According to Politifact, nearly 1,000 people move to Florida every day – and have been moving to the state in droves for decades. All this human activity leaves an oversized environmental footprint. Nearly fifty percent of these folks choose to live near the coast, directly impacting our coastal waters and amplifying the need for their protection. The new Friends of Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves, Inc., aims to do just that.
Currently Tampa Bay has four aquatic preserves: Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve was the first, formed in 1969; followed by Pinellas Aquatic Preserve, in 1972; and later, Terra Ceia in Manatee County; and Hillsborough’s Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve. Now advocates for these sanctuaries will operate in unison as the Friends of Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves, Inc, the state’s latest citizen support organization.
The newly formed CSO celebrated its beginning in December as dignitaries and environmentalists gathered at Millennium Park on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay to celebrate the state’s 14th aquatic CSO.
“This new CSO is founded according to DEP standards and meets all guidelines,” said Terry Fortner, who has been working on the new CSO since 2019 when the idea emerged to combine the existing preserves.
“It offers a lot of valuable opportunities and entitles us to money from the DEP’s aquatic preserve funds,” she said.
According to DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein, citizen support organizations are instrumental in helping the department preserve Florida’s natural landscape by maintaing natural resources and engaging residents in local conservation activities, such as beach cleanups and seagrass planting.
The newest in the DEP’s panoply of CSOs, the idea for the fledgling group first emerged in September 2019, when the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Boca Ciega Aquatic Preserve in 1969.
Former legislator Roger Wilson – who sponsored creating the first legislatively designated aquatic preserve, Boca Ciega Aquatic Preserve, in 1969 – signed the agreement between DEP and the CSO.
Wilson, who grew up in John’s Pass when it was a real fishing village, lobbied for the 1969 aquatic preserve as a freshman legislator. He was dismayed at the unregulated dredge and fill that was rampant in the 1950s. Boca Ciega Bay was almost destroyed by the creation of Tierra Verde and the constructed fingers with ranch houses that ring the small bay.
“Roger is the founding president (of the new CSO), but Rose Poynor is the first official president of the preserves,” said Fortner. “Rose was formerly a biologist at the DEP.”
Fortner also has deep roots in Pinellas County. Her grandmother, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, born in 1895 and raised on Caladesi Island, wrote a popular memoir of those halcyon days, titled “Yesteryear I lived in Paradise.” Myrtle imbued Fortner with a love for natural Florida that fuels her activism.
As an advocate for coastal preservation, she shepherded the new CSO from its first glimmer in 2019.
“I’m just the facilitator,” said Fortner, adding that she doesn’t plan to play an active role other than as a supporter. “We have a great manager, Dr. Randy Reynolds. With a staff of two, Dr. Reynolds will provide all the information about the preserve.”
The Friends of Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves encompasses 380,000 acres of coastal waters in Florida’s most densely developed areas of Pinellas County and Boca Ciega Bay, as well as less developed areas of Terra Ceia and Cockroach Bay. This CSO is dedicated to work hand in hand with DEP “to restore and enhance the aquatic preserves through research, resource management and education while also providing recreational opportunities.”