Tampa Bay must restore its seagrass | Editorial

Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest open-water estuary, a foundation of the area’s quality of life and a golden goose for growth. But Tampa Bay has lost its seagrass at an alarming rate in recent years. Governments, nonprofits and average Floridians all have a part in improving the bay’s water quality and protecting this vital resource.

Tampa Bay lost 12% of its seagrass in recent years, a survey shows, leaving the upper bay with the lowest amount of the plant crucial to life in the estuary since tracking began in 1988. Seagrass in Tampa Bay declined by more than 4,100 acres between 2020 and 2022, according to mapping results unveiled Monday by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. With 30,100 acres of seagrass, Tampa Bay is at its largest deficit since 2010 after nearly a decade of restoration progress peaked at 41,600 acres in 2016. The bay has lost nearly 30% of its seagrass since then.

This is the first time scientists have logged a decline in Tampa Bay’s seagrass in three consecutive studies, according to a report this week by the Tampa Bay Times’ Max Chesnes. Surveyors documented most of the declines in the upper part of the bay, which they’re linking to freshwater flow from often-polluted rainfall runoff and other tainted sources. Old Tampa Bay, an upper part of the estuary off Largo, lost more than 2,500 acres. That’s 38% of its total seagrass. Officials say coverage in Old Tampa Bay is now at a historic low.

Other parts of the estuary are struggling, too. Hillsborough Bay to the east lost a reported 428 acres of seagrass between 2020 and 2022, a decline of more than half of its total seagrass in just two years. The estimates are based on images taken during the winter months between 2021 and 2022, after the emergency release of contaminants from the Piney Point fertilizer site near the Manatee-Hillsborough county line. Middle Tampa Bay, the part of the estuary closest to Piney Point, lost 8% of its seagrass, or nearly 700 acres, in two years. Notably, those losses were more pronounced on the eastern side of Tampa Bay, near Piney Point, compared to the western side.

Estuaries along Florida’s Gulf Coast saw declines, too, from Sarasota Bay to the south. Researchers noted some silver linings; Clearwater Harbor and St. Joseph Sound reached record-high seagrass coverage in the latest survey, which officials attributed in part to the waterways’ proximity to the gulf and volume of flushing. And long-term nutrient loads in Tampa Bay continue to decline; in 2022, water quality targets were met in each bay segment, a sign that bay waters overall are clear enough to allow seagrass the opportunity to thrive.

The problem is that nutrient sources from a growing region continue to leak into Tampa Bay, aggravating other factors, such as warming water temperatures and limited circulation, that combine to damage the seagrass. State and local governments need to continue upgrading stormwater and wastewater systems and do more about pinpointing pollution sources. Residents need to be more responsible about collecting their dog’s poop, using fertilizer and considering where and how they water. And voters need to elect candidates with a genuine commitment to improving water quality.

It will take all hands to reverse these trends and build a healthier Tampa Bay.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.