What Is An Estuary?
How Big is Tampa Bay?
What Are Some Other Basic Characteristics of Tampa Bay?
What is the Major Source of Pollution to Tampa Bay?
Wastewater (sewage) discharges were once a major source of nitrogen to Tampa Bay. However, in the 1970s, major improvements to sewage treatment plants reduced the nitrogen in the wastewater, or “effluent,” by more than 90 percent, leading to clearer water and sparking a recovery of seagrasses that continues to this day.
Currently, more than half the nitrogen entering Tampa Bay comes from stormwater runoff from urban and residential areas. Stormwater is the water that runs off the land with rainfall, carrying with it fertilizer and pesticide residues, as well as trash.
About one-quarter of the present nitrogen load to Tampa Bay comes from atmospheric deposition, or air pollution, primarily from power plants and automobiles. Wastewater treatment plants and industrial discharges are relatively small sources of nitrogen loading to the bay today.
What Are Some Other Threats to the Bay?
What Are Some Important Habitats in Tampa Bay?
Salt marshes are composed of a variety of plants, mainly rushes, sedges and grasses. Animals seek refuge from predators in the thick marsh vegetation. After salt marsh plants die, microorganisms break the plants down into detritus, which serves as a food source for many small animals. As tidal waters move up into the marsh and then retreat, detritus is carried and distributed throughout the estuary. The primary salt marsh species in Tampa Bay is spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass.
Seagrass beds help maintain water clarity by trapping fine sediments and particles with their leaves. They stabilize the sediment with their roots and rhizomes in much the same way that land grasses slow soil erosion. They provide shelter for many fishes, crustaceans, and shellfish; and they and the organisms that grow on them are food for many marine animals and water birds. Three types of seagrasses dominate in Tampa Bay: Halodule wrightii, or shoal grass; Thalassia testudinum or turtle grass; and Syringodium filiforme or manatee grass.
What is the Tampa Bay Estuary Program?
What is an Invasive Species?
How Do Invasive Species Get from Place to Place?
What is a Brazilian Pepper?
The Brazilian Pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) is a member of the same family as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac and is considered highly invasive. Brazilian Peppers are large, multi-trunked shrubs that can grow 40 feet tall. They are evergreens with glossy, bright leaves and the female Brazilian Peppers produce tiny yellowish-white flowers in spring, and clusters of small red berries in late fall. Brazilian Peppers are on the State of Florida’s prohibited plant list. It is illegal to cultivate, sell or transport them because they are capable of rapid proliferation, wiping out everything in their path and destroying entire ecosystems of plants and animals.
What Do I Do if I have a Brazilian Pepper On My Property?
What Are Manatees and Why is it Important to PRotect Them?
Protecting manatees is important for a number of reasons. Manatees help control the overgrowth of seagrass beds by continuous grazing, which reduces the need to use chemicals as a form of aquatic control. Manatees are also messy eaters and help promote seagrass growth by dispersing seagrass seeds around the bottom. In addition, manatees are considered an ecosystem indicator – their health provides clues to the health of our coastal environments.
What are some of the different habitat restoration projects going on in Tampa Bay?
Why is it important to landscape with native plants?
What are the major species of fish found in Tampa Bay?
Did you know we have soft corals in Tampa Bay? They usually grow on low limestone outcroppings known as ‘hard bottom habitat’. Right now we’ve looked at about 22% of the bay and have found 423 acres of natural hard bottom. They are a unique habitat in Tampa Bay that support sponges, soft corals, algae, and live rock, as well as different reef fish such as Red Grouper, Black Sea Bass, Gray Snapper, and Lane Snapper. Current and future projects will help us identify more about these interesting ecosystems and where else in the bay we can find and protect them.
Seagrasses are flowering underwater plants found at shallow depths in protected bays and lagoons and in patches along the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico. As a nursery environment, seagrasses support small fish, shrimp, and crabs that hide among the blades and feast on decaying leaves. Seagrasses also help stabilize shifting sands on the bottom of the bay and improve water clarity by trapping fine sediments and particles.
Due to significant water quality infrastructure investments by multiple agencies throughout the region, seagrass coverage has steadily increased since the 1980s after several decades of decline. A new target of 40,000 acres was established for seagrass coverage within the 2020 Habitat Master Plan, reflecting that coverage from the past three available surveys (2014, 2016, and 2018) exceeded this amount. Baywide seagrass coverage was estimated to be 34,298 acres in 2020.
Tampa Bay Seagrasses
Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) is the most common seagrass in Tampa Bay, accounting for 42 percent of total seagrass coverage. Turtle grass can live in many substrates, from mud to sand and broken shell, and tolerate a wide range of salinities, from 10 to 48 parts per thousand. Turtle grass has long, leafy blades that usually occur in bundles of three to seven. It is used by a variety of organisms, including more than 113 species of algae which attach to its leaves.
Shoal grass (Halodule wrightii) is the most common seagrass in Tampa Bay, and is like a miniature version of turtle grass. For instance, the leaves of turtle grass are about 3/4 of an inch wide, while those of shoal grass are less than a half-inch wide. And turtle grass may grow to 2 feet or more, while shoal grass tops out at about 15 inches. Although both types of grasses are often found together, shoal grass usually holds the distinction of being there first. For this reason, it is known as a pioneer species.
Manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme) has cylindrical (tubular, dude!) rather than flat leaves. It can grow to two feet high and is often found mixed with turtle grass in shallow areas of the bay.
Tidal flats around the bay’s fringe are exposed at low tide. Although the flats are barren of visible vegetation, they are teeming with life. Small crabs, clams, and worms, which burrow in the mud, supply a veritable feast for birds wading at low tide.
Oysters are immobile shellfish that filter water as they feed. Their grayish-white shells are irregular in shape. Live oysters and dead oyster shells form in mounds on the bay floor, creating bars or reefs. Most prevalent near river mouths and in sections of the bay that receive a steady diet of fresh water, oyster bars attract adult snook and redfish, making them popular fishing spots.
Mangroves are tropical trees that thrive in salty environments along the water’s edge. Like seagrasses, they provide food and cover for a vast array of small fish and animals. Their roots anchor shorelines, and their branches serve as nesting sites for a wide variety of birds. Nearly half of the mangrove swamps that once ringed Tampa Bay have been replaced by development and seawalls.
Loss of this important habitat has contributed to a decline in fisheries throughout the bay. In order to protect mangroves, local and state regulations restrict pruning and removal. However, in the recent past mangrove coverage in Tampa Bay has actually increased, due to both habitat restoration and climate change, which has enabled the mangroves to overtake salt marshes in different areas around the bay.
Three species of mangroves are common in Tampa Bay. Red mangroves, typically located closest to the water, are easily distinguished by their tangled reddish roots that branch out over the water. Mounds of oysters frequently colonize at their base. Black mangroves feature numerous finger- like projections, called pneumatophores, that surround the base of the tree, and have leaves that are dark green on the top and silver-green on the bottom. White mangroves, which often are most numerous in the intertidal zones farther from open water, also have pneumatophores and the leaves are yellow-green.
Salt marshes, which are composed of salt-tolerant rushes, sedges, and grasses, occur along the shorelines of estuaries like Tampa Bay in areas where wave action is minimal. These marshes, which periodically become submerged, nourish and protect many fish and animals. They also buffer upland areas from storms and help filter pollutants that run off the land. Researchers have documented mangrove encroachment into salt marshes over the past century.
Salt barrens, also referred to as salt flats or salterns, occupy the upper edge of the intertidal flat, which is inundated typically only by higher high tides several times per month. The pooling and evaporation of tidewater results in extremely salty soil. Plants specifically adapted to these stressful conditions, such as saltwort, glasswort, and sea purslane are prominent within salt barrens. Additionally, black and white mangroves can also occur in salt barrens, generally in short forms. Salt barrens are important habitat for fiddler crabs concentrate juvenile fish in tide pools, which provides rich feeding areas for wading birds, and for carnivorous fish (e.g., snook and tarpon) when these habitats become accessible during king tides and other tidal surges.
Despite the environmental pressures from growth and development in the region, Tampa Bay continues to attract a remarkable variety and number of birds. Most spectacular are the great breeding colonies where thousands of birds of some 25 species–including pelicans, cormorants, herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills, terns, and skimmers–come to rear their young. These large colonies are found on islands, where nests are safe from predators and disturbance. Mudflats and seagrass meadows in shallow sections of the bay provide a bountiful fishing ground for resident, migrant, and wintering shorebirds. Open waters are habitats for loons, grebes, and ducks.
Maintaining these bird populations in a growing metropolitan area is challenging. Many species are declining, and some have virtually disappeared due to loss and disruption of habitat
These gentle, whiskered giants, found in the southeastern United States and in the Caribbean Sea as far south as Brazil, live in Florida year-round. Manatees have a grayish, seal-like body that tapers to a flat, paddle-shaped tail. They grow to an average length of 10 feet and can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds as adults.
Manatees make their home in shallow coastal waters, bays, and springs. Local sightings are more common in winter, when cold temperatures drive these mammals inland to warmer waters. Collisions with boat hulls and propellers injure and kill manatees each year. Most manatees in Florida bear tell-tale scars of impacts with boats.
Nesting season, which stretches from April to the end of October, brings sea turtles ashore on Gulf beaches, where people and predators may pose a threat. Although three species – the loggerhead, the green turtle, and the leatherback – commonly nest along Florida’s coastline, most nests in the Tampa Bay area belong to loggerheads.
Found near channel edges on sandy bottoms, near tidal passes and docks. Use live shrimp, sand fleas, sardines, pinfish, or jigs bounced along bottom as you drift.
Redfish / Red Drum
Found near docks and pilings, deeper holes and channels during warmest and coolest months; around grass beds and oyster bars. Use live shrimp fished on bottom or free-lined, or use soft-bodied jigs bounced slowly on bottom, or use small gold spoons.
Found near bridges, docks, or seawalls, and pilings. Use live shrimp, sand fleas, or hermit fiddler crabs on small hook. Fish just off the bottom. On first tug, lower the rod and then strike hard. Skin fish before eating.
Found in canals, tidal creeks, and other deep, warm waters in cool months; near tidal passes and mangrove fringe at high tide. Use live pinfish, small mullet, shrimp, or sardines free-lined or fished with a bobber or use jigs and minnow-like lures. Beware of the snook’s razor-sharp gills.
Found in seagrass beds when water temperatures are moderate, and deeper waters adjacent to beds during warmest and coolest months. Use live shrimp or pigfish (grunts) fished near bottom by free-lining or under a popping bobber, or use soft-bodied and fish-like lures. Cast with jigs or surface plugs as you drift.
Explore & Enjoy
Birding in Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay watershed and its diverse habitats make the area a playground for birdwatchers year-round. Many parks, preserves and other public lands offer optimal birding opportunities.
Tampa Bay is a hot spot for migrating species that stop for refueling on their routes between North America and Central and South America. Fall migration begins in late August and extends through early November, while spring migration extends from March through mid-May. Winter is the best birding season as the bird population explodes with winged snowbirds. But don’t discount summer for its abundance of shorebirds, wading birds and raptors that make Tampa Bay their year-round home.
Here’s a selection of top birding spots:
Fort De Soto Park
Internationally known as one of the premier bird watching locations in the eastern United States, Fort De Soto Park is the largest park within the Pinellas County system consisting of 1,136 acres made up of five interconnected islands or “keys.” Here you’ll find sandy beaches, mangroves, wetlands, palm hammocks, and hardwoods — an ecosystem that harbors more than 300 species of birds. Look for migrating warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, tanagers, orioles and many shorebirds and wading birds like reddish egret, great blue heron, great egret and snowy egret, gulls and terns. Protected breeding areas support black skimmer, least tern and Wilson’s plover. A favorite spot for avian photographers, particularly at dawn and dusk.
Shell Key Preserve
Not far from Fort De Soto Park, Shell Key is a small barrier island designated as one of the state’s most important areas for shorebird nesting and wintering. A 110-acre bird preservation area has been set aside for nesting, migrating and wintering birds that arrive by the thousands annually including the American oystercatcher, least tern and black skimmer. It is only accessible by boat, kayak or a private ferry, Shell Key Shuttle from Pass-a-Grille.
Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi State Park
These adjacent parks, which have both won accolades as America’s top beaches, win top awards as first-rate birding territory. Honeymoon Island is a favorite for osprey and eagle watchers who come each spring to observe nesting along the Osprey Trail. Rangers at the Nature Center will keep you abreast of current sightings. Caladesi Island is only accessible via boat, kayak or a ferry shuttle from Honeymoon Island. But you’ll be richly rewarded with the birds found here from plovers, terns and sandpipers on the beach, to warblers, orioles and other songbirds inland.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve
This 245-acre urban oasis in south St. Petersburg offers 3 miles of trails and boardwalks throughout five ecosystems: hardwood hammocks, sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods, willow marsh and lake shore. Part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, a visit to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve makes for a great family outing where you can spot anhingas, owls, osprey and eagles. Visit the Birds of Prey Avian Center or sign up for one of the many guided nature hikes. This is also a migration and wintering spot. Typical sightings include tufted titmouse, Coopers hawk, great horned owl, osprey, bald eagles, limpkin, Carolina wren and even ruby throated hummingbird around the flowering plants.
Lettuce Lake Park
This county park on the Hillsborough River just north of Tampa with its pine flatwoods and sprawling cypress swamps is a favorite for local birding field trips. Stop by the Audubon Resource Center, operated by the Tampa Audubon Society, to learn about recent sightings; bird-watching tours are held several times a month. In winter, a variety of warblers can be seen here, as well as year-round residents like the limpkin, little blue heron, hawks, wild turkeys and swallow-tailed kites.
McKay Bay Nature Park
A 38-acre refuge for nature in the heart of urban Tampa, McKay Bay is a maze of mangroves, salt marshes and mud flats that attract many species of wading birds. A boardwalk and observation tower offer panoramic views. The park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve
This preserve at the mouth of the Little Manatee River includes 4,800 acres of submerged land amid mangrove islands and marshland, making it a place for paddlers and those who don’t mind getting their feet wet. Remarkable for its pristine state, Cockroach Bay Preserve harbors 13 bird species designated as endangered, threatened, rare, or of special concern. The mangrove islands within the preserve are often used by water and shorebirds for nesting sites. Look for roseate spoonbill, little blue heron, tricolored heron, bald eagle, wood stork, brown pelican and snowy egret.
Hillsborough River State Park and Hillsborough River
Also listed on the Great Florida Birding Trail , Hillsborough River State Park and the river that runs through it offer pleasant bird-watching in a variety of habitat including pine flatwoods, hardwood hammock, and cypress swamp. Paddle the Flint Creek-Sargent Park stretch of the river for an Old Florida experience. Canoe rentals available at the park.
Manatee County’s many preserves offer excellent opportunities for spotting feathered friends. Start by going to www.mymanatee.org and clicking on Preserves to find locations and hours; be sure to check the Calendar of Events to find out about guided hikes and paddles which often afford peeping.
A few of our favorites:
A bird lover’s paradise with over 21,000 acres and 16 trails crossing the Manatee River in various locations. Regular spottings here include snowy egret, white ibis, belted kingfisher, Florida scrub jay, burrowing owl and sandhill cranes. Closed to visitors during Hunt Weekends.
Emerson Point Preserve
Excellent birding along several miles of trails and via a 60 foot tall observation tower. Some 70 species of birds are reported annually.
Includes waterways to paddle, marshlands and uplands, along with hiking trails and boardwalks and a 50-foot observation tower. You’ll spot shorebirds, osprey and bald eagles. Florida scrub jays have also been spotted at the 145-acre restored ecosystem at Rye Preserve.
Best Local Hiking Spots
An abundance of natural areas across the Tampa Bay watershed offer countless trails for hiking enthusiasts.
Many popular maintained trails can be found at state and county parks. Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) public lands also offer many outstanding trails which are open to the public. You can order or download “Get Outside,” SWFWMD’s comprehensive recreation guide to public land, by going to watermatters.org/recreation.
Prime hiking time is from December to March, when cooler drier weather sets in — be sure to don bug repellent during hotter months. The following locations are considered local hiking favorites:
Boyette Scrub Preserve, Riverview
Balm-Boyette Scrub Preserve encompasses almost 5,000 acres of prime wilderness habitat with some of the watershed’s most scenic hiking trails. Natural habitats include sand pine scrub, xeric oak scrub, pine flatwoods, hardwood hammock, wet prairie, freshwater marsh, cypress swamp, and hardwood swamp. Many protected species of plants and animals may be seen here, such as Florida golden aster, Eastern indigo snake, Sherman’s fox squirrel, sandhill crane, Southeastern American kestrels and gopher tortoise. Triple Creek Preserve adjoins Balm-Boyette Scrub’s north boundary with 2 miles of hiking trails linking to the Balm-Boyette trail. Both properties were purchased by Hillsborough County under the Environmental Land Acquisition program.
Little Manatee River State Park, Wimauma
Little Manatee River State Park’s nature trails have been designated as some of best hiking trails in south Hillsborough County . The Florida National Scenic Trail runs through the park and is maintained by the Florida Trail Association. A 6.5-mile loop here is listed as one of their top trails in the state, taking hikers through a diversity of habitats in the park’s northern wilderness area. All hikers must register at the park’s ranger station. Wildflowers and songbirds are abundant in spring and fall.
Flatwoods Park, Thonotosassa
Northeast of Tampa is the 5,400-acre Flatwoods Park, part of the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve with more than 60 miles of forest trails within five parks. With entrances on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Morris Bridge Road, Flatwoods Park is best known for its paved 7-mile loop which is popular for biking. The park is on the Great Florida Birding Trail, but watch out for off-road bicyclists, too, who frequently use these trails. Adjacent parks in the preserve include Dead River Park, John B. Sargeant Park, Morris Bridge Park, and Trout Creek Park.
Hillsborough River State Park, Thonotosassa
Adjoining the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve is the 3,000-acre Hillsborough River State Park, noted for its natural setting of pine flatwoods, hardwood hammock and cypress swamp. Hikers can enjoy four trails with over 7 miles of trails, including a subsection of the Florida Trail. Pick up a trail map at the ranger station. If it’s rainy season, call ahead (813-987-6771) to check on trail conditions as much of the property is prone to seasonal flooding.
The Old Fort King Trail, a supply route from Tampa to Ocala during the Seminole and Civil wars, is now a trail that connects the state park to the adjacent wilderness preserve. The trailhead is located in nearby John B. Sargeant Park.
Brooker Creek Preserve, Tarpon Springs
Under the Pinellas County umbrella, the 8,300-acre Brooker Creek Preserve in north county offers 5 miles of easy marked trails perfect for families. An excellent education center (open only on weekends) is a good place to begin a hike. Trails meander through forested wetlands, pine flatwoods, cypress swamps and palmetto plains . Portions of the trails include boardwalks; keep an eye out for wading birds, deer, snakes and gopher tortoises. Check the website for guided walking tours to spot birds and native plants which are offered regularly.
Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi State Park, Dunedin
These two adjacent state parks offer excellent bird watching opportunities thanks to their coastal location on the Gulf. The star is Honeymoon Island, where hikers will spot osprey and eagle nests, a wide variety of shorebirds, and one of the few remaining virgin slash pine forests in South Florida. Start at the excellent Nature Center before taking a jaunt on one of the easy, marked trails perfect for beginners and families. Accessible only by boat or ferry from Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island’s 3-mile trail that winds through the interior of the island makes a fine hike, but walkers who stroll the adjacent shoreline will be richly rewarded with seabird and shorebird sightings.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg
Located on Lake Maggiore in the heart of south St. Petersburg, Boyd Hill Nature Preserve offers 3 miles of nature trails over 245 acres and five ecosystems. Bring your binoculars, this is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. An extensive program of guided hikes makes this a great destination for a family outing.
Fort De Soto Park, Tierre Verde: The largest park within the Pinellas County park system, Fort De Soto Park consists of 1,136 acres of diverse habitat from beaches to mangroves, wetlands, palm hammocks, and hardwoods. A top birding destination as well as sea turtle nesting site from April to September, the park affords plenty of opportunities for wildlife watchers. Seven miles of paved multi-use trail connects both ends of the park while a 1-mile nature trail in the Arrowhead Picnic area, and a 3/4 mile nature trail in the Soldiers’ Hole area provides a glimpse of some the native fauna and flora. Free one-hour nature walks geared for families are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 10 am from the main Ranger Station; registration required by calling (727) 893-9185.
Hiking opportunities for nature lovers abound at Manatee County Preserves. A variety of birds and wildlife take refuge in the preserves’ pine flatwoods, hardwood swamps, xeric oak scrub, depression marsh, and vast dry prairie. Keep an eye out for the burrowing owl, snowy egret, white ibis, gopher tortoise, and at least two endangered/threatened species: the Florida scrub jay and the eastern indigo snake.
For a description of all preserves with location and trail information, go to mymanatee.org.
Preserves known for hiking include Duette Preserve, the largest in the system, with over 21,000 acres and 16 trails crossing the Manatee River in various locations. The preserve is closed to visitors during Hunt Weekends.
Emerson Point Preserve, at the mouth of the Manatee River, offers hiking along several miles of paved and packed shell trails and boardwalks and via a 60 foot tall observation tower.
Robinson Preserve offers hiking on packed shell trails and boardwalks along waterways, marshlands and uplands, and a 50-foot observation tower.
Boating on the Bay
Whether you’re new to boating or a seasoned vet, the Boating & Angling Guide to Tampa Bay will provide you with a wealth of resources to keep you prepped for those exciting days on the water.
KEEP IN MIND
Pleasure boats share bay waters with modern ships that haul cargo from all over the world. Awareness of the constraints under which these vessels operate is the best protection against dangerous encounters. From the cockpit of an open boat, Tampa Bay looks almost endless, but looks can be deceiving. While quite large in terms of the square miles it covers, the bay is also very shallow, which restricts navigation for larger vessels. The average ship that calls on Tampa Bay is longer than two football fields. A ship this size crosses vast oceans with ease, but its ability to maneuver and stop is severely reduced upon entering the narrow confines of harbors such as Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay is home to several ports; one of these, the Port of Tampa, consistently ranks among the nation’s 10 largest in terms of trade activity. On an average day, more than 14 million gallons of petroleum products and many other hazardous materials pass in and out of Tampa Bay on ships as large as 48,000 tons. Some of the vessels carrying these products clear the bottom by as little as four feet and may be restricted to channels as narrow as 200 feet. Most require a mile or more to come to a complete stop.
The pilots that guide these vessels in Tampa Bay need your cooperation:
- Stay clear of the main ship channel when large ships are approaching. Views from large ships may be obstructed up to three-fourths of a mile away.
- Use VHF Channel 13 for bridge-to-bridge communication with commercial ships in case of emergency. Keep transmissions short and simple, and never tie up the frequency.
- Exercise caution when boating around ships or tugs involved in docking. Their prop-wash can easily capsize small vessels or send them into the path of oncoming traffic.
- Be sure that your boat is visible at night and in poor weather conditions.
- Main ship channels appear in blue on the chart of Tampa Bay.
Ethical anglers know that their fun depends upon a healthy bay. Here are some ways you can help by committing yourself to ethical angling. The future of your sport depends on it!
- Help fish stocks increase through catch and release.
- Limit your take and vary your target.
- Observe regulations and report violations.
- Only keep fish for food or trophy.
- Share what you know to help the sport grow.
Visit the “Stow It, Don’t Throw It” Monofilament Recycling Program website for more information on this youth program.
Click here to download our Tampa Bay Ethical Angler Wallet Card
In many cases, a license is required for saltwater fishing. Contact the Florida Marine Patrol for license requirements, as well as for information on size and bag limits and seasonal closures.