Seagrass mapping shows Tampa Bay healthiest in years

By RaeChelle Davis, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, March 15, 2013

The health of Tampa Bay centers on seagrass, and scientists say it is healthier than it has been in years.

The tiny green blades that wave in the water are picked up by a high-tech camera and closely examined by Kris Kaufman and her team.

"We use aerial photography to capture pictures of the Bay and then we use those and GIS software, a computer software program to map the seagrass," Kaufman said. "And then we come out on days like this where we go out into the field and confirm where the seagrasses are."

Every two years the Southwest Florida Water Management District sends a team out to map the seagrass in the Bay.

The dead seagrass can be seen on beaches across Pinellas County. It might be a nuisance to beach goers, but it means the seagrass in the water is growing and shedding off older parts.

After Kaufman reviews the aerial photos, she heads out in a boat to confirm the findings. She will look to see what types of seagrass are growing and how many acres. She can compare her findings to the previous map completed in 2010.

“It's an indicator of the estuary health or the water quality and water clarity conditions of our bay,” said Kaufman, who just finalized the 2013 numbers.

The mapping revealed 34,642 acres of seagrass. The number is up 5.3 percent since the 2010 mapping. For Kaufman, her most impressive finding was the growth of seagrass in Hillsborough Bay.

"This year we were able to finally capture a lot of the presence of more seagrass then we normally do," she said. "So, it is the success story of this year: Hillsborough Bay."

Fisherman favorites like snapper grow up among the grass. It is also a sanctuary for shrimp and crab.

In the 1980s, the bay was nearly depleted of seagrass. Once the area turned to advanced wastewater treatment, Kaufman says it really turned everything around. Now, she says, securing a healthy future for the bay is up to all of us.

"Responsible boating is huge," she said. "Also, just being responsible in terms of pollution and also just being aware is helpful."

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program has a goal to maintain a seagrass coverage of 38,000 acres. 

The 34,642 acres mapped this year is closer to meeting that goal than at any time in the last 20 years. March also marks Seagrass Awareness Month.