Ringling Film Students Visit and Learn the History of The Sister Keys

On Sunday March 24, 2024 Students studying cinematography at the prestigious Ringling School of Art and Design traveled to The Sister Keys on the Suncoast Waterkeeper (SCWK) Patrol Boat with SCWK Chair and Sister Keys Co-Founder Rusty Chinnis, LBK Rotary Club Immediate Past President Dr. Jeff Driver and Green Team Co-Chair Terri Driver as part of a collaboration with the Longboat Key Rotary Club. Stay tuned for more details.

The Restorative Power of Nature

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead, Anthropologist (1901-1978)

    In the 1890s, the first leg of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was created to transport produce from Sarasota to the Tampa Bay market. The project skirted two large mangrove islands called the Otter Keys and would generate the spoil that would be the basis of the uplands we now call the Sister Keys.

At one point, a disgruntled owner bulldozed many of the mangroves because he wasn’t allowed to build on the islands. During World War II, the flats surrounding the islands were used by bombers for target practice and craters still exist as deep blue holes on the grass flats. In the 1960s, the islands were owned by a group of investors that intended to create a tropical resort they dubbed Shangri Isles. The development would have transformed the Keys with a marina, 18-hole championship golf course, luxury homes, a hotel and an airport. Fortunately, economics dictated a different course for the islands and the plants and animals that called it home. Over the next two decades the islands would remain essentially the same except for seeds and flotsam brought there by the birds, wind and tides. In the late 80’s the islands went on sale again, this time advertised as a “tropical paradise” where 80 acres could be developed. This was during a period of regional growth when a spurt of development came to the area and Tidy Island on the east shore of the bay sprouted homes at the expense of the native habitat. An adjacent island Jewfish Key was also undergoing development and blue septic tanks that would be buried for future homes dotted the shore on platted lots.

   This activity caused a group of citizens to posit the question: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have at least one island in the bay that didn’t have a house on it?”  In 1989, those progressive citizens created the Sister Keys Conservancy and lobbied for two years to raise money and awareness to buy and protect the islands. 

   A logo was created, an anthem was composed, and area environmental groups including the Longboat Key Garden Club, Mote Marine Laboratory, The Sierra Club, The Trust for Public Lands, and Florida Audubon were enlisted to further the cause. The group lobbied politicians, hosted fund raisers, a Music in the Park series, bake sales and speaking engagements to spread the word. Despite all their efforts the funds to purchase the islands seemed out of range until the Town of Longboat Key voted to fund the purchase on July 10, 1992. In October of that year the Sister Keys Conservancy’s co-founders traveled to Washington D.C.  where they were presented with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Award for their efforts. 

    The islands were protected with a covenant in the deed that requires any changes to the status of the islands (renewed for 20 years in 2022) be sanctioned by Florida Audubon and remained essentially unchanged until 2006. At that point the Town was approached by the developers of Perico Island who needed mitigation credits for some dredging they were proposing. When the Town agreed, the islands were transformed by a project that removed all invasive plants, replaced them with native species and created an almost two-acre wetland. 

     In 2010 Sarasota Bay Watch “Adopted” the Sister Keys and committed to helping keep it free of trash and the inevitable regrowth of invasive plants. Annual trash and invasive cleanups have been done every April since the completion of the mitigation with the help of the Longboat Key Public Works Department, Longboat Key residents, the Longboat Key Garden Club and Suncoast Waterkeeper who now partners with these groups periodically as well as annually. To learn more about the evolution of the Sister Keys and see images and article from the period visit www.sisterkeys.org.  The Sister Keys of today are an extraordinary example of what can be done to protect and enhance the Sarasota Bay ecosystem and a remarkable “future vision” of the restorative power of nature.

Sister Keys 30th Anniversary

The Longboat Key Town Commission voted to purchase and protect the Sister Keys on July 10, 1992 after a successful lobbying campaign by the Sister Keys Conservancy (started in 1989). The grass roots organization understood the importance of protecting a natural gulf coast Island but even they never realized what an important nature preserve the islands would represent in 2022.

When the real estate arm of St. Joe Paper Company approached the Town in 2006 to use the islands as a mitigation project to offset dredging of the proposed (but never built by them) Perico Island few appreciated what the change would mean to the local environment today. During that project all the invasive plants were removed, a two acre wetland was created and the islands were planted with all native species. The value of protecting natural space has never been more important as a burgeoning population has sent land values into the stratosphere. The growth is stressing the natural systems that brought people to the region and is pivotal to the economy. There has been no better time to point out he importance and the promise of working to protect the gulf coast.

Annual Sister Keys Cleanup

  Suncoast Waterkeeper will be participating in Sarasota Bay Watch’s (SBW) Annual Sister Keys Cleanup this Saturday, March 6, 2021.  Suncoast Waterkeeper (SCWK) is teaming up with Sarasota Bay Watch this year and in the future on this longstanding event. The cleanup is a collaboration with Town of Longboat Key and the Chiles Group. The event will kick off starting with registration at 8:00 AM on the bayfront at the Mar Vista Restaurant at 760 Broadway Street, Longboat Key. Volunteers will work for four hours on the island and around the mangrove fringes collecting trash and recyclable items. 

The Sister Keys were originally slated for development in the early 60’s and were once again threatened in 1989 when they went on sale for one million dollars. That spurred a group of citizens to form the Sister Keys Conservancy in an attempt to buy and preserve the islands as a nature preserve. The Town purchased the islands in 1994 with a stipulation that the keys would never be developed.  The islands underwent a million-dollar mitigation in 2007 that removed all invasive species, planted native flora and created a two-acre wetland. 

The Longboat Key Marine division will be patrolling the intercoastal waterway to slow boaters. Kayakers and those without a boat will be ferried to the island by volunteers. Larry Beggs, owner of Reef Innovations Inc. will once again help the effort with a barge where volunteers can off load their trash.  

   This year, due to the pandemic, a light box lunch will be served, courtesy of the Mar Vista Restaurant.  Anyone not willing to mask for the event or those who are still uncomfortable with groups can still participate during the following week.  Through an arrangement with Longboat Key Public Works, volunteers can do a cleanup on their own and deposit bags at the town dock for pickup between March 6 and March 14, 20121.  Registration is required, participants can sign up on the Sarasota Bay Watch web site www.sarasotabaywatch.org.

    The Sister Keys Clean Up is just one of many projects that SBW is involved in. In 2020 SBW planted over 750,000 clams in the bay in an ongoing restoration effort. Other cleanups are conducted at various locations throughout the bay as well as an annual monofilament cleanup and much more. 

    Suncoast Waterkeeper is a Sarasota based advocacy non-profit committed to protecting and restoring Florida Suncoast’s waterways through enforcement, fieldwork, advocacy and environmental education for the benefit of the communities that rely upon these precious coastal resources. Their efforts have been responsible for major initiatives that hold municipalities responsible to mandates established in the landmark 1982 Clean Water Act. SCWK also conducts bi-monthly water testing of inland coastal waters. For more information on their mission go to  www.suncoastwaterkeeper.org.

2021 Year of The Bay

2021 and Beyond

Happy New Year to everyone who appreciates and works to keep the Sister Keys and Sarasota Bay healthy and self sustaining. There are major challenges ahead for the bay in 2021 and beyond. Luckily there are a few bright spots as well. First the bad news. Since the harmful algae bloom of 2017-2018 there has been a major reduction in seagrass coverage and bay waters have nitrogen levels (which exacerbate algae blooms) far in excess of natural levels. Sewage spills from failed and stressed infrastructure are rampant and storm water run-off overwhelms waste water systems bay wide. Sarasota Bay faces a collapse of the seagrass eco-system we all have grown to cherish. We only have to look as far as Florida’s Indian River lagoon to see what could be the future of Sarasota Bay if we don’t act decisively and soon.

The Good News

The good news is that we have a new Executive Director, Dr. David Tomasko, at the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program that understands the severity of the problem and citizen led environmental watch dogs like Suncoast Waterkeeper bay advocates like Sarasota Bay Watch. In addition citizens of Manatee County voted overwhelmingly (71%) to pass a resolution to buy environmentally sensitive lands. Let’s all pitch in to make 2021 the Year of The Bay.

Keeping Ahead of The Invasive Flora

In the last few weeks Ed Deim and I have been tagging and treating Brazilian peppers and Australian pines. We’re gathering information to share with Longboat Key’s Public Works Department who will be conducting an invasive sweep of the Keys in the next couple of months. The work that the Friends of Sister Keys have done, and is doing in conjunction with the Town is working to keep the keys from being overwhelmed with the ever present invasive flora. We hope to announce another cleanup as soon as the virus crisis is under control. Below are images of the progress we’re making.

Exciting News

It’s been a hot summer and a bit buggy for the Sister Keys but there are exciting things going on. We reviewed the original deed for the purchase of Sister Keys with the help of Tom Harmer, Longboat Key’s Town Manager. The Audubon is a signer and the document states that nothing can change at the Sister Keys (i.e. change of status as protected) without the consent of Audubon and Longboat Key. This document was enforce for thirty years and then renews for ten year periods after that. Audubon has added the Sister Keys to their Coastal Islands Sanctuaries and will help to make sure the Keys stay natural.

We are also working to address some erosion issues on the north end of the north island adjacent to the intercostal . We look forward to future events on the Sister Keys and are going to be seeking funding sources for future projects.