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Bayshore Beautiful

A reef is born

Determined volunteers create an ecosystem on the shores of Tampa Bay with concrete balls, of all things.

By RON MATUS
St. Petersburg Times
published March 21, 2003


The 100-foot strip of mud at the south end of the Bayshore Boulevard balustrade isn't much to look at.

Two lonely mangroves grip eroding soil. Trash is everywhere.

But the aesthetically challenged beach couldn't stop more than 80 volunteers from helping it Saturday.

One by one, they planted 125 pieces of concrete, each shaped like an upside-down punch bowl and weighing about 150 pounds, in knee-high water.

The concrete will become a mini reef, attracting oysters, fish and birds. It will also act as a shock absorber for incoming waves so mangroves won't be undermined.

"These small pieces of natural Florida add a lot to our quality of life," said Nanette Holland with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which gave $7,500 for the Bayshore project. "I like to think of them as small oases."

Bayshore Beautiful and Ballast Point residents evidently agree.

Volunteers led by Ballast Point resident Mike Flynn made more than 60 of the concrete structures, which are hollow inside, pocked with hand-sized holes and better known as "reef balls." The rest were bought from a company in Sarasota.

To deposit them in the water, volunteers formed two parallel lines from the shore to the shallows. Two men set the reef balls on stretchers made of plywood and 2-by-4's.

Then the lines moved them, passing the stretchers from hand to hand like an old-fashioned bucket brigade. At the end, four people with straining muscles walked the final 100 feet to other volunteers, who laid the reef balls snug in the mud.

"Is someone going to give me a massage?" said Bayshore Beautiful resident Ron Rangel, taking a bottled water break after an hour of lugging.

The reef balls made an ironic splash.

Until the sea wall was built decades ago, mangroves dominated the west shore of Hillsborough Bay. Now, concrete is being used to save what shore remains.

"Sort of a turnabout on an old theme," Holland said.

Two similar projects are in the works.

At MacDill Air Force Base, officials are seeking permits to build an 800-foot-long artificial reef along the base's southeastern shore.

In Ballast Point Park, residents want to replace waterfront rubble with marsh grass and protect the newly vegetated shore with reef balls.

Some optimists, looking years into the future, see restored shoreline stretching several hundred yards, from the park to the balustrade.

"This is just where it starts," Eric McKsymick said.

McKsymick, an Air Force officer and former Bayshore Beautiful resident, secured money for the Bayshore project from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and began the process of securing permits from government agencies.

When he was transferred last summer from Tampa to Alabama, Flynn kept the reef balls rolling.

Both men were on hand Saturday.

Small as it is, the muddy strip is still "its own little ecosystem," Flynn said.

Herons stalk fish. Fiddler crabs emerge from holes. A mama duck guards her eggs. The better the shore is protected, the more life it will support, supporters say.

They have faith in their new reef.

As if to prove it, they brought new life to the little beach, planting 1,700 plugs of marsh grass.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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