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Tampa Bay seagrasses continue to surpass recovery goal

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Excerpted from TBEP's Feb. 2017 Bay Postscript:

Seagrasses in Tampa Bay increased by more than 1,360 acres, or nearly 3.3%, since 2014, adding to the record-breaking gains reported two years ago, according to survey results released today.

Overall, seagrasses cover 41,655 acres of bay bottom, a number that continues to surpass the 38,000-acre goal set by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP), and sets a new record for the highest amount of seagrass documented since 1950.

However, scientists caution, the aerial surveys that form the basis of the seagrass estimates were conducted during the winter of 2015-2016—before the torrential rains of last summer caused emergency sewer discharges into portions of the bay. Sewer overflows associated with heavy rainfall also occurred throughout the bay in summer 2015.

Seagrass gains were documented in every bay segment but Middle Tampa Bay, which lost 42 acres from 2014 to early 2016. Middle Tampa Bay refers to waters south of the Gandy Bridge, including Hillsborough's South Shore to the Manatee County border, and coastal St. Petersburg to Coquina Key.

The largest gain, 874 acres, was documented in Old Tampa Bay, where historically seagrass recovery and water quality have trailed other bay areas. Old Tampa Bay encompasses the waters from the Gandy Bridge north to Oldsmar and east to Tampa.

Boca Ciega Bay ranked second in acreage gains, with 190 new acres observed.

Hillsborough Bay gained 34 additional acres of seagrass. Hillsborough Bay is traditionally the most heavily impacted part of the bay, encompassing downtown Tampa, the iconic Bayshore Boulevard, and a busy industrial port.

"Overall this is good news," said Holly Greening, director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. "We will need to carefully watch trends in future years to make sure we maintain progress in bay recovery."

Seagrasses are important because they are natural "fish factories" that need clean water to flourish. They support a variety of juvenile fish, shrimp, crabs, marine worms and other bay creatures, and remove and store carbon that contributes to greenhouses gases.

The seagrass surveys are coordinated by scientists with the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). Aerial photos are taken every two years in winter, when bay waters are clearest. The digital imagery is plotted, analyzed and ground-truthed to verify accuracy. SWFWMD has used this comprehensive process to track trends in seagrass extent in Florida estuaries since 1988.