Each year, an average 4 billion gallons of oil and other hazardous substances pass through Tampa Bay on modern ships the size of skyscrapers. These vessels, bound predominantly for one of the bay's three deepwater ports or its many industrial facilities, are joined by a variety of other cargo carriers as well as a rapidly expanding cruise ship fleet.
Although the potential for a catastrophic spill of petroleum or other toxic substances remains, significant strides have been made in preventing such an accident, and improving the region's overall emergency response readiness. In fact, Tampa Bay has not suffered a major spill since more than 300,000 gallons of oil were released following a dramatic three-way ship collision at the mouth of the bay in August 1993.
The U.S. Coast Guard's Area Contingency Plan serves as the guiding blueprint for spill response, spelling out response protocols, available equipment and personnel, and environmentally sensitive areas and resources. The ACP is updated every five years, and was recently converted into an electronic version that allows users immediate, interactive access to critical maps and real-time data. The ACP also incorporates the GIS-based Florida Marine Spill Analysis System, which allows decision-makers to direct containment, cleanup and restoration efforts during an actual spill.
These high-tech tools are bolstered by a network of pre-positioned boom, absorbent pads and other containment and cleanup equipment, placed at or near key sensitive areas of the bay, such as Cockroach Bay, to ensure rapid deployment should a spill occur.
The excellent response record of the seabird rehabilitation organization Save Our Seabirds - which returned to the wild an impressive 85% of the birds rescued and treated during the 1993 spill - has been further enhanced by a comprehensive volunteer training program and the addition of a mobile hot-water trailer which allows volunteers to mobilize rescue and recovery efforts wherever a spill occurs.
Spill prevention remains a major goal of the region's maritime and environmental communities, and here important progress has been made as well. An integrated Vessel Tracking Information System (VTIS) has been fully implemented in Tampa Bay, equipping harbor pilots with shipboard laptop computers that provide up-to-the-minute displays of ship traffic in the bay's 44-mile main navigation channel. Combined with shore-based radar and current weather information, the VTIS provides the safest available means of navigation for commercial mariners.
This system may be augmented in the future by the creation of emergency anchorages in the bay as part of improvements proposed in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Tampa Bay Harbor Reevaluation Study. These designated deep-water sites along the channel would offer ships a safe place to anchor in case of a weather emergency or major equipment malfunction.
Finally, the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS), a system of buoys and sensors that provides real-time weather, wind and current information to both professional and recreational mariners, is now accessible online as well as by phone. While no permanent source of funding has yet been found for PORTS - which is maintained by the University of South Florida - the system does have adequate funding from all three bay counties to remain operational through 2008.
Although large spills are by their nature the most visible threat to the bay, smaller chronic spills may be cumulatively more damaging. These spills occur through careless fueling practices, operation of outboard motors, discharges of oily bilge water and improper disposal of used oil products. Boater education remains the most effective long-term strategy for reducing these routine spills.