Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge: Strengthen blue economy of Florida Gulf Coast

Coastal environments are the key to a treasure that scientists, conservationists and entrepreneurs are eager to explore: the untapped potential of Florida’s "blue economy'' -- its natural aquatic resources. 

The Gulf Coast Community Foundation (GCCF) identifies marine sciences, eco-conservation, education, sustainable food production and eco-tourism as areas rich in opportunity to strengthen the blue economy, thus moving the region away from its current dependence on a seasonal, service-based economy and toward an innovative, entrepreneurial local economy that celebrates the natural resources abundant to Florida's Gulf Coast.

The Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge, a $500,000 competitive grant opportunity designed by the GCCF to inspire and fund marine-based growth in the Gulf Coast region (Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte Counties), currently has 30 teams of entrepreneurs, scientists, educators and conservationists partnering to generate big ideas -- including innovative solutions to problems facing the coastal ecosystem, combined with creative opportunities to grow the blue economy.

On July 31 the GCCF will award grants of $25,000 to five Innovation Challenge finalists to produce prototypes for their proposals. The winner will be announced in November and awarded up to $375,000 in remaining grant money from the GCCF to further develop their project. 

In the meantime, 83 Degrees explores three Gulf Coast restoration proposals that are making a splash for their multi-prong efforts to bolster the blue economy while preserving the coastal environment for the future.

“Living Shorelines” for a healthy coastline

Jennifer Rominiecki, the new President and CEO of Sarasota’s Selby Gardens, was hardly settled in her new office when the Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge was announced during her second week on the job. Rominiecki, a recent transplant from the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, jumped at the opportunity to deliver solutions to one of the greatest challenges facing her new, coastal scene: shoddy seawalls.

The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens property curves into a peninsula that traces the Sarasota bayfront, with the perimeter of the grounds meeting the bay at an abrupt ledge -- a weathered, vertical concrete seawall. Though a popular marine engineering solution of the not-so-distant past, seawalls are recognized today as detrimental to coastal environments. Among their faults, vertical seawalls contribute to land erosion and flooding by redirecting wave energy to unprotected shorelines, increase water turbidity (murkiness), and destroy or severely inhibit marine habitats.

In Sarasota, and throughout much of the coastal United States, seawalls are as ubiquitous as they are problematic: of 313 miles of shoreline in Sarasota County, 80 percent are  bordered by vertical concrete walls. 

Rominiecki and Selby partnered with Sarasota Bay Watch, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida to develop “Living Shorelines” a proposal to replace Selby’s vertical seawalls with more eco-friendly natural options, such as mangrove walls or “reef balls” -- artificial concrete reefs designed to allow sea life, such as oysters, to adhere to nooks and crannies. Living shorelines that foster marine habitats promote what Larry Stults of Sarasota Bay Watch calls a “virtuous cycle of improvement.”

“If you can increase the biodiversity and density of marine life, it’s one of the first steps to get a virtuous cycle of improvement going: it becomes a nursery for forage fish and filter feeders like oysters, which create more food and make the water cleaner. If you get the scallops and oysters to come back, they create more food and provide cleaner water. Cleaner water lets more sunlight in, which means more sea grass—and the cycle continues. That is, more diversity of sea life and a stronger ecosystem,” Stults says.

If Living Shorelines progresses to the second stage of the Innovation Challenge, Rominecki says Selby will hold a design charrette with permitting experts, to ultimately roll environmentally astute models that will be eco-friendly and cost-comparable to vertical seawalls, with easy-to-acquire building permits -- in other words, accessible to homeowners.

“This challenge getting people to think outside the box. We want to create something that would be a scaleable, permitable, ‘shovel-ready’ kind of concept. … What’s exciting is that if we can figure out the solution, I think not only would it impact Sarasota, but the entire state of Florida -- even the world,” Rominiecki says. 

An “emerald necklace” of eco-tourism

The GCCF study, Developing the Blue Economy of Florida’s Gulf Coast, reports that in 2012 7.5 million people visited Sarasota and Manatee counties, contributing $1.5 billion in direct spending to the regional economy. Marine-based recreation such as kayaking, eco-tours and wildlife-viewing contribute an estimated $500 million annually to the local economy.

Among the Gulf Coast’s most unique marine assets is that the region is the only spot in the U.S. with three contiguous national estuary programs, with protected barrier islands that run from Tampa Bay south through Sarasota Bay and down to Charlotte Harbor: a string of natural gems in what could someday be an “Emerald Necklace” of eco-tourism along Gulf’s coastal waterways.

Sarasota Bay Watch and Innovation Challenge partner Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast envision a string of eco-tourism destinations created on reclaimed spoil islands, beginning at the Sister Keys along Manatee County’s Longboat Key, and extending south to the Jim Neville Marine Preserve on Sarasota’s Siesta Key.

The goal, Stults says, is to select a series of public islands that are currently overrun with invasive ecosystems, such as the Edwards Islands in Sarasota Bay, and to reclaim them for use. The first step in the project is to revitalize the islands by removing the invasive species and replacing them with native plants, thus providing a new ecosystem that sustains a diversity of migratory birds and other animals. The next step is to install launch points for kayaks and other paddle craft, making them accessible for eco-tourism and recreation.

“The green economy in this area is growing in leaps and bounds, but we have so few spaces for eco-tourism. At these limited locations, the mangrove tunnels are so popular they’re becoming overused. Kayaks are almost bow-to-stern now, like a choo-choo train, so you lose that whole special interaction with nature. It’s more like you’re at Disney World,” Stults says.

“These [Edwards] islands are low-hanging fruit. It won’t take a whole lot of work or input to turn them into emerald gems. They just need a little polishing,” he adds. 

Currently, the Edwards Islands and five other islands identified in the initial “Emerald Necklace” string are choked with invasive species such as carrotwood, Brazilian pepper trees, and Australian pines — all of which, with a little elbow grease and green thumbery, could be replaced by attractive native coastal plants like red cedar, buttonwood and gumbo limbo trees. With the addition of paddlesport launches, these islands could be boons for eco-friendly tourism.

“This could be a model for other communities. Sarasota could be ground zero for a wave of restoration projects up and down the coast. … Ideally, every community could take the the project themselves, and we could almost have an ‘Appalachian Trail’ of restored islands along the coast of Florida. … It could eventually become a ‘trip of a lifetime’ to travel down from the [Florida] Panhandle to Marco Island,” Stults says.

“Field School” teaches specialized skills for eco-preservation

Sarasota’s Save Our Seabirds partners with Field School, an emergent start-up organization based out of Miami that is focused on providing hands-on research and field education in environmental monitoring and restoration skills. 

The Gulf Coast region is home to approximately 800 institutions and businesses related to aquaculture, with thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars tied to the resources of its coastal waters. Aquatic health is imperative to a thriving blue economy, but challenging to maintain without a specialized skill set.

According to Julia Wester, Field School’s Director of Program Development, the school aims to partner with ecological organizations in Sarasota and the surrounding region to provide field courses in environmental monitoring and restoration. Initial field courses will begin with sea grass and oyster bed restoration to improve water quality and seabird populations along mangrove islands. Future courses might include education in wildlife rehabilitation and oil-spill disaster relief.

“There’s a lot of money being poured into restoring habitats right now. Part of the reason why restoration is so expensive is because there are not a lot of people with the skills and training to complete the work,” Wester says.

“Right now, a lot of organizations are working on a small, volunteer-based scale. In order to scale up to apply for grants for big restoration projects, you don’t necessarily need a marine science degree, but do you need important sets of skills. We’re trying to help communities take the next step beyond that volunteer level of involvement, where you have some more practical skills to bring to the table,” she adds.

Wester says that Field School’s two-fold goal also includes establishing an “alumni support network” in which fledgling environmental startups can connect with other nonprofits and lawyers, and receive professional support to help them start their own organizations and apply for grants.

“Our vision is to position the Sarasota Gulf Coast as a leader in environmental restoration. … We can have businesses locally that can focus on jump-off points provided by Field School courses and training. We want to give people a different idea of what science can be — and what their role in science can be,” Wester says.

The Gulf Coast Challenge: An ocean of innovative ideas 

Living Shorelines, Emerald Necklace and Field School are but three proposals in a diverse sea of Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge themes and ideas. Some of our other favorites:

The Marine Science Literacy Team aims to instill knowledge and passion for marine science and STEM at an early age by bringing kids outdoors for experiential, hands-on education programs. Sustainable seafood initiatives such as the Healthy Earth-Gulf Coast Sustainable Seafood System, and Freshr explore the tremendous, untapped economic possibilities of the Gulf Coast seafood market. Mote Marine Laboratory explores Cancer Therapies from Sharks and Antibiotic Treatments from the Sea in its biomedical Innovation Challenge proposals. 

Each of these proposals, and more, can be found in the Gulf Coast Innovation Challengers Gallery. Have a favorite proposal? Cast your vote, and tell us about it in the comment section below.
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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.