December 10, 2011 was planting day for the campers at Busch Gardens Tampa. For the last three years, as part of the park’s summer camp program, campers have been helping raise hundreds of their own salt marsh plants, all species native to the Tampa Bay estuary. This project and the plants are part of a much larger effort by Tampa Bay Watch, a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the Tampa Bay estuary. Since its founding in 1991, Tampa Bay Watch has been enlisting the help of volunteers, including Busch Gardens’ staff and campers, to fulfill their mission. This included raising enough of their own native vegetation for later transplanting. Busch Gardens’ Education Department sent invitations to summer campers to come out to Cockroach Bay, one of Tampa Bay’s estuaries, and bring the plants they nurtured to their permanent home. The campers and their parents, along with a number of other volunteers, took on the task of introducing this native vegetation back into parts of Cockroach Bay that had been lost to urban development. Tampa Bay Watch organized the event into areas for each volunteer group, allowing campers to transplant the very same salt marsh plants they helped raise. It is through efforts like these that Busch Gardens is doing its part to help keep the Tampa Bay ecosystem beautiful and healthy.
This project isn’t all just about restoring marsh plants. In fact, it’s much bigger than one may imagine as numerous species make the estuary their home. Three varieties of sea grasses and three types of mangroves for instance, are literally losing ground to continued urban development. This shrinking habitat is also home to an astounding 40,000 nesting pairs of birds representing some 25 species. In addition, more than 70% of all marine animals, including a large number of fish, shellfish and crustaceans, spend at least a portion of their lives in this open water estuary, the largest in Florida. Many migratory species, as well as manatees and dolphins, make the Tampa Bay area their home. With so many living things dependent on the bay for their survival, it brings to light the critical role the estuary plays in the greater environment. In a highly complex ecosystem such as the Tampa Bay estuary, the well-being of just one species can affect many others. Keeping in mind that the diversity of species living in the Tampa Bay estuary represents every niche within the food web, its preservation is critical.
It is through volunteer projects like these that the Busch Gardens staff, summer campers and their parents are doing a great deal to give back to the Tampa Bay area community. Tampa Bay Watch and Busch Gardens will continue their mission to restore the estuary to its former pristine state, a goal that may require many years but is all the more worth it for us and its nonhuman residents.