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University of Tampa researcher says algae in Tampa Bay could guide seagrass restoration

ST. PETERSBURG — A researcher at the University of Tampa says a certain kind of algae could help guide efforts to restore sea grass in Tampa Bay.

According to the South West Florida Water Management District, Tampa Bay is losing sea grass at an alarming rate, with a 12 percent decline over the past two years. That’s more than 4,000 affected acres. Most of the decline can be found in Old Tampa Bay, which is where University of Tampa associate professor Michael Middlebrooks is focusing his study of an algae called caulerpa.

Caulerpa shares similar qualities with sea grass and is thriving in some parts of the bay. With the help of his research team, Middlebrooks is collecting samples of caulerpa and examining what marine life are living on it.

“We’ll compare that to samples we’ve taken of sea grass to see if the communities of animals living on them are similar or equivalent,” Middlebrooks said.

If they are, Middlebrooks said it will help guide sea grass restoration efforts. The parts of the bay with abundant caulerpa can be left alone longer, while areas without it are prioritized.

“This gives us maybe a little more time to see what’s gone wrong and cause the decline of sea grass in Tampa Bay,” Middlebrooks said. “We know that we can fix this, we’ve done it before. But our opportunities to do it quickly and easily are short.”

Funding for the research project is through a grant from the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration Fund. It’s set to take three years to complete, with a second phase of tracking sea grass and caulerpa growth rates set to begin this summer.