As I look out of my office window, I see a school of tarpon rolling on baitfish in Bayboro Harbor in downtown St. Petersburg. Despite Tampa Bay’s recent environmental challenges, I’m already seeing fall signs of resilience to the insults experienced earlier this year. Had the bay been in worse condition prior to this year’s events, we might be facing a much harsher and less certain future.
Throughout 2021, a bevy of bad news provided a jarring glimpse of a potential dystopian future for those who depend upon Tampa Bay for pleasure and peace of mind or their livelihoods. The first indication of trouble came with the news that underwater seagrasses fell below a long-term recovery goal.
Next came the emergency discharges of nutrient-laden water from the Piney Point facility in early April. Nitrogen, an essential nutrient and fertilizer to marine algae and plant life, can also cause cascading ecological impacts when delivered in excess to our coasts – such was the case at Piney Point. Nutrient fuel is often the root cause for coastal ‘dead zones.’
The Red Tide that devastated the bay this past summer – and still persists along our coast today – was fueled by excess nutrients emanating both from the Piney Point discharge and later by runoff from our urbanized watershed during our summer rainy season. As a result, Tampa Bay was indeed a dead zone during much of July.
Prior headlines from the 1970s remind us that this year wasn’t the first time Tampa Bay has been declared “dead.” This 30th anniversary year of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program has been a wake-up call for our community and partners. Collectively, we must double-down on our commitments to restore our estuary. For the better part of the last three decades, Tampa Bay was improving.
Only a few short years ago, the Tampa Bay estuary was internationally recognized as an environmental success story. Our region was — and still is — a model for people working together and applying science to drive effective environmental management even as we continue to develop the Florida coast. Our community has proven that seagrass and environmental recovery is possible, we just need to once again roll up our sleeves and ratchet down on nutrient pollution — no matter the source.
That means we have to confront where these nutrients originate. In many cases, it’s primarily from ‘our’ collective activities. While Piney Point was an insult to the bay’s recovery, it wasn’t the bay’s original injury, nor its last. As we work towards closure of that facility, it is important to recognize that these types of pollution sources need to be adequately treated prior to discharge to either our surface OR ground waters. That recognition is important for moving the dialogue forward in eliminating these types of threats to the bay’s health, and putting these insults behind us.
However, we can’t lose sight of other primary threats to the bay’s health. Greater than 3.1 million people (and counting) now live, work and play in Tampa Bay. Meaning how we collectively fertilize and maintain our yards, maintain the aging pipes that carry our flushing toilets and sinks to the nearest wastewater treatment plant, drive our boats along shallow seagrass flats, or how much nitrogen our cars and power plants emit into the atmosphere all matter to the future health of Tampa Bay.
So, let’s recommit to working together to address these core issues facing our region and other Florida coastal waters. If we do, next year might provide different scenes. Springtime of 2022 can once again bring a resurgence of fish, game and wildlife and a reawakening of the key habitats they depend upon in Tampa Bay.
Typical summer pastimes that support our community’s well-being and quality of life, as well as our regional economy, can once again become the norm. Think: boats lining up to catch the tarpon run along Egmont Key, a cooling kayak paddle under Emerson Point mangrove tunnels, turning a Little Manatee River bend to reveal dolphin chasing down mullet along the shallows, or a perfect Fort DeSoto beach day with views of black skimmers and manatees moving up and down the coast.
I am optimistic that our community can get the bay back on track and restore these typical seasonal scenes. It’s imperative that we move past recent insults and work together towards making Tampa Bay the perfect backdrop for living, working and playing along our coast.
But, what will you do to help?
Ed Sherwood is the executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. For more ideas on how to help, see tbep.org/get-involved.