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Preserving Our Changing Tidal Wetlands

David Loy | 07 Nov 2016 | Comments

There is an increasing body of scientific evidence that the tidal wetlands in Tampa Bay are undergoing transformation at the plant community level that may indicate global sea-level rise and climate change. Over the next several decades, this could potentially result in large-scale impacts to these and other bay habitats. However, there is a high level of uncertainty around the scale and speed at which these changes will occur, making it difficult for coastal managers to make informed policy decisions today that may be critical in protecting their wetlands tomorrow.

Tidal wetlands are the coastal vegetation communities that exist within the intertidal zone. In Tampa Bay, these emergent tidal wetlands consist of mangrove forests, salt marshes, and salt barrens (salterns) that compete for space in a narrow range of ideal conditions with calm water, low salinity, and flat topography. These emergent tidal wetlands form an important and complex habitat. Not only do they stabilize sediment and help to minimize shoreline erosion, they help take-in pollutants carried in runoff from upland urban areas.

These wetlands also provide crucial habitat and provide a food source for much of the bay’s wildlife and provide attachment sites for algae and invertebrate communities, providing a habitat below the water surface for hundreds of recreational and commercially important species of fish, shrimp, crabs, and other shellfish. This includes pink shrimp, menhaden, blue crabs, mullet, red drum, tarpon, and snook. The marsh grasses and mangrove forests above water provide critical feeding, nesting, and sheltering habitat for a variety of birds such as pelicans, cormorants, herons, ibises, spoonbills, and egrets. 

To effectively manage the sustainability of these critical coastal habitats in the future, it’s essential that we better understand and quantify the small-scale changes in the plant community and other ecological indicators occurring now, including global sea-level rise and climate change. By studying these changes, we may be able to better characterize and quantify changes in these sensitive coastal habitats on a regional scale. Atkins has worked closely with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) and it’s subcommittee members to initiate the Critical Coastal Habitat Assessment project—a long-term monitoring program that assesses the status, trends, and ecological function of critical coastal habitats in Tampa Bay watershed, and detects changes due to natural and indirect anthropogenic (human-based) disruptions.

"... it’s essential that we better understand and quantify the small-scale changes in the plant community and other ecological indicators occurring now including global sea-level rise and climate change."

One of the most valuable future components of this project and monitoring program is the dissemination of information to coastal managers so that informed policy decisions can be made. Coastal ecosystems are vulnerable to many climate change impacts that will affect energy and water supplies, natural resources, and cultural and recreational assets. Without proper planning, policies, and response strategies, coastal communities may lose valuable services provided by the natural environment, which include minimizing shoreline erosion and providing pollutant uptake from upland urban areas. While policies at the state and national level are an important component, it is essential that communities begin addressing their own vulnerabilities and developing long-term solutions. Having an awareness of climate change and how it may affect your community is the first step in creating workable solutions.