Sunday, May 27, 2018
Outdoors

Beach work betters Tampa Bay estuary for fish

FORT DE SOTO — Jim Wilson is a big-picture kind of guy.

"If you plant sea oats," he said, "you protect the dunes. If you protect the dunes, you protect the bay … and that's where the fish are."

Wilson, the chief ranger for the crown jewel of the Pinellas County park system, is also an avid angler. When he's not looking for sea turtle nests on the beach, he's usually wading along the mangrove shoreline in search of redfish and snook.

"A lot of fishermen don't understand that this estuary has a lot of moving parts," said Wilson, a sportsman who believes in habitat restoration and enhancement. "The more mangroves and sea grass we have, the more fish. It's as simple as that."

Recreational fishermen are, in general, a vocal bunch. They'll pack a courthouse to protest bag limits and closed seasons, but they're usually not as enthusiastic about building oyster bars and planting salt marshes.

But ask any fisheries biologist what major issue impacts your species of choice — trout, grouper, red snapper — and they'll give you the same response: "It's habitat, stupid."

Anglers such as Wilson get it. That's why he doesn't mind giving up a few hours of his Saturday morning to plant sea oats that will help protect the shoreline of a park known nationwide for its stellar inshore fishing.

Sea oats are an essential component of Florida's wild beaches because of their unique ability to trap wind-blown sand and stabilize sand dunes for other plants.

This "pioneer" species keeps sand from blowing and being washed by waves into the mangroves and shallow sea grass beds that line the backside of most barrier islands.

This ecosystem is crucial to the future of all our fisheries because more than 70 percent of all recreational and commercial species spend at least some point of their life cycle in these nursery areas.

That's why Wilson, and groups such as Tampa Bay Watch and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, put an emphasis on protecting and rebuilding not only sand dunes, but salt marshes, sea grass beds and oysters bars all around Florida's largest estuary.

The Tierra Verde-based Tampa Bay Watch oyster dome program has helped improve water quality throughout the bay. These man-made mini-reefs, built out of marine-friendly concrete, allow oysters to gain a foothold and eventually form a bar.

That may not sound like such a big deal, but when you realize that one oyster can filter up to 10 gallons of water an hour, it doesn't take long to see that it improves the water quality. The cleaner the water, the more sunlight penetrates to the sea grass. The more sea grass, the more fish.

"It all fits together," Wilson said. "It's like putting together one big puzzle."

Wilson and other members of the Friends of Fort De Soto hope anglers will turn out in numbers to support habitat restoration projects, such as the one taking place Saturday behind the park's snack bar. Wilson and other volunteers plan to plant sea oats until they run out of seedlings, which could be minutes or hours, depending how many people get the message.

If you can't make it this weekend, you can help the Tampa Bay Estuary Program plant more than 12,000 plugs of marsh grass at Perico Preserve in West Bradenton on April 12. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency responsible for the future of the state's fisheries, donated the plants. Organizers need 100 volunteers (50 to dig the holes and 50 to plant the grass), and all ages are welcome. Call (727) 893-2765 for details.

If you miss that opportunity, join Tampa Bay Watch on Earth Day, April 22, from 9 a.m. to noon at Port Manatee to help harvest salt marsh grass, which will be used in a future planting event at MacDill Air Force Base. To learn more, call (727) 867-8166 or go to tampabaywatch.org.

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