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Date of Issue: August 02, 2007

Survey: many want nature's way for Passage Key

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Angelo Ribeiro, 6, fishes Tampa Bay with his grandpa, Dennis Flaherty of Bradenton, at the Rod & Reel Pier July 26. Grandmother Carolyn Flaherty joined them at the pier, where visitors once could look across the bay and see Passage Key, now largely submerged. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

Six-year-old Angelo Ribeiro dances from foot to foot on the wooden deck of the Rod & Reel Pier.

“Can I tell you something?” asks the Bradenton boy on a fishing outing with his grandparents, Dennis and Carolyn Flaherty.

“I caught a little jelly fish,” he says excitedly, “from right there.”

He made the catch, he adds, on his first visit to the pier in Anna Maria.

Seated on a bench by his grandson, Dennis Flaherty baits a hook as noon approaches and the pier bustles with lunchtime activity. “He’s caught a couple of small snappers,” Flaherty says of his grandson.

Nearby, a father points out to two sons the best fishing spots in the bay. “Out there is where Passage Key was, some pretty good tarpon out there,” says Michael McHale of Sarasota.

McHale’s sons are 7 and 8 years old, and, like Angelo, are too young to know Passage Key as a vibrant wildlife refuge.

Flaherty says he’s heard of the island, but by the time he and his wife moved to the area about 12 years ago, Passage Key had been reduced significantly in size.

When Passage Key was designated a national wildlife refuge in 1905, the barrier island measured about 63 acres and served as a habitat for more than 100 species of birds.

A major hurricane in 1921 severely impacted Passage Key. More recent storms in 2004 and 2005 also did damage, reducing the shoreline, and, for much of the last year, Passage Key has been underwater.

“After a couple of good storms it just disappeared,” said Joseph Tunnell, who was fishing at the Rod & Reel last week.

This summer, anglers and boaters have observed traces of Passage Key, inviting some to wonder whether action can be taken to change the Island’s course.

In a random survey of about two dozen people, two-thirds say nature should take its course with Passage Key.

“We probably wouldn’t have Anna Maria Island without human intervention, but I just don’t know how you raise something under water - or if you should,” says Mary Kaifez, a summertime Holmes Beach resident.

“I think Hurricane Katrina taught us that you don’t mess with Mother Nature,” says Laura Jackson of Anna Maria. “Maybe Passage Key will come back on its own. Barrier islands are formed by shifting sands and that’s what is happening out there.”

Tunnell says change is a constant in Tampa Bay. The sand shifts. The coastal geography changes naturally, despite man-made efforts such as beach renourishment.

“I think nature should take its course,” he says. “Beach renourishment doesn’t last. … Passage Key wouldn’t last.”

Tunnell fishes near Passage Key regularly and, from the pier, can point out where the island once could be seen. At low tide, he says a bit of Passage Key is visible.

“But in the winter, when we start to get the northwesters, you won’t see anything,” he says.

Those who encourage action to save Passage Key offer a variety of ideas, but the most common suggestion is the use of dredge material to build up Passage Key.

“It has to go somewhere,” says Andy Valentine, an Island vacationer from Philadelphia.

“I think if they can restore sandbars, they can restore Passage Key,” says Louis Westerberg of Anna Maria, referring to a Tampa Bay Estuary Program effort to restore lost sandbars in the bay. The project is a partnership of TBEP, the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough, Lewis Environmental Services, the city of Tampa, Tampa BayWatch and the Tampa Port Authority.

Becky Fulsom of Perico Island encourages a comprehensive study of Passage Key. “Has anyone looked at what exactly happened there and calculated the impact? That’s the first step,” she says.

In fact, several years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service announced plans to prepare a comprehensive conservation plan and environmental assessment report for the three Tampa Bay national wildlife refuges - Passage Key, Egmont Key and Pinellas rookery.

Federal law passed in 1997 required the plan to provide management goals for 15 years, as well as define the desired future conditions of the refuges under the supervision of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, based in Crystal River, Fla.

Pinellas, established in 1951 and consisting of 403 acres, was designated a refuge “for use as an inviolate sanctuary … for migratory birds,” recreation, protection of natural resources and “the conservation of endangered species or threatened species.”

Egmont Key, established in 1973 as a refuge and consisting of 350 acres, was intended to provide nesting, feeding and resting habitat for pelicans, terns and other colonial nesting water birds.

Passage Key, one of the oldest federal wildlife refuges, was established to serve “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds” and over the years became the largest breeding ground in the state for royal and sandwich terns.

At the time Fish and Wildlife began working on the plan, Passage Key was small, but still above water.

Egmont Key also was losing size. A study of Egmont by the University of South Florida’s Coastal Research Laboratory found that over time the island experienced periods of some expansion, but periods of even greater erosion. A 2003 appropriations bill provided about $1.2 million and renourishment - sand - to help stabilize Egmont Key.

Fish and Wildlife is scheduled to complete a draft of the Tampa Bay refuge plan this year.