For 29 years Tampa Bay Watch, a 501(C)3 non-profit, has been dedicated to fostering a healthy Tampa Bay watershed through community-driven restoration projects, education programs, and outreach initiatives. Founded by Peter Clark, who, as member of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, realized the need to engage the community to help the Tampa Bay estuary recover from its historical environmental problems.
Tampa Bay Watch’s mission, to build citizen awareness, concern and participation through educational outreach and restoration projects, has grown to include thousands of volunteers of all ages. Each year, individuals, community groups, corporations, youth programs and schools participate in a variety of restoration and environmental activities such as salt marsh plantings, storm drain markings, oyster bar creation, coastal cleanups, and wildlife protection. This is environmental stewardship in its purest form.
From 1993 until today, Tampa Bay Watch has coordinated more than 250,000 volunteers and students who have installed 15,000 oyster reef balls and placed 2,500 tons of oyster shell to create more than two miles of oyster shell reef communities. More than 1,000,000 salt marsh grasses have been planted, restoring 250 acres of coastal tidal ponds to Tampa Bay. These efforts have resulted in measurable improvements in Tampa Bay’s water quality.
Studies show that Tampa Bay is one of the only estuaries in the nation to have shown significant indications of improved water quality due to the efforts of community habitat restoration projects. This supports our mission and shows clearly that personal experience with nature builds the desire to protect the environment. Tampa Bay Watch fosters this commitment by providing ongoing opportunities to help protect Tampa Bay in a hands-on way.
The efforts of Tampa Bay Watch to restore and protect the bay’s habitat through stewardship and community awareness provide effective long-term improvements to the bay, and empower our community with the knowledge to counteract environmental problems. Learning how to achieve and maintain a healthy environment is a legacy that will touch our children and their children for years to come.
Until 2020 and the opening of the Discovery Center on the new St. Pete Pier, Tampa Bay Watch activities were limited to our facility in Tierra Verde. While effective for those who knew of the program, there was little interface with the public at large. Then came the opportunity to bring the Tampa Bay Watch message and mission to a wider and more diverse audience at the new St. Pete Pier.
During multiple public hearings and community conversations, residents consistently voiced their desire that a marine education component be part of the new Pier, with a focus on Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay Watch was selected by the City of St. Petersburg to create and develop an environmental education center on the St. Pete Pier.
The Discovery Center officially opened its doors on July 6, 2020, bringing interactive exhibits, educational programs and immersive field experiences, to local, national and international visitors to the new Pier. Designed purposefully to educate and inspire visitors to active environmental stewardship, the Discovery Center gave Tampa Bay Watch a public face and the opportunity to reach new audiences and educate visitors of all ages about the importance and value of protecting the marine environment. In 2021 alone, despite Covid-19, the Discovery Center provided free public programs on the Pier to over 20,000 visitors.
In July of 2021, the Discovery Center launched the second phase of our contractual agreement with the City of St. Petersburg, an on-water Eco-Tour program leaving directly from the Pier. In addition to trawls which allow us to expose the marine life in the bay to visitors, these tours provide visits to marine bird roosts in Tampa Bay, opportunistic sightings of marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees, and Tampa Bay focused educational programs for visitors.
Conducted by experienced marine biology and marine environmental educators, these daily tours also provide the opportunity to conduct research, collect and share data with seven different programs coordinated by public and private organizations and agencies. This marine research is important as it adds to the knowledge bank of marine life in Tampa Bay, helps support other agencies and organizations in their efforts to protect Tampa Bay and underlines our mission to continue to restore and protect the Tampa Bay estuary, which is a passionate and professional commitment by our employees, our board and our supporters and volunteers.
As a not-for-profit organization, Tampa Bay Watch is allowed to generate revenue, such as charge admission, operate a retail component, hold events, rent facilities and so on. The difference is any revenue generated over expenses stays within the organization to create new educational programs, offer free programs to schools, underserved residents and the public in general, and to develop more effective outreach to better inform and educate audiences about the importance of Tampa Bay to their overall quality of life.
Recently, Tampa Bay Watch was mentioned in two articles in the Catalyst in regard to a complaint by a dolphin watch tour boat operator who purchased an existing business after the Discovery Center’s eco-vessel had been announced.
Ironically, this tour operator’s business directly benefits from Tampa Bay Watch’s decades-long work to restore Tampa Bay to a healthy and viable resource in which to work and recreate, yet chose to conduct a relentless campaign of misinformation, unsubstantiated complaints and loud vocal exception to our Eco-Tours – and essentially our presence at the Pier – by lodging frequent and unfounded accusations to the St. Petersburg City Council that Tampa Bay Watch had an “unfair advantage” and was putting him out of business.
City Council heard these complaints and asked city staff to come before Council recently to provide the facts of the lease agreement, location of the vessel and educational activities provided by the Tampa Bay Watch Eco-vessel. After hearing from the city staff and both Tampa Bay Watch and the dolphin boat operator, Council determined that Tampa Bay Watch was abiding by the lease and providing valuable educational opportunities for visitors to the Discovery Center and passengers on the Edo-Vessel, Discovery.
While we were not asked to comment for either article in the Catalyst, we believe it is important that readers have the opportunity to hear the facts about the situation and the mission and impact of Tampa Bay Watch. We remain diligent in our efforts, working to protect our most precious resource: the local water we call home. And we will continue to do so as long as the bay needs us.