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Beach work betters Tampa Bay estuary for fish

By Terry Tomalin

FORT DE SOTO — Jim Wilson is a big-picture kind of guy.

"If you plant sea oats," he said, "you protect the dunes. If you protect the dunes, you protect the bay … and that's where the fish are."

Wilson, the chief ranger for the crown jewel of the Pinellas County park system, is also an avid angler. When he's not looking for sea turtle nests on the beach, he's usually wading along the mangrove shoreline in search of redfish and snook.

"A lot of fishermen don't understand that this estuary has a lot of moving parts," said Wilson, a sportsman who believes in habitat restoration and enhancement. "The more mangroves and sea grass we have, the more fish. It's as simple as that."

Recreational fishermen are, in general, a vocal bunch. They'll pack a courthouse to protest bag limits and closed seasons, but they're usually not as enthusiastic about building oyster bars and planting salt marshes.

But ask any fisheries biologist what major issue impacts your species of choice — trout, grouper, red snapper — and they'll give you the same response: "It's habitat, stupid."