By Becky Pazkowski

On September 17, several of our local experts came together in Pilgrim Hall to share with us the importance of our bay area and why what we are doing on the peninsula is critical to the preservation of Sarasota Bay.  Those experts, Sara Kane from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Damon Moore from the Ecological Resources Program in Manatee County, and Jeanne Dubi of the Sarasota Audubon Society educated us on the characteristics of Sarasota Bay and some of the critical issues around our local habitat and bird rookery.  Below is a summary of why those experts called us (and I use their word) AWESOME.

First, a little education . . . a watershed is the area of land that provides water flow from higher elevation to larger water bodies at the bottom of a drainage basin.  Our Sarasota Bay Watershed covers 250 square miles and is the home to 500,000 people.  Estuaries are semi-enclosed areas, such as bays and lagoons, where freshwater mixes with salt water from the sea.  Estuaries are an important resource because they create more food per acre than the richest farmland.  Sarasota Bay Estuary is the home to more than 1400 native species of diverse plants and animals.

What has been happening to our Bay to get our attention?  Well, several things, including storm water pollution, loss of habitat, loss of wetlands, diminished sea grass, and diminished hard bottom.  The reason that we are called “awesome” by the local experts has to do with the second point—loss of habitat—and here’s why.  Our peninsula was once considered a natural habitat to native Florida plants and birds.  Over the years, plantings, development, erosion, droughts, and major storms have affected the balance of this natural habitat.  Plants have ceased to grow because of the proliferation of invasive trees, which decrease the insect, bird, and animal population, all of which throws off the balance.  The goal of our peninsula restoration is to remove invasive plantings and replace them with natural and native plants as part of a long-term effort to restore its natural ecosystem.

Is it working?  Yes, but it takes time.  The removal of a significant amount of Australian pines has been a large part of the project.  A-pines are not native to Florida, provide no growth under their canopy, and have very shallow root systems that break or uproot under storm pressure.  They are good for shade and bird nesting, but that is about all.  The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has prohibited the importation or cultivation of these trees in an effort to eradicate them.  By removing the A-pines, new growth is developing.

What about the birds?  There are only three rookeries in Sarasota County: Roberts Bay, Venice Rookery, and Plymouth Harbor.  Rookeries are important because they provide nesting and roosting opportunities.  Sarasota County has 268 regularly occurring bird species.  Of those, 106 breed here in the county, about 15 breeders use rookeries and, of those, 11 or so breed at Plymouth Harbor.  Since 2012, there had been a rapid decline in birds coming to nest and roost at Plymouth Harbor.  Jeanne Dubi announced that bird counts over the summer increased from 133 in January to 429 in mid-September.  This increase has been encouraging and we hope to see more increases over time.

We were applauded for our work in restoring the peninsula and continuing to be good stewards of our bay.  In a word, we’re AWESOME!