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Students help replant Atsena Otie's eroded shore

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By The Staff

Plants and core logs were placed on the shoreline of Atsena Otie Key on May 8 and Nov. 15, 2007 and again this year on May 8 where the old Eberhard-Faber pencil factory was in operation back in 1896.

A hurricane destroyed the mill and the town of Cedar Key's infrastructure that year. Cedar Key was re-established at its present location across the channel on Way Key after clean-up was completed at Atsena Otie Key. Unfortunately, construction costs and a sagging market prevented the pencil factory from being rebuilt.

After 110 years, the devastating storms of 2004 and 2005 threatened to finish destroying what remained of the historical site on Atsena Otie, landing the historic ruins of Old Cedar Key on the state of Florida's critical erosion list. One side of the island, according to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection report, pre-Columbian gravesites and gravesites from the Seminole Wars are threatened by erosion. The other sides which face Cedar Key and include the old cedar mill foundation and visitor pier are already damaged.

Several agencies have stepped forward to take an active role in restoring Astens Otie's beachfront in an attempt to slow and hopefully reverse the effects of surf erosion. A partnership among the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), Levy Soil and Water Conservation District (LSWCD), Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic Preserve (DEPBBSAP), UF Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), Suwannee River Resource Conservation and Development Council (SRRC&D) and the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association (CKAA) has resulted in a two-pronged attack on the erosion.

Students from Cedar Key School, including middle and high school students in the Marine Science Program and middle-school students in Cedar Key's FFA, Sierra Club and the Chiefland High School Biology Science class of Lita Weingart spent days of collecting salt -tolerant spartina grass, black mangrove seedlings and sand cord grass and transplanting them on the northwestern beaches of Atsena Otie. The students and adults became Earth Team Volunteers through the United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Volunteers were given T-Shirts and other items from both NRCS and LSWCD which identified them as volunteers of the restoration effort. By the last planting effort on May 8, the volunteers had transplanted approximately 3,000 grass plants and over 750 black mangrove seedlings on the shorelines of Atsena Otie.

In an effort to reduce future erosion the CKAA has been coordinating a derelict clam bag relocation effort to create a reef buffer just offshore of the key. The storms of 2004 and 2005 not only denuded local coastlines of sand, but some of the local clam leases were also impacted when clam bags were buried under sediment layers as a result of heavy tidal fluctuations during the storms. Although clams are filter feeders they cannot survive being buried and therefore suffocate. A further impact results if the derelict bags are not removed because oysters propagate on the leases using the derelict bags as a substrate to live on. Although many people enjoy oysters they can devastate a clam production lease.

The same partnership that engineered the shoreline planting is working with local clam growers to recover these derelict clam bags and place them in an artificial oyster reef structure about 100 feet from the mean high water line off Atsena Otie's northwest shoreline.

UF IFAS Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Agent Leslie Sturmer and Melissa Charbonneau, manager of the FDEP Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic Preserve worked with environmental specialists to decide on the proper placement for the new oyster reef. The reef was designed to be far enough offshore so as not to restrict boaters and island visitors who throng to the island every weekend, yet close enough to provide a buffer to weaken the strength of wave patterns that threaten the shoreline. Sturmer and the specialists spent days setting up PVC pipes to delineate placement of the reef, starting at several yards north and south of the existing pier and paralleling the shore.

Boater Alert: Please be mindful of the markers offshore on the northwest side of Atsena Otie and avoid the flagged areas on the beach where new plantings have occurred.