CLEARWATER — When St. Petersburg College natural sciences professor Heyward H. Mathews saw the thousands of dead fish left decomposing around Tampa Bay after they were killed by January's extended cold, his mind went to his research on algae.
With so many dead fish around — each one like a little bag of Miracle-Gro — he fears that the excess nutrients could lead to a boom in algae populations in the coming months — a phenomenon that would reduce water quality and kill even more aquatic life by reducing oxygen content in local waterways.
"As long as the water's cold, that slows everything down," Mathews said. "Come March and April, we'll see horrendous algae blooms."
Those fears may be well founded, say state and county officials — especially since local waters already have higher-than-natural levels of nutrients in them from sewer and agriculture runoff.
"You could wind up getting an algal bloom when you have a fish kill," said Theresa Cody, assistant research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "When the fish decompose, it does degrade the water, degrades oxygen conditions."
But the problem can be avoided, Mathews said, if as many rotting fish as possible are removed before they completely dissolve.
But that task might not be as easy as leaving it to government agencies.
Pinellas County, strapped for resources, can't handle the load in every lake and along every shoreline, said Kelly Levy, the county's director for watershed management.
And individual cities can do only so much. Last month, St. Petersburg pulled nearly 15 tons of fish from its lakes, and Largo, 38 tons.
But many residents in unincorporated Pinellas County have been left to remove dead fish themselves.
Levy, who said her office has been inundated with complaints about piles of dead fish across the county, said she hopes people will step up in the way that residents of one retirement community near Largo did last week — by removing 8 tons of dead tilapia in their canals themselves.
"Unfortunately, given the reduction of force, the budget, we don't have the resources to clean up the dead fish," Levy said. "It's not for lack of desire. As a public employee, the first thing you want to do is help."
So now, the county is calling on locals to ask not what the county can do for them, but what they can do for the county by not just leaving dead fish near their properties to decompose.
Officials have already extended a fee waiver for landfill disposal of dead fish until Saturday.
"A big thank you to all those people out there from Tarpon Springs to Tierra Verde who are helping. We couldn't do it without them," Levy said. "A third of our department is gone since last year."
Other organizations are gearing up to help as well.
Keep Pinellas Beautiful, a nonprofit environmental group, has a hotline to report areas in need of cleanup.
And later this month, the group is planning to send hundreds of volunteers by foot and boat to clean up Clam Bayou.
Jim Chapin, a recycling specialist with Keep Pinellas Beautiful, said if communities need supplies like trash bags or tools, his organization would be happy to lend them.
Mathews, the natural scientist, said people should start acting now before it's too late.
"Algae blooms can cause some damage, absolutely," he said. "We're so near the edge, it just takes a little bit to set them off."
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.