On the shores of the Florida coast, heaps of dead fish, dolphins, turtles and manatees are rotting in soup of red-brown seawater after a devastating algal bloom called the “red tide” has struck the region’s marine life.
The St. Petersburg, Florida city council declared a state of emergency last week and said crews need help cleaning the beaches from the marine life. More than 800 tons of dead fish and marine life washed up in the Pinellas district – and the smell is already striking the cities.
Red tides are happening in the area, but this year’s incident is so serious that some experts are wondering if a pollution accident at a former fertilizer factory called Piney Point could be a reason it is so bad.
In March, a dam on a reservoir in the disused facility that stored phosphate wastewater began to fail, leading to temporary evacuations of local residents on April 1. Two days later, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency. The facility released 215 million gallons of contaminated water in Tampa Bay to prevent the reservoir from collapsing.
The current algal bloom can be traced back to December 2020 when it began to migrate north up the coast to the Tampa Bay area. Tropical Storm Elsa also caused high winds that could cause fish to pile up on the banks in much larger and smelly quantities.
Although the bloom existed before the spill, the extra nutrients from the Piney Point spill created a cascading situation that quickly deteriorated and increased the algal bloom. Robert Weisberg, a professor at the University of South Florida, told local news outlets that he believed the Piney Point discharges could fuel the same bloom and make matters worse. “I don’t think it would have reached the level we see without Piney Point,” explained Weisberg.
Tom Frazer, now dean and professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, said during a discussion hosted by DeSantis that nutrients from the Piney Point phosphate site could help fuel the outbreak.
“I don’t think the red tide was caused by Piney Point,” Frazer said during the discussion at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. “One of the things we saw early about the red tide was that it was south of the discharge area, with the red tide continuing to migrate or moving north into lower Tampa Bay.
“It is quite possible that nutrients, recycled nutrients in the system through Piney Point contributed to this. But there are a large number of nutrient sources along the coast. And again we tried to address many of these nutrient sources. “
Dead fish from the red tide washed up along a St. Petersburg riverside park. Photo: Arielle Bader / AP
Red tide is an above-average concentration of a microscopic plant-like organism. In Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, the species that causes the most red tides is Karenia brevis. Red tides were recorded in this area as early as the 18th century and along the Florida Gulf Coast in the 1840s. It can cause breathing problems in humans, kill fish and other marine life, and cause shellfish poisoning in humans.
Flowering usually begins in autumn and disappears in January, but summer blooms in the area have occurred a few times in recent history: 1995, 2005, and most recently in 2018. That year, a long-lasting red tide bloom killed marine life as large as manatees and dolphins widespread health effects and drove tourists off the beaches.
St. Petersburg city officials said the bloodbath was worse this year than 2018. “Tampa Bay is really sick right now, really exceptionally bad. Conditions we haven’t seen in decades, ”said Justin Bloom, board member of the Tampa Bay and Suncoast Waterkeeper environmental groups.
This weekend, residents concerned about the red tide will march in St. Petersburg to call for increased protection of the waterways. They are demanding that Florida’s governor declare a state of emergency and a plan for Florida to end phosphate mining in Florida.
“Failure to enact guidelines to protect the environment and long-term climate denial have caused the current disaster in Tampa Bay,” said a statement from the protest organizers. “The Tampa Bay Community is demanding that our leaders declare the current red tide crisis a state of emergency.”