The Suncoast is an area in Southwest Florida that includes the coastal areas of Manatee, Sarasota, and Northern Charlotte Counties. The Suncoast, originally referred to a broader portion of SouthWest Florida’s coast, but has been captured by the Sarasota and Manatee County media market. The major ABC affiliate, WWSB (MySuncoast.com), that serves the area, has adopted the Suncoast moniker and for the last several years has referred to its viewing area as the Suncoast. The station is based in Sarasota, which is the largest and most influential of the area's cities and the home to Suncoast Waterkeeper.
The Suncoast’s major waterbodies include Sarasota Bay, portions of Tampa Bay, the Manatee River, Charlotte Harbor and the nearshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Sarasota Bay is an estuary and coastal lagoon, contiguous to Lower Tampa Bay, stretching to the South and formed by a necklace of barrier islands to the west and the mainland of Manatee and Sarasota Counties to the east. This coastal lagoon, with its unique embayments, tidal tributaries, small creeks, coves, inlets, and passes, is bounded by Anna Maria Sound to the north and the area just north of Venice Inlet to the south. Longboat Key, Lido Key, Siesta Key, and Casey Key are the major keys that grace the eastern border of the Gulf of Mexico with some of the world’s most beautiful sandy beaches. Sarasota Bay’s primary tributaries include Bowlees Creek, Whitaker Bayou and Hudson Bayou (Sarasota Bay proper), Phillippi Creek (Roberts Bay), Catfish Creek and North Creek (Little Sarasota Bay), and South Creek (Blackburn Bay). Sarasota Bay is home to the cities of Sarasota and Venice.
Lower Tampa and Terra Ceia Bays are the Manatee County portions of the larger Tampa Bay, Florida’s largest open-water estuary, extending over 400 square miles and forming coastlines of Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties. The bay bottoms are silty and sandy, with an average water depth of only about 12 feet in Lower Tampa Bay, and much shallower in Terra Ceia Bay. Lower Tampa Bay is home to Port Manatee, Egmont Key and Passage Key National Wildlife Refuges, and Terra Ceia Preserve State Park. Terra Ceia Bay is a scarcely populated small, shallow bay with mangrove islands and surrounding mangrove forests.
The Manatee River is a 36-mile-long river in northern Manatee County that flows into Lower Tampa Bay near the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. The River is estuarine in its lower portion but has been dammed for water supply above the city of Bradenton.
The Suncoast’s bays and rivers once teemed with fish and wildlife. American Indians lived almost entirely from mullet, shellfish, sea turtles, manatees, crabs, and other bounties harvested from local waters. As late as the early 20th century, visitors still reported huge schools of mullet swimming across Tampa bay in such numbers that they "impeded the passage of boats.” The growth of the surrounding communities slowly caused deterioration of the natural environment. Heavy fishing, dredging to deepen shipping channels, and the clearing of mangroves for shoreline development were important factors. Most damaging was the discharge of wastewater and other pollutants from stormwater into the bay, which destroyed water quality and grasses. By the 1970s, sea grass coverage (which is vital to marine life) had decreased by more than 80%, the water was so murky that sunlight could not reach the shallow bottom, and area beaches were regularly closed due to unsafe levels of pollutants.
The Clean Water Act and other legislation have brought about significant improvements. By 2010, measures of sea grass coverage, water clarity, and biodiversity had improved to levels last seen in the 1950s. The Suncoast’s shallow waters, sea grass beds, mud flats, and surrounding mangrove-dominated wetlands provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. More than 200 species of fish are found in the waters of the bays, along with bottlenose dolphins and manatees, plus many types of marine invertebrates including oysters, scallops, clams, shrimp and crab. From May 1 through October 31, the area’s beaches provide nesting grounds for sea turtles including the threatened loggerhead sea turtle and the endangered green sea turtle. More than two-dozen species of birds, including brown pelicans, several types of heron and egret, Roseate spoonbills, cormorants, and laughing gulls make their year-round home along the shores and mangrove islands of Suncoast, with several other migratory species joining them in the winter. Threatened species such as the snowy plover, Wilson’s plover, least tern, and black skimmer nest on our beaches from February through August. The cooler months are also when warm-water outfalls from power plants bordering Tampa Bay draw one out of every six West Indian manatees, an endangered species, to the area.
Sarasota Bay, Tampa Bay, and Charlotte Harbor are included in the twenty-eight estuaries in the country designated by the EPA as estuaries of national significance under Section 320 of the Clean Water Act. Each Bay has an Estuary Program that recommends specific actions to be taken by local governments as well as state and federal agencies to restore and protect specific waters that are in the proposed jurisdiction of the applicant.
The region developed rapidly in the later half of the 1900s, with agriculture and fisheries yielding to a retirement, tourism and a vulnerable real estate driven economy. The Suncoast was the epicenter of real estate speculation driven economic disasters that led to the most recent “great recession”, as well as the development speculation that led to bank failures and ultimately the great depression. The area is home to personalities such as Stephen King, Jerry Springer, Oprah Winfrey, and Paul Rubens, aka Pee Wee Herman. Frequent sightings have been reported of Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Batboy. Sound like a circus? We’ve got that too. Sarasota is the traditional winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and its progeny.
Culturally, the Suncoast is home to a diverse population of full and part-time residents, woven into a broad spectrum of economic well-being and cultural values. Enormous mansions paved with Italian marble dot the shorelines of the exclusive Keys and waterfronts, many of which are second or third homes. Historic fishing villages struggle to hold on to a way of life that had gradually eroded. Low-income neighborhoods have limited access to the area’s waterways, yet many participate in subsistence fishing.