In the late ‘70s Peter Clark came to the bay area to visit his brother and sunk to his knees in muck as they walked in the shallow water of Tampa Bay.
Untreated wastewater, stormwater and industrial waste was pouring into the bay prompting ram- pant algae blooms. Seagrass beds, vital to the health of the estuary were buried under yards of sea lettuce or torn up with widespread dredge and fill projects.
“That was when they were dredging and expand- ing the ship channel into downtown Tampa, a major construction project with very little control. That’s probably considered the low point for Tampa Bay,” says Clark, founder and president of Tampa Bay Watch (TBW).
The nonprofit is celebrating 25 years of restoring and protecting the Tampa Bay estuary habitat through stewardship and community awareness. He gives credit for their organizational success to the energized community, young and old, who take a leading role in the recovery of the bay.
“Community volunteers are the fabric of our organization. We provide the science and facilitate the projects, but we depend on our youth and community volunteers to do the actual construction in Tampa Bay.”
Clark, a marine biologist, moved here in 1981 and worked for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council heading up the Agency on Bay Management.
“We had 45 members of the Tampa Bay community like port authorities, electric companies, fishing clubs and local governments altogether in a room to solve the problems of the bay.”
On his time off, he worked with scouts and fishing clubs doing hands-on restoration projects. “It was readily apparent that there was a real need to organize these community volunteers, because they loved doing it (bay projects), but they didn’t know, necessarily, what to do.”
He was inspired, took a leap of faith, left his government job as his wife was expecting their first son, filed paperwork for the 501(c)(3) status, and started TBW in a room of their St. Petersburg house.
That was 1993 and they have been growing every since. “What you see,” he says about TBW, “that certainly didn’t happen overnight. But I think part of the success of the organization is the very, very slow growth.”
He moved into a one-room office in downtown St. Pete, then to a three-room office on Snell Isle, but he coveted the property on Tierra Verde that was home to Rita’s Bait Shop.
“I would come out here on a Saturday morning and buy a couple dozen shrimp from Rita and think, ‘Oh my gosh what a paradise she has here.’”
The property went up for sale in 1997, but it took until 2000 to work a deal for the land which was purchased by the state of Florida and Pinellas County. Over the next 15 years they raised the capital to build the TBW Marine & Education Center and support buildings. In 2014 they put the frosting on the cake–a rooftop solar array with more than 200 panels which will reduce their carbon footprint by 3.1 million pounds over its lifetime.
But long before there was a Marine Center, TBW was working hard to educate people about the importance of a healthy bay and getting them involved in the restoration process.
They reached out to schools in 1994 and started Bay Grasses in Classes. Students at 20 schools plant, maintain, and harvest salt marsh grasses in school-based wetland nurseries to be replanted into targeted coastal areas. The grasses filter storm water runoff, stabilize shorelines, buffer uplands from storms, and serve as sanctuaries for fish and wildlife.
In 1998 they did their first oyster shell project. Volunteers with staff assistance now regularly build oyster bars and oyster domes at TBW to be placed along man-made and altered shorelines to improve water quality, support oyster larvae growth, feed birds and wildlife, and mitigate wave action.
In 2004 they added derelict crab trap removal to their list of volunteers activities. They also hold regular coastal clean- ups and monofilament fishing line removal to protect wildlife and eliminate safety hazards to boaters. Each August they coordinate the Great Bay Scallop Search to document the population which dwindles with poor water quality.
In 2006 they started Estuary EDventures field trips and summer camps to engage bay-area students in hands-on marine science labs, lessons and service learning projects.
Educating kids has always been a priority for Clark, but he sees more of a need now then ever. “In so many areas we see a decline in kids getting outdoors. They’re not fishing as much, they’re not camping as much, scouting has gone way down and all that really adds up to a loss of experience and quality of life.
“It’s a very, very scary situation. We have made such positive gains in Tampa Bay, but if the next generation doesn’t grow up to experience it and appreciate it, how can we expect them to protect it. I think as we look in the future, we really need to continue to focus on involving our kids, making sure that they come to understand the environment and the resources so that they can make good decisions as they become adults.”
Space at the Marine Center is maxed out, but he plans to increase visits and programs in the schools. They are also working with the City of St. Petersburg to develop an education station for the new St. Pete pier. “So we’ll have a new facility where we can replicate the programs that we have here and that will give us more capacity. We envision a boat down there to take the kids out, and we are working on a major seagrass project there that we can use as a living classroom, so it’s pretty exciting.”
They will be marking the anniversary during many of their regularly scheduled events culminating with Evening for the Bay in November.
“I think 25 years is a great milestone. It shows a stable organization that’s going to outlast all of us, and I think that’s really important.”
Go to www.tampabaywatch.org to learn more, volunteer or donate.