Coming soon to our Manasota Key beaches: The Gulf of Mexico. Like it or not, if we don’t add more sand periodically, our beachfront homes and condos will fall into the Gulf. I’m not talking about any sea level changes or global warming here — just the normal course of shifting sands. I can’t say beach renourishment is good, but I understand it’s necessary because we built on migrating barrier islands. These islands aren’t stable. They never have been. The beaches will always be temporary.
How does this affect fishing for pompano, whiting, and other species along our beaches? No food, no fish. Let me explain. When they cover existing natural beaches with dredged spoil, the new dead sand covers up anything alive and the living bottom that naturally hold food.
We used to have millions upon millions of coquinas, sand fleas, crabs, and various small fishes thriving in the surf line. On a natural beach, wave action retains seashells and all that life. Breakers create a shelf where the returning wave action dumps its loads. It’s slightly deeper and much less turbulent than the breakers area. Fish cruise this slightly deeper line, grabbing food that retreating waves bring back from the shoreline.
I used to make my day’s fishing right at this breakers line, catching many species of popular fish. In recent years, that’s no long an option; it’s a dead zone after dredging.
On most beaches, there is also a swash channel that parallels the surf line and runs out to the first sand bar ridge. Note any breaks and rip currents that carry food out into these deeper waters. While hazardous to swimmers, they also transport food from closer to shore and used to be feeding stations for hungry fish. But without natural food sources to hold them, the migrating fish have no incentive to hang around. They pass on by.
Costly mitigation reefs are used in some areas to absorb some of the wave energy, keeping more sand on the beach. Might they contribute to our fishing success? Sometimes, but not usually. Unfortunately, human efforts can’t replicate natural hard bottom. It can be successful but we don’t really understand where to place it so it can accomplish its intended goals. Mitigation reefs often just get buried by the shifting sands and rarely benefit anything long term.
These costs are paid by all of us. Dredging sand is a labor-intensive and extremely expensive project. It requires transporting heavy specialized equipment long distances. Just the cost to stage the gear here is staggering. Our county commissioners hired Coastal Engineering Consultants to educate and help us — money well invested. They explained the challenges and are helping us maximize cost sharing opportunities.
I lack an understanding of the sustainability of beach renourishment. Every time we have any northwest wind event, sands migrate south. It’s the natural flow from the Mississippi River to the Keys. As residents figure this out, property values on the beach front properties must change. Check out the expected tax bills for Manasota Key property owners in Sarasota County. It will get their attention, I guarantee you!
If we are going to dredge, why not take sand from the Stump Pass channel? What happened to the permits for that? While we’re at it, take sand from Ski Alley too. It’s a problem because it’s so shallow now. It doesn’t seem like too much of a problem to take the short trip across the park to the Gulf side.
Unfortunately, there is no ideal solution to this problem. By developing permanent structures on temporary land, we’ve dug ourselves into an expensive pit. We now have to spend inordinate sums of money to pile sand on the beach on a regular basis, killing the natural ecosystem in the process, only to watch storm waves take that sand back. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Perhaps some genius engineer will come up with an answer someday. Until then, it’s serves as a reminder that nature’s workings are more complex than we realize, and thinking we can ignore them (or fully control them) only proves we’re not as smart as we like to believe.
Capt. Van Hubbard is a highly respected outdoor writer and fishing guide. He has been a professional USCG-licensed year-round guide since 1976, and has been fishing the Southwest Florida coast since 1981. Contact him at 941-468-4017 or VanHubbard@CaptVan.com.