It’s easy to take for granted something as benign as a scallop, or as innocuous as a clam. While many of us simply see these mollusks as a nice addition to a saucy pasta dish, they actually serve a greater purpose in maintaining a healthy bay ecosystem.
That’s why the Sarasota Bay Watch
(SBW) has made restoring these animals in their natural habitat a priority among different ways they work to improve the quality of Sarasota Bay for marine life and residents alike.
“Shellfish are hugely important to the bay and scallops have been essentially missing since the 1960s. Even the [much more hardy] southern hard clam has been in slow decline to the point to where you can barely find them now,” says Larry Stults, President of Sarasota Bay Watch.
While Stults says scientists can’t identify one definitive reason for the decline of these vital creatures from Sarasota’s Bay waters more than half a century ago, there is a general agreement that post World War II waterfront land development in the 1950s, and especially dredging, stirred up the bay and created so much silt that sunlight couldn’t get through to support the seagrass which is essential to scallops’ life cycles. For decades to follow, untreated or minimally treated wastewater from newly built communities was dumped into the bay.
“Back then they just didn’t know,” says Stults. “So the water quality in the bay plummeted as the population boomed and our utility structures hadn’t yet caught up to the population boom, so you had this one-two punch of silting and loss of seagrass and then plummeting water quality.”
Stults says since that initial die off of scallops, which are very sensitive to disruptions in their ecosystem, Sarasota Bay had never seen the animals come back, and SBW had definitely been looking.
Since 2008 the group along with hundreds of volunteers has gone out annually to find and count scallops. Then, in 2011, SBW along with other marine-minded groups including Mote Marine Laboratory (www.mote.org), Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (http://sarasotabay.org) Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (http://myfwc.com)
released more than a million scallop larvae into the bay, provided at cost by the Bay Shellfish Company (www.bayshellfish.com), a bivalve mollusk hatchery. For that, Stults says he’s grateful to the Disney Conservation Fund, who financially supports the shellfish restoration program.
The marine groups have continued to work together to monitor the progress in what is a bit of a trial-and-error undertaking.
In this mixed team effort, each group has an important role.
“Whenever we go out on the water to do a release, [Mote] does a lot of scientific study around the process of restoration,'' Stults says. "While our job is to raise the funds, get the animals and get them in the water, Mote’s job is to collect data around that process so as we go forward we can say what’s working, what’s not. ... W e’re not there yet. We don’t have enough data to make correlations about what works and what doesn’t.”
Still, at 2016’s Scallop Search they estimated that there are now 100 million scallops, which Stults says is good, but not yet enough.
Engaging community, teaching citizen science
For the last few years, Sarasota native and Marine Scientist Amber Whittle has participated with her husband and their two children, now 10 and 12, in the annual Scallop Search held every August, commonly dubbed, Scallopalooza
“The scallop search is a great community event because you go out and it’s so organized, they do a great job with that,” says Whittle. “You get put in your teams. They have a boat for you if you don’t have one ... and I do it with my kids because it’s citizen science. So it’s a mix of rigorous science where you go out and actually do transects so they know what science is about, but there’s also not the intense pressure that comes with the kind of science that I do. So you go out there and you spend your morning getting a taste of what it’s really like to be a scientist and I think that’s great for anyone who doesn’t get to do that on a normal basis.”
Whittle is also very involved with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, an intergovernmental partnership program, which according to their website “strives to improve water quality, increase habitat, and enhance the area’s natural resources for the use and enjoyment by the public.”
She says that a lot of the local [marine protection] groups have a similar mission and try not to overlap but rather to have a symbiotic relationship with each other.
Stults agrees. “Those are the types of things Sarasota Bay Watch, I think, excels at ... good ideas that are basically easy and low hanging fruit, that can be leveraged through partnerships or collaborations.”
Education and involving students of all ages is also part of SBW’s mission. Stults says it’s vital to teach younger generations about the bay and its ecosystem to ensure the longterm health of the bay. Besides going to schools to show and teach kids about varieties of living clams, oysters and scallops, SBW teaches marine education to youth by mentoring high school students who can then take what they learn to present to grade schoolers.
“Sarastota Bay Watch doesn’t have the money, or we have so few people doing so much stuff that we can’t do everything ourselves, but if we can get the high school students to do our work for us not only can we reach more grade schoolers, but the other important aspect is that it really creates youth leadership opportunities for the high schoolers.”
As a mom, a marine scientist and a community volunteer, Whittle has a unique understanding of all the ways this sort of hands-on education is so beneficial for the next generations.
“The programs that [SBW collaborator] Mote and other community members do are hugely important for kids just learning to love their backyard, which is the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay,” she says. “The more my kids can do that from several different venues and also getting to see so many other people doing it too and being so excited about it, and even seeing adults doing it who have never done a transect or anything close to that, it makes them feel not intimidated by the science of it.”
Beyond species restoration
With the success of the scallop restoration, this past February Sarasota Bay Watch also “planted” 400,000 juvenile clams at Port Manatee. Clams are actually much hardier than scallops, living up to 30 years to a scallop’s one year, and doing us all a big favor by actually eating red tide bacteria that will kill its cousin, the scallop, along with many other forms of marine life.
The group also works toward creating and maintaining healthy habitats for marine life with things like advocating for the implementation of living sea walls, clearing debris from bird rookeries and even doing underwater clean-ups, like the one they did last November when divers and community members descended on Tony Saprito Pier (http://sarasotabaywatch.org/tony-saprito-fishing-pier-cleanup/) in Sarasota to pull up decades worth of debris, including tackle boxes, electronic equipment, cast nets and all manner of things that may have dropped off the fishing pier.
“What we generally do is create events that bring volunteers out and get them in the water to do stuff that’s good for the bay,” says Stults.
He is especially proud of the living seawall along the Manatee River in Palmetto, which Bay Watch did not build, but rather, they spearheaded the operation by inviting various entities together who could bring the innovative structure to fruition. The 1,000-foot wall was created by Reef Innovations, (http://reefinnovations.com) a company that builds artificial reefs. Living sea walls provide habitats for sea life and are better designed for wave impact and the reverberations of waves turning back into the water enclosed by the wall.
The wall is yet another example of what Stults often points out, that Bay Watch isn’t solely responsible for the work and great results they’ve seen, but that rather they are a catalyst. He says that it’s really the collaboration among scientists, community volunteers, fisheries and all that are involved and passionate about maintaining the health of the bay.
Mutual love for the salt life
John Ryan, one of the original founders of Sarasota Bay Watch, who is also the Senior Staff/Environmental Supervisor for County Water Resources, agrees.
He said in an email, “We are a small organization with good intentions, good energy and lots of friends. We are always making more connections and have learned that there are lots of people out there like us who simply love the water and are more than willing to be part of keeping in healthy and making it better.”
Ryan says they took a nod from Tampa Bay Watch when he and two other founding members evolved their nonprofit from an organization that was about avoiding red tide to one that encompassed all that Sarasota Bay Watch does today.
Ryan initially volunteered with TBW to get a feel for how it all worked.
“More than anything else, I learned that having a positive attitude is everything,” he writes. “The staff and volunteers at TBW enjoy themselves and find the sunny side, even when it takes an extra effort to do so. This became a founding principle of SBW. Stay positive. Be in favor of boating, fishing, business and the good people of our community. Make friends not enemies. Resist the urge to engage in conflict. I think we have stayed the course on that guiding principle pretty well.”