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In Gibsonton, engineers want to return an old fish farm to nature

The restoration is seen as a necessary, if small, piece of conservation on Tampa Bay’s heavily developed shore.
Nancy Norton walks through the Kracker Avenue restoration site in Gibsonton last month.
Nancy Norton walks through the Kracker Avenue restoration site in Gibsonton last month. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 24
Updated Aug. 27

GIBSONTON — Before invasive shrubs swallowed the land, the lot near the edge of Tampa Bay was home to a couple hundred ponds full of tropical fish, the type that fill glass aquariums.

Then the farm’s owner abandoned the property, and Brazilian peppertree crept over the ground off Kracker Avenue, obscuring the narrow old pools in a thick, green tangle. This summer, heavy equipment operators have started to bulldoze the site west of U.S. 41 S.

They are transforming the land — this time not for business, but for nature.

“Our opportunities are getting fewer and fewer each year,” said Nancy Norton, who works on coastal restoration for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

So much of Tampa Bay has been paved over, dug up and built upon that finding a stretch of shoreline to conserve, even one as messy as the 25-acre Kracker Avenue site, is considered a triumph.

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Concrete seawalls and subdivisions have replaced wetlands all over, Norton said. “Where those wading birds and the nurseries for fish used to have space, they’ve lost that.”

The fish farm project will give some of that back. It has taken years to reach this point.

The Kracker Avenue site used to house an old tropical fish farm but is now overwhelmed by invasive plants.
The Kracker Avenue site used to house an old tropical fish farm but is now overwhelmed by invasive plants. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Hillsborough County bought the property in 2012 for $340,000 through a land acquisition program, decades after Bramco Tropical Fish left the site in the mid-1970s. The Southwest Florida Water Management District is paying $1.5 million for work restoring the grounds. The county said it has spent about $149,000 on design, permitting and surveying.

Norton, an environmental engineer with the Water Management District, remembers visiting Kracker Avenue before crews began clearing vegetation. The Brazilian peppertree branches were thin and linked together in a gnarled weave. The best she could do was pick around and peer into the thicket.

“Not even a bunny rabbit could bounce through there,” she said. “It’s not wildlife habitat whatsoever.”

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Construction is expected to take about 18 months. The contractors are working quickly. They mulch and burn vegetation on-site or pile it into trucks to be hauled away.

Walking along Kracker Avenue today, Norton can easily point out where — and how — engineers’ vision will take shape.

“I see blue water and grasses on the edge and butterflies,” she said. “I see the potential of what this is going to be.”

They have devised a plan for the old fish farm to become a blend of wetlands and uplands, with a tidal marsh for small fish. Eventually, the property will be open to the public.

A worker walks in a cleared section of the old fish farm property on Kracker Avenue.
A worker walks in a cleared section of the old fish farm property on Kracker Avenue. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Hillsborough County environmental land management coordinator Mary Barnwell does not know what the land looked like before the fish farmer carved skinny ponds from the earth. Perhaps low flatwoods or a leafy hammock shaded the site.

Even if the project does not completely reverse time, she hopes the restoration gives people a window into a more natural version of Tampa Bay’s ecology. Visitors should one day see fish darting in the shallows, and wading birds perching gracefully in a lagoon.

Related: A career spent helping Mother Nature restore the land surrounding Tampa Bay

The land will have other benefits, Barnwell said, like creating a naturally rugged shoreline to withstand flooding from tropical systems.

Heavy machinery is visible on a cleared portion of the Kracker Avenue site.
Heavy machinery is visible on a cleared portion of the Kracker Avenue site. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

While 25 acres may not seem like much, Barnwell said, little projects add up — especially when combined with some of the county’s and water management district’s biggest efforts. The Kracker Avenue land neighbors the 134-acre Fred & Idah Schultz Nature Preserve. Further down U.S. 41 S toward Manatee County lies the Rock Ponds project, which saw about 1,000 acres of nature returned.

Related: Rock Ponds restoration project beginning to yield results for nature, man

“Every little bit helps, and that’s what our approach is, because obviously we need to share,” Barnwell said. “People enjoy living next to the coast, so we have to divvy up the land.”

The work may also seem expensive, she said, but only through a lens focused on cash alone.

“This is habitat that took millions of years to create, and we’re able to re-establish it pretty successfully for the most part in a pretty short amount of time,” Barnwell said. “It’s all worth it.”

The old fish farm on Kracker Avenue will be restored and eventually open to the public.
The old fish farm on Kracker Avenue will be restored and eventually open to the public. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]