Sarasota Bay in the form we recognize today was formed many thousands of years ago. The sea level has changed significantly during the past few million years in response to climate conditions and the flow of polar ice caps. Local sea level has ranged from as much as 330 feet below to perhaps as much as 100 feet above present levels. As recently as 17,000 years ago, the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico was about 60 miles to the west.
Sarasota Bay served as a key waterway for the Tocobago, Timucuan and Calusa Indian Tribes during the 1500s. Large shell mounds they created, called middens, are still visible throughout the area including Emerson Park Preserve in Manatee County. Diseases brought to the New World by Europeans during the late 16th century devastated the Native population.
People from Cuba established fish camps, or rancheros, on the shore of the Bay from 1700 to the mid 1800s. Mullet and mullet roe were the main products traded although drum fish, turtles and trout were also salted and shipped south. Seminole Indians also used the region during this time frame for hunting, fishing and farming.
European explorers used the Bay as a sheltered water link between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. An early homesteader was Josiah Gates, who arrived in the Manatee River area in 1842. A year later, William Whitaker sailed to the high yellow bluffs on the mainland further south and staked his claim to what is now northwest Sarasota.
Beginning in 1920, large scale drainage projects were constructed to eventually drain 100,000 acres of freshwater marsh. These marshes extended east of the coastal ridge to Myakka and from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor. The marshes were drained initially to create agricultural opportunities and later provided residential and commercial landscapes.
The slow trickle of settlers became a stream, and then a flood after World War II. Coastal and Bay development intensified from the late 1950’s to 1970, as hundreds of acres of Bay bottom were dredged to produce waterfront lots. Canals were dredged and the spoil used to create subdivisions. The drained saltwater marshes were converted to residential neighborhoods.
Bird Key, located between the City of Sarasota and St. Armands Key, was once the location of one of the largest seagrass beds in Sarasota Bay. The Bird Key development was bulkheaded with seawalls. Dredges filled the area behind the seawall with material from the Bay bottom, and the resulting expanded island was divided into single-family home sites. You can see a below and after photo of Bird Key at the bottom of the page.
During this development cycle, the Intercoastal Waterway was dredged to provide a deep, protected channel running the length of the Bay and beyond. Dredge-spoil islands were created throughout the Bay during construction, covering seagrass beds and changing water circulation patterns. The natural shore was gradually replaced by seawalls to retain dredge-and-fill materials for housing sites.
As development expanded, natural land cover was replaced by nonporous parking lots, roads and rooftops. Sarasota Bay is a very different place today from what long term residents remember. Seagrass beds had diminished and remaining seagrass flats were scarred by the tracks of boat propellers. Oyster, scallop and clam harvests were reduced as well.
Miles of natural shoreline habitats has been replaced by seawalls, and once-abundant mangrove wetlands have been filled and depleted. Intense residential and commercial development throughout the Bay area has resulted in a heavier amount of stormwater runoff and wastewater pollution.
The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program was established to restore local waters and habitat to a healthier level of diversity and balance.