Volunteers making Bishop Harbor a habitat once more

TERRA CEIA — On the fringe of the bay, where dense mangroves once held the shore in place, Jim Igler is digging holes. Seagrass is colonizing in the channel behind him. Kayakers float by on Bishop Harbor. It's a warm January morning, and he is one of 90 volunteers gathered under blue skies. "We have all this incredible beauty and diversity around us," he says. "We need to take care of it."

He's 64. When he moved here in 1987, the bay was brown. "It was like that because of pollution," he said. "All of these people are making a difference."

The mangroves here were mowed down 40 years ago, the result of the 1960s dredge-and-fill practice that made way for homes. Where Igler stands, finger-shaped peninsulas jut into Bishop Harbor. In recent years, the leftover fingers of land have been purposely disfigured to create waterways that encourage the tide to return.

Igler is part of a conservation effort to restore the 1,000-acre habitat. Last year alone, volunteers like him planted 34,000 clumps of marsh grass and mangroves.

Because of their work, grasses and mangroves once again form the base of the food chain. The crabs and worms arrived first, then the oysters, clams and snails. Wading birds are rediscovering the flats.

A retired truck driver who learned to scuba dive in Kansas rock quarries, Igler volunteered for 13 years at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, diving the fish tanks for cleaning and maintenance. He got hired two years ago. "People who are retired and say there's nothing to do aren't paying attention," he said.

He has patrolled for manatees to keep them safe during Gasparilla, built concrete oyster domes along the coast and gone on summer scallop searches to assess the health of the bay.

He gets his inspiration from watching a dolphin surface or an anole lizard eat bugs in his house on the mouth of the Little Manatee River. "It's incredible to watch all these animals. They all have a place in this world," he says. He paddles his inflatable kayak around the tidal marshes after his work is done. "We're not in charge," he says. "We're animals just like the rest of them."

Living Green is a series of occasional stories by photographer Lara Cerri about people whose lifestyles support the environment. She can be reached at lcerri@sptimes.com.

Volunteers making Bishop Harbor a habitat once more 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 3:30am]

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