SAFETY HARBOR — Six months into a yearlong muck study of Old Tampa Bay, principal investigator Ernst Peebles revealed his team's initial findings Monday.
The news was a relief to many Safety Harbor officials. According to Peebles, a University of South Florida professor:
• The area is not a dead zone.
• It does not stand out as the worst portion of the bay.
• Muck accumulation is not at a critical or acute stage at this point.
• There are no serious oxygen circulation issues.
• The muck will start to break down naturally if humans stop excess nutrients from flowing into the bay.
So what is causing the accumulation of unsightly dark, soft organic matter where sand used to be?
When Peebles and his colleagues looked at the matter under a microscope, they found quartz sand, remnants of microscopic plants and large brown oval objects that turned out to be fecal pellets from crustaceans.
"At this point, it looks like there has been an increase in the production of fecal pellets in this area, which means an increase in the amount of zooplankton and/or an increase in the amount of larval crabs and shrimp,'' Peebles said.
"What we think is happening is, the area is becoming more productive over time and that's resulting in a larger biomass of zooplankton and young crabs and shrimp," he said. "And the rate of fecal pellets deposition has been increasing faster than the rate of decomposition.''
Therefore, slimy gunk, and lots of it.
Peebles said the Lake Tarpon Outfall Canal is one of many sources that have caused an accumulation of nutrients in Old Tampa Bay.
The study stems from a breakfast meeting at Panera Bread three years ago between Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold and Oldsmar Mayor Jim Ronecker. They discussed a joint partnership between the two cities to try to clean up Old Tampa Bay.
That meeting led to a $150,000 study of the waters off Safety Harbor, sponsored by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Pinellas County and the cities of Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Clearwater also contributed financially.
In addition to USF, Eckerd College is involved, as is the U. S. Geological Survey.
Once funding was in place, scientists used acoustics to measure how much of the bay is covered in muck. To find out how deep the sludge is, they took 60 core samples.
A chemical analysis will be conducted on the samples to establish the history and source of the material and answer this question: Has this been recurring for 100 years or is this a new phenomenon?
Although the study is far from complete, Peebles believes he can safely say that if the discharge from the Lake Tarpon canal was restricted or diverted to another waterway, "it would help.''
"The natural process is being accelerated by human activity,'' Peebles said. "It leads to deteriorated water quality and aesthetic conditions that people don't like.''
Peebles stressed that the study was still in the early stages and the causes of the build-up of nutrient is still being investigated.
Steingold said he was surprised that the problem may be due to fecal pellets from crustaceans and that the problem can be fixed.
"I am encouraged that a remedy will soon be found,'' he said.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.