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Will the Piney Point spill affect tourism this summer?

While the long term impacts of the spill have yet to be seen, the area’s popular beaches have not been impacted and visitor numbers have stayed the same, county leaders said.
Aerial drone image of the Anna Maria Island Beach with surrounding homes pictured on Friday.
Aerial drone image of the Anna Maria Island Beach with surrounding homes pictured on Friday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 21
Updated Apr. 21

When the story went national, Captain Scott Moore began fielding calls.

After millions of gallons of wastewater was released from the old Piney Point phosphate plant into Tampa Bay, tourists wanted to know if it was still safe to visit. They called Moore, who has been a professional fishing guide on Anna Maria Island for 40 years, asking if they would be able to swim and fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Water’s clean, fish are clean, there’s no dead fish yet,” Moore told the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s the main thing.”

After the wastewater leak, which led to evacuations and a state of emergency, some feared busy tourist spots could be impacted. But local leaders said Manatee County’s popular destinations have seen little impact from the spill, which mainly affected the area around Port Manatee, far from the county’s most popular beaches. So far, the spill hasn’t led to a decline in visitors either, officials said.

Related: Failure at Piney Point: Florida let environmental risk fester despite warnings

“What we’re hearing through our tourism director is there has been nominal, virtually zero impact,” said Manatee County spokesperson Nicholas Azzara.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Terri Kinder said the island saw a slight drop in visitors last week, but business remains steady and in a normal pattern of tourism season. The destination usually sees a decrease in visitors after Easter, followed by an increase in June and July. The chamber has been offering guidance to local businesses and directing tourists to the county website and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation website for more information.

“We want make sure that we’re providing the best information that we can,” Kinder said. “We are certainly not predicting the future.”

Aerial drone image from Piney Point on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 in Palmetto. 
Aerial drone image from Piney Point on Wednesday, April 14, 2021 in Palmetto.  [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

State and local agencies have been monitoring the water near DeSoto National Memorial park, but the preserve has yet to see any negative impact.

“The park is usually pretty protected,” park spokesperson Daniel Stephens said. Fishing and kayaking tours are currently suspended, but that’s due to the pandemic, not the spill, he said. Programs are slated to restart in June.

Stephens said to his knowledge, no visitors have called the park inquiring about the leak and they haven’t seen a drop in traffic.

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program has been closely monitoring the areas around Port Manatee, such as Terra Ceia Preserve, assistant director Maya Burke said. So far, scientists have mainly observed a mixture of phytoplankton near the spill. Visitors to these areas might see darkened water and Burke advised against fishing in those parts of the bay.

“At this point, it’s not a harmful algae bloom, but it’s one that can still make fishing not as good. It has the potential if it persists longterm that could hurt seagrass resources,” Burke said. Seagrass is important because it serves as a habitat for young fish, she explained.

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Estuary scientists likely don’t have enough nutrient data to know if Anna Maria’s waters could feed an algae bloom there, Burke said, so it’s hard to predict what will happen as the spill’s plume spreads from the Port Manatee area to the edge of the bay.

“Ultimately it’s going to make its way out the mouth of Tampa Bay, so that means it’s going to pass by Anna Maria Island,” she said. “Whether or not they’ll feel effects, that’s too soon to tell at this point.”

Still, county leaders are hopeful. Acting county administrator Scott Hopes said a very diluted portion of the plume’s spill has made its way to the southern tip of St. Petersburg and the mouth of the Manatee River. But the spread isn’t as bad as one University of South Florida model originally predicted, he said.

“The tides are keeping the plume pretty much in one place,” Hopes said. “If it keeps up like this, you’re just going to gradually have it diluting its way out into Tampa Bay.”