Tampa Bay, Florida, Meets Seagrass Recovery Goal

Tampa Bay, Florida, Meets Seagrass Recovery Goal

Seagrasses are marine flowering plants which grow in shallow water areas and require clean water to flourish.  Economically and ecologically important fish and shellfish species such as groupers, snappers, bay scallops, and shrimp use seagrass as nursery habitat and hunting grounds.  Seagrasses increase water clarity by reducing wave energy, stabilizing sediments, and absorbing nutrients.  With more than 200 species of fish found in Tampa Bay - including snook, red drum, and spotted seatrout - seagrasses are recognized as a valuable resource critical to the health and function of the bay

Scallop in seagrass bed

Figure 1 - Seagrass is an important habitat for many species including the bay scallop shown here.

Among its many missions, the NOAA Fisheries is charged with conserving healthy, self-sustaining coastal and marine habitats which support vital ecosystem functions.  NOAA’s Southeast Region’s Habitat Conservation Division conducts a broad spectrum of habitat conservation and protection efforts, using both statutory and voluntary approaches to promote the protection of existing coastal habitats, including seagrasses.

The 2014 survey results released in May by the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management Program documented 40,295 acres of seagrasses in the Tampa Bay estuary.  In 1995, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, in which NOAA Fisheries is an active partner, set a restoration target of 38,000 acres.  At the time, Tampa Bay seagrasses totaled about 25,000 acres.


Partnership Approach to Habitat Conservation

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, NOAA’s habitat conservation activities in Tampa Bay focused on modifying and influencing construction and development projects to create more environmentally sustainable designs through consultations required by law.  However, project-by-project consultations do not always adequately address challenges placed on the ecosystem, nor do they provide all the tools needed for comprehensive habitat conservation.  Partnership-based approaches recognize no single entity possesses the capacity to single handedly achieve comprehensive habitat conservation.  In the early 1990s, the Habitat Conservation Division was restructured to provide “boots-on-the-ground” in west-central Florida and allow more opportunities to collaborate in key areas such as Tampa Bay.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program was established by Congress in 1987 to improve the quality of estuaries of national importance.  Tampa Bay was designated an "estuary of national significance" by Congress in 1990, paving the way for development of a long-term blueprint for bay restoration through the Tampa Bay National Estuary Program.

Leading the charge for establishment of Tampa’s National Estuary Program was the Agency on Bay Management, the natural resources committee of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.  This association of representatives from recreational and commercial fisheries, industrial (ports and commercial interests), academic and scientific sectors, local, regional, state and federal governments, and state legislators was instituted in 1985 to address issues and opportunities affecting the bay.

The Habitat Conservation Division continues to represent NOAA through appointments to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s Technical Advisory Committee and Agency on Bay Management.  The Estuary Program leverages the resources of program partners, including NOAA, by financing cutting-edge research into crucial problems impacting the bay; sponsoring demonstration projects testing innovative solutions to these problems; providing “mini-grants” to community groups engaging in bay restoration; and developing educational programs targeting key segments of the bay community.  The Agency on Bay Management serves as a broad-based forum for open discussion of the myriad issues involving the Tampa Bay estuary, and as a voice for protection, restoration and wise use of the bay by the entire region.

Seagrass Bed

Figure 2 - Seagrass require clean, clear water to grow.

The Habitat Conservation Division also continues to conduct hundreds of project-level environmental reviews in the Tampa Bay watershed each year.  These consultations involve projects ranging from residential and commercial development to major public works projects, involving roadway and bridge construction, to port and navigation improvements.  Comments and recommendations are provided to protect and conserve not only seagrass but a variety of habitats - such as marsh, mangroves, and oyster reefs - necessary to support healthy fisheries.

Tampa Bay is the economic and environmental centerpiece of a rapidly growing region.  A recent economic study has shown one in five jobs in the surrounding bay communities are dependent on its good health.  Considering the bay region grew by more than one million people in the last 15-years and now supports more than 2.3 million people makes the seagrass recovery an impressive achievement.

Tampa Bay is one of 28 estuaries recognized in the National Estuary Program.  The Southeast Region’s Habitat Conservation Division actively represents NOAA on programs not only in Tampa Bay but also in Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor, Florida; Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries and Galveston Bay, Texas; and Barataria-Terrebonne, Louisiana.

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