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Ronda Ryan of Sarasota Bay Watch and Abbey Tyrna of Suncoast Waterkeeper sort and record trash and recycling during Saturday's event. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

Reel Time: Cleaning up the Sister Keys

By Rusty Chinnis

Suncoast Waterkeeper teamed up with Sarasota Bay Watch last weekend when they conducted their 2023 Annual Sister Keys Cleanup. The event was a collaboration of the two non-profit organizations, the Town of Longboat Key and Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant.

Close to 50 volunteers worked for four hours on the island and around the mangrove fringes, collecting trash and recyclable items. This year’s harvest was especially large, fueled by the storm surge that hit the area during Hurricane Idalia. One of the most unusual items in the cleanup’s 15-year history was uncovered during the event, an 18-foot wooden “sharpie” sailing craft. John Hoover made another impressive find when he uncovered a blown glass sphere. In all, volunteers collected over 1,000 pounds of trash from the islands.

The Sister Keys were slated for development in the early ’60s as the Shangri Isle Club and were once again threatened in 1989 when they went up for sale at $1 million. That spurred a group of citizens to form the Sister Keys Conservancy to buy and preserve the islands as a nature preserve. The Town of Longboat Key purchased the islands in 1994 with a stipulation that the keys would never be developed.

Two women show items that were cleaned up from around the Sister Keys.
Ronda Ryan of Sarasota Bay Watch and Abbey Tyrna of Suncoast Waterkeeper sort and record trash and recycling during Saturday’s event. – Rusty Chinnis | Sun

The islands underwent a million-dollar mitigation in 2007 that removed all invasive species, planted native flora and created a 2-acre wetland. Today, mature mangroves dominate the waterways and are rich with crustaceans, juvenile finfish and wading birds. Native species planted on uplands, first created from the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway in the late 1800s, have matured, making the islands one of the best examples of a thriving native marine environment in coastal Florida.

The cleanup is part of a continuing two-pronged effort to clear the islands of trash and prevent the resurgence of invasive species.

Kayakers and those without a boat were ferried to the island by volunteer boaters Benny Parrish, Mark McBride and Tim Thurman.

Back at the Longboat Key Boat Ramp, volunteers loaded the debris to be retrieved by the town’s public works employees. All plastics and cans were collected in separate green bags provided by Sarasota Bay Watch and recycled. The volunteers were treated to a box lunch and beverages provided by the Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and the Chiles Group, which have supported the event from the beginning.

The Sister Keys Clean Up is just one of many projects that Sarasota Bay Watch is involved in. In 2021, it planted clams in the bay in an ongoing restoration effort. Other cleanups are conducted at various locations throughout the bay, including an annual monofilament cleanup.

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. Its efforts have been responsible for major initiatives to hold municipalities responsible for mandates established in the landmark 1982 Clean Water Act. SCWK also conducts bi-monthly water testing of inland coastal waters. For more information on the groups’ missions and to become a member, visit their websites, and