For Leah Biery, the new director of the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center, its primo spot smack in the middle of the St. Pete Pier triggers all sorts of idea.
“What an inspiring location for people to come in and learn about the oceans, and the ecosystem, and then walk outside and be right there,” Biery said. “And have a new appreciation for it.”
Ocean conservation is this North Carolina native’s passion. And Tampa Bay Watch’s mission is to help protect and restore the bay, as well as adjacent bodies of water. The 3,000-square-foot facility includes numerous exhibits that tell the story of the unique Tampa Bay ecosystem, and what the average man, woman or child can do to help.
“With the location on The Pier,” Biery marveled, “there are constantly people walking by who are community members out rollerblading, walking their dogs, running, spending time with their families. There are visitors from all over the world.
“So in addition to the people who are coming to us as a destination, we’re getting so much foot traffic from people who are just curious and walking by, which is amazing. Being able to reach those people, without being necessarily their target destination, is a really powerful thing.”
Biery reported for duty three weeks ago. She’d been living in the Sanibel/Captiva area, in southwest Florida, as director of operations for the marine conservation organization Sanibel Sea School.
While she was earning a degree in Zoology from North Carolina State University, she arrived in Sanibel – which had been a favorite vacation spot for her family – one summer, looking for an internship. She fell in love with the place.
An undergrad project working with baboons in Tanzania – four months living in a tent, in one of the hottest and buggiest parts of the world – led to Biery dedicating herself instead to the study of marine biology. She gave in to the lure of her beloved ocean.
She got a Masters in Fisheries Management at the University of British Columbia. “My interest in sustainable seafood sparked that,” she explained. “While working on Sanibel, I became very interested in the ways our seafood consumption is impacting our oceans and the fish populations. And I wanted to learn more about it, and figure out how I can contribute to protecting fish populations.”
She wrote her thesis on shark fisheries and the shark fin trade, and spent six months in Belize, studying gill net fisheries for the marine conservation organization Oceana. “After I graduated, I really realized that education is my favorite place to work.”
The road led her back to Sanibel Sea School, where, among other initiatives, she was part of an island-wide program to educate fishermen about the dangers, to birds and other marine animals, of discarded monofilament fishing line entanglement.
The “Mind Your Line” educational campaign had multiple components, including installation of monofilament recycling bins around local piers and other popular fishing locations, and instructional videos about safely removing hooks from pelicans.
“It was,” she explained, “a great example of cooperation among the nonprofits, who were also competing with one another for funds.”
There are similar programs, she was happy to discover, in Pinellas County.
“Tampa Bay Watch has volunteer days, where they go out and clean up the monofilament on the bridges, and they also have days when volunteers come in and sort through it and clean it in preparation for recycling,” Biery said.
The group also works with Title 1 schools, has a mobile classroom, and sponsors hands-on field trips from its Education and Restoration headquarters on Tierra Verde.
All of it gives Leah Biery big ideas. Good ocean stewardship starts with the young.
“I would really like to expand our community outreach programs for kids,” she said, “reaching underserved kids who don’t get to spend a lot of time by the ocean, and learning about the ocean, despite living close to it.
“Connecting with them and giving them opportunities to experience the bay is really important to me.”