After one last, hard smack at Fort DeSoto and Shell Key over the Thanksgiving holiday last week, Red Tide has disappeared from Pinellas County's beaches.
"We're shutting down" county environmental management director Kelli Hammer Levy said Tuesday regarding the ongoing cleanup. "The bloom is now south of us."
South of Pinellas, however, the bloom is still causing dire effects.
Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota says people are still finding dead fish and suffering respiratory problems along the beaches there. Meanwhile, federal officials say 37 dead or dying bottlenose dolphins washed ashore in Lee and Collier counties between Saturday and Tuesday.
"We've been exceptionally busy," said Erin Fougeres, a marine mammal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It's too soon to say for sure if those 37 were killed by Red Tide, she said, but of the 117 dolphins found along the gulf coast since July, 16 tested positive for the algae's toxins. The theory is that the others will too.
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Federal scientists fear that the bloom will cause the dolphins to suffer even further, as the toxins have wipe out thousands and thousands of fish that the dolphins would normally eat.
The toxic algae bloom, which scientists have described as the worst in a decade, has been lingering off the state's gulf coast for a year. Red Tide algae floats in the Gulf of Mexico all year round. No one knows what starts a bloom, when the algae suddenly multiply rapidly and begin killing fish, dolphins, sea turtles and manatees by the score.
But once a bloom moves inshore, it can be fueled by pollution in stormwater runoff, leaky sewer systems and septic tanks. Scientists said this year's bloom also appeared to be boosted by dust blown into the gulf from the Sahara Desert and pollution in the runoff from the Mississippi River.
A climate change report four years ago predicted Florida would be plagued by more and more intense Red Tide blooms.
Pinellas suffered from the toxic algae bloom's effects for three months, starting in early September. Levy said the county spent more than $7 million trying to clean up all the dead fish washing ashore, in some cases intercepting them before they could reach the beach.
Contractors hired by the county collected a total of 1,863 tons of dead sea life and hauled it off to the county's landfill and incinerator.
Right before Thanksgiving, the bloom was sitting in Bunce's Pass, she said, and dumping lots of dead fish on Fort De Soto and Sand Key.
"Fort De Soto was getting hit hard," Levy said.
But then strong winds from the north started pushing the bloom south, and southward flowing currents moved it along as well.
The same winds and currents could shift, though, and bring it all back.
Levy promised the county would continue monitoring the beaches three days a week "but right now all things are looking good."
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.