An edition of: WaterAtlas.orgPresented By: Sarasota County, USF Water Institute

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F.I.S.H. Preserve’s salty habitat passes environmental muster

Good news from state environmental regulators came as a godsend to the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (F.I.S.H.).

“We’re done. We’re done. We’re done,” director Jane von Hahmann said at a March 7 FISH board meeting.

Six years after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ordered FISH to restore an acre of mangroves destroyed by salty spoil or face $10,000 a day in fines, the DEP decided to close the file. The DEP had determined the property was transformed into a “rare and valuable” saltern marsh.

The environmental problem arose in May 2005 after FISH allowed the West Coast Inland Navigation District to create a spoil site in a western area of the FISH Preserve for material from a nearby dredge project.

WCIND had assured FISH a berm would control salt leaching on the preserve located on 95 acres east of 119th Street on the south side of Cortez Road. WCIND finished dumping the spoil at the site and the dredge project in 2007. In 2008, volunteers reported mangroves dying south of the bermed site near an outfall pipe.

FISH attempted to plant mangroves and marsh grass that didn’t take hold. DEP testing determined “it was the addition of the soil itself that caused the problem,” wrote DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon in a March 17 email.

Then, in December 2015, testing indicated the area had transformed into a natural saltern — barren flat feeding grounds with a high salinity, fertile territory for wading birds.

FISH environmental consultant Diane Rosensweig of Scheda Ecological Associates of Sarasota brought the saltern to DEP’s attention in a January memo. Rosensweig reported on the salinity where the mangroves had once grown, concluding the saltern community “is more productive and ecologically sound” than another acre of mangroves in a 30-acre mangrove forest. Salterns are disappearing from the coastal landscape and considered rare, as well as a target for restoration by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, according to Rosensweig.

“Now they’ve got something that’s even better,” she said, referring to FISH’s property.

The DEP considers the transformation a “positive outcome” because salterns provide “a viable ecological function for birds and young fish,” Herbon wrote. With the saltern marsh identified, the agency concluded FISH had taken corrective actions, restoration was complete and no fine would be assessed. At the March FISH meeting, von Hahmann exclaimed, “Hallelujah, hallelujah. Praise the Lord.”