Spanning 400 square miles, with a drainage area nearly six times as large, Tampa Bay and its watershed stretch from the spring-fed headwaters of the Hillsborough River to the salty waters off Anna Maria Island. As Florida’s largest open-water estuary, Tampa Bay harbors a rich and diverse assemblage of plants and animals, along with a rapidly growing human population that has made the region the second largest metropolitan area in the state.
In spite of its size, the bay is an average of only 11 feet deep – a troublesome figure to early commercial boosters who envisioned Tampa Bay as a great commercial harbor. Today, more than 80 miles of deep-water shipping channels – the largest 43 feet deep – have made that dream a reality. Three seaports now flourish along the bay’s borders, in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and in northern Manatee County. The largest of these, the Port of Tampa, consistently ranks among the busiest ports in the nation. Combined, the three ports contribute an estimated $15 billion to the local economy and support 130,000 jobs.
Tampa Bay is also a focal point of the region’s premier industry – tourism. The bay and the sparkling beaches of the surrounding barrier islands attract nearly 5 million visitors a year. Fort DeSoto Park, at the mouth of Tampa Bay, was named the number one beach in the continental United States in the 2004 annual survey conducted by “Dr. Beach,” Professor Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University.
Sport fishing, boating, kayaking and wildlife watching are increasingly popular activities among both visitors and residents – an interest fueled by steady improvements in water quality that continue to reap ecological benefits. Today, some 40,000 pairs of wading and shore birds of 25 species nest annually on protected islands in the bay; one-sixth of the Gulf Coast population of Florida manatees spend the winter near power plants bordering the bay; and more than 200 species of fish spend part of their lives within the Tampa Bay estuary.
Approximately 3 million people call the Tampa Bay watershed home. Urban and suburban development pressures to accommodate these residents, combined with the need to redress past damage to bay habitats and protect them in the future, will remain the greatest challenge for bay managers. Maintaining the water quality gains of recent decades will require more effort every year to compensate for increased pollution associated with growth. Actions we take both individually and collectively will increasingly influence the state of the bay. Please do your part to keep Tampa Bay on the road to recovery!