Tampa Bay shellfish farmers can resume harvesting at sunrise after Red Tide scare

State officials are also investigating whether fish kills reported in Pinellas could be linked to an algal bloom.
Owner Brian Rosegger pulls himself and his boat closer to a line of floating bags to harvest oysters at the Lost Coast Oyster Company farm in Tampa Bay in August 2020.
Owner Brian Rosegger pulls himself and his boat closer to a line of floating bags to harvest oysters at the Lost Coast Oyster Company farm in Tampa Bay in August 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published June 4, 2021|Updated July 19, 2021

Aquaculture farmers in lower Tampa Bay will be allowed to resume harvesting at sunrise Saturday after the state temporarily shut them down because of fears of Red Tide blooming in the area.

Officials are also investigating reported fish kills in Pinellas.

Four water samples this week showed bloom levels of Red Tide offshore, generally around Port Manatee. The Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County has issued a health advisory, warning of the possibility for people to experience respiratory irritation because of Red Tide in lower and middle Tampa Bay.

Related: Hillsborough health officials send Red Tide warning for Tampa Bay

Fish kills “suspected to be related to Red Tide” were reported in both Pinellas and Manatee counties over the last week, according to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission update Friday. Respiratory irritation was reported in Pinellas, the agency said.

Elevated levels of Red Tide have shown up near the Hillsborough-Manatee line, in the eastern portion of the bay, according to a conservation commission map. That is where approximately 215 million gallons of polluted wastewater from a leaking reservoir at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site were released in early April.

The Department of Environmental Protection, which has offered frequent updates on the Piney Point situation, said late Friday that wildlife officials are “currently investigating reports of fish kills in Boca Ciega, Pass-a-Grille and St. Pete Beach.”

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

Leases for cultivating shellfish such as oysters and clams in a section of lower Tampa Bay were closed at sunset on May 26, said Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesperson Franco Ripple. The local industry is small. There are 10 aquaculture leases held in the affected area, Ripple said.

But the state said late Friday that those farmers will be allowed to resume operations early Saturday.

Shellfish are filter feeders susceptible to drawing in the organisms that make up Red Tide. Harvesting closures are a typical response when samples suggest tainted water. The shutdown followed a test result showing a bloom-level concentration of Red Tide off Joe Island, near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

“This is exactly what I started sounding the alarm on two months ago,” said Brian Rosegger, co-founder of Lost Coast Oyster Company in Tampa Bay. He has worried about a toxic algal bloom cropping up and cutting into his business ever since the contaminated Piney Point discharge.

The released wastewater contained elevated levels of nitrogen, which can encourage blooms to grow. The discharge alone would not cause Red Tide, which is naturally occurring, to show up in Tampa Bay, scientists have said. But nutrients from the polluted water could serve as fuel for the organisms in Red Tide, according to researchers.

Related: Meet Tampa Bay’s newest oyster: the LoCo, from Lost Coast Oyster Co.

Earlier Friday, Rosegger said that if the closure were to last just a week or two, his business would likely be fine. But a months-long pause could be more damaging.

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“I can’t sell anything right now,” he said of his oyster crop. “It’s all in the water.”

For updates on Red Tide, visit the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website or call 866-300-9399 from within Florida.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information late Friday night.