RIVERVIEW — A wetlands restoration project off of U.S. 41 near the site of the former Giant’s Fish Camp and Restaurant is intended to attract aquatic life and preserve a stand of mangrove trees skirting the edge of Hillsborough Bay.
The work, which should be completed by springtime, is an attempt to correct damage caused more than a half-century ago by the fish camp’s namesake — the “giant,” Al Tomaini, and his wife, Jeanie — who dredged a tidal basin and put in a sea wall for the camp’s marina just south of the Alafia River. That work cut off water flow to the nearby mangrove forest and disrupted part of the river’s natural path to the bay.
The Mosaic Co. restoration project is wedged between the river and a reproduction of a huge boot once owned by Tomaini. The boot is atop a pedestal at the former site of the fish camp and unofficially marks the northern entrance to Gibsonton, a community known as the winter home of circus and carnival performers.
The restoration, which is under way, is the result of a mitigation agreement Mosaic made with state and federal officials following a phosphate gypsum stack breach in 2004 during Hurricane Frances. Some 65 million gallons of acidic water rushed in to Archie Creek, then into the bay, killing fish and other marine creatures.
While the restoration work is taking place south of where the gypsum stack breached, it is restoring inshore areas and the bay in close proximity to where the damage occurred, said wetland scientist Robin Lewis, who is heading the project.
The plan was approved by a board of trustees made up of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sitting as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment team.
“We needed to come up with a restoration project that was significant and meaningful,” Lewis said. A major step was reconnecting the former marina tidal basin to the bay, he said. Historically, the Alafia flowed south, but when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river and channelized it for shipping, it diverted the river to the west. The only remaining southern flow was through the tidal basin the Tomainis blocked, said Laura Flynn, vice president of Lewis Environmental Services. The marina operated from about 1950 to 1999, he said.
The Tomainis moved to the Gibsonton area, south of Tampa on the bay’s eastern coast, in 1941. That year the couple bought 3 acres on the inlet just south of the Alafia on U.S. 41. Eventually the Giant’s Fish Camp included fishing cabins, a restaurant, a marina and a bait shop.
Al Tomaini was said to stand 8 feet, 4 inches tall and was known as “The Giant.” Born legless, Jeanie Tomaini was 2 feet, 6 inches and billed as “The Half Girl.” The Tomainis toured as “The World’s Strangest Married Couple.”
One day Al Tomaini brought home a 35-inch-tall boot with a 25-inch sole as a souvenir. Shortly after his death at age 50 in 1962, his wife placed the boot outside their home as a memorial. It became a Gibsonton landmark, with children fishing candy out of the boot at Halloween and tourists posing with the oversize shoe.
Jeanie Tomaini remained at the fish camp until her death in 1999.
Mosaic bought the former fish camp and in 2010 Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton erected the memorial to the Tomainis’ business. It includes the replica of the boot, poised atop an 8-foot-4-inch base in view of U.S. 41. The fertilizer company tore down or moved the ramshackle fishing cabins — except one, which it restored. The boot memorial is in front of that cabin.
Through the years the seawall built to create the marina has degraded water quality and cut off flow to the nearby mangrove forest, leaving the trees in distress.
Flynn said the restoration team has identified “dead zones” of mangroves in the area. Without restoring the flow, up to 30 more acres of mangroves — an important nursery habitat for young fish and other creatures— might die.
“This is pre-emptive restoration,” Lewis said. “We are restoring the area before more trees die.”
While the restoration is designed to help the mangrove forest, some mangroves have been destroyed in the process of creating a curved channel to the bay. Lewis said that was necessary to create an efficient flow — one that nature can maintain.
A bridge over the tidal basin will provide access to Mosaic’s environmental center, which is at the edge of Hillsborough Bay. It also will allow Tampa Electric Co. access to its lines, running along the west side of U.S. 41.
Flynn said dredge work on the southernmost part of the project should be complete by year’s end and the remainder of the work should wrap up by March.
About 83 acres around the Giant’s Fish Camp will be designated a conservation easement to ensure it remains in a natural state.