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Red Tide, stench of dead fish threatens St. Petersburg’s Fourth of July

Thousands of dead fish and the resulting smell overwhelmed the downtown waterfront. Will it get better over the holiday weekend?
A heavy fish kill was found at Lassing Park in Old Southeast on Thursday in St. Petersburg. Dead fish crowded the beach, flies are swarming and the smell was overwhelming.
A heavy fish kill was found at Lassing Park in Old Southeast on Thursday in St. Petersburg. Dead fish crowded the beach, flies are swarming and the smell was overwhelming. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 1
Updated Jul. 1

ST. PETERSBURG — Nick Finch’s son Wallace turns 4 next week. The father planned to celebrate during the Fourth of July weekend by grilling Sunday and taking his son’s friends to Lassing Park to swim out to the sandbar.

That was before thousands of dead fish showed up this week.

Finch, 27, did his best to withstand the odor on Thursday as he kicked a soccer ball with his son in the park.

“I’m not sure how long we’ll be outside with that smell,” Finch said.

That will be a question asked by many this Fourth of July Weekend as the stench of rotting fish fills the downtown waterfront.

The Red Tide blooms that have afflicted the region for weeks, producing fish kills and respiratory warnings, is now sending waves of dead fish piling up from North Shore Park south to the St. Pete Pier to Demens Landing and Lassing Parks.

Related: State investigating whether Red Tide is to blame for fish kill, this time in Tampa
A heavy fish kill was found at Lassing Park in Old Southeast on Thursday in St. Petersburg. Dead fish crowded the beach, flies are swarming and the smell was overwhelming.
A heavy fish kill was found at Lassing Park in Old Southeast on Thursday in St. Petersburg. Dead fish crowded the beach, flies are swarming and the smell was overwhelming. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Crews scooped dead fish from the shore on Wednesday, said Finch, who lives in Old Southeast, but they keep washing up.

Ben Kirby, the spokesperson for Mayor Rick Kriseman, said crews are busy cleaning up the waterfront to prepare for Fourth of July festivities and for the potential arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa. Florida is now within the storm’s cone of uncertainty and it is expected to reach the Gulf of Mexico by Tuesday.

The toxic algal blooms are a frequent menace along Florida’s west coast and it’s not unprecedented for outbreaks to occur within the bay. But Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission research scientist Kate Hubbard said this Red Tide outbreak stands out.

“It’s unusual to have the levels we’re seeing, and to have them this time of year,” Hubbard said. Her department is ramping up water testing and investigating fish kills to respond to the severe blooms.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Red Tide map shows a medium concentration of Karenia brevis, which causes the blooms, was found off the tip of Bayboro Harbor and low concentrations off the St. Pete Pier and Big Bayou directly off the St. Petersburg coast.

Winds pushed Red Tide into the bay, and the heavy rains that followed the recent drought may have helped the blooms grow by washing nutrients into the water, Hubbard said. Scientists are also investigating whether there’s a link to the 215 million gallons of polluted wastewater dumped into Tampa Bay in April from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County.

Related: Could Tampa Bay’s Red Tide be connected to Piney Point disaster?
Dead fish bob near the historic pilings at the St. Pete Pier on Thursday. Heavy fish kills were found along the downtown waterfront.
Dead fish bob near the historic pilings at the St. Pete Pier on Thursday. Heavy fish kills were found along the downtown waterfront. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“Looking ahead 3½ days, it looks like there will still be Red Tide in the bay,” she said. She added that the Pinellas beaches along the Gulf have seen a recent drop in blooms. County officials say the Fort De Soto Park beaches still have medium and high concentrations, however.

At the far end of Demens Landing Park, rocks trapped in the dead sea creatures. John Lambo hadn’t seen them yet, but despite the smoke of his cigar, he could still smell them.

“It would probably keep me from coming here if I thought it was going to be like this every day,” said Lambo, who’s visiting from Houston.

Floating fish carcasses bobbed around the boats docked at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina and under the long concrete walkway of the St. Pete Pier. After an hour and no bites, Pablo Barbosa gave up on fishing off the pier.

“As soon as I saw it, I knew exactly what was going on,” said Barbosa. He visited St. Petersburg from Georgia in 2018, in the middle of the historic Red Tide outbreak of 2017-18, which devastated the tourism industry.

Back at Lassing Park, the smell pushed Noel Jambor and his Jack Russell terrier, Loki, back to the car. He usually sees people kiteboarding in the water, but not today.

“No one’s going to come here right now,” Jambor said. “It stinks.”

Thousands of dead fish are seen in the bay moving with the tide toward the St. Pete Pier on Thursday.
Thousands of dead fish are seen in the bay moving with the tide toward the St. Pete Pier on Thursday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
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Red Tide resources

Florida Poison Control Centers have a toll-free 24/7 hotline to report illnesses, including from exposure to Red Tide: 1-800-222-1222

There are several online resources that can help residents stay informed and share information about Red Tide:

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism wing, runs an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.

The agency asks business owners to email reports of Red Tide issues to pr@visitspc.com.

Pinellas County shares information with the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast tool that allows beachgoers to check for warnings.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a website that tracks where Red Tide is detected and how strong the concentrations.

• • •

How to stay safe near the water

  • Beachgoers should avoid swimming around dead fish.
  • Those with chronic respiratory problems should be particularly careful and “consider staying away” from places with a Red Tide bloom.
  • People should not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rinsed with clean water, and the guts thrown out.
  • Pet owners should keep their animals away from the water and from dead fish.
  • Residents living near the beach should close their windows and run air conditioners with proper filters.
  • Visitors to the beach can wear paper masks, especially if the wind is blowing in.

Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County