PLACIDA — The six canals appear to be nondescript leftovers from when Rotonda West developers thought they would develop the final slice of the circular subdivision along Coral Creek.
The canals — partially dug in the early 1970s and no more than 900 feet long — were originally intended to give residents saltwater access to the Gulf of Mexico through Coral Creek in Placida.
That was never to be. Environmental agencies denied the developer’s permit to connect the canal system to the Gulf. A small dam separating the freshwater canals from the brackish creek water stayed intact, and remains in place today.
Eventually, the Florida Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, bought 2,600 acres with 12 canals, located just south of Rotonda West. It’s called the Coral Creek Preserve.
While the canals may be off the real estate market for good, that doesn’t mean they have no value. The waterways — like the nearby Lemon Bay Conservancy Wildflower Preserve on Lemon Creek — are being recognized as nursery habitats for baby tarpon and snook, both highly sought-after gamefish in this area.
How viable a fish nursery are the canals? Scientists are determining that now.
Working cooperatively with a variety of state agencies and Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Program, the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is conducting a two-year, monthly survey of the canals, looking for juvenile tarpon and snook in the canals.
The January survey was Tuesday, however, it didn’t prove to be that productive, as the fish proved elusive.
“We caught three tarpon and five snook in four of the six canals,” said JoEllen Wilson, Juvenile Tarpon Habitat Program manager for the trust. “One of those was a recapture.”
Wilson was assisted by four volunteers. Capt. Becca DeRosa, Fred Jeans, Daz Jensen and Jake Basnett all got wet in their efforts. (Basnett is a marketing manager for the Sweetwater Brewing Co. of Atlanta, one of the sponsors of the Bonefish Trust.)
They spread a 300-foot-long net with a 1.25-inch mesh across each of the canals and then hauled the net back in.
“This was by far our slowest month with the other months ranging from 25 to 120 snook and tarpon.” Wilson said. The trust will be back out surveying the canals once a month for the next 18 months.
The recaptured snook was first captured last month and has grown a half-inch in a month. At that rate, the snook might grow 7 inches in a year, Wilson suggested.
After tarpon spawn in the open waters of the Gulf, the larval tarpon make their way to the backwater creeks and canals, usually low-oxygen havens, where the can safely grow and live protected from larger predators, Wilson explained. The salinity level in the canals is relatively high.
A recent restoration in the preserve included building barriers to inhibit larger fish from entering the canals and hunting down the juveniles. Marsh grass planted along the perimeters of the canals led to mangroves sprouting and establishing themselves along the shoreline.
While conservation efforts like catch-and-release help maintain gamefish populations today, preserving nursery habitats, like Wildflower and the Coral Creek canals, can help ensure healthy gamefish populations for future generations, Wilson suggested.