Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve turns 50

Boca Ciega Bay

SEMINOLE — As a child raised on John’s Pass in the 1940s, the area was like “an outdoor playground for kids,” said Roger Wilson.

The Seminole resident added, “It was beautiful. There was fishing, swimming, running around outside. You could just go spend the whole day outdoors and never get bored.”

Like many children, one of his favorite things to do was to go scalloping or catch shrimp off John’s Pass. After high tide, they were plentiful in the healthy grass flats, he said. They’d sell the smaller shrimp to local bait shops for a penny apiece and bring the larger shrimp and scallops home to their parents.

“You’d walk away with a couple of bucks and dinner,” Wilson said. “But you can’t do that now. I had the very good fortune of growing up at John’s Pass … when it was a pristine fishing village. But it’s nothing like it used to be.”

Though dredging and filling started in southern Pinellas County as early as the 1890s, it really ramped up in the early 1950s, he said, as developers eyed the area. “They began dredging up healthy grass flats, putting it on top of another one, and then the mangroves started to disappear.”

As land was pumped in and commercial and residential development went in, much of the area’s natural beauty began to disappear, he added.

This bothered Wilson, and when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, serving from 1968 to 1976, the preservation of the county’s waterfront was his main agenda.

“When you get in a position where you can actually do something, you get involved and take some action,” he said.

His efforts were “controversial,” he added. “The developers didn’t like it. They said, ‘No, we have some more work to do.’ I said, ‘No, it’s time to stop.’”

He even nearly got into physical altercations over the issue.

But Boca Ciega Bay was “a national representation of how not to dredge and fill,” so ultimately, he found support for his plans to create an aquatic preserve. There were also other conservationists, including Bill Young, Mary Grizzle and Jim Robertson, serving at the time, and they backed Wilson.

“There were so many people helping me, and you need that kind of help to make things happen,” he said.

Since he was a freshman lawmaker, he started small. In 1969, thanks to his work, legislation was passed to form the Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve and calling for the halting of the dredging and filling of the bay.

Wilson wasn’t done, though. He introduced new legislation, which passed in 1972, that formed the Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve, which includes Boca Ciega Bay, waters offshore of Palm Harbor, the western portion of Tampa Bay, Clearwater Bay, St. Joseph Sound, the oceanic waters west of the county line, Lake Tarpon and portions of Lake Seminole.

Today, both the Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve and the Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve fall under the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves, which also oversees Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve and Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve.

The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council sponsored a 50th anniversary celebration of the establishment of the Boca Ciega Aquatic Preserve Sept. 19 at the St. Petersburg College Seminole campus. Wilson was recognized for his commitment to Tampa Bay’s natural resources at the event. Dr. Randy Runnels, who manages the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves today, was also a guest speaker.

The work to preserve the county’s waterways is far from over, Wilson added.

“You don’t have to worry about dredging and filling. Our concerns have changed. Now you’ve got to worry about local governments dumping sewage into the bay,” he said, “and with the population increase, you have trash buildup, plastics, papers, whatnot. It inhibits the tidal flow.”

Terry Fortner, an environmental advocate who works closely with Wilson, said, “There’s also plastic use and fertilizer use. In today’s world, we have a far greater understanding of the impact of human development. Back then, they were only concerned about the immediate, big-picture effects. Today we know about microplastics and fertilizer runoff.”

In recent months, she and Wilson have worked together to create a nonprofit organization, the Friends of the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves, Inc. The new organization is a citizen-run group that supports the efforts of the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves.

“There’s only a staff of three people overseeing 400,000 acres of Tampa Bay aquatic preservation land,” she said. “We need to provide all the support that we can. This effort deserves the notice and support from all of us as citizens.”

More information about the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves and the Friends of the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves can be found at tampabayaquaticpreserves.org.