Tampa Bay’s sea grass beds, a critical component of a healthy estuary, have rebounded to such a remarkable degree that their health is as robust as it was 60 years ago, water resource scientists and environmentalists say.
The acreage of beds has not only met a goal set in the 1990s, but exceeds it by more than 2,000 acres.
The dramatic increase in sea grass and an improvement in water quality over the past couple of decades is being watched by others across the nation, said Peter Clark, CEO of Tampa Bay Watch and board chairman of Restore America’s Estuaries, an organization of environmentalists from as far away as Connecticut, Rhode Island and California.
“Other bay managers are truly impressed with the progress we were able to achieve in Tampa Bay,” Clark said. “They all have problems, but the solutions just need to be implemented. It costs money and takes time, but you’ve got to take the first step.”
In Tampa, the first step was more than 20 years ago when the goals were set, he said.
“I can’t think of another estuary around the county, if not the world, where we’ve seen such a dramatic improvement of water quality,” Clark said.
The secret is getting the cooperation of government and the support of residents in stemming pollution and runoff of nutrients, he said.
“People here appreciate the Tampa Bay estuary system and know what the potential is. The commitment by the public has been so impressive over the years.
“I think that when we look at other estuaries around the country, they still are struggling to convince local and state governments that dollars need to be spent in order to reduce the discharges that go into the water.”
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Along with improvement in sea grasses, Clark said, are a recovery of fisheries and water quality. Scallops are back in the bay and wildlife is coming back to the estuary.
“We have a great story to tell,” he said. “The story is that if the community can get behind improvements to water quality in the bay, they truly can make a difference.”
A Southwest Florida Water Management District 2014 sea grass mapping survey released this week counted 40,295 acres of healthy sea grass, the most in the system since 1950, before dredging and pollution began carving away at the sea grass plains.
Twenty-three years ago, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program set a recovery goal of 38,000 acres and the news this week was greeted by optimism and satisfaction. The survey showed an increase of 5,600 acres from the most recent mapping done in 2012. That’s a 16.3 percent jump, estuary officials say, and the fourth consecutive year in which increases were recorded.
“This is a remarkable achievement, made even more so when you consider that the bay region has grown by more than a million people in the last 15 years,” said Tampa Bay Estuary Program Executive Director Holly Greening in a statement issued this week.
The improvements are getting attention.
Kim Coble, vice president of environmental protection and restoration with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said her group and others are aware of Tampa Bay’s restoration successes.
“We are tracking what Tampa Bay is doing in a general sense,” she said.
Chesapeake Bay is considered the largest estuarine system in the United States, and is one of many threatened by pollution and population, she said. “Estuaries are becoming more urbanized, all of us are,” she said. “The more urbanized you get, the threats of pollution sources go up.
“We’re all under the same pressure,” she said.
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In the 1970s, Tampa Bay coastal development and pollution along with dredging cut deep into sea grass beds, water resource scientists say, and in the 1980s, sea grass acreage was the lowest it ever was.
“Sea grass was our canary in the coal mine, major losses occurred when Tampa Bay was in distress,” said Kris Kaufman, senior environmental scientist for the water management district, in a statement announcing the findings. “Now with sustained good water quality in the bay, sea grasses are flourishing.”
Sea grass bed surveys take place every two years.
Keeping an eye on sea grass beds is important, Kaufman said, because it is a gauge of the bay’s overall health. Sea grass requires relatively clean water to flourish and is sensitive to changes in water quality and clarity. Sea grass mostly grows in water less than 6 feet deep, but in the clear water around Egmont and Anclote keys, beds can be found in water 10 feet deep or more.
In Old Tampa Bay, the expanse between the Gandy Bridge to Oldsmar, sea grass beds have lagged behind because of pollution from sewage treatment plants and nutrient rich runoff from Lake Tarpon. Still, the survey had encouraging news: There was a 47 percent increase in sea grass in that region, or about 3,273 additional acres, since 2012.
In the region around downtown Tampa, traditionally the most heavily damaged part of Tampa Bay, sea grass bed acreage jumped 525 acres, or 36 percent over the 2012 survey.
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All of this does not mean the mission is accomplished, Kaufman said.
“We want a few more years of mapping,” he said, “to make sure we maintain these increases.”
Besides being an indicator of water quality, sea grasses are natural fish factories. They shelter and support a variety of juvenile fish, shrimp, crabs, marine worms and other marine creatures.
Biologists say spotted sea trout, sea horses and bay scallops are among the species that live in sea grass beds.
Fish Fanatic Charters Capt. Josh Simmons has noticed a difference, though he can’t say if it’s just expanded sea grass flats that have made the difference.
Simmons, who fishes out of Ruskin along Hillsborough County’s south shore, said fishing has improved over the past five years.
“I can tell you flat out that the trout population has come back full force, red fish too” he said. “There’s a larger variety of fish especially along the south shore.”
Sea grass provides a lot of protection for juvenile fish hiding from predators, he said.
“Sea grass creates better spawning grounds,” he said, “and that means a lot more hatched fish survive.”
“Sea grass cover and food,” he said. “That’s all they really need to survive.”