TARPON SPRINGS — In ecological terms, it doesn’t take being large, majestic or visually awe-inspiring to play a significant role in a habitat’s healthy functionality.
Often, its the seemingly mundane that truly keeps the system cycling along.
Students at Tarpon Springs High School got a hands-on appreciation of that last Thursday afternoon.
Tampa Bay Watch, a nonprofit group dedicated to the protection and restoration of marine and wetland environments, led a project creating an on-campus salt marsh nursery. It oversaw the planting of about 5,000 shoots of Spartina alterniflora, a perennial deciduous grass also known as smooth cordgrass or saltmarsh cordgrass.
It’s the third year Tarpon Springs High has participated in the group’s Bay Grasses in Classes program, which teaches students the environmental importance of wetlands while also providing native plants for use in habitat restoration projects.
Salt marsh grasses play a multifaceted role in the health of wetlands and their surrounding environments. In addition to providing habitats for juvenile fish, crabs and shrimp and feeding grounds for migratory birds, grasses and their root systems help filter stormwater from pollutants and excess nutrients that would otherwise flush unimpeded into surrounding waterways.
“These grasses are our primary defense against storms,” Gruber said. “Wetlands absorb a lot of the strong storm energies that come to Florida.”
Now in its 19th year, the educational program is involved with 15 middle and high schools in Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties.
“They grow these grasses to provide themselves with educational tools on wetland environments,” said Martha Gruber, an environmental scientist with Tampa Bay Watch. “It also gives them a sense of ownership for their grasses that are then going to be planted at a restoration site.”
Thursday’s planting period was the first stage of the program’s ongoing cycle. After about six to eight months, Gruber and Tampa Bay Watch will return to help students harvest the grasses. They will then travel south to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish Stock Enhancement Research Facility in Port Manatee to replant them.
In the meantime, between planting and harvesting, the educational opportunities persist at participating schools, Gruber said. Tarpon High students, with the assistance of science teacher Karyn Huber, will check on the nursery every two weeks for maintenance and upkeep. That process involves checking the water’s level and specific salinity — 15 parts per thousand — and inspecting the grass itself to make sure there are no fungi or scales emerging.
The entirety of the program combines environmental science with varying levels of math while also requiring students to use equipment they likely wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.
The layered symbiotic elements of Bay Grasses in Classes – educating students while assisting Tampa Bay Watch in growing nurseries while then restoring wetlands – is what has made the program continue to thrive, and Gruber said its further expansion of is a goal.
“When we put the call that we were recruiting schools for this we had a lot of interest into the program,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we were only able to fit in three this school year, but maybe next year or the following we’ll be able to open it up to more schools.”