Much like elsewhere in Florida, Tampa Bay has its share of water quality issues impacting the local fisheries. Many readers will likely recall the Piney Point disaster of 2021 that pumped more than 200 million gallons of untreated industrial wastewater into Tampa Bay, contributing to red tide blooms, fish kills, and a preventable environmental disaster. We recently sat down with Tampa Bay Waterkeeper’s Executive Director, Justin Tramble to learn more about the issues and their upcoming fly fishing tournament, The Waterman.

Flylords: Justin, can you tell us about the work Tampa Bay Waterkeeper engages in? 

Justin: Tampa Bay Waterkeeper is a grassroots organization fighting to protect, improve, and preserve the Tampa Bay watershed. We are part of the global Waterkeeper Alliance with over 350 organizations around the world. We are a passionate group of anglers and recreational users of our estuary that believe in action when it comes to protecting our right to clean water. We focus on education, awareness, and coalition building, but what separates us is our willingness to file lawsuits over clean water act violations. If you pollute our water here in Tampa Bay, you hear from us. Our litigation has funded over a half a million dollars in restoration and clean water projects right here in Tampa Bay. 

TBWK Executive Director Justin Tramble at a Fly Fishing Film Tour showing in Tampa Bay

Flylords: What are the threats to a healthy Tampa Bay?

Justin: First, it’s important to talk about the Piney Point disaster… where 215 million gallons of toxic waste was released into Tampa Bay in early 2021, fueling one of the worst red tide events and largest fish kill events we’ve ever seen here. The impacts are still being felt. TBWK and our partners filed suit against the negligent parties and that lawsuit is still active. Making sure that the Piney Point facility is closed properly has been a major focus of ours. 

Stormwater is the single largest source of pollution in the watershed. Nitrogen is the primary pollutant in Tampa Bay and stormwater accounts for approximately 59% of total nitrogen loading. An excess of nitrogen is associated with harmful algal blooms (such as red tide), reduced oxygen, fish kills, and loss of essential fish habitat such as seagrass. 

With three million people living in the Tampa Bay watershed, education is critical to mitigate nitrogen loading. 

Piney Point Fish Kill
Dead Redfish from Piney Point Fish Kill

Flylords: How is Tampa Bay’s future looking?

Justin: Overall, Tampa Bay is actually known as a success story. In 1974, Tampa Bay was featured on the television news program 60 Minutes documenting the effects of nutrient pollution across the country. I’m pretty sure we were officially declared dead on that show. Apparently finding any seagrass was hard to do. We’ve come a long way because of the community’s desire to be better! 

Despite the significant progress, we’ve had a few rough years. We’ve lost more than 4,000 acres of seagrass in Old Tampa Bay between 2018 and 2020 according to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. So that’s a wake up call… I will say that it is encouraging to see how clean water is becoming popular to talk about. We need to capitalize off of the momentum and energy to get meaningful policy changes made. When you see that half of the jobs in the Tampa Bay region are influenced by the Bay, you understand how connected we really are. It goes beyond just casting to tailing redfish, it’s our economy. People are starting to get it… 

TBWK Board Member, Captain Dustin Pack

Flylords: You guys also have one of your big annual events coming up in a couple months. What is The Waterman tournament? 

Justin: The Waterman Fly Fishing Tournament is a two-day, fly only Redfish tournament with a Snook Calcutta to be held on February 4th and February 5th, 2023. The fishing boundaries are the west coast of Florida from the Southern Tip of Sanibel Island to the Southern Edge of the Crystal River Power Plant Main Channel.

Flylords: How will this tournament assist the organization and improve Tampa Bay? 

Justin: The Waterman Fly Fishing Tournament is our largest fundraising event, allowing us to continue our efforts to fight for clean water here in Tampa Bay. It funds all aspects of our organization: our litigation efforts, our water quality testing, our education and outreach. It also helps us generate more conversation regarding our efforts! When you put some of the best fly fishing anglers in the country head to head for a cause like this one, it gets folks not only excited about the fishing, but the mission. The bonus is that the fly fishing industry is really stepping up to support our cause here in Tampa Bay. It’s exciting to be a part of this. 

Flylords: Last we talked, it sounded like tournament spots were nearly sold out, but how can others get involved with Tampa Bay Waterkeeper?

Justin: We cap the tournament at 120 anglers, 60 teams. We are crazy close to that. People can get involved by becoming a member of our organization. Our “Redfish” membership is only $10 a month, but goes a long way in supporting our efforts. I think it’s an easy sell too… when you look at what we’ve been able to do here in Tampa Bay, why wouldn’t you get on board? Check out our website at to find out how you can get involved. 

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