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A good meeting with FDEP secretary

By Rachel Brown Hackney

It is not every day that someone outside of state government gets a private meeting with the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). Yet, that is exactly what Catherine Luckner, vice president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), and her husband, Robert, a member of the nonprofit’s Environmental Committee, were able to do early this month.

Catherine Luckner offered some details about the experience when she addressed SKA members on Oct. 4.

Luckner characterized it as a “small meeting,” face-to-face with Secretary Noah Valenstein.

They talked about the fact that the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan calls for inlet management plans to be created for all the county’s waterways, she continued, but neither Big Sarasota Pass nor New Pass is governed by one. “So we’re moving in that direction.”

Perhaps even more importantly, Luckner pointed out, she and Robert Luckner were able to discuss with Valenstein research that a Sarasota teenager has undertaken about the area of the Gulf of Mexico just off South Lido Key Beach. The focus of Brooke Welch’s studies, Catherine Luckner reminded the SKA members, has been the water around “the really big groin that’s next to the public beach on Lido.”

Luckner said she expected that groin is about 70 years old.

The Luckners showed Valenstein some of the photos Brooke has taken of coral and hardbottom near the groin, Catherine Luckner continued. Such natural resources, Luckner explained, help build up and protect a shoreline. “It’s something that the DEP did not look at,” she said, in the context of the application from the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to undertake a 50-year renourishment project on South Lido.

As explained in a Florida Museum article, “Hardbottom reef communities are found close to shore over limestone rock covered by a thin sandy layer. … Hardbottom habitats provide important cover and feeding areas for many fish and invertebrates.”

The discovery of that hardbottom, Luckner continued, could lead to FDEP providing grant funds to the county for research to support that natural system of shoreline protection.

The Luckners had downloaded materials and video from Brooke on a pin drive, Catherine Luckner said, so Valenstein would have them to review with FDEP staff. “It’s kind of exciting to me,” she added with a smile.

During an Oct. 16 telephone interview, Luckner reported that she also had included Brooke’s contact information on the pin drive.

She declined to offer any specific information on how the private meeting with Valenstein came about, other than to say it was through “a personal connection” with someone in Sarasota.

“I felt like this is somebody who cares,” she added of her impression of Valenstein after spending time with him. “It was a very good meeting.”

During the SKA’s regular session on July 6, 2017, Brooke used slides to illustrate a presentation about her work near the groin off Lido. She noted that she had established a Facebook page, Sarasota Ocean Preservers, to let the public know about her findings and to encourage conservation. She takes photos and video while snorkeling, she explained.

As of that time, she had identified 140 species in the water, she said, stressing the “immense biodiversity for such a small area.”

Just the previous day, she pointed out, she had identified three more species. She had been unable to find any evidence that one of them, an anemone, had ever been catalogued by marine researchers. “It’s not a defined species yet.”

Brooke also talked of the harm that can come to the marine life that makes its home around the groin. For example, she said, often, when fishermen tangle lines in the groin, they just cut the lines without removing the hooks or lead weights. Fish can be harmed by that debris, she added.

Yet, the area is facing “an even greater threat” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she continued. In its plans for the long-range renourishment of South Lido, she pointed out, the federal agency wants to add about 50 feet of sand to the shoreline, which would bury and thus kill the marine life.

That was what happened when the City of Sarasota undertook a short-term renourishment of the beach in 2015, Brooke pointed out. Many species died, and in just a short time, she noted, all that sand had washed away.