USA: Florida: Restoration of the Tampa Bay Ecosystem


Tampa Bay was designated an “estuary of national significance” by Congress in 1990, paving the way for development of a long-term blueprint for bay restoration through the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. The TBEP, guided by its Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan and working together with various formal and informal partners, has launched a long-term restoration effort aimed at revitalizing the entire Tampa Bay ecosystem. Thus far, strides have been made in reducing the amount of nitrogen reaching bay waters from sources of pollution upstream; restoring coastal wetlands and benthic habitats, including 1,000 hectares of seagrass beds; working with local government and industry representatives to reduce the impact from dredging activities; and developing a public outreach and education component that aims to create an informed and interested citizenry. This project is ongoing and encompasses plans for continuing restoration, including the restoration of 100 acres of low-salinity tidal marsh every five years.

Quick Facts

Project Location:
Tamp Bay, 27.763383, -82.5436722

Geographic Region:
North America

Country or Territory:
United States of America


Estuaries, Marshes & Mangroves

Area being restored:
6739 km2

Project Lead:
Tampa Bay Estuary Program

Organization Type:
Governmental Body


Project Stage:

Start Date:

End Date:

Primary Causes of Degradation

Urbanization, Transportation & Industry

Degradation Description

The Tampa Bay estuary and watershed is an urban/suburban estuary ecosystem, with more than 2.3 million people living in the three counties that directly border it. Home development along the shore, domestic and industrial waste discharges, and increasing demands for fresh water are all contributing factors in the bay’s degradation. Dredging and filling activities associated with the three ports on the bay represent another significant anthropogenic pressure on local ecosystems.

Reference Ecosystem Description

Tampa Bay is a rich mosaic of fish and wildlife habitats that supplies life-sustaining links in an ecosystem as biologically productive as some of the world’s most celebrated rain forests. As many as 40,000 pairs of birds–from the familiar brown pelican to the colorful roseate spoonbill–nest in Tampa Bay every year. Others, including sandpipers and white pelicans, are seasonal visitors, and the bay is also home to dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees. From coastal mangroves and marshes to underwater meadows of seagrass, from the open bay to the salty mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, each interdependent habitat plays a vital role.

As a nursery environment, seagrasses support small fish, shrimp, and crabs that hide among the blades and feast on decaying leaves. Seagrasses also help stabilize shifting sands on the bottom of the bay and improve water clarity by trapping fine sediments and particles. Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) is the most common seagrass in Tampa Bay, accounting for 42 percent of total seagrass coverage, but shoal grass (Halodule wrightii) and manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme) are also present.

Three species of mangroves are common in Tampa Bay. Red mangroves are typically located closest to the water, and mounds of oysters frequently colonize at their base. Black mangroves and white mangroves are also present along the bay, with white mangroves often occupying the highest elevations of the three species.

Besides seagrass and mangrove communities, salt marshes, which are composed of salt-tolerant rushes, sedges, and grasses, occur along the shorelines of Tampa Bay in areas where wave action is minimal. These marshes, which periodically become submerged, nourish and protect many fish and animals. They also buffer upland areas from storms and help filter pollutants that run off the land.

Mud flats around the bay’s fringe are exposed at low tide. Although these flats are barren of visible vegetation, they are teeming with life. Small crabs, clams, and worms, which burrow in the mud, supply a veritable feast for birds wading at low tide.

Project Goals

(1) Restoration of 5,000 ha of tropical seagrass meadows; (2) Restore 8 ha per year of tidal marsh, and oligohaline marsh habitat, and preserve the remaining mangrove forests; (3) Develop and implement a no-net-gain in nitrogen discharge to the bay program and (4) Development and implementation of management and restoration plans for all of the sub-watersheds draining to Tampa Bay.


The project does not have a monitoring plan.


Local government agencies and community groups have worked alongside environmental NGOs and national government entities to plan, design, implement and oversee restoration activities in the Tampa Bay ecosystem. Members of the local community also have an interest in this project, however, as the bay has become an important contributor to local economic, recreation and education activities.

Description of Project Activities:
As a comprehensive ecosystem restoration and management initiative, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program encompasses many different project activities. Mapping the bay was an important antecedent for much of the restoration work, as models of the natural and anthropogenic processes influencing the ecosystem are indispensable to attempts at reversing degradation. Maps and models of bay habitat, water quality and urbanization were created and then integrated in hopes of gaining a more complete understanding of the interactions that affect the ecosystem as a whole. Water quality assessments have been another important aspect of the ongoing work in Tampa Bay. Research has focused on locating and quantifying groundwater, analyzing sediments, identifying contaminants, and evaluating surface water quality and circulation. These hydrologic investigations have informed and guided subsequent habitat-specific projects. Besides maps of the bay and water quality assessments, models of the bay's history and prehistory were also created as guides for restoration work. These models of the bay's evolution have greatly assisted practitioners in predictive modeling and restoration planning, as they help differentiate natural impacts from anthropogenic ones. With conceptual data from which to draw, practitioners have undertaken a variety of actual restoration efforts within the bay. Sandbars, seagrass beds, and coastal wetlands have all been targeted for restoration.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
1000 hectares of persistent seagrass meadows have been restored through water quality improvements. In addition, one hundred hectares of tidal marsh, mangrove forests and oligohaline marsh have been restored by the Surface Water Improvement and Management Program (SWIM) of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD).

Factors limiting recovery of the ecosystem:
Restoring seagrass by hand, and through mechanical planting techniques, largely failed. Natural recolonization due to water quality improvements is the primary reason for approximately 1000 hectares of new seagrass meadows in the bay. Additional progress toward the restoration of seagrass meadows will require the reconstruction of the historic longshore bar system in the bay. This needed restoration goal was not apparent until recent years, when progress towards the goal of 5000 hectares of seagrass restoration was stymied.

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
Tampa Bay is a vital component of the region's economic well-being. Its beauty attracts millions of tourists each year, its bounty lures anglers, sailors and nature enthusiasts from around the world, and its deep-water ports support a bustling maritime industry. Thus, restoration of the bay promises to protect a vital natural resource and safeguard the economic benefits upon which the region depends.

Key Lessons Learned

The restoration of Tampa Bay has shown that large-scale estuarine ecosystem restoration takes time and money, and requires a “bottom-up” (i.e., citizen-stakeholder talking to government) commitment first, followed by a “top-down” (i.e., government talking to the citizen-stakeholders) commitment later. Both are essential, but “top-down” by itself did not work in the Tampa Bay case study in its initial phases, and likely will not work elsewhere. Citizen-stakeholders, commonly formed into environmental NGO’s, started the process in the Tampa Bay estuary. It was not a “successful government initiative” alone.

Long-Term Management

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) has developed a management plan entitled “Charting the Course.” With this plan, the program intends to further the ongoing restoration of the bay and mitigate future anthropogenic impacts.

One important facet of the plan is to address water quality throughout the watershed. Restoring water quality, and thus overall habitat vitality, will be a critical measure to increase the number, diversity and health of the bay’s fish and wildlife populations. Toward this end, program participants will work with representatives from local government and industry to achieve a reduction in the amount of nitrogen that finds its way into the bay. Another goal aimed at improving water quality is to establish and maintain adequate freshwater flows to Tampa Bay and its tributaries, thereby revitalize tidal streams and marshes. Finally, TBEP plans a concerted effort to better understand the impact of air pollution on water quality and to address the sources of pollution.

Because Tampa Bay is fringed with increasing urban development, enforcement activities will also be crucial to the long-term success of the restoration effort. Therefore, as part of the management plan, on-the-water enforcement of fishing and environmental regulations will be emphasized. Moreover, establishing and enforcing manatee protection zones will also become a priority.

With three ports on bay waters, including the tenth largest port in the United States, dredging and filling activities will continue. Therefore, part of the long-term strategy for effective management of the bay is to implement a dredging plan that will minimize environmental impacts and maximize beneficial uses of the dredged material.

Finally, environmental education is intended to play an important role in the maintenance of a healthy bay ecosystem. TBEP ultimately hopes to establish a public education program that will help create an engaged constituency of citizens who understand both the environmental and economic value of Tampa Bay, and actively participate in restoring and protecting it.

Sources and Amounts of Funding

300,000,000 USD Project funding and support are derived from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s many formal and informal partners–among them, Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties; the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater; the Southwest Florida Water Management District; the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Other Resources

Tampa Bay Estuary Program

USGS Gulf of Mexico Integrated Science

Roy R. “Robin” Lewis III, Professional Wetland Scientist
Certified Senior Ecologist, Ecological Society of America
Board Certified Environmental Professional #1161
President, Lewis Environmental Services, Inc.
PO Box 5430
Salt Springs, FL 32134-5430
Street Address: 23797 NE 189th Street, Salt Springs, FL 32134
Voice: 01-888-889-9684
or 01-352-546-4842
Fax: 01-352-546-5224
Mobile: 01-813-505-3999
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Satellite Phone: 011-8816-3141-4629
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