Artificially natural: revitalizing a waterway in Florida with human-made reefs

By | 6 minute read | March 10, 2021

IBM volunteer and retiree Jean Cannon, along with her colleagues and neighbors in Siesta Key, Florida, are using artificial reefs to help restore and revitalize the aquatic ecosystem surrounding their community.
Plastic waste is invading our oceans and rivers, threatening sea life and aquatic habitats. But not all materials are created equal. A community in Florida is actually adding a specially treated, UV and marine-hardened plastic to its waterway—in the form of an artificial reef, which can be recycled—to attempt to revitalize the ecosystem.

IBM retiree Margaret Jean Cannon is a volunteer supporting the needs of residents in Siesta Key on the west coast of Florida, near Sarasota. One of those needs includes protecting the canal system surrounding many of their homes.

In 2020, serving as secretary of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), Jean—as she’s known, together with her board colleagues and members of the community, decided they needed to take action on the quality of the aquatic ecosystem so vital to their neighborhood and others nearby.

The solution: installing artificial mini reefs made out of polypropylene to mimic the natural ecosystem that attracts sea life and helps it thrive. The material, also called boat UV treated plastic, doesn’t flake, fall apart or breakdown, is more resistant to water-damaging deterioration, can be recycled and is engineered to last 75 years or longer.

IBM Volunteers spoke with Jean to learn more about the Siesta Key Grand Canal Regeneration Project. The video below at the end of the interview provides additional information about the project.

Jean, why is this such an important project?
Water quality, and improving it, is critical to our way of life, our health and this area’s commerce depends on sea life and the quality of the water. And I know that’s true in so many places around the world.

In our case, Siesta Key is an island 8-miles long with limited resources surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota Bay, and the Intercoastal waterway. The nine-mile Grand Canal is at the center of the Island and has many dead-ends. It gets its water from Sarasota Bay and the Intercoastal, and there is one entrance and exit. Two studies done in the late 1990s pointed to the loss of sea life habitat, sediment and low flow as problems with the canal and the studies’ summaries stated that if these problems were not addressed, the Grand Canal would dry up and parts of it could die.

I moved here 24 years ago to live on the beach and enjoy fishing and water sports. In recent years, this area has redeveloped, with more seawalls; and more people are visiting, moving and living on the water. We understand that development will happen, but the pressures it puts on the environment can be managed more sustainably—that’s what we’re trying to do.

How are you involved in the Grand Canal Regeneration Project as a volunteer?
I am the lead for Siesta Key Association and co-leader on the overall project. There are five other team members:

  • Phil Chiocchio is co-leader and brought the project to SKA’s attention. He works with David Wolff. Phil taught at Ringling College and is involved with Sarasota Bay Estuary and Sarasota County Environment organizations.
  • David Wolff is the owner of the non-profit Ocean Habitats, Inc. He is an entrepreneur and the mini reef creator.
  • Dave Vozzolo is learning the science of water from a Florida Sea Agent assigned to the University of Florida project. Dave will have about three other volunteers joining the team to test the canal water and record observations.
  • Paul Westpheling is our lead on video and interviewing. He is a retired journalist and broadcaster and has helped us share our story with others.
  • Joyce Kouba manages the SKA website and she supports the team installing the reefs.

We also collaborate with Dr. Ryan Schloesser of Mote Marine Lab to help with the water science and identification of species.

Phil Chiocchio, Jean Cannon and Dave Vozzolo

When did the project start and what was involved in the decision to proceed?
We started in November 2020, with a plan that Phil and I presented to the SKA members and Board of Directors. The Board approved the pilot, which had a simple goal to obtain homeowners’ agreement to purchase ten mini reefs to be installed in December. A mini reef costs USD 300, and we suggested that they could also be given as gifts since we were looking at the first installation around the holidays.

Well, we exceeded the initial goal when 23 reefs were ordered and had orders for more.

The Board agreed we should continue, and we had two other installs in February and March of 2021. We are now starting the project’s science aspect to understand what is needed beyond the mini reefs.

Tell us more about the mini reef and what it does
David created the mini reef to mimic a mangrove environment, and it replaces lost habits for sea life. It attracts oysters, juvenile fish and crabs. It needs about two feet of water and is mounted under a dock, tied to the pilings with ropes and pulleys so it floats and moves with the tides. There are smaller sizes for low tide areas. Mini reefs can be installed quickly and last hundreds of years.

David had been looking for a large project to showcase what this product can do. Siesta Key’s Grand Canal has over 875 homes, and the majority of the homes have docks. So we serve as a good model for similar canal environments in South Florida.

Mini reefs ready to be installed in the water

What’s the significance of tying a red ribbon on the dock piling?
It identifies to the others that the dock owner has installed mini reefs. We are encouraging neighbors to talk to other neighbors. And it also makes people smile. The first install was just before Christmas. We had some dock owners receive mini reefs as gifts for Christmas presents. We decided to keep doing it.

How are you coaching other communities to consider similar projects?
We are collaborating with The Center of Anna Maria Island, which has been doing installs for a few years. The Island of Anna Maria is mostly in open water waterways rather than dead-end canals. We are sharing resources and data collection templates. We both will submit our water data findings to the State of Florida database.

Phil and I spoke to a community in Venice, the island south of us. We presented our installs and talked to them about planning theirs. Their Board also approved the project, and Phil intends to help with the installation. They are also on a canal and have about 70 docks.

On Siesta Key, we have an area called Riegle’s Landing, located on the Intercoastal, with about 31 docks. I understand that they are also planning to install mini reefs. I have contacted them and will need to follow up.

What do you hope will be the results of the project?
Solve the problem of lost habitats, improve our water quality, regenerate juvenile sea life in the canal’s water and be a model for other water communities’ revitalization.

Leadspace image: IBM volunteer and retiree Jean Cannon, along with her colleagues and neighbors in Siesta Key, Florida, are using artificial reefs to help restore and revitalize the aquatic ecosystem surrounding their community.