Red Tide has come to Tampa Bay.
A patchy bloom suspected to be the reason for fish kills on the Pinellas coast and around Port Manatee showed up two months after 215 million gallons of wastewater were pumped into the estuary from the site of an old fertilizer plant.
People already have suspicions. But can anyone know for sure whether harmful algae are feasting upon pollution from Piney Point?
“Nutrient chemistry in seawater is a complex issue, and this is certainly true for Tampa Bay,” said University of South Florida chemical oceanography professor Kristen Buck, who took samples after the Piney Point release. “Red Tides are also a complex phenomenon. At this point we simply do not have data to support a direct cause-and-effect relationship.”
While there may not be hard proof, Tampa Bay Estuary Program executive director Ed Sherwood said, it “doesn’t take much to put two and two together.”
“We didn’t see this level of algal production this time last year,” he said in an interview. And 2021 has brought uncommonly dry weather, meaning heavy rains have not washed excess nutrients, namely nitrogen, into Tampa Bay. That runoff would provide an obvious alternate source of fuel for the algae.
The state’s wildlife agency said the release would not cause the organisms in Red Tide to appear in Tampa Bay, but nutrients in the wastewater could feed them once they arrive.
Scientists, including Buck, want to understand whether the specific nutrients found in wastewater at Piney Point match those being taken up by the organisms growing around the bay. They plan to use a kind of signature within different molecules — which may act as a natural tracer — allowing researchers to follow where nitrogen goes and how it gets used in the environment.
Sherwood described the process as similar to matching up a fingerprint. It will take time to get back results.
Thick mats of an algae called Lyngbya have blanketed waterways around Anna Maria Island in recent weeks, and Red Tide has been found at bloom levels near Port Manatee — where the Piney Point wastewater was discharged — and off Pinellas beaches around Pass-a-Grille, Redington Shores, Indian Shores and Sand Key.
Dead fish have been reported to be scattered at Sunset Beach, Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, among others, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as well as near the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Health officials in both Hillsborough and Pinellas have issued advisories warning visitors they could experience mild respiratory issues, similar to a cold, when around a bloom.
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Algae use nitrogen to grow. The polluted water at Piney Point put high levels of nitrogen into the bay. It was released with approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which said it feared that a leaking reservoir at the property could collapse. The state has vowed to hold the private landowner, HRK Holdings, accountable for damages.
Red Tide is not well-understood. The algae produce toxins that hurt marine life, and they may make people in the area suffer a cough, itchy throat and irritation in their eyes and noses. Blooms are typically more troublesome for those with chronic breathing problems like asthma.
Several research projects are underway in an effort to better understand the causes of blooms and ways to possibly mitigate their effects. Carly Jones, a spokesperson for the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said “there is no direct link between nutrient pollution and the frequency or initiation of red tides caused by Karenia brevis” — the scientific name of the organism that has been found at elevated levels here.
“Piney Point didn’t cause the Red Tide in Tampa Bay,” Jones wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, “but whether or not it might be a contributing factor is a possibility that we are looking into with a number of other collaborators.”
“We also just moved from drought conditions into Florida’s wet season and have started to see rain for the first time. Both the drought and now the rain may also be playing a role in some of the patterns we have seen, on top of some of the complex ocean currents.”
The excess nitrogen dumped into lower Tampa Bay from Piney Point, according to an estimate shared by Sherwood, is similar to pouring about 100,000 bags of fertilizer into the water over several days.
He said he never expected all the consequences would be immediately obvious. Contaminants from the wastewater, he said, have been pushed by winds, tides and currents through parts of the bay and out along the coast. They may have been used first by other organisms, but when those die, the nitrogen will get recycled through the ecosystem.
Capt. Todd Romine, who fishes out of Holmes Beach, said there have been dead fish, especially pinfish and grunts, found around Port Manatee. He said those species are “very typical of a Red Tide fish kill.”
Red Tide is not everywhere, according to the conservation commission’s last update. Clean samples were pulled south of Tampa Bay, including in Sarasota Bay.
Romine believes the Piney Point discharge has some connection to the bloom.
“Typically it would be late August or September during the rainy season when runoff is at a peak,” he said. “It’s tough enough without having a manmade additional problem like Piney Point dumping 215 million gallons ... into the bay.”
At a Thursday meeting of the Agency on Bay Management, a community organization that aims to protect Tampa Bay, Sherwood told scientists and government staffers that the Piney Point situation has drawn attention away from important restoration work.
A 2020 seagrass monitoring report found declines in acreage within Tampa Bay, which could be a warning sign for the overall health of parts of the estuary. The biggest losses were in Old Tampa Bay near Feather Sound, according to researchers. Bay managers who could be addressing algae problems there are instead consumed with the response to Piney Point.
Seagrasses are a foundational part of the ecosystem because they provide food for animals such as manatees, habitat for nursing fish and natural filtration for the water. The Estuary Program is monitoring seagrass beds near Port Manatee to determine how they respond to the release and any potential algal blooms.
The region is a few years removed from a devastating Red Tide that struck the southern gulf coast, buffeting a tourism industry that is now trying to recover from the economic drag of the coronavirus pandemic’s local peak.
“We’re now in 2021 and potentially setting ourselves up to repeat those sorts of events,” Sherwood said in his presentation Thursday. The 2017-19 bloom caused tons of dead marine life to wash ashore across Florida’s west coast. Pinellas spent at least $7 million to clean up its shores.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Pinellas’ public tourism agency, has said it is tracking new reports of Red Tide.
Tampa Bay’s restoration is considered an environmental success that could sputter backward without vigilance. Advocates for decades have restored seagrasses and boosted water quality by pushing to reduce the nutrients dumped into the estuary by people, including in wastewater.
Nature relies on balance, they say, and a human-caused crisis like Piney Point threatens to upset the system.
“This is something that cascades through the environment in the weeks and months ahead,” Sherwood told those gathered Thursday. “We’re still in the throes of the response.”