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Cockroach Bay Remains a Tampa Bay Gem

Saddled with a repugnant name, Cockroach Bay is one of the most beautifuland ecologically fertilestretches of Tampa Bay. It is hard to believe this expanse of mangrove islands and sea grass beds in South Hillsborough County endures within sight of the bustling downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg, and a few minutes’ drive from the explosive growth nearby.


It was a fishing trip to Cockroach Bay decades ago that inspired my love for Tampa Bay. The series of mangrove islands south of Ruskin looked like something from pioneer Florida. Wildlife was abundant: snook, trout, redfish, ospreys, pelicans, ducks, porpoises, ducks, rosette spoonbills, and virtually every other kind of wading bird. It is, and remains, as The Florida Aquarium Associate Curator Eric Hovland precisely puts it: “a dynamic environment.”


“The mangrove forests and oyster reefs,” Hovland explains, furnish “a vast nursery to many of Tampa Bay area’s favorite gamefish. Snook, tarpon, red drum, to name just a few, get their start here and make this their home. Bonnet sharks will frequent Cockroach Bay, scanning the bottom for crabs and other crustaceans.”


When I first started fishing Cockroach, I heard stories of rattlesnakes swimming between the islands and scrambling wade fishermen. The only rattler I encountered was near the boat ramp on Cockroach Bay Road. It was dead.


Hovland explains Cockroach Bay’s peculiar name derives from the horseshoe crabs once common in its waters. According to Hovland, “I guess after a long day on the water in the Florida heat, the mind of an early Spanish explorer could mistake these infamous arthropods for their distant relatives, the cockroaches.”


Over the years, Cockroach Bay has become increasingly popular with anglers and boaters, creating over-use problems, particularly prop scaring on the grass flats. Still, it remains wonderfully wild and is better protected than when I first visited.


For that unlikely accomplishment, give credit to environmental activists and elected officials who blocked various harmful proposals, including a marina and power plant.
When the power plant was proposed, biologist Robin Lewis boated former Tampa Tribune Editor Ed Roberts and me to grass flats, not far from where the facility would be built. He randomly dipped a clear jar into the water and displayed the baby shrimp and other tiny creatures swirling in the water. “This,” Lewis asserted, “is what is at stake.”

 

Needless to say, our editorials vigorously opposed the project, as did many community activists and elected officials, including former County Commissioner Jan Platt. The proposal eventually was abandoned.


The Florida Legislature designated a portion of the coastal waters as a State Aquatic Preserve in 1976, and the boundaries were later expanded. Hillsborough Community College (HCC) established the Environmental Studies Center at Cockroach Bay, under the leadership of Fred Webb, the former dean of environmental studies at HCC.
Moreover, two visionary programs in particular aided Cockroach Bay: Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP) and the state’s Surface Water Improvement Management Act (SWIM).


ELAPP, originally approved by voters in 1987, uses a portion of property taxes to buy environmentally valuable land. SWIM, initiated by former Gov. Bob Martinez in 1987, made a priority of restoring Florida’s rivers, lakes and estuaries. Tampa Bay was among the waterways that the legislation designated a priority concern. Administered by the state’s five water management districts, SWIM approved funding for the restoration of disturbed coastlines and for projects to address runoff and other pollution sources. ELAPP preserved close to 2,000 acres around Cockroach Bay, including Big Cockroach Mound, an island mound once used by the Timucuan Indians. While some of that land was undisturbed, other parcels were heavily damaged, and SWIM work, in turn, restored them to a natural state.


Brandt Henningsen, chief environmental scientist of SWIM for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, recently recounted how one Cockroach tract had been used for agricultural and mining. Yet the SWIM team was able to re-contour the land, creating wetlands, creeks, lagoons and uplands that would sustain wildlife as it also filtered runoff from continuing agricultural operations.


Henningsen says the recently completed 1,043-acre Rock Pond project near Cockroach Bay is the largest Tampa Bay restoration effort yet. Countless volunteers helped government agencies repair the Hillsborough land that stretches to the Manatee County line. The natural coastline not only keeps the water clean, but guards against erosion and provides a buffer against storm surge.


As Hovland points out, the mangroves and undeveloped shoreline “serve here and throughout Florida as a natural safeguard and barrier to the forces of nature so timely in this season of hurricanes.”


And Henningsen emphasizes that preserved land furnishes these critical services with virtually no operating costs.


I recently kayaked Cockroach Bay and found it as beautiful as ever. The water was clear; the seagrass lush. The no-see-ums were out in force at the boat ramp, but were no bother on the water. 


Even early on a weekday morning, plenty of cars with boat trailers were parked alongside the two-lane road leading to ramp (there is no parking lot.) But you didn’t have to paddle far to find solitude and natural entertainment – dolphins scattering baitfish, ospreys hunting overhead, pelicans making their spectacular dives, and a flock of ducks flying in formation.


Hovland’s favorite Cockroach activity is “flipping over rocks and exploring tide pools for fascinating marine creatures.” I stick with fishing, catching and releasing a few trout and a snook.


The fishing this day was not spectacular, but that was hardly the point. You cannot visit Cockroach Bay without feeling blessed, and grateful to those all those who fought the odds to preserve and restore this ill-named but glorious stretch of Tampa Bay wilderness.

 

By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.