The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program is dedicated to restoring the region's greatest and most important natural asset - Sarasota Bay. The program strives to improve water quality, increase habitat, and enhance natural resources of the area for the use and enjoyment to the public. To fulfill this mission, the program does three types of restoration throughout Sarasota Bay and its watershed.
Habitat restoration in the Sarasota Bay area generally involves removal of exotic vegetation from a designated site, excavation of intertidal lagoons to create juvenile fish nurseries, and altering land elevations to support native habitat. Here's an interactive map of SBEP's restoration sites.
The SBEP and its partners have completed substantial saltwater wetland restoration and enhancement projects totaling more than 650 acres. The SBEP adopted an annual goal of restoring at least one percent of the wetland habitat lost, totaling 18 acres per year. Completed to date are 28 wetland enhancement and restoration project sites, all of which involve numerous partners and volunteers.
Sarasota Bay seagrasses have been mapped every two years since 1988 using aerial photography by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. This photography estimates the location and amount of seagrasses throughout the estuary. The photography is also used to distinguish two specific types of seagrass distribution: patchy seagrass (less than 75-percent coverage) and continuous seagrass (greater than 75-percent coverage). A minimum of 25-percent coverage is required for mapping a patchy seagrass bed.
A set of aerial photographs taken in 1950 has been used to calculate historical seagrass coverage. By creating a series of maps, temporal trends in seagrass cover and distribution have been evaluated to understand how this important habitat type has changed over time.
Between 1950 and 1988, seagrass coverage decreased 15 percent mainly as a result of poor water clarity and physical disturbances. Since 1988, the Bay has gained 3,991 acres of seagrass and today has 24 percent more seagrass than 1950.
Oyster beds provide structural habitat for many species of fish and invertebrates. Oysters are also valued for their ability to improve water quality through their prolific filtering capacity.
The SBEP supported a study of the historical distribution of oyster beds throughout the estuary and found that many historical beds have been lost, either to physical disturbances accompanying coastal development, through burial by sediments, or other unknown causes. This study led to the decision by the SBEP to initiate an Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) restoration program within Sarasota Bay.
SBEP selected two locations in Little Sarasota Bay to create oyster habitat; one site is intertidal, where the bottom is exposed at low tide, and the other is subtidal, where it is always under water. Both sites are in areas where oysters are present or used to be present, but habitat expansion is limited by the lack of suitable substrate (oyster shell) necessary to attract new oysters (spat).
This project employs fossilized oyster shells in mesh bags, which provide structure onto which the oyster larvae can settle and grow. Subsequent monitoring has shown that oysters attached to the shells within a month of placement and grew to maturity within two years.
Starting with the development of a master artificial reef plan in 1996, the SBEP identified 20 potential sites that would be suitable for artificial reefs. These sites were selected because they contained appropriate sediments, as well as being deep enough not to impede navigation. Since 2000, the SBEP and its partners have constructed more than 3,000 artificial reef modules, called “reef balls,” which now rest on the bottom of the Bay. These prefabricated reef ball modules are domed structures (two feet high and three to four feet in diameter) with holes throughout for fish and crabs to move through.
The SBEP currently has eight active reef sites created primarily from reef balls. Other reef materials, such as PVC pipe and limestone boulders, have been placed on two other reefs in the Bay. In addition, reef modules are being deployed around channel markers throughout the Bay to create additional juvenile fish habitat.
Preliminary monitoring has documented a variety of marine life either taking up residency within the reef balls (gag groupers and stone crabs) or utilizing the habitat for its structure (gray snapper, sheepshead, and bait fish).
The SBEP is supporting a study by Mote Marine Laboratoryto determine the most optimal configuration of habitat modules for maximizing fish usage. By direct underwater observations, scientists are tabulating fish diversity and abundance on habitat modules of different sizes during each season. The findings from this study will identify reef designs and deployments that will support the most favorable fish communities.