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State of the Bay  »  Fish and Wildlife

State of The Tampa Bay Estuary

Redfish are one of the most popular sport fish in Tampa Bay

A spectacular variety of wildlife lives in, above and beside Tampa Bay - from the familiar brown pelican to the secretive diamondback terrapin to the magnificent tarpon, a premier gamefish.

Wading and shorebirds are among the bay's most visible inhabitants. Mangrove islands in the bay support up to 50,000 breeding pairs of 29 species of colonial waterbirds such as herons, ibis and egrets. As many as half breed in Hillsborough Bay. Many rare or coastal species nesting in Tampa Bay experienced sustained population increases between 1994-2001, including Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, American Oystercatcher, and Caspian, Royal and Sandwich Terns. El Nino rains created extremely advantageous foraging conditions in 1998, and breeding populations of some species, such as White Ibis, almost tripled before returning to pre-1998 conditions in 1999.

Beach-nesting birds such as black skimmers and least terns remain vulnerable to human-related impacts associated with waterfront development and recreational use, although nesting areas at Egmont Key, Shell Key and other islands have been protected in recent years.

State of The Tampa Bay Estuary Birds

Manatees, dolphins and sea turtles are high-profile bay residents. The number of manatees using Tampa Bay has steadily increased in the past decade, likely as a result of improved habitat and the presence of power plants that provide warm-water refuges for manatees wintering in the bay. More than 350 individuals have been counted in the bay in the winter months. About 150 animals are found in the bay in the summer, when the entire West Coast population is more scattered.

A number of year-round and slow-speed zones have been created in the bay, through federal, state or local regulation, along with two no-entry areas - the power plant outfalls at Tampa Electric's Big Bend complex near Apollo Beach and the Bartow plant owned by Progress Energy at Weedon Island. Extensive shoreline speed zones are in place in Hillsborough County from Tampa's Rocky Point area south to the Gandy Bridge, from the Alafia River to E.G. Simmons Park south of Ruskin, in Terra Ceia Bay, the Manatee River, and in Pinellas County north of the Courtney Campbell Causeway to Oldsmar.

State of The Tampa Bay Estuary manatees

Additionally, Pinellas County has implemented seagrass protection zones at Fort DeSoto Park, Weedon Island and north of the Courtney Campbell Causeway that also serve to protect manatees feeding and resting in the shallow grass beds.

More than 850 individual dolphins have been identified in Tampa Bay, but resident population estimates are closer to 550. Researchers have identified five separate communities of dolphins in what is a relatively "closed" population strongly rooted to discrete home ranges within the bay. In fact, photo surveys confirm that a large proportion of dolphins first identified in Tampa Bay in the late 1980s still frequent these waters. Some individuals are thought to be more than 50 years old.

Although only about 350 sea turtles nest annually on beaches surrounding Tampa Bay - less than 1% of the average statewide total - this number is nevertheless regionally significant because it contributes to the diversity of the species as a whole. Nests are documented annually on the barrier islands off Pinellas and Manatee Counties, with Egmont Key providing the most pristine nesting beach remaining.

State of The Tampa Bay Estuary Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are common inhabitants of the bay itself. Loggerheads are by far the most numerous, but green, hawksbill, and Kemp's ridley turtles also are found. Adults forage in the bay, while juveniles shelter there until they are large enough to survive in the open ocean. Recent research has revealed that Tampa Bay is an important nursery area for young Kemp's ridley turtles - among the world's most endangered animals.

Fisheries population estimates as measured by the state's Fisheries Independent Monitoring Program since 1989 show species-specific patterns. For example:

  • Red drum juvenile abundances peaked in 1991 and 1995, and were relatively constant from 1996-2001.
  • Sheepshead juvenile abundance peaks seem to occur in three-year cycles, with high recruitment in 1991, 1994, 1997 and 2000.
  • Snook juvenile abundance estimates were highest in 1999 and 2000.
  • Spotted seatrout juvenile abundance has been relatively stable since 1991.
  • Blue crab abundances were lowest in 1990 and highest in 1989, 1992, 1995 and 1998.


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