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Mobbly Bay area springs to new life

Once covered with pesky Brazilian pepper plants, a strip of land on the Mobbly Bay peninsula at the top of Old Tampa Bay now is blooming with marsh grasses and infant mangroves.

Killifish have been drawn to small pools of water in search of food and shelter from large fish. The area shows tracks of fiddler crabs and blue crabs and raccoons foraging on the tidal marsh.

The wetlands life cycle is off to a good start at Mobbly Bay, thanks to the first phase of a habitat restoration effort, said Raymond Kurz, an environmental scientist at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

"It's been an amazing success," Kurz said. "What you end up with is kind of a mosaic."

The final phase of the restoration will begin this spring on five acres of land east of the 14 acres rejuvenated by the first phase, which cost $200,000, Kurz said. The process will be similar.

First, workers will get rid of exotic Brazilian peppers. The leafy green trees with red berries can grow over mangroves and other native vegetation.

When that happens, the exotic plant can "out-shade" and kill native vegetation, Kurz said. "Nothing grows under Brazilian peppers."

Then, workers will excavate the area to make it a marsh. When the land becomes swampy, volunteers from the Tampa Bay area will plant native plants and grasses.

As the grasses grow, they will trap mangrove seedlings floating in the water. In five years, the mangroves will grow high enough to out-shade the grasses and some will die off, providing valuable nutrients to the wetlands life cycle, Kurz said.

In 10 years, Swiftmud's Surface Water Improvement and Management Program has completed more than 30 similar restoration projects in the Tampa Bay area. Twenty more projects are in the planning and design stages, Kurz said.

"Each year as we complete projects, we start new ones," he said.

The wetlands on Mobbly Bay are unique in Pinellas County because the area has a mixture of freshwater from the Oldsmar wastewater treatment plant and saltwater from Tampa Bay.

The restored land will help filter nutrients from the treatment plant's runoff. Left unchecked, the nutrient-rich freshwater can spur enough algae growth to choke smaller fish, which serve as food for large fish.

Ponds and waterways were also enhanced to increase tidal flow and to provide a safe haven for small fish.

"The smaller fishes can hang out in these little ponds to get away from the bigger fishes," Kurz said.

Oldsmar is trying to create a passive nature preserve alongside the rejuvenated tidal marsh. The city received a state a grant for more than $1.4-million in September to buy 77 acres of privately owned wetlands and uplands along the Mobbly Bay peninsula.

City officials plan to combine those acres with land the city already controls to create the preserve, complete with an education center, boardwalks, nature trails and a kayak and canoe launching site.

Such efforts are especially important in Pinellas County, where natural habitats are scarce, Kurz said.

"Over the last century we have lost over 45 percent of intertidal wetlands because of developments," Kurz said. "Every little bit that we put back will have a big impact when you add it all up."