“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

Florida is brimming with energy. Not the kind of energy that runs your laptop or powers your smartphone, though it has plenty of that. Rather, it is the immense thermal energy generated by the sun; the same energy that pushes vast columns of water vapor high into the air, culminating in a clap of thunder and a deluge of water droplets. This tremendous upwelling of heat and moisture is what makes Florida one of the wettest states in the country, with an average rainfall of 54.5 inches per year. The western half of the peninsula alone experiences an average of 80 days with thunderstorms each year, providing a seemingly endless amount of freshwater for its rivers, wetlands, and watersheds.

The Bounty of the Bay

There are many, many tributaries leading into Tampa Bay. In this satellite image you can see a few of the larger rivers and streams that flow into the bay.

There are many, many tributaries leading into Tampa Bay, though most are far too small to be seen from above.

One of the most significant benefactors of this rapid water cycle is the Tampa Bay, Florida’s largest open-water estuary. Though most estuaries are fed by large rivers, Tampa Bay instead receives its water from over a hundred different tributaries that drain directly into it. For eons, these tributaries brought nutrients and freshwater into the bay, providing a bountiful habitat for fish, birds, and other local wildlife. Schools of fish used to move like wisps of clouds through its waters and were so large in number that they occluded its shallow bottom and were even known to block the passage of small vessels.

But the bay’s bounty was gradually lost as the area became heavily settled over the course of the early 20th century. The bay’s location right on the Gulf of Mexico made it an ideal hub for commercial shipping, greatly increasing Tampa Bay’s population and, indirectly, its pollution. The bay’s sandy bottom was dredged to make room for larger ships and entire reaches of mangrove trees were paved over to make way for new developments.

By the 1970’s Tampa Bay’s ecology was a shadow of its former self. The unchecked growth of the city’s industries, as well as its busy shipping channels, muddied its waters so severely that sunlight could no longer reach the bottom of the bay. Beaches were regularly closed to swimmers due to dangerously high levels of pollutants in the water. Even worse, at least 80% of the bay’s native grasses were lost because of the massive accumulation of waste water and industrial pollutants in its waters.

Fortunately for the bay, the tide began to turn in its favor as the deplorable state of the country’s waterways came to the forefront of national politics. Federal agencies, state governments, and everyday citizens began to take notice of the degrading quality of their natural lands and rivers, prompting the creation of watchdog groups and conservation organizations. The community of Tampa Bay was swept up in this new wave of environmental fervor, resulting in the enactment of regulations that began the long process of cleaning up the bay.

Volunteers plant smooth cord grass along the shore.

Volunteers plant smooth cord grass along the shore.

Since 1993, Tampa Bay Watch, a local non-profit organization, has been on the front lines of the restoration effort, enlisting the help of thousands of volunteers to meet the numerous challenges faced by the bay and its community. From their Marine & Education Center on the water, the group coordinates a variety of projects that benefit both the people and wildlife that call Tampa Bay home.

Of Oysters and Salt Marsh

One of the group’s principal restoration projects has been the creation of artificial reefs and habitats throughout the bay. The group accomplishes this through various methods, one of which utilizes fossilized shells in mesh bags to build long stretches of artificial reef called shell bars. These shell bars create a stable marine environment for oysters to latch onto and grow.

The other approach is to use structures called “oyster domes”, hollow structures that resemble the kind of décor you might find in an aquarium tank. These structures act as rock-bottom habitats for fish, crabs, shrimps, and other marine species, as well as providing rocky surfaces to attract clusters of oysters. The focus on growing oysters is about more than providing a tasty snack for locals. Oysters are renowned for their ability to filter gallons upon gallons of water, a process that helps stabilize oxygen levels and removes excess nutrients all at once.

An eagle perches beside a row of oyster domes nestled along the shore of the Alafia River.

An eagle perches beside a row of oyster domes nestled along the shore of the Alafia River.

Beyond oyster domes and shell bars, the Tampa Bay Watch also works to restore salt marshes along the bay’s intertidal zone, where water levels rise and fall throughout the day. These marshes are dominated by smooth cord grass, a tall and hardy plant that thrives in wet soils. These tall grasses play a significant role in the local ecology of the bay as it prevents the loose soils of the shore from eroding, as well as providing habitats for countless wildlife.

Volunteers regularly get together to build new oyster domes for the bay.

Volunteers regularly get together to build new oyster domes for the bay.

Unfortunately, many of these salt marshes have been lost to shoreline developments, but efforts are ongoing to rebuild these natural features. Each year, the Watch organizes multiple salt marsh planting events where volunteers plant grass plugs in areas that have lost most of their original grass coverage. These efforts have so far resulted in the restoration of 294 acres of wetlands, allowing many different species to thrive in areas of the bay that have been devoid of wildlife for many years.

Cleaning Up the Mess

Rebuilding habitats is just one half of the battle to restore Tampa Bay to full health. And as with any large-scale environmental recovery, careful attention must be paid to maintaining the progress that has already been made. For the Tampa Bay Watch, this requires constant vigilance to remove litter, fishing lines, abandoned crab traps, and other derelict debris from the bay’s shore.

Derelict crab traps pose a hazard for both boats and animals alike.

Derelict crab traps pose a hazard for both boats and animals alike.

Plastic litter is a constant threat to marine environments such as Tampa Bay because of its tendency to breakdown into tiny particles, some no bigger than a grain of sand, that can easily be ingested by small fish. Over time, these small plastic particles make their way up the food chain, contaminating the fish that both we and larger animals like to eat. A recent study by the 5 Gyres Institute found that there are at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans weighing an estimated 269,000 tons. Plastic has become so prevalent in the world’s oceans that scientists are now founding concentrations of it in the most remote seas, including the Arctic Circle and the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.

Other marine debris, such as crab traps and fishing lines, can be a serious problem for large bays, especially those that are heavily trafficked. Old and abandoned crab traps can accumulate to such a degree that they pose a hazard to passing ships, as well as reducing native populations of fish and crustaceans who become ensnared by them.

The Watch's efforts are slowly restoring the bay's ecology, contributing to a  brighter future for local residents and wildlife.

The Watch’s efforts are slowly restoring the bay’s ecology, contributing to a brighter future for local residents and wildlife.

The Tampa Bay Watch organizes regular sweeps of the bay to help keep crab traps and other jetsam from clogging up the estuary. So far, volunteers have pulled 177 traps and over 55,758 pounds of debris out of the water since 2001, making significant headway in the long struggle to restore Tampa Bay to its fullest capacity for life.

Thanks to the work of the Tampa Bay Watch and countless other organizations and individuals, the bay has made a remarkable recovery over the last three decades. Seagrass now bends in the wind where it was once still, fish congregate and swim in large schools, and the people who live along the shore can now swim freely without constantly worrying about beach closures.