MANATEE -- Capt. Kathe Tupin Fannon is always surprised when she takes customers out on boat tours of Palma Sola Bay, and even the adults have never seen a live sea horse.
Or a live starfish.
They’re surprised, too, when she scoops from the water such natural beauties, which thrive in the bay’s lush flora.
But having lived on the water all her life, Fannon knows what happens if you don’t protect such precious treasures: They go away.
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“When people get on my boat, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the most beautiful thing. It’s ‘Old Florida,’” she told a crowd Thursday gathered for a seminar focusing on the Palma Sola Watershed.
“It’s so easy to take it away; once you take it away, you don’t get it back easily,” she said.
“It’s real important we keep what we have -- what’s underneath that water is so important.”
Fannon, who represents the fourth generation of a family of commercial fishermen, operates Captain Kathe Boat Tours, based in Cortez.
She was among the panelists at a session focusing on the ecological health and future of the Palma Sola Watershed, part of a Sarasota Bay Watershed Symposium that continues today at New College of Florida.
The bay is set between Anna Maria Island and the city of Bradenton, occupying the north end of the Sarasota Bay Watershed.
Moderating the session was Nick Baden, a lifelong resident of the Palma Sola area, while other panelists included Manatee County Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker and Barry Wharton, a senior environmental scientist for HDR Engineering, Inc.
Survey records from the 1840s show that the bay boasted a diverse mix of hardwood hammock, mangrove trees, pine forest, salt marsh and tidal flats, Wharton said.
“You have a feeling for what Palma Sola Bay was like before it was developed -- it worked,” Wharton said.
The first permanent settlers arrived in the 1870s, and by the 1890s, farming began, along with the first dredging projects designed to drain land for agriculture.
By the 1940s, low-lying land was converted first to agricultural fields, and then subdivisions. Untreated stormwater degraded the bay’s water quality.
When the Florida Department of Transportation built the Palma Sola causeway along Manatee Avenue, it bisected the bay, disturbing its normal tidal flow, officials said.
But despite the growth all around it, the bay retains a rich ecosystem whose flora and fauna continues to charm residents and visitors alike, panelists said.
Manatee County has focused on acquiring and restoring coastal habitats near the bay to help protect its special cachet.
The 487-acre Robinson Preserve, which is very popular with residents tourists; and the 117-acre Neal Preserve, where restoration has been completed, is expected to open to the public in a year or so, said Hunsicker.
“The future of our watershed is in your hands,” he told the crowd.
“I’m glad to see this conference is filled with people,” Hunsicker said. “Each one can take this message back to your communities, your governments.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.
IF YOU GO
What: Sarasota Bay Watershed Symposium
Where: Sudakoff Center, New College of Florida, 5845 General Dougher Place, Sarasota
When: 9-11 a.m., session to create a positive vision for the future of the Sarasota Bay Watershed; 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., synthesis session, assembling the best ideas and big questions emerging from the symposium
Information: Symposium website, www.sarasotawatershed.com; live webcast, www.livestream.com/ncfedu; phone 941-487-5000.