Volunteers to plant salt marsh along Tampa Bay

One of the Tampa Bay area’s largest restoration projects will benefit from the largest salt marsh planting ever attempted by a local conservation group.

Tampa Bay Watch is recruiting 400 volunteers to plant 40,000 plugs of salt marsh at the Rock Ponds Ecosystem just south of Coackroach Bay Aquatic Preserve near Ruskin at 9 a.m. on Nov. 22.
Heavy equipment moves earth to save the earth as part of what will be the Rock Pond restoration project, just south of the Cockroach Bay Aquatic preserve near Ruskin. FILE

The project will create critical coastal wetland habitat at the Piney Point Creek of the Rock Ponds Ecosystem Restoration Project. The habitat is used by fish and wildlife and improves water quality from runoff polluted by urban and agricultural sources.

The salt marsh is home to many species of fish and marine mammals. It provides protection and a food source for coastal fisheries and protects low lying coastal lands.

Over the past 100 years, salt marsh and other coastal habitat have declined more than 80 percent because of dredging, construction and waste water discharges, according to a release from Tampa Bay Watch. The loss threatens Tampa Bay’s food chain for fish and other wildlife.

More than 1,000 acres of former farmland along the Tampa Bay shoreline is being transformed into a flourishing lagoon and freshwater wetlands, flanked by oak and pine trees as part of the Rock Ponds Ecosystem project.

Just north of the Manatee County line in Hillsborough County, the project is the largest coastal ecosystem restoration undertaken along the banks of the bay and will likely be the last large-scale reclamation of its kind. In its entirety, the property is 2,500 acres.

There just aren’t any more massive chunks of property like that available right along the water.

Once completed, it will link nearly 20 miles of conservation lands to the north, most of which has been restored through partnerships like this one, between Hillsborough County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.

The project is expected to cost $11.9 million, with half of the money coming from the state and half from Swiftmud and from various grants.

The partner agencies spent about 20 years restoring Cockroach Bay Preserve to the north, a spot now rife with butterflies, wading birds, raptors, game fish like snook and redfish and even the occasional bobcat.

This property, which got its name from a handful of pits created by the commercial excavation of shell rock and sand, is home to Tampa Bay’s second-largest waterbird rookery. The freshwater wetlands planned for this site will give the birds a nearby food source for their babies during nesting season.

To participate in the salt marsh planing, call Annie Dowling at (727) 867-8166 ext. 233 or email adowling@tampabaywatch.org.

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