March 11, 2023
By Blair Wickstrom
Tampa Bay didn’t flatline in July 2021, but after 600 tons of dead fish were trucked off the beaches of St. Petersburg, I expect some anglers may have been looking for life-saving paddles.
Following 200 million gallons of toxic water—literally liquid fertilizer—being pumped into lower Tampa Bay from the long-abandoned Piney Point phosphate gypsum stacks in March 2021, the bay crashed and fish, by the thousands, died. Manatees perished, too.
Now, going on two years since the disaster, what’s the current situation in the bay? What are our chances of seeing schools of redfish, seatrout and snook off Tarpon Key this spring?
After fishing with Capt. Tyler Kapela, of Tierra Verde, in lower Tampa Bay in December and speaking with captains Dustin Pack and Ray Markham, I’d say that having a banner day on the flats of Tampa Bay this year is unlikely.
All three captains seemed to agree that a healthy estuary probably could have handled the Piney Point discharges. But, an unhealthy one, one already compromised from a million-gallon sewage spill in 2016 and then a 2,400-ton red tide fish kill in 2018, is going to struggle. Is struggling.
“The upper bay is a wasteland,” said Pack, a flyfishing guide in Tampa Bay. “The winter fishing, especially for redfish, is nowhere close to what it should be.”
Markham, of St. Petersburg, was equally pessimistic. “The fishery is trashed. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it is what it is,” he said.
Tough news from a tough bay. Just a couple of years ago, Tampa Bay was regarded as a success story among estuary advocacy groups worldwide. Among anglers, fishing reports often ended with the words “personal best.”
First, the backstory. For decades, from the 1950s well into the ’70s, Tampa Bay was used as a literal dumping ground for phosphate plants, farms, local industries and even raw sewage. As a consequence of this abuse, the bay crashed.
With the bay having lost more than half of its total seagrass, people finally had enough. Through unprecedented political will at the local, state and federal levels, aided in part by the Clean Water Act of 1972, real change began to take place. People getting involved and standing up for the bay turned things around. Well, it’s time to stand up, again.
“Piney Point was the worst fish kill, the worst thing to happen to the bay in 50 years,” said Dave Tomasko, Executive Director of the Sarasota Estuary Program. “If Piney Point happened all by itself, I think we’d be much better off now. But, following 10 years of a downward trend, the bay is having trouble bouncing back.”
“I tell people that if you don’t want to become the next Indian River Lagoon, you better act,” Tomasko said. We need to get our elected leaders fighting for Tampa Bay again. Ed Sherwood, Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, agreed with Tomasko that local governments have been making investments for stormwater and wastewater, but they, along with the state, need to do more. “We need to act now,” Sherwood said. “The technologies employed decades ago are likely not the only solutions needed moving forward.”
So, what’s the call to action if you want to help restore inshore fishing in Tampa Bay?
Start with contacting your elected city, county and state representatives and express your outrage. Another avenue is getting involved with one of the many water-focused conservation groups in the bay area. A third option is simply making sure you don’t contribute to the degradation of the bay. Skipping summer fertilizer for your yard, and making sure you don’t tear up any grass while you're running your boat, are two action items. Read more on that here.
Tampa Bay Watch states on their website that they’re always seeking volunteers to represent the organization at community events. Tampa Bay Waterkeeper even has an 11-page volunteer handbook outlining the many ways you can get involved.
People standing up, speaking out, getting involved made a difference 30 years ago and brought back Tampa Bay. We’re needed to restore the bay once again. FS
CALL TO ACTION
CONTACT ONE OF THESE ORGANIZATIONS TO SEE HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Tampa Bay Waterkeeper: www.tampabaywaterkeeper.org
Suncoast Waterkeeper: www.suncoastwaterkeeper.org
Tampa Bay Estuary Program: www.tbep.org
Sarasota Bay Estuary Program: www.sarasotabay.org
Tampa Bay Watch: www.tampabaywatch.org
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2023
Find out more about Piney Point and Florida's Phosphate Problem here.