TAMPA — The 20 days of rain that recently pounded the bay area proved to be the perfect cover for a bizarre heist: Someone stole 400 pounds of tilapia used to fertilize a community garden in Seminole Heights that donates whatever it produces.
As if that wasn't fishy enough, there's also this: It may have been an inside job.
"We've basically had 16 to 18 months of work go to waste," said Tampa Bay Harvest Inc. executive director Will Carey.
That's because the fish were part of an aquaponics system that collected the fish droppings and used the nutrients as a fertilizer for dozens of plants. It's a critical part of what nonprofit Tampa Bay Harvest calls its "sustainable living project" at 918 W Sligh Ave.
Now, with just 100-150 fish left, the urban farm near Lowry Park Zoo is in distress. The ecosystem is out of balance.
"Now that we don't have the nutrients in the water," Carey said, "we've lost all these plants."
And it had to be someone who knew about the garden, Carey said, who knew that the fish tank was in the back of the property, about 100 feet from the street.
The fish appeared to all be in the tank when a volunteer fed them about 7 p.m. on July 24. But the next morning, they were gone. They reported the theft to Tampa police on July 25.
Carey speculated that someone entered the garden during the recent deluge, climbed into the fish tank and used a net to scoop away the tilapia.
But in the process, Carey said, they damaged the large tub that held the fish. It will have to be drained and emptied to be repaired. The value of the stolen fish was put at $2,000, according to a Tampa police report.
Tampa Bay Harvest is a nonprofit that operates in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. It redistributes donated food from cafeterias, farms, grocery stores and restaurants. It has helped set up community gardens on both sides of the bay.
Carey helped found the Seminole Heights garden 2½ years ago to introduce healthy alternatives to the local "food desert," which is an area lacking access to food that is fresh, healthy and affordable. The farm grows myriad vegetables such as lettuce and spinach, houses 20 chickens, and operates entirely on solar power.
During the week, Carey said two to four volunteers care for the gardens while a dozen or so help on the weekends. The produce grown on the property is donated to food banks. Before being stolen, the tilapia would also have been donated once they were fully grown.
"We were two days away from our very first (fish) harvest," Carey said.
The farm's gates are always unlocked and left open. But the fences surrounding the property are only 2 feet tall. Tampa police said officers looked at surveillance video from the neighboring Salvation Army, which is a partner in the garden, but it revealed nothing.
Volunteers set up a gofundme.com page to raise money to rehabilitate the garden. Organizers hope to raise $5,000 to replace the fish, repair the tank and improve security. Carey said the theft has renewed community interest in the garden. As of Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had raised $1,040.
Contact Shaker Samman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @shakersamman.