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Planting sea grass continues re-emergence of Tampa Bay

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2000


TAMPA -- Anchored on the grass flats north of Port Tampa, we watched a large snook rip through a school of bait that had sought protection in the shallow water.

"This area is full of life," Peter Clark said as he slipped over the side. "Manatees, trout, redfish ... they all rely on the sea grasses."

Twenty years ago, most of the sea-grass meadows in Tampa Bay were dead or dying, and trophy snook were few and far between. The grass beds, which provide a nursery for most of the bay's sport fish, had shrunk to one-fifth of their original size. Snook, redfish and spotted sea trout, the three species targeted by recreational fishermen, were on the decline.

"By 1980, a low point in bay history, we were down to just 22,000 acres of sea grass," Clark, executive director for Tampa BayWatch, said. "Years of poor water quality, the result of urban runoff, poor wastewater treatment and years of dredge and fill projects had taken its toll."

But then the tide turned.

"Once those problems were addressed, the change was pretty dramatic," Clark said. "The improved water quality enabled us to work on the sea grasses."

Ambitious salt-marsh restoration and sea-grass transplant projects by volunteer groups such as BayWatch have helped reclaim a large part of the bay for the anglers and sport fish.

"So far we have been able to restore about 4,000 acres of sea grasses," Clark said. "We think we can do another 14,000, so we have our work cut out for us."

Reclaiming natural habitat long has been a priority in Tampa Bay, the 400-square-mile estuary that serves as the heart of the Suncoast's recreational and commercial fishing industries.

Nearly 80 percent of all valuable fish, shrimp, crabs and shellfish use the bay's tidal creeks, wetlands and grass beds at some point in their lives. That's why estuaries such as Tampa Bay are called "the nurseries of the sea."

Every summer for the past four years, Clark and his volunteers, mostly students working for the summer, have transplanted thousands of shoal and manatee grass plugs to areas where the native grass had disappeared.

"We plant the shoal grass first because that it a good colonizer," Clark said. "Once the shoal grass is established, we plant the manatee grass, which provides a more desireable habitat."

BayWatch has four permitted donor sites. Each one is carefully monitored to assure that the transplanting does not impact the existing grass bed. Over the past four summers, BayWatch volunteers have completed more than 60 successful transplantings.

"The El Nino hit us hard," Clark said. "But since then our success rate has been more than 90 percent."

Sea grass, a flowering underwater plant found only in the shallow water of bays and lagoons, also helps stabilize shifting sands, reducing suspended sediment, which helps improve water quality.

"The key to these sea-grass restoration projects is labor," Clark said. "We need bodies."

During the typical transplant project, volunteers snorkel the donor site in the morning and collect individual grass plants. The small plants are then attached to wooden clothes pins that serve as anchors in the soft bay bottom.

"We can usually move about 200 plants a day," Clark said. "We plant them a meter a part, the goal being that they will eventually all grow together."

Small groups of volunteers, 20 or fewer, have proved most effective. BayWatch has conducted the majority of its transplanting projects in the summer, when labor is readily available. But Clark hopes to expand the program.

If you or your class, civic group or fishing club would like to help contact BayWatch at (727) 896-5320. The non-profit environmental group needs volunteers for everything from its Manatee protection program to beach cleanups.

"We look around and see all the work that still needs to be done," Clark said. "But I guess that it is a good thing. At least we have job security."

Fast facts about Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay is the largest open-water estuary in Florida, encompassing nearly 400 square miles and bordering three counties -- Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas. The bay's sprawling watershed covers a land area nearly five times as large, at 2,200 square miles.

More than 100 tributaries flow into Tampa Bay, including dozens of meandering, brackish-water creeks and four major rivers -- the Hillsborough, Alafia, Manatee and Little Manatee.

A quart of bay water may contain as many as 1-million phytoplankton -- microscopic, single-celled plants that are an essential thread in the marine food web.

More than 200 species of fish are found in Tampa Bay, including the popular snook, redfish and spotted sea trout.

Mangrove-blanketed islands in Tampa Bay support the most diverse colonial waterbird nesting colonies in North America, annually hosting 40,000 pairs of 25 species of birds, from the familiar white ibis and great blue heron to the regal reddish egret -- the rarest heron in the nation.

Each square meter of bay sediment contains an average of 10,000 animals -- mostly tiny, burrowing worms, crustaceans and other mud-dwellers that are known as benthic invertebrates. The most numerous creature in the bay sediment is a primitive, fishlike invertebrate about 2 inches long, branchiostoma. On average, Tampa Bay is only 12 feet deep. Because it is so shallow, manmade shipping channels have been dredged to allow large ships safe passage to the Port of Tampa and other bay harbors. The largest of these, the main shipping channel, is 43 feet deep and 40 miles long. The Port of Tampa is Florida's largest and consistently ranks among the top 10 ports nationwide in trade activity. It contributes billions annually to the region's economy. More than 4-billion gallons of oil, fertilizer components and other hazardous materials pass through Tampa Bay each year.

- Source: Tampa Bay Estuary Program. To learn more, pick up a copy of the free Boater's Guide to Tampa Bay from www.tbep.org or call (727) 893-2765.

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