Tampa Bay is widely recognized nationally and internationally as one of the great success stories in conservation in the past 100 years.
The 25-mile-long bay was pretty much a cesspool until the 1970s. It was a murky, stinky mess where swimming was frequently banned because of dangerous bacteria in the water. Sea grasses, shellfish and coral were scarce.
Fishing, to put it bluntly, stunk as bad as the water. Few anglers even bothered.
But then requirements of the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, plus initiatives by conservation-minded citizens, began to turn the ship. Tens of millions went into new water treatment plants, and by mid-1980s, rivers of crystal-clear water were boiling from the outflows. A state program called the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act — was at the same time cleaning up the watersheds feeding into the bay. The changes were not immediate, but within a few years, there was a marked difference in the look and smell of the bay.
In the intervening 35 years, the water has cleared, sea grasses have regrown in vast areas and the fishing is as good as anyone can ask for. There's no better example for anglers of why every fisherman should be an environmentalist, even though some of the more extreme environmental groups have some ideas about putting an end to recreational fishing. Good habitat means good fishing, period.
One of the many organizations that have contributed mightily to the restoration of Tampa Bay is Tampa Bay Watch, a privately funded conservation group founded by biologist Peter Clark, with headquarters in Tierra Verde on the northwest shore of Tampa Bay.
TBW is teaming with the Southwest Florida Water Management District to coordinate a salt-marsh restoration Oct. 20 at Cockroach Bay Preserve, on the southeast shore of the bay about 25 miles south of Tampa. Volunteers are needed to put thousands of spartina and other marsh plants into the mud in a man-made estuarine creek that will become a part of the "kidney" of Tampa Bay, as well as a nursery area for crabs, baitfish and gamefish.
According to Clark, salt marsh communities are critically important habitat systems that grow on the fringe of the bay, preventing erosion, buffering uplands from storms, absorbing pollutants, and providing shelter and nursery areas for many fish and wildlife species. Marshes also serve as a vital link in the marine food web.
The man-made creeks are often even better than the natural shoreline, providing an assortment of deep pools, winding shallows, mangrove edges, live bottom, sea grass and more. Earlier projects created under the program are loaded with gamefish, particularly in winter when the fish move into the tidal creeks to get away from the chill on open flats.
You need only old shoes, shorts and a willingness to get wet and muddy to participate. Kids can do the job as well as adults, and it's a great way to make your youngsters aware of the need to do a bit of gardening in our bay. (If it's chilly, knee boots and rubber gloves may be more the uniform of the day.) Hours are 9 to noon. The address of the preserve is 3709 Gulf City Road, south of Ruskin off U.S. 41; tampabaywatch.org.