor water quality in the 9-mile Grand Canal. On Sept. 28, he took the opportunity of the County Commission’s Open to the Public period to talk about the grant and the SKA’s plans.

Chiocchio showed the commissioners a video of sea life populating a mini reef just 112 days after the device’s installation. (Mini reefs are made by the nonprofit Ocean Habitats, located in Micanopy. Each mini reef is 24 inches wide, 36 inches long and 24 inches deep. Ocean Habitats says each device can filter about 30,000 gallons of water per day.)

Chiocchio explained to the commissioners that the SKA team has been working on installations of mini reefs under docks on the Grand Canal over the past nine months. “We now have a few hundred in.”

This is a slide that Phil Chiocchioo of the Sarasota Bay Fisheries Forum presented to SKA members on Dec. 5, 2019, showing facets of the problems with the Grand Canal. File photo

Canals were dug around the county so developers could create land for residential construction, Chiocchio pointed out. “These canals are fairly devoid of life,” he added.

Mini reefs were created at New College of Florida in Sarasota in the early 1990s, he continued. They legally can be installed under docks because they float, he pointed out. “We ran into the U.S. Harbors and Rivers Act of 1899,” he noted, which says nothing can be installed on the bottom of a waterway.

Referencing the video, Chiocchio continued, “What you see now is an apartment complex.” Vegetation grows on a mini reef, he said, and that provides oxygen. Then creatures such as blue crabs and stone crabs begin living in the devices, he noted, and fish are attracted to them. “The idea is to make a planned unit development, let’s say.”

Juvenile fish will end up swimming away from the mini reefs, through the canal system and ultimately into Sarasota Bay, he pointed out. Then people — especially children, Chiocchio emphasized — will have more fish available to catch.

“My goal is to let [youngsters] go down there by Marina Jack and catch fish,” Chiocchio added.

“If this works [on Siesta],” Chiocchio said of the SKA initiative, “then we can start replicating it around the county …”

He added, “We’re doing constant water testing to build a database” with details about salinity of the canal water, as well as oxygen and nitrogen levels.

Commissioners offer praise

Phil Chiocchio addresses the commissioners on Sept. 29. News Leader image

“This is very encouraging and exciting,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Chiocchio. “I’m glad you’re working on it.”

Then she asked whether the SKA team had been in contact with Mote Marine Laboratory about the undertaking.

The Fisheries Forum conducts its meetings at Mote, Chiocchio replied, and he has talked with Ryan Schloesser about the project. “He’s very interested in this thing.”

On its website, Mote says Schloesser joined its staff in 2015; he is program manager for fisheries ecology and enhancement.

Chiocchio also told Detert that the SKA had won a grant this year from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program to install “a prototype of a brand new nano-aerator,” which shrinks oxygen bubbles to such a small size that they can cover “a huge area.”

Detert suggested the team coordinate with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension in Sarasota County, as well.

He is a former coordinator of broadcasting for IFAS at the University of Florida, Chiocchio replied, noting his connection to that organization.

“This is all citizen-initiated,” he emphasized of the SKA undertaking. “We’re just a bunch of old geezers trying to do something here.”

“Well, you’re doing something valuable,” Detert told him.

“It’s always great to see citizens use their passion to help improve the community,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said.

Noting that he probably could count on one hand the times he had engaged with an individual addressing the board during Open to the Public, Commissioner Michael Moran told Chiocchio that the fact that he was responding to Chiocchio’s remarks that morning underscored “how impressed I am by this.”

“Please come back in a year so you can give us the update” on the SKA program, Chair Alan Maio said. “The fact that you have all these commissioners actually engaging you is pretty noteworthy,” Maio added.

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

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger ended up making the motion to approve the awarding of a total of $77,705.45 in funds to the 10 recipients of the Neighborhood Grant Initiative Program awards, and Commissioner Moran seconded it. The motion passed unanimously.

The maximum amount a neighborhood can request is $10,000, a county staff memo explained. The program is a matching one, the memo added. “Neighborhoods can provide their 50 percent match through cash, donations, or volunteer hours credited at $20.00 per hour.”

Organized residential and homeowner associations, “as well as ad-hoc residential-based groups located throughout Sarasota County,” are eligible to apply for the grants, the memo noted.

County staff received 16 applications for the latest funding, the memo said. The deadline for submitting an application was June 25.