By Vicki Jackson
Captain Harry Young's (not shown) crew for the day, Bill Moan, of Clearwater; Lanny and Ben Jackson, of Clearwater Beach
"Have you ever ridden in an airboat?" This was the challenge in an invitation to the Derelict Crab Trap Removal on McKay Bay on Saturday, January 16th. This is the sixth year that Tampa Bay Watch (TBW) has partnered with the Florida Airboat Association in the cleanup project in northeastern Hillsborough County. As a TBW spokesman states, "The primary objective of this project is to remove derelict traps from the environment and to reduce unnecessary entrapment of marine organisms, such as blue crabs, stone crabs, small commercial and recreationally important fish and brackish water turtles".
Presented with such an exciting 'have fun and do good' opportunity, I hurried to volunteer. Informed there were only a couple of spaces left, I immediately signed up-for my husband and my son! I explained that I don't do boats, but would be there to observe.
The group gathered promptly at 9 a.m. on a breezy, comfortably cool morning, under heavily overcast skies. Peter Clark, TBW Executive Director, welcomed all and assigned 2-3 volunteers to each of seven airboats. Each boat would be equipped with a shovel and a multipurpose boat pull to be used for grabbing a crab-trap line. Each also had a 5-gallon bucket containing the captain's log, pliers, and a tarp to protect the boat bottom.
While most of the crab traps are damaged, and can be pulled, specific criteria were given regarding the legal removal and documentation of a derelict trap, including: tag/ID; license; buoy; and trap condition. In addition, recorders were to note the presence of any 'fouling organisms', such as: barnacles, oysters, mussels, etc., and to note if escape from the trap was possible, and what animals didn't make it out! The crew found a young horseshoe crab that was among the victims.
Captain Dave Markett of the Florida Airboat Association issued precautions about the unique craft. "With no rudder, they're always sliding", he said. Referencing the powerful propellers, he added, "Anything you turn loose will be sucked in". Citing the danger of not being able to see what's underneath the boat, he advised, "Do what the captain asks you to do. The main thing is to hang on!"
After that warning, the volunteers, one-by-one, cautiously descended the craggy wall to the water's edge. None complained about the cool ankle-deep water as they boarded and the boats were launched. They were off on a mission!
The first boat out was surprisingly quiet. To me it seemed to purr. My illusion was abruptly halted when a captain shouted at me to look out for the "prop-wash"! I now know the prop-wash is the giant plume sprayed out by the tall propellers when the mighty engine roars. It seemed to follow everywhere I went. Such noise is often subject to protest, and new designs can provide a quieter operation, but such propellers and mufflers are expensive. While airboats can go 50 MPH, most of the day's activity was at half that, and less.
A support boat, piloted by Peter Clark, monitored the trap-retrieving fleet. The skiff seemed tame enough, and it surprised both of us when I accepted his gracious invitation to join the excursion. Despite my trepidation, I was rewarded with an up-close view of mangroves and other serene beauty, not to mention the calming effect of the journey. Ultimately, the wind grew too strong for the safety of the vulnerable airboats, and the day's mission was curtailed.
About two-dozen broken and bent, oyster-coated crab trap remains were deposited in a dumpster that had been brought in for the occasion. It wasn't as full as might have been expected, but that could be taken as a positive sign that efforts to clean up the bay are working!
Afterward, when all participants were treated to a light lunch, dockside, I chatted with some of the volunteers. Salima Grannon, a retired nurse from Ruskin, was there with her husband, Jim. The couple feels fortunate to live on the water, and love what they see. They expressed the "joy of being in their backyard" and have volunteered often for "most any kind of clean-up project", particularly with Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful. At a crab-trap retrieval event for the first time, Salima served as a data collector on 'her' airboat and marveled at the way it just skimmed over the sand.
Several volunteers remarked on the large number of discarded tires that littered the bay, as well as plastic buckets, a lawn chair, and even half of a paddleboat. Others mentioned the various aromas that floated on the wind, such as sulphur, hydrocarbons from fuel and ammunition, evidencing the many demands: recreational, industrial, and commercial, placed on the bay.
photo by Bob Herndon
Retiring TBW Chairman of the Board, Larry Weiner, referenced their mission: "Tampa Bay Watch, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit stewardship program dedicated exclusively to the protection and restoration of the marine and wetland environments of the Tampa Bay estuary through scientific and educational programs". They seek to make and keep "our Tampa Bay a sustainable resource for everyone", and do so "with the support of members and volunteers". He noted that the organization has minimal staff for about 10,000 volunteers, and that "82 cents of every dollar goes toward project implementation" - a remarkable return on investment.
An enthusiastic response followed the announcement of a subsequent Derelict Crab Trap Removal that promised to be even bigger and better, (I know my guys are ready). It will take place, weather permitting, on February 27th at E.G. Simmons Park in Hillsborough County. You may visit www.tampabaywatch.org, or call (727) 867-8166, for information on volunteer opportunities.
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