Community management and the importance of license plates in Tampa Bay

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An example of the "tarpon tag" license plate. For $17 a year, Florida residents can have this specialty license plate which funds dozens of community projects every year. (Carter Weinhofer/Eckerd College)

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Estuaries are important ecosystems, continuously threatened by anthropogenic factors. Implementing small-scale community projects to help preserve these fragile environments can lead to big impacts. One organization, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP), helps engage these types of projects, funded by something you wouldn’t expect – license plates.

Established in 1991, the TBEP is a product of the National Estuary Program as a part of the Clean Water Act of 1987. The organization’s goal is “to build partnerships to restore and protect Tampa Bay through implementation of a scientifically sound, community based management plan.” This plan is funded by the Bay Mini-Grant Program, which disperses funding to organizations in the community whose projects work to protect the environment of Tampa Bay. 

The money for these grants comes from purchases of specialty “tarpon tag” license plates which depict the famous Tampa Bay tarpon, a highly prized game fish common to the Gulf of Mexico. 

To gain a little more insight into the TBEP and their community work, Sheila Scolaro, community programs scientist at the TBEP, discusses several of the projects funded by the tarpon tag license plates and explains why community science is such an important part of Tampa Bay. 

Sheila Scolaro, community programs scientist at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. (Carter Weinhofer/Eckerd College)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

A: My name is Sheila Scolaro. I’m the Community Program Scientist for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. I’ve been with the Estuary Program for about two years. I am a Florida native, from near the mouth of the Manatee River/Bradenton Area. I grew up snorkeling and fishing the grass flats of that area, and I remember being really young and kind of becoming really fascinated at the diversity of life hiding just below the surface of the water.

So I knew that I was going to dedicate my career to protecting these sensitive estuarine habitats and coastal habitats, so that future generations would have the same opportunities to explore this amazing underwater world like I had. After I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Florida and I studied plant science. And then from there, I got a job at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute studying sea grasses, so I traveled all around the Gulf of Mexico studying seagrass and water quality. 

I worked at the FWC for about four years and then I ran the seagrass and water quality monitoring program for Sarasota County. And now I am at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program where I coordinate our volunteer seagrass monitoring effort. And I help coordinate a lot of our community engagement activities.

Q: So what got you interested in your current job that you have now? What led you there? 

A: To me, science is really important and management should be based on science, but there seems to be a disconnect between the scientists and the community. Part of that issue is that we as scientists, we write in a lot of jargon. I wanted to try and be a bridge between the science and the community so that community members didn’t feel isolated. And they have the same knowledge that the scientists did.

Q: Could you explain a little bit about your role at the TBEP?

A: I help to engage community members. We try to educate our science to the community members so that they can be more informed members of our community and to help them be better stewards of our environment. We have 3.8 million people that live in this region now, and a lot of them are from out of state. I know that most people came to Florida because of the beauty of Tampa Bay, so they don’t intentionally want to do anything to hurt it – so we tried to help them be better stewards. 

Some of the things that I do (are that) I manage our Bay Mini-Grant Program, which is a community program that’s funded by the “tarpon tag” or the Tampa Bay specialty license plate. It grants up to $5,000 that is offered to community organizations for projects that help to protect and restore Tampa Bay. I also coordinate a program which is called “Give a Day for the Bay,” encouraging community members to get out and be part of Tampa Bay’s restoration story. 

Q: What are some of the projects that you’ve been a part of over the past couple of years?

A: We have a lot of projects that we fund through a Mini-Grant Program and through all of the Tampa Bay programs. So with the Bay Mini-Grant Program, we’ve tried to find anywhere from 20 to 25 projects a year. Our goal is to fund about $100,000, so I’ve been involved in quite a few projects. The rain gardens are, I think, my favorite – we have quite a few of those. Each year we have a request for projects that goes out in the summer and we try to highlight or prioritize a specific action which is basically one of our goals to implement. 

Q: What exactly is a rain garden, and why is that your favorite type of project? 

A: Rain gardens are areas that collect water and essentially slow water movement and allow for that water to percolate through the system. It pulls out all of the nutrients and contaminants in the water before it gets to Tampa Bay. As somebody who has focused a large part of their career on seagrasses, any project that improves water clarity or water quality is something that I like to be involved in… (It’s) an exciting project for me because it also gets people outside, gets people digging, digging in the dirt, which I think is really important – getting your hands on nature, feeling nature I think is important. And recognizing the beauty of Florida native species.

Q: What do you think is the importance of community management and community projects in this day and age?

A: I think it’s important to know a little bit about the history of Tampa Bay to kind of put the community in context and how important that community is to this area. In the early 1950s, Tampa Bay’s economy was booming and we were rapidly developing, but we had poor wastewater treatment, so we were discharging raw sewage directly into the bay. We had poor nutrient management, and we were just rapidly developing. We had algae blooms over almost the entire bay, but in the northern portions of the bay, the algae blooms were the worst.

By the 1980s, we lost about 70% of our sea grasses, which is a critical habitat for many of our fishes and wildlife species in the region and in the estuary. In about the 1970s, the community kind of stepped up and there was a community outcry. They basically joined forces and started this movement called “Save the Bay.” They were really the impetus for change in Tampa Bay. They demanded more from their representatives and they were the ones that kind of got the restoration started in this area.

Without the community, the bay might not look the way that it does today. To me, the community members are still at the heart of our restoration story. So community is everything. You know, we’re the ones who live out here, we play out here. We’re the ones that have a large impact. And so if we can be better stewards of the area, even if it’s just our neighborhood, then it can have a pretty large impact on the estuary as a whole.

Q: What are some of the impacts that you have personally seen through community programs like this? 

A: I think they have a big impact in the local communities. I mean, in this one park in Gulfport we saw the implementation of one project and then another group was inspired by the project – the rain garden that was installed – and now they want to do another one and potentially there will be other spots that have rain gardens also. I think having those small community projects that are visible to the neighborhood, are inspiring to me, to other groups and to new locals and to tourists.

I will just say that we’ve gotten very comfortable lately (with) how beautiful Tampa Bay is. However, we’re seeing some major changes in the estuary. Anecdotally… we’re getting reports of large scale macro algae blooms. We had harmful algae blooms in the northern part of the estuary from 2018 to 2020. We lost 16% of our seagrasses which is pretty substantial.

We’ve had two consecutive reporting years where we lost the grass, and we’re expecting another one…That’s concerning for us as Bay managers.

What I would like to say to community members is that it’s time for us to once again come together as a community and recommit to protecting Tampa Bay because it took 30 years to restore the estuary and we don’t want to miss out or take for granted what those who came before us did. 

Florida residents can get the specialty license plate for $17 a year, helping fund community projects around the Tampa Bay area, like the ones described by Scolaro. For those who want to be more involved in the projects, visit the Tampa Bay Estuary Program website.

Finding community organizations and ways to support them, like a license plate, can be great ways to take small steps toward building stronger community-based management.

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