By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer
For the past 14 years, Tampa Bay Watch (TBW) has been making the waters of Tampa Bay a better home for both the people who live here, and the many forms of life that call it home.
Last week I traveled to St Pete with John Ryan and Sandy Gilbert to meet TBW’s founder and Executive Director Peter Clark, and to get a tour of the organization’s new facilities on Cunningham Key. The experience left us very impressed with the scope and effectiveness of their numerous projects and especially with the vision of Clark, who focuses with laser-like precision on the organization’s goal of restoration and community involvement. In Clark’s modest words, Tampa Bay Watch was a "good idea that was supported."
TBW is a nonprofit organization established in 1993. The group performs a variety of habitat restoration and protection activities, with thousands of volunteers of all ages, including community groups, scout troops and schools, addressing Tampa Bay’s many environmental problems. These volunteers contribute their time and labor planting sea grass and salt marshes, marking storm drains, and creating oyster bars and oyster domes. They also participate in coastal cleanups, derelict crab trap removal, wildlife protection, and an annual Great Bay Scallop Search. Their goal is environmental stewardship in its purest form.
The visionary Clark was the first staff person of TBW, which started with a small seed grant from a local community leader. He realized from the beginning that the organization should be run like a business with a mission of stewardship and education. The board of directors is composed of 20 business leaders chosen for their commitment and effective leadership style. TBW has six members on the executive board and a staff that is composed of scientists and educators.
The fact that TBW is a stand-alone business that focuses on obtaining grants, developing worthwhile projects, obtaining permits and organizing people is key to their success. Clark was perceptive when he looked at other programs and determined what worked and what didn’t work. He was intent on avoiding duplication and staying focused on what mattered most – restoring Tampa Bay. Through this successful model, TBW is able to work with a diverse group of organizations including Tampa Bay National Estuary Program, Fish America Foundation, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Keep Manatee Beautiful, The Ocean Conservancy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and many others. The beauty of the arrangement is that TBW often helps to accomplish the goals of other organizations through partnerships that would not be possible for the individual organizations.
In 2005, Tampa Bay Watch moved into its permanent headquarters on Cunningham Key. The island it calls home was once just a small spot of land in southern Tampa Bay. In the 1960s it was incorporated into the causeway that linked Tierra Verde with Fort Desoto. Later, it was developed as a single family residence with a business, Rita’s Bait Shop. When the key went up for sale in 1996 it was acquired by Pinellas County and the state of Florida Greenways Program. The groups worked together to secure the property with the goal of establishing a base for Tampa Bay Watch’s environmental protection and restoration programs.
Encompassing 18 acres, Cunningham Key, is now home to a community center, offices and education center. On the grounds there is a salt marsh nursery, marine touch tank, volunteer work area and boat docks. During the tour of the facility, Clark showed us where the volunteers make oyster domes and then took us to the bay’s edge to see them in action. While we were on the dock he pulled a scallop cage and explained how their cataclysmic style of reproduction had created colonies in the immediate area.
TBW is the kind of organization that every Bay deserves, and warrants the support of everyone who appreciates the natural resources of our marine environment. To get involved, become a member, and experience the magic of community in service of the environment, go to the Web site at www.tampabaywatch.org. I’ll see you at one of the next events!