Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Tampa Bay

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Tampa Bay focal area.

Map of the Tampa Bay focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

The Tampa Bay watershed drains approximately 2,400 square miles and portions of six counties within the western-central Florida peninsula. Tampa Bay proper is Florida’s largest open water estuary (400 square miles) and encompasses four Aquatic Preserves (Boca Ciega Bay, Cockroach Bay, Pinellas County and Terra Ceia Bays) and drainage from several major rivers and more than 100 tributaries. The suite of island refuges found in Tampa Bay (i.e., Passage Key, Egmont Key and the Pinellas NWRs) is important to the natural and cultural history of the area.

A thick crop of underwater vegetation.

Turtlegrass, a submerged aquatic vegetation. Photo by NOAA.

It is estimated that more than four million residents currently live in the three counties surrounding Tampa Bay, with at least 500 new residents moving to the area per week. This growth, coupled with the fact that one in every five jobs in the focal area depends on a healthy Tampa Bay, suggests that the greatest conservation challenge for this focal area is that of maintaining a healthy ecosystem while simultaneously balancing the need to mitigate past environmental impacts with acknowledging current and future human needs. Efforts by conservation partners over the past couple of decades have proven that this challenge is not insurmountable. In fact, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program reports that their 1995 goal of restoring seagrass acreages to levels not seen since the 1950s was exceeded in 2015. The Service recognizes, however, that now is not the time to be content as continued rapid urbanization and potential effects from climate change necessarily focus our attention looking forward.

Target Species

Despite its urban setting, Tampa Bay hosts a wide variety of habitats -– from freshwater springs and subtropical hardwood forests to beaches, dunes and extensive seagrass beds – that are home to more than 200 species of fish and some of the most diverse colonial waterbird nesting populations in North America. More than two dozen species of nesting herons, egrets, ibis, gulls, terns and shorebirds have been documented. The Tampa Bay estuary has the largest royal and sandwich tern nesting colonies, the most nesting American oystercatchers, and the largest brown pelican rookeries in Florida. In addition, it is home to at least five species of insect-eating bats, beach-nesting sea turtles, resident dolphin pods, and up to one-sixth of Florida’s West Coast manatee population during the winter months.

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program has set quantifiable habitat restoration targets based on the requirements of a suite of indicator species. Included in the assemblage of 38 indicator species are several target species for the Service: the threatened West Indian manatee, the brown pelican, the reddish egret, the roseate spoonbill, the least tern, the white ibis, and the American oystercatcher.

Bright pink birds with rounded beaks wading in the shallow water.

Roseate spoonbills. Photo by USFWS.

While many of the proposed actions in this focal area specifically list trust resource species as their targets, nutrient reduction through improvements in wastewater treatment and land use practices will enhance water quality in Tampa Bay and increase productivity of saltwater recreational fish species, and other aquatic and prey organisms. Restored seagrass beds and marsh created with dredged material will not only improve habitat conditions for the West Indian manatee, but also for aquatic invertebrates like blue crabs, shrimp, and oysters as well as refuge and nursery areas for marine fish and prey communities.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Re-establish hydrological processes and improve water quality to achieve more natural freshwater flow and sediment input, and reduce nutrients into the Tampa Bay estuary, to enhance wetlands and aquatic habitats.

Next Steps

  • Continue to support, implement and/or expand (where needed) pollution prevention programs such as the Florida Yards and Neighbors Program that promotes and educates homeowners and communities on environmentally sustainable landscaping options.
  • Implement integrated pest management policies to reduce chemical use and implement environmentally beneficial landscaping practices.
  • Support financial and technical assistance programs (e.g., Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management System program) to help incentivize agriculture best management practices that can reduce impacts to soil and water resources while maintaining sustainable crop production levels.
  • In areas in which it would provide the most significant water quality benefits for fish and wildlife, retrofit current wastewater treatment technology and convert septic systems to sewer systems in targeted sub-watersheds to reduce nutrient pollution impacts and improve the overall water quality of Tampa Bay.
  • Work with the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) program to establish minimum flow levels for rivers and springs throughout the district.

Taking a watershed approach, conserve habitats (including mangroves, tidal marsh, seagrass beds, barrier island beaches and dunes, freshwater wetlands, coastal forests and prairies) by working with partners and landowners to expand the network of conservation lands and engage in activities to restore or manage these habitats.

Next Steps

Heavy machinery moves sand along a shoreline.

Working on a living shoreline. Photo by Matt Whitbeck, USFWS.

  • Implement the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s Habitat Master Plan and priority projects identified in the joint National Estuary Program’s Southwest Florida Regional Ecosystem Restoration Plan to restore and protect key bay habitats necessary to support bay-dependent species (e.g., oysters and seagrass), paying particular attention to restoration designs which can best accommodate projected sea level rise.
  • Participate in the Florida Ecosystem Restoration Network to develop and implement regional and statewide habitat restoration and protection priorities.
  • Support and provide funds for public and private land conservation programs throughout the Tampa Bay watershed where such lands could be available for restoration and stormwater treatment projects that are critical to the overall restoration and management of Tampa Bay.
  • Reduce propeller scarring within seagrass beds, continue to evaluate the effectiveness of restoration techniques on scarred beds, and pursue restoration at appropriate sites to preserve the diversity of seagrass communities and provide foraging habitat for the Florida manatee and numerous other fish and wildlife species.
  • Promote the use of living shorelines, where needed and appropriate, to protect against erosion and sea level rise while providing habitat to numerous fish and wildlife species, including the stabilization of island shorelines (e.g., Tarpon and Little Bird Keys) through placement of oyster shell bars and planting smooth cordgrass to encourage mangrove seeds to take root.
    Black cormorant birds perched on a sign in front of a white beach.

    Beneficial use of dredged material being used for colonial waterbird habitat. Photo by Keith Ramos, USFWS.

  • Pursue beneficial habitat restoration uses for dredged material, and find efficiencies where possible, including cost-sharing and expedited permitting opportunities.
  • Work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Port of Tampa Bay to evaluate the maintenance of navigation channels (e.g., Egmont Channel) to ensure that dredging is not contributing to erosion issues, and to maximize the habitat benefits of material generated from maintenance dredging for bird species.
  • Support efforts of the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s SWIM program and other public-private partnerships to restore coastal and watershed habitats as well as improve the bay’s water quality through stormwater treatment.

Restore resilience and natural biodiversity of wildlife habitats through control of non-native invasives and reestablishment of native species.

Next Steps

  • Utilize cooperative partnerships (e.g., Suncoast Cooperative Invasive Species Partnership) to increase coordinated work that reduces or eliminates invasive animals and plants that threaten native diversity across both public and private boundaries.
  • Control pervasive non-native and invasive species such as Brazilian pepper and Australian pine to restore and expand the natural upland community habitats.
  • Utilize prescribed fire after the initial removal of non-native and invasive vegetation and to encourage growth of fire adapted native plant communities.
  • Work with landowners to control the spread of invasive non-native plant seed sources from private lands and to increase coordinated mapping and monitoring of areas with known infestations of invasive species.