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Habitat Assessment for the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program
Sarasota Bay, Florida

Protected by several barrier islands off Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sarasota Bay has been designated by Congress as an estuary of national significance. Accordingly, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) has undertaken major efforts to analyze the environmental conditions of surrounding aquatic habitats in order to implement a restoration and conservation plan. To accomplish this, SBEP contracted VHB to serve as the prime consultant for a study to inventory critical estuarine habitats of Sarasota Bay and to assess juvenile fish utilization of natural and restored wetlands and artificial reefs within the Sarasota Bay.

VHB established 40 stations for seine samples of juvenile fishes based on an inventory of features of natural and restored habitats. All fish and selected shellfish and invertebrates were identified in the field to the lowest practical taxon. VHB then analyzed sub-sets of fish species locally sought by commercial and recreational fishermen. Our environmental scientists kept detailed records of water temperature and salinity for each sampling event and microhabitat characteristics (bottom type, vegetation presence, etc.).

The artificial reef assessment involved a diver’s characterization of ten sites for reef structure and configuration. VHB scientists then utilized analytical criteria to rank each reef for its complexity with the highest rank indicative of a variety of holes, material sizes and high vertical relief. Fish populations at three selected reefs were monitored seasonally using point census and linear transect methods by divers at fourteen stations. VHB then entered this collected data into database software for analysis in determining reef features such as raw abundance, density, and fish-per-unit-area.

Based on the results of the study, VHB provided a series of recommendations for habitat restoration and artificial reef construction.

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Project Highlights
The Sarasota Bay study completed by VHB encompassed more than 52 miles of open water, tidal lagoons, mangrove forests, salt marshes, tidal flats, oyster bars, and hard bottom located within Sarasota and Manatee Counties
VHB created a GIS database of shore-type features, tidal wetland features, and seagrass features with a 16-zone bay segmentation scheme previously adopted by the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP)
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