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text Ann Hodgson: This is Ann Hodgson with the Tampa Bay Oral History Project and Im here today with Peter Clark. Captain Peter Clark is the director of Tampa Bay Watch. Welcome Peter, its nice to have you.
Peter A. Clark: Oh, thank you Ann. Appreciate the opportunity.
AH: Were very pleased to spend a little bit of time this morning learning about your career history and the activities of Tampa Bay Watch. Id like to start by asking you: How did you become interested in science as a child? How did that carry through to your education?
PC: Well, thats kind of a fun question and, I would say growing up, Ive always felt like I wanted to do something in the science field. Even when, at a very, very young age, I remember in third grade writing what we wanted to be when we grew up and I wrote down scientist. I did grow up in upstate New York on one of the Finger Lakes. It was Skaneateles Lake, one of the cleanest lakes in the world at the timeprobably still is. But the whole community really wrapped themselves around keeping Skaneateles Lake clean.
So from a very young age I got to see what a community could do to help protect a body of water and really treat it like a treasure that it truly was.
I was always interested in chemistry, had a chemistry lab in the house in one of the bathrooms that didnt burn the place down, but did a lot of damage over the years. And it was really kind of a joy to be growing up in a very rural community thats still considered, the lake that we grew up on, to be such a treasured resource. So I would have to say that that really provided the foundation for my desire to do something in the environmental field, and I think growing up in the 60s a lot of us grew up with things like Jacques Cousteau and Flipper, and so that fascination with the marine environment was always there.
So as I grew up through high school years, you know, I wanted to do something along the lines of marine biology. And went to college and ultimately was able to get my degree in marine biology out on the end of Long Island at a place called South Hampton. And while I was there, I got to meet a lot of other like-minded individuals and, you know, we would play sports but we would also go to the coast and start collecting things like blue mussels and lobster and bring those back to our dorm rooms and have this seafood feast. And for somebody who was growing up in upstate New York, I mean, that was just fascinating how good the seafood was.
So I knew I would, at that point, probably always live on the coast. I had a degree in marine biology, a love for all things marine, whether it be seafood or fishing or just enjoying the great coast. So when I got my degree in marine biologymy brother actually lived down here in Florida. He was working on tropical fish farms and this was in the very early 80s, during a recession, and a lot of people werent spending money on tropical fish. So the idea was that we would take over one of these tropical fish farms that were going by the wayside and start to grow freshwater shrimp, Macrobrachium.
And so we got together and kind of pooled our resources and, did more talking than actual action, and I ended up getting into the chemistry field and he ended up moving north to Charleston. But it did open my eyes up to the Tampa Bay estuary in this location and he was also a big time fisherman. So he spent a lot of our recreational time driving around Tampa Bay at that point looking for fish and finding out all about the little nooks and crannies all around the Tampa Bay estuary and seeing what a beautiful resource it was.
And this was in the early 80s so, needless to say, Tampa Bay was probably in one of the worst conditions that it ever was. So we got to see the worst of the worst. And in fact, one time when I was going to college, I came down with my cousin with a couple of kayaksand that would have been in the late-1970s, about 1979, when they were doing the Tampa Harbor Deepening Project. So the dredges were out in the bay. We paddled out on Tampa Bay in these kayaks, out the mouth of the Alafia River. You could see the large dredge disposal islands off on the horizon very, very slivers of sand and the whole bay was absolutely mud.
I mean it was just brown with the turbidity from the dredging projects. We know now what those kind of impacts occurred to the Tampa Bay back then, but we were also in a widespread storm water runoff and discharges from wastewater treatment plants, were very, very serious problems and you know ourit was clearly the low point for the Tampa Bay estuary. So I moved here, rather quickly, got a job in environmental chemistry. So we were out sampling groundwater and rivers and streams around Tampa Bay and to a lesser extent, even some samples out around Tampa Bay monitoring citrus production and food producers and things like that.
But it was really great experience, even though I had a degree in marine biology, having the chemistry experience was very, very, valuable and would play big dividends later on. I worked as a chemist for about four years total and a little ad came up in the paper for an environmental planner; it was just two lines. But my girlfriend at the time was over in Pinellas County and I was still living in Tampa and it was a job at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council for an environmental planner, and I went and interviewed with Doug Robison and he said, Well, I actually have a different position that would, you would, probably be good at. And that was for this new group that was being formed called the Agency on Bay Management.
So he ended up hiring me as an environmental planner and I worked on a couple of water quality planning studies for him. One was on the Anclote River and the other was on the Braden River and started to work on one of the first kind of comprehensive assessments of habitat restoration sites around the bay and also tidal creek studies on Tampa Bay as well. That was a lot of fun, was a great experience, finally back in the field. As the Agency on Bay Management got started, we started working with all these wonderful bay managers from around the bay.
The Agency on Bay Management, as you know, is made up of about 45 individuals from all around the bay and whether they were environmentalist or port authorities, power companies, anyone who had an influence on the bay was invited to participate on the Agency on Bay Management. This was 1985. So there were a number of studies that were, occurred before then; the Tampa Bay Management Study Commission ultimately led to some very good documentations, which I know youll have in your resource center. But also one that was called the Future of the Region: Future of Tampa Bay.
And the Future of Tampa Bay identified 50 prioritized issues that needed to be addressed to restore and protect the bay. Those were the recommendations of the Tampa Bay Management Study Commission but one of the recommendations was the formation of a non-jurisdictional group called the Agency on Bay Management and thats what the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council did. So they were an organization that, because they encompassed the four counties around Tampa Bay, they had the ability to bring in a lot of the different working groups and individuals, put them all together in a room, and it gave us the opportunity to throw the problems at them and they would come up with a holistic approach to address those problems.
And since they didnt have any jurisdictional responsibility, it was up to them to write the letters, pick up the phone and make the phone calls, and get action done to better protect and restore the Tampa Bay estuary. And what it really did was bring us all together to start communicating, that was the wonderful part. A lot of us putwell a lot of the members of the Agency on Bay Management, would put their little domains aside in order to better address the problems of Tampa Bay.
So if they worked for the port authority, they were communicating with people that maybe had other jurisdictions or local governments or sport and recreational fishing interest all around the bay. So we got to know each other very well and we were very comfortable picking up the phone and calling each other to talk about these problems. So that first meeting was in 1985 and I worked with the Agency on Bay Management till 1993. Doug was there for about a year. The next director was Mike Perry.
I cant remember how long Mike was there, hes probably there for another two years, and then I ended up being the Director for of the Agency on Bay Management for about six years after that. And while I was working there, they were able to do wonderful things that have really benefitted the bay in the long term. This was during the time period right after the Warren-Henderson Wetlands Protection Act of 1984 which required all wetlands that were impacted to be mitigated around the bay; before then, everything was negotiated and a lot of wetlands were dredged or filled and werent replaced around the bay, so this was kind of the new phenomenon back there. But it also did things like requiring storm water runoff to be treated in the bay through different state legislation.
But in 86 we had the Mary Figg and Mary Wilson from the state of Florida pass a law that required all wastewater treatment plants that discharge to the bay be at advanced wastewater treated levels, and that was very, very important. Now the flow that was coming out of the wastewater treatment plants had to be of such quality that you would almost be able to drink that the water. So a lot of these wastewater treatment plants felt that they could accommodate those rules and actually supported it. Mainly the big one in the city of Tampa, it was called Hookers Point back there and now its called The Curren [Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant] one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the Gulf of Mexico. But its also located in the northern part of the Tampa Bay estuary.
So being able to improve the treatment that was coming out of that wastewater treatment plant, as it flowed into the bay and ultimately downstream into the Gulf of Mexico, made a dramatic improvement to the conditions in the bay. So that was really, probably, the biggest improvement and that started around 1985, 1986 with implementation of the Grizzle-Figg Bill. By doing that, starting to treat storm water runoff, mitigating any wetland impacts, those were the three homeruns that really started the turnaround of the bay.
The other thing the Agency on Bay Management did during that time period was establish the Surface Water Improvement and Management Program within the water management district. So thats called the SWIM program, as you know, and that provided state and local funding to address things like habitat restoration projects on a large scale that weve really never had before. So the Agency on Bay Management was really kind of a regional body. The SWIM program was a state body that was established to start spending significant amount of dollars to do restoration projects and while I was there we started to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to have Tampa Bay established as an estuary of national significance.
So thats part of the National Estuary Program and at the time there was only six. We worked with Congressman Young to put money into the congressional budget to add a couple more estuaries into the program, Tampa Bay being one of them. I worked with a staff member from the National Marine Fishery Service called Ron Schmied to write the nomination package for the governor at the time, to get Tampa Bay included in the program. You had to have a governors nomination, first and foremost, even if you had the dollars available, with an EPA, and the governor did that, and ultimately, by 1990 I believe, we were included in the Tampa Bay National, we established the Tampa Bay National Estuary Program, and now its called the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.
I know youve heard from Holly and others what a wonderful national example, but I think because of the background that this region has had with communications, it was relatively easy to have the federal government come down and build on that success and have the local governments play together with state government and federal governments in order to develop a long-term management plan for the Tampa Bay estuary, which is really what theyve been so successful in doing. So that was about 1990of course, theres a lot of other smaller successes that the Agency on Bay Management had along the way including supporting things like Hillsborough Countys ELAPP program so that they would have a land acquisition program to start buying the lands that we, in turn, could use for large-scale habitat restoration projects, not only through Hillsborough County, but through the SWIM program as well. Its really a big benefit.
Pinellas County had been doing that as well. Theres a number of programs to identify the lands that are in public ownership so that they could prioritize habitat restoration as well. So at that point, around 1990, we had the Agency on Bay Management, being the regional body; we had the state body, the Southwest Florida Water Management District with their SWIM program; and now we had a federal initiative through the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Well it was about 1985, I ran into Robin Lewis, who was very, very active in starting the Agency on Bay Management. Prior to that he had worked for Hillsborough Community College, started to do consulting, was a very strong motivator to bring people together and organize new programs like the Agency on Bay Management.
So I had met Robin, of course, through the Agency on Bay Management when the department of transportation wanted to expand the Courtney-Campbell Causeway going across the bay. Well, when they did that, part of their permit was that they move the seagrass beds that were in that alignment off the causeway and at that time we moved it to the north. So Robin organized a group and I was one of them, as well as some of the local fishermen through, at the time, was called Florida Conservation Association; now theyre called Coastal Conservation Association, and over a Saturday and Sunday we moved grasses from the Courtney-Campbell Causeway across the channel up off of Rocky Creek and then we did that one year, and that was so much fun and I was hooked.
That was really the fishhook that dragged me into habitat restoration with community volunteers, because it was a great opportunity to see how excited people were to get involved with doing these hands-on types of projects. So it was really the seagrass that was the first type of restoration project that I jumped into with both feet, thank you Robin Lewis. And then the following year there was still a lot of seagrass left that had actually regrew back into that area, so we did a much larger effort over a couple of weekends where families would come out and we had food and we loaded it up in our boats and we carried it all around the other side of the bay and plugged it off into the area off of Green Key in The Kitchen area of Tampa Bay.
So there was actually a couple areas that we started to work with and water quality was very poor, not only in Hillsborough Bay, but in Upper Tampa Bay too. The seagrasses didnt do very well, but all of a sudden they started popping up in the late 80s and in The Kitchen area it actually looked like it died back and we had given up hope on that grass, and then years later that was one of the first spots that started to pop up as water quality improved.
So these grasses may have gone dormant and just survived through the roots and then started to grow back up again. So even that effort probably wasnt wasted but it certainly was a great learning experience. So that was in 80, spring of 86 and spring of 87. While I was working at the Agency on Bay Management I also worked on the, one of the first habitat restoration identification documents, so it was all kind of getting tied in together. And in the late 80s, we started to do more and more projects with community groups including the Coastal Conservation Association and Boy Scout troops. Any time we could get people together, we would salvage mangroves that were going to be impacted. I remember our first occasion when we had 50 people out there and we planted salt marsh. We thought that was the greatest thing in the world.
And then there was another time when the next big project was probably, you know, a quarter acre at the most in size, alongside the Gandy Causeway over by where the Gandy boat ramp is. Its covered with mangroves now. You wont even be able to see it unless you hike through the mangroves. But we had 90 people out there on a Saturday morning. We planted, you know, 1,000 or 2,000 plugs of grass and that was just the greatest thing. We took pictures and slapped each other on the back and it was just so much fun. And clearly the community really wanted to be more active in doing something to protect and restore Tampa Bay and it was readily apparent that there really wasnt an organized, an organization, that was available to do that kind of work.
And believe it or not, I never read Peoples [People] Magazine, but I sat down to get my hair cut one day and there was a Peoples [People] Magazine. There wasnt a Sports Illustrated or anything fun to read in thereand I picked it up and I started reading about the Hudson Riverkeeper Program, and this was one guy, one boat, working on the Hudson River and he would follow these super tankers that would offload petroleum in the downtown New York City area and then they would drive up the Hudson River and flush out their tanks, load up with fresh water, and then drive it back down to the islands and sell the fresh water.
And the local fishermen up there started supporting the river keeper to document what was going up in the Hudson River. And eventually they were able to stop that practice and took on a number of Superfund sites up along the Hudson River. And in that nonprofit, they would sue in order to make changes and then they would take restitution dollars from the lawsuits and turn around and put that back into the riverkeeper program. It started off with the Hudson riverkeeper, but its also grown into an alliance of riverkeepers around the country.
So I read that, and kind of, the light bulb went offeverybody has their light bulb momentthat we really didnt have a nonprofit like that working in Tampa Bay. And by then Id sat on a number of nonprofit boards including the Coastal Conservation Association, locally, in the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, and I had a flavor for what volunteer boards could do. But working as a professional for the Agency on Bay Management, I also realized what having staff could do in order to make change.
And started to talk about the river keeper programs with people like Rich Paul, very good friend of mine and Robin Lewis, Tom Reese, Commissioner Platt and others around the bay, through our network, about what we could do to create a nonprofit that would more adequately involve the community in restoration kind of work. So I got a lot of great responses. I would have to say Rich Pauls was the best. You know I sent around the article and a little quick letter talking about Hey, what do you think about this type of concept? And Rich Paul met me at the boat ramp at the Alafia River one day and he goes, Oh, you know, I meant to follow up with you on that. I think its a really great idea. Youll probably starve for five years but after that itll probably do very, very well. And I took that to heart and started to work with Robin Lewis.
He also felt it was very strong, and Robin put up the dollars to help us put together the nonprofit paperwork and get the legal support thats really needed to put together the IRS paperwork and your articles of incorporation and everything that goes along with establishing the, a nonprofit. And also the dollars that would allow me to transition from working for my government job to a nonprofit.
AH: All right, well lets take a break, thank you, and well be back in just a few minutes.
AH: This is Ann Hodgson with the Tampa Bay Oral History Project and were back with Captain Peter Clark. Peter is the director of Tampa Bay Watch. Again, Peter, thanks so much for telling the stories that youre telling today. We left off before the break, just as you were making the leap to organize Tampa Bay Watch. Lets pick up there and give us that story.
PC: Sounds good, thank you. So, we had talked with a number of bay managers about organizing a nonprofit to help coordinate activities with community involvement and restoration projects on the bay. And when we were undertaking that process we did want to make sure that we didnt duplicate efforts of other organizations that were going, that were working very, very hard on the bay. So we talked with a lot of other groups like the river keeper programs and other nonprofits. We talked with Audubon, we talked with Sierra Club and had conversations with a number of other bay managers to make sure that we werent duplicating anything.
So I would say that that was probably one of the biggest reasons why Tampa Bay Watch has been able to enjoy the success that its had, is early on we had wonderful communication around the bay but we also made sure that, you know, we werent creating a type of program that was doing something that wasnt needed in the bay or was being accomplished by another organization. I would say that when we first started Tampa Bay Watch off, the idea was to provide another set of eyes and ears on the bay similar to the riverkeeper programs, so that we could see the impacts that were occurring.
There were a couple of examples of that, there were a dredging project in St. Petersburg, that we had seen before Tampa Bay Watch came online, that was cutting into grass beds that appeared to be outside of their particular permit for the project. There was a lot of light poles that were dumped along the shoreline at St. Pete-Clearwater airport [St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport] that came off of a demolition project from one of the roadways. Some docks were popping up in the bay that hadnt been permitted. So, at that particular time in Tampa Bay, their marine patrol had other areas that they were focusing on and there really wasnt a group or individuals that were looking around for these types of problems.
Well, when we started Tampa Bay Watch off, it was readily apparent that, that type of activity wasnt necessarily supported by the community. However, there was very, very strong support to organize the community to do these hands-on restoration projects. So rather quickly we evolved to an organization that provided a science-based approach to looking around the bay to see what the problems are, developing projects, developing the funding base to do that, permitting the projects, and then going out and seeking support from the community.
So while we were doing that, the old model that we had used with the Agency on Bay Management was to go out after work or on the weekends when we had access to scout troops and fishing clubs and church groups and use those volunteers, during those time periods, to do our projects. And we might have done three to five a year at that point. So when we started to do this with Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Watch, it was an opportunity to start going up into the schools and to get kids involved with doing habitat restoration programs. So the first six months was really myself working out of the house.
We had started working with the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County to do more work on the Palm River. They had an environmental-negotiated settlement on the Palm River with a local homeowner and received several hundred dollars from a restitution to start doing some community-based restoration work up the Palm River. So they gave us a grant to create the Palm River steward. And that was our employee number two; we hired Bob Musser to be the Palm River steward, and he started to do regular patrols up the Palm River and worked with some of the mobile home parks, trailer parks up there, and local residents to do coastal cleanups.
Eventually that morphed into developing a long-term, well not a long-term, but a management plan for the McKay Bay-Palm River system. That was done with the City of Tampa. Bob did that through Tampa Bay Watch and also the Bay Area Environmental Action Team, which was a wonderful group in the late 80s and early 90s that popped up under the auspices of the Tampa Electric Company in Julius Hobbs.
So you can see that there are a lot of different players in the evolution of Tampa Bay, including things like power companies, with Julius Hobbs creating the Bay Area Environmental Action Team, Mosaic, prior to Mosaic it was Gardinier. They had a significant amount of problems on the bay. They learned from those mistakes and through activities from Gray Gordon and he put that company on course to address a lot of the environmental impacts that they have had in the past. And they have actually started to make sure that they supported community programs and restoration projects around the bay.
So we started to bring corporations more involved with restoration protection projects on the bay and they also became active on things like the Tampa Bay Nitrogen Consortium to address those pollutant loads that were going into the bay. So the Palm River steward was employee number two, we knew we had to get out of that house at that point. We rented a one-room office in downtown St. Petersburg where we started to culture a community of restoration programs and projects around the bay. We ended up growing out of that one room office in downtown St. Petersburg when employee number three came on board and we didnt really have room for a third desk, so we moved to a small group of offices in Snell Isle Plaza and worked for there for many years; and that was a commercial center as well and you would rent office space as you needed it.
We had three offices there. We probably grew to a staff level of five or six at Snell Isle Plaza. And they really enjoyed us there since there was a number of businesses including some insurance company that was growing by leaps and bounds and eventually needed our offices and moved us out. You know we would carry up our scallop buckets from the great bay scallop surge and come trudging in from doing a muddy day out in the salt marsh, so it was very entertaining to them. But it was still a commercial building and we were very much a field-based organization and, not only were we doing projects on the weekend, but as I alluded to, we started to do projects with school groups.
And I had heard about some of my favorite programs and projects are actually somebody elses ideas that we would pilfer and adapt to Tampa Bay and they would work very, very well. And one of my favorite stories is hearing about Seattle, had a program where they would involve their school kids in growing salmon fry in their classroom. And they would take these salmon fry down to a restored tidal river or tidal creek that had been restored in order to grow salmon in there. And they would release these salmon fry and know that they could come back six or seven years later and the salmon that would swim back upstream through these restored rivers, were the salmon that they had released when they were kids in the school.
Well, what a great idea, but thats not something that we could do here in the Tampa Bay estuary. But I really liked the concept and knew that we needed salt marsh for our coastal restoration projects. So the idea came that we could have the schools start to grow salt marsh grasses that ultimately, once they matured on their on-campus nurseries, they could bring them down and put them into some of these coastal restoration projects that the SWIM program was starting to do more and more of in the early 1980s; they were really starting to get their legs underneath them at that point.
So we worked with our first one at Lakewood High School, Lita Weingart, and then at Chamberlin High School, Ted Adams, for the first couple years. And that really made us realize that we had access to kids during the school week work, during the school week, when other people were out working and we started to create restoration projects that were really formulated for kids to come out and do work. What a great way to educate our kids; that is one of the best techniques for them to remember something is to actually get involved and get dirty and then they make a difference for the Tampa Bay estuary by getting dirty.
So it worked out really well. The kids would grow the salt marsh, we would have salt marsh that we could provide to the local governments and the state organizations that were doing large-scale restoration projects around the bay as a free resource, and they would also have free labor to put the salt marsh in the ground. And then, by doing that, the kids are able to receive an education on the value of the Tampa Bay estuary, why we are doing restoration work, and then know that theyve played a hands-on role in restoring and protecting the bay. So it was really a win-win for everybody and we started to do more of that with the schools.
Right now, after 22 years, Tampa Bay has 18 salt marsh nurseries in middle and high schools all around the Tampa Bay estuary that are growing the salt marsh grasses for these coastal restoration projects. So it is a great program and I would say that was one of the ones that has truly been duplicated by other estuaries all around the country and it may not be salt marsh that theyre growing. Certainly on the West Coast of the United States, salt marsh is an exotic encroaching plant that they try to kill out there, but along the eastern seaboard, they can grow the same kind of salt marsh that we do in our nurseries and on the West Coast they grow different plants that they can utilize for their restoration projects.
We received our firstwe received one of the first grants from the National Marine Fishery Service in the mid 90s for the Salt Marsh Nursery Program and that was a $5,000 contribution from them. They started to quickly realize the value of getting the community involved with coastal restoration projects and within a few years their $20-25,000 grant program for the entire country started to grow to a multi-million dollar program called the Community-based Habitat Restoration Program [Community-based Restoration Program] that ultimately grew to about a $28 million grant program through National Marine Fishery Service, which is NOAA Fisheries now and theyre still out there today giving grants for coastal restoration with a very much different focus, but they were able to support a lot of our community-based restoration programs for many, many years, really a big help.
So we are in the mid 90s at that point, Bay Grasses in Classes, which is our salt marsh nursery program in the schools, is starting to take off. We had a small boat that we were working, a small little jet boat that we were working on to, to do our restoration projects around the bay. And we realized that we needed a bigger bay boat to run around the bay to start carrying equipment and people around. But as a small organization, we didnt have the money for a big bay boat. So we started to look at how we could put together a bay boat and a local marina recommended that we work with Honda to get some of their four cycle engines that were starting to come on the market and convert them over to run on natural gas.
So we identified that the type of boat that we needed to run around on the bay, in an innovative way, to power the boat using natural gas, which ultimately led us into going into a very efficient boat, which was a catboat at the time, with twin engine Honda outboards that we could convert to run on natural gas. And I say this because it is really one of the first boats, that we are aware of, to run on natural gas and when we ultimately floated the boat, it was dedicated by Carol Browner, the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
So we came up with this creative idea to fill a need that we had as an organization, but it really kind of elevated our status as a nonprofit, by floating a very innovative boat that we ran around Tampa Bay for over ten years, powered by natural gas. And Honda really liked the project, hadnt been done before. The marine department involved their racing car division. Their director of the racing car division got his doctorate degree in gaseous fuels. So when he picked up on the marine divisions desire to create an engine that would run on natural gas, he really jumped into it.
But he had the mentality of a racing car director, so he got one of the engines and did a conversion out in California on a bench-top engine and created ainstead of carburetors they were gas injectorsbasically a kit that he could ship over and the marine division could modify our outboard motors to run on natural gas. And there was a lot of testing involved, but it worked very, very well and it was very, very creative and got a lot of attention.
So we were in a number of boating magazines around the country about the natural gas powered boat. We had the administrator for the EPA come down and do a big dedication, you know, with a lot of elected officials as well. And a great sponsorship through Honda as well, to build this boat. And the funny part is, the director who put all of this together, of the racing car division, after about a year or two, he got tired of looking at the engine mounted on the bench over in California, decided to put a turbine on his engine so that he could see just how much he could spin up these engines.
And he took a 50-horsepower engine and put an injector system on there and ended up getting 250-horsepowers out of this little engine, before it blew up in his test lab. (laughs) And that was basically his, his, he was done with designing these natural gas engines. And Im not sure, really, had they made those available to other people to put on boats and I do know other boats since then that are running around on natural gas and weve had a great relationship with Honda ever since, but that was one of the very cool projects that we were able to, to undertake very early on in the maturity of the Tampa Bay Watch organization, that started to bring a lot more attention to our program and credibility to our organization as well.
So around the 1997we had been around for four years at that point, we had a staff of about five; it was starting to be a little more sophisticated in our way of reaching out into the community. We were adding about a person a year, about a boat a year at that point. Starting to do more and more salt marsh projects on a much larger scale. SWIM was designing and constructing projects, we were, at that point, we were probably doing a number of installation projects between four and five acres a yeara Saturday morning. And that was really, probably, a pretty large scale. A little bit later on some of the larger projects would be eight acres on a Saturday morning with 300 volunteers, so that was the type of scale that we were ratcheting up to over the years.
And a piece of property came up for sale at the entrance to Fort De Soto Park and it was Cunningham Key, it was Ritas Bait Shop was located on that property. And so, wonderful little island that connected Fort De Soto Park with the rest of Tierra Verde. And a fill pad had been constructed in the early 60s in order to build the bridge over to Fort De Soto Park by the contractors for the Department of Transportation. Eventually it went into private ownership and there was a house that was moved on the property; that house turned into Ritas Bait Shop when I came into the area in the early 1980s and we would go there on a Saturday morning and buy a couple dozen shrimp from Rita and think, Oh my gosh, what a paradise she has out here.
And the property is surrounded by Shell Key Preserve on one side, Fort De Soto Park on the south side, and a lot of Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge islands on the east side. So basically, it was a small piece of private land that was surrounded by public land and some of the most intact seagrass beds and mangrove communities in all of Tampa Bay. So it was about two acres of upland and about an additional 16 acres of land that wasall the sudden came up for sale. And I read about it in the newspaper on Sunday, went to the courthouse on Monday, found out who the owner was, sent her a letter and said, Hey, we are Tampa Bay Watch, we are a small nonprofit, we really are Â very interested in this site. Â Here is what we do.
And the owner, Bobby Ray Suggs, who owns Ginnie Springs Park to the north, received the property in her divorce with Bob Ray, who was a major landowner and developer throughout Tampa Bay. And this was one of the properties that he had owned for many, many years. She had me on the telephone by Wednesday and said, You know what, I love your organization, it is really great. I cant give you the land, but I would love to sell it to you. And that really kind of started the process on us working with Pinellas County and the State of Florida to buy the Cunningham Key property for Tampa Bay Watch to build our marine center.
And it really took three years, and looking back, it didnt seem like a long amount of time, but it actually was quite long. Pinellas County was a great partner because they had been trying to buy that land for many, many years, but had always bumped heads with the landowners who wanted to develop it as a tourist attraction; they wanted to develop it as a campsite; they wanted to develop it as a marina site. Fort De Soto wanted to have it purchased so they could develop it as, maybe an additional marina site that would support Fort De Soto.
So Pinellas County was trying to get it out of private hands and include it as part of the lot of the park or preserve property that it was surrounded by. Butand I wont go into detailsbut they had really been bumping heads and they had stopped talking about this property. And along comes Tampa Bay Watch with this grand idea to build a marine center and was willing to work with the owner of the property and Pinellas County who really wanted to buy it, so we made a great middle organization and Pinellas County knew that they didnt have the resources to buy it themselves and went to the State of Florida.
And eventually, they put up a certain percentage of the money and the State of Florida put up the vast majority of the money to buy it through the Greenways and Trails Program. And Cunningham Key was purchased by the governor and the cabinet through Greenways and Trails to provide a connector between the different recreational trails that were in the plans, but also as a marine center site for Tampa Bay Watch, to run our marine restoration and education programs from, in the year 2000.
So, at that point, we put together a management plan that defined how we were going to use the property out there and signed a 50-year lease agreement through Pinellas County with the State of Florida, for us to implement our programs out there on the property. And while we were doing that, 9/11 came along and really put a lot of stress, as we all remember, on companies and corporations, including who we were renting our office space from in Snell Isle Plaza. And they felt like they needed a more stable organization than a nonprofit in there after 9/11 and proceeded to try to move us out of that facilities that we had so that some of the other companies could expand down into our area.
So we knew we had access to Cunningham Key at that point, and it was a wonderful piece of property, and that really provided some excellent motivation for us to say, Hey, weve got a great resource. What can we do to get out there? So we went to Pinellas County and said, Hey, we are about ready to lose our lease, how about if we put an office trailer out there in Tierra Verde and start working out there while we raise the capital for the marine center? And Pinellas County said, Well, yeah, you can probably do that, but you will need to put this trailer 16 feet up in the air in order to get it out of the flood zone. And we all laughed and we quickly realized Tierra Verde residents were not going to be too happy with a trailer 16 feet in the air.
And Tampa Bay Watch, in their infinite wisdom, took the dollars that we did have available and started to work with some friendly construction companies to put up the first building that we could afford out there. And worked out of that building for three years while we raised the capital for the main marine and education center out there, which was, the first building was built within a year. We moved in there and worked for the next three years while we built the marine and education center.
That building was completed in 2005 and the last building that was planned, as part of the master plan, was a service learning center which was completed in 2003uh, 2013. So you can see that Tampa Bay Watch has never had to take out a loan, but we have always been able to save a little bit of money and build a little bit of building, raise the capital for the next phase of the project and put up that building and it has taken us many, many years to do that but we are finally pretty much completed with the construction of our marine center site out at the entrance to Fort De Soto park.
So what that gave us was a place or a presence from which we could now start to base our operations from; before, we are in this little strip commercial center on the outskirts of St. Petersburg with a presence, but not necessarily a facility, where people could come and see us and we could start running our programs and projects. We had talked about the Bay Grasses in Classes program and going out in the schools and that was a very viable and important arm of the Tampa Bay Watch organization.
So when we built the marine center site at Cunningham Key, one of the first things we wanted to do was be able to have a facility where we could bring kids down to and start to run our own education programs right out of the back door of Tampa Bay Watch Marine Center. And if you havent been there before, I urge you to go visit the Tampa Bay Watch facilities because it is in the perfect location for us to be. It is surrounded by very natural seagrass and mangrove forests, where we can take the kids and walk them into the forest or walk them down through the salt marsh and into the seagrass beds. And they can see, firsthand, the productivity of the bay and why we know Tampa Bay is so important to our community.
But there is also a deep-water access where we can get our boats in and out to the docks. So now we have a classroom boat that we can take 30-35 adults and students out on the bay and they can go snorkeling through the seagrass beds, they can plant sea oats at Fort De Soto Park, we do a lot of trolling in Bunces Pass so we can catch fish and show them, first hand, what is out there living in the bay, and it has been a wonderful opportunity to take kids out on the bay.
You wouldnt believe the number of kids that live 10 to 15 minutes away and have never been on a boat before or have never been to the beach. They literally live within a six-block area within our community and we will go out on the boat and sometimes there will be 25-35 percent of the kids who have never been on a boat before. So we have this great opportunity to work with funders and supporters to sponsor Title I schools or kids that are economically or disadvantaged as a priority of the Tampa Bay Watch organization so we can get them out to experience the things that you and I take for granted.
So that has really grown into a very important part of our program. We have about 175 field trips for the schools a year and we also do nine weeks of summer camps; 250 kids will go through our summer camp programs so that they can have more of a weeklong experience in a lot of the restoration and education and marine science programs that we do out there in Tampa Bay. So the facilities have been a wonderful opportunity for us to evolve, again, as a nonprofit organization.
We have grown from a small group of very few people coordinating large amount of volunteers, to a much more mature group where we had the boats, the pick up trucks, the equipment and the capacity to design much larger scale restoration projects. Right now, we are working with about 10,000 community volunteers a year to do our programs and projects and to have the resources through our facility and our equipment to go all around the bay to help do these restoration projects.
AH: Â That has turned out to be just a fabulous bay-wide program. We are going to take a short break and then we can just kind of explore the last little bit of commentary that you want to provide today.
PC: Â Sounds great, thank you.
AH: This is Anne Hodgson with the Tampa Bay Oral History Project and I am back again with Captain Peter Clark. Peter is the Executive Director for Tampa Bay Watch, Peter welcome back.
PC: Thank you.
PC: Sounds good. We had talked earlier about Tampa Bay Watch, really started to do a number of different restoration projects when they first got started. Probably our biggest priority was salt marsh efforts and that was something we did with the Agency on Bay Management. It was very logical for us to start rolling into organizing community events with Tampa Bay Watch as well, and getting the kids involved through our Bay Grasses in Classes program.
We also worked with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to do the Great Bay Scallop Search, which is a program that we have had running since 1993 to provide a database of the health of scallops in the bay system. And scallops are very sensitive to water quality,
The one that has also grown is oyster restoration. And they are one of those types of habitats that was really ignored, for the most part, unless you were trying to grow them for food in the 80s and eventually, into the 90s, they started to pay more and more attention to it. Chesapeake Bay knew that their oysters were in really rough shape in the 90s and started doing a lot of work with them. Groups in North Carolina as well, started to restore oyster communities, they were called the SCORE Programthey caught our attention and we started to look at different ways to build oysters in Tampa Bay in the very late 90s99, I think.
And we would roll up chicken wire and put those in the bay, oysters would grow on them and we would hope that they would create a reef and then the metal would dissolve away and biodegrade and we would be left with oysters. And we tried different techniques to do that and all the biodegradable material just wouldnt last long enough to make a viable reef. The SCORE program came along and started using mesh bags to hold oyster shell and allow the oyster larvae that float around naturally in Tampa Bay to settle on top of the oyster shell, so basically were creating a foundation for natural oysters to land on and start to grow and create an oyster reef.
Worked very well in the Carolinas, we started to use that technique here in Tampa Bay around 2000 and what happens is the shell bags are made of a very thin PVC material and we are not big fans of putting plastic out into the environment, but the oysters themselves would settle on the PVC or the shell and grow on top of them and create a very natural-looking reef. You can go back out on these reefs after a couple of years and it looks like, just like Mother Nature had put them out there. And the plastic itself becomes entrained in the reef so that you dont see it and there is not a lot of material that is exposed that could hurt fish and wildlife resources.
And as long as we have been doing it, over 15 years now, weve never seen an issue with birds or fish being caught up in the plastic, so given the experience that we have in other areas around the country and the longevity of the technique, it works very, very well and we continue to use it today. One of the things that we wanted to do is be able to create a habitat in front of seawalls. We got very good in our area of Tampa Bay of dredging up bay bottom and filling in behind sea walls in order to create waterfront development.
There are 288 linear miles of sea walls in St. Petersburg alone; we are located on a big sandbar, so it is easy to move sand around. And we didnt really realize what we were doing to our coastal areas in the 40s, 50s, and 60s as we dredged up the bay bottom and put them behind sea walls for residential development, but also for commercial development. So sea walls, the water is too deep for salt marsh to grow and usually water quality is too bad for seagrasses to grow.
So there is not a lot that you can do in these sea wall communities like Venetian Isles or Shore Acres in St. Petersburg or Apollo Beach in Hillsborough County. So we wanted to create an oyster platform that could grow oysters and Tom Ash from Hillsborough County worked for the Artificial Reef Program at that time, suggested we look at reef balls. Reef balls are atheres a nonprofit program called the Reef Ball Foundationtheres a corporate arm that makes reef balls that sells and there is even a company that will take your ashes and put them into reef balls called Eternal Reefs too.
So these guys are very sophisticated and they design these marine-friendly, concrete hollow domes that look like big round volcanoeshollow in the middle and then they have a lot of holes on the side that allow water to flow through them. Now they designed them for coral reefs around the country, but one of their designs is about two feet tall and 18 inches at the base, that they would put on top of these monster reef balls that they would put out in tropical communities.
Well, we wanted something that you and I could pick up and carry and put out in the bay that would grow oysters. So we tended to favor these small ones that weigh about 100 pounds and our volunteers could make them. So around 2000 we started to buy these forms and we have about 30 of them now, and they are set up in a construction area at Tampa Bay Watch and you wouldnt believe the volunteers that love to come out and pour concrete. And we have made upwards of 1-2,000 of these reef balls, a year, to put into permitted projects.
And the biggest one, so far to date, is MacDill Air Force Base. They had a problem with their golf course was starting to erode from some storms and the sand from the eastern shoreline would blow up and into the golf course, so they were looking at putting up miles of seawall along the shore line and Jason Kirkpatrick leaned over in a meeting and said, Ive got a little problem I need you to look at. And thats resulted in a 15-year partnership to design some environmentally-friendly ways to stabilize the shoreline along the eastern shore of MacDill Air Force Base to prevent some high degree of erosion that was going on, not only in the golf course, but Indian middens and other very important sites along that shoreline.
And what we did was, we used MacDill as a test model to try different scenarios of placing reef balls either right next to each other so they would support each other, or space them a couple of feet apart and put shell in the middle and see if the oysters would grow up on that. And there was one area where we tried five different scenarios and found out that the best way to slow down a wave is to put all the reef balls touching each other at the base; it is the most expensive way, but they help to protect each other that way.
And if you can think of MacDill Air Force Base they, they face the main ship channel that goes into downtown Tampa, so we are trying to control waves that are coming off of petroleum tankers and cruise ships, and they literally come rolling ashore against MacDill. And as we get more and more shipping traffic coming into Tampa, MacDill was having more and more issues with these ship wakes eroding along the shoreline.
So we took the information that we used from the big model area and created reef ball fields along Gadsden Point, which is in the southeast corner of MacDill, and up along the shoreline and have been very, very successful in stabilizing a lot of the shoreline that has been lost over the years and now you can go there and we have really been able to create a living shoreline where we have these rows of reef balls offshore, between the shoreline and the reef balls we built oyster bars and the oyster bars create a little planting shelf that we can come in and install salt marsh.
So within one area of the bay that was experiencing severe erosion, we have three different natural areas that we have been able to create to reduce those waves before it gets to the shoreline and reestablish salt marsh and mangrove areas that should be naturally occurring along there. So right now, we have literally 8,000 oyster domes protecting the natural shoreline area and between all those oyster domes we have oyster bars and salt marsh. So it works very, very well and were able to go around the bay and work with Audubon, National Audubon Society, on some of their bird nesting islands like Whiskey Stump Key, Green Key.
I know they are also doing similar types of techniques on the Rich Paul Alafia Banks Island, as well, and Fantasy Island. So those techniques have been tested and proven and now we are looking around to see where else we can install these oyster communities to help improve shoreline erosion thats going on. Oysters are wonderful communities; we have probably lost at least half of the oysters in Tampa Bay and these are filter feeders that are out there 24-hours a day filtering the water of algae nutrients that are important to protect water quality, stabilizing the shoreline, and providing forging areas for fish and wildlife resources.
So very important communities and we have probably put in between 150 and 200 tons of oyster shell a year into the Tampa Bay estuary to create these communities. And when we have permitted sites we can put in about 1,000 to 2,000 oyster domes or reef balls around the bay as well. There is a lot to talk about when it comes to Tampa Bay.
AH: Theres a huge amount.
PC: (laughs) So oysters have really grown in prominence and in the 90s very few bodies of water around the country were doing oyster restoration work, but by the late 2000s there really isnt a coastal program around the country that isnt looking at oysters as a restoration technique. So very, very important and I think people are really coming around to appreciate how valuable and important they are in order to have a healthy restoration program to rebuild your bay.
AH: As you paint the picture of these oyster domes, or the reef balls, I think it is simple for people to visualize, basically, a perforated gumdrop.
PC: Yeah, that is kind of what they look like. (laughs)
AH: That is very simple visual for people to think about.
PC: Yeah. Some people think of them as alien eggs as well. (AH laughs) One of the things that Tampa Bay got involved with in the mid 90s was a group called, Restore Americas Estuaries. And they are a national organization charged with developing restoration dollars for local estuary programs. Theres 11 estuaries around the country where all of their directors serve as the board of directors for Restore Americas Estuaries Network. And they have done very good working with groups like Pew Charitable Trusts and NOAA Fisheries Community-based Restoration Program to provide us with restoration dollars locally, but to also give us a national voice to ensure that there are congressional support for coastal restoration programs around.
So that has been a great partnership that weve had for many, many years with the Restore Americas Estuaries. I also want to reiterate the value of communicating with the agencies that are all working on the bay. Tampa Bay works very well with National Audubon Society and other nonprofit programsKeep America Beautiful to do coastal cleanups; Coastal Conservation Association to do volunteer-based restoration projects with fishing groups and, as a nonprofit, we have this great relationship with the National Estuary Program; again, they provide national perspective to develop a long-term management plan for Tampa Bay.
And the Agency on Bay Management is still very active to provide that regional governmental body to bring everybody together to communicate. And now, Tampa Bay Watch is here to help provide that community program where we are the small, relatively small nonprofit, that its made up of a small group of educators and scientists that design restoration projects that the community can come and take an active role in restoring and protecting the bay. And because of that, we all work very well together, we all have our roles that we can play an active part in the process. And it has really made a big difference and I think when we are talking with me and other individuals in groups and have been able to see the improvement in one lifetime; it is truly a privilege to be able to work on Tampa Bay and see the amount of changes that have occurred over the last 30 or 40 years.
AH: Peter, thank you so much for giving us this history and story of the Tampa Bay Watch here in Tampa Bay. We really appreciate your being with us today.
PC: You bet and we are not done yet. And I know that theres a lot of people out there that will be able to find out more about the programs and projects and be able to come out and help us out. Thank you.
AH: Absolutely. Thank you.
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