TERRA CEIA -- It has been a busy week for Randy Runnels, who last week closed the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserve office here, due to budget cuts.
The professional biologist and site manager bid farewell to his staff of two full-timers and one part-timer, who were also laid off Friday by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
He cleared out his desk at historic Haley House, which he helped rescue from the wrecking ball.
“We felt the best way to save it was to have our offices there,” he said of the Craftsman-style structure at 130 Terra Ceia Road.
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And he looked back on 15 years of service, supervising 400,000 acres of submerged lands scattered across three counties.
The aquatic preserve office was one of four, out of 16 statewide, that closed, saving $596,523 annually, said Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The four preserves it tended on an annual budget of $186,383 -- Terra Ceia, Cockroach Bay, Pinellas County and Boca Ciega Bay -- will retain their designation as preserves, but coastal education and resource monitoring programs have been eliminated, she said,
Regulatory operations will continue from a separate DEP office, she said.
Pat Neal, a Manatee housing developer who as a state legislator helped to create the Terra Ceia preserve, said its higher standard of protection had helped the bay recover from years of pollution.
Ernie Estevez, a Mote Marine Laboratory scientist, said the area has lost an effective advocate for the environment.
And Holly Greening, of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said she will miss the scientific expertise wielded by the erudite aquatic preserve staff.
“It’s not the big, flashy things in the news, it’s the small things that fall through the cracks,” said Runnels, 51, of St. Petersburg, of his years of work.
Some examples: His office helped to oversee a complex, multi-agency ecological restoration at Terra Ceia Bay and Bishop Harbor.
It recruited thousands of volunteers every year for various missions, such as removing non-native vegetation that chokes out native flora and fauna.
Runnels, whose Ph.D. is in oceanography, was active in encouraging ecologically-positive, “green” boating practices.
Recalling some of his talks with boaters about what such initiatives were designed to accomplish, he noted: “I would say: ‘Here’s what’s underwater that you’re protecting.’
“These marina owners would say, ‘Wow, I never knew that.’ You could tell there was a genuine buy-in.”
The office also regularly applied for grant money, and contributed scientific research on such things as poorly-understood hard corals that grow underwater in the area.
Runnels and his colleagues also provided scientific advice when the county was considering development proposals, said Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee’s director of natural resources.
“The aquatic preserve programs in Florida have a long history of not only protecting the resources through the staffs, but also participating in review of development proposals, development of regional impact, and helped to advise Manatee County staff from time-to-time on specific impacts anticipated from nearby development,” he said.
“It is evident these programs have contributed to change the perception that one-size-fits all in developing water quality regulations, and in management programs at the state and national level,” he said.
“That’s perhaps one of their most valuable contributions,” Hunsicker concluded.
Runnels recalled hosting a delegation from China, which marveled at the steady improvement over decades in Tampa Bay’s water quality, even while the human population around it multiplied.
“Tampa Bay is unique because it’s gotten better over the years,” said Runnels.
The Chinese were desperate for a solution because over fishing and degraded habitat had compromised some parts of their nation’s aquatic food chain, portending starvation for the poor, he said.
The aquatic preserve staff could take partial credit for the bay’s renewal, according to Greening, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, whose mission is to ensure Tampa Bay’s natural resources are adequately managed and protected over time.
“Terra Ceia is part of Tampa Bay, and where Terra Ceia is located in the lower Tampa Bay segment, it’s actually the segment we’ve seen the largest gains in sea grass over time -- ...very strong recovery,” she said.
Sea grass beds, building blocks of marine life, now cover more of the bay bottom than at any time since the 1950s, she added, noting that the aquatic preserve employees constituted a “tremendous asset.”
Their work increased understanding and protection of coastal habitats, and provided a better scientific understanding of how to manage them, Greening said.
“Having people out there responsible for maintaining the integrity of the systems” has been an important part of Tampa Bay’s improvement, she said.
Runnels was also able to attract researchers from around the world because of his stellar credentials and great interest, she said.
Estevez, a Manatee County resident and director of Mote’s Center for Coastal Ecology, said, “All aquatic preserves have been very good for the State of Florida.”
Their purpose is to identify goals, put people on the ground, and coordinate permits and scientific projects, said Estevez.
“They’re an advocate for the area, they write proposals that bring funding into the state to do good work, and coordinate volunteers who do all kinds of good work in these preserves,” he said.
The idea for creation of the preserve was to raise environmental wastewater standards and to prevent dredging and filling in sensitive areas near Port Manatee, Neal said.
The preserve would protect “all the places people loved, where they didn’t want canal locks or sewer plants or other human creations,” he said Friday.
“There should be certain places in our state that had more valuable resources than our state as a whole,” he added.
At the time, his goal was to halt the discharge of 16 million gallons a day of effluent from a sewer plant polluting Terra Ceia Bay, he said.
He hoped in time, its status as a preserve would help it to recover its lush, pristine beauty.
Eventually, the sewer plant was moved away from the bay to a more appropriate place, he said.
“My goal was to preserve the Terra Ceia land -- that was 25 years ago,” Neal said. “I think that purpose was accomplished.”
He had not known about plans to close the aquatic preserve office, he said. State Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, also did not know it would be closed, he said, until a reporter told him on Thursday.
Runnels said the state had originally proposed closing six aquatic preserve offices, but relented on two of them, one at Biscayne Bay in the Miami area, and another at Estero Bay, near Fort Myers.
When the closings were announced, he said, a public outcry arose on their behalf that never happened here.
Explained Runnels: “We heard that at the last minute it caused them to stay open.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.