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Beach swimming this Fourth of July? Watch out for Red Tide

The toxic blooms have been afflicting Tampa Bay for weeks, and that makes enjoying the holiday trickier for beachgoers.
Rob Asay, 53, and Amy Fetherston, 50, both of The Villages walk past dozens of dead fish scattered along the beach at Honeymoon Island State Park on June 16.
Rob Asay, 53, and Amy Fetherston, 50, both of The Villages walk past dozens of dead fish scattered along the beach at Honeymoon Island State Park on June 16. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jul. 2
Updated Jul. 19

Summer is in full effect and the Fourth of July holiday is here. Many across Tampa Bay will head to the beaches ready to jump in the water this weekend.

Experts warn that they need to be careful this year.

If beach-goers see signs of a toxic Red Tide bloom they should stay far away from those waters, said Jenna Stevens, state director of the advocacy group Environmental Health.

“As we’re preparing for this weekend, obviously with active Red Tide blooms, it is important to be careful and be safe,” said Stevens during a Zoom webinar on Thursday, “and not put yourself in a situation where you could be putting yourself or your family members at risk of health issues.

“So if you’re seeing dead fish on the beach, that’s probably not a great sign and shouldn’t be going in the water there.”

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

Red Tide has been afflicting the Tampa Bay region for weeks. Pinellas County officials say it’s been affecting the Fort De Soto Park beaches. However, in recent days the fish kills have shifted to the waterfronts of downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Red Tide online map shows concentrations of Karenia brevis, the microorganism that causes the blooms, have been detected across Tampa Bay.

The toxins can could cause skin irritation, respiratory irritation, burning eyes or worse if someone were to swim near blooms. The toxins can also make the surrounding air hard to breathe. Local health departments have issued health warnings in areas where they fear Red Tide could cause respiratory issues. The toxins are especially harmful to vulnerable populations: infants, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases.

Lynn Ringenberg, the co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility Florida, recommends those in Red Tide zones should avoid getting the water in their eyes, nose, ears, mucous membranes, etc. She also suggests taking a good, thorough shower afterward.

But most of all, she said the public should heed any warning signs.

“I wouldn’t be getting into the water with my children or anybody with dead fish floating around,” said Ringenberg during the Zoom meeting.

Related: State investigating whether Red Tide is to blame for fish kill, this time in Tampa

Anyone experiencing irritation who suspects Red Tide exposure should get out of the water and thoroughly wash themselves. There are also other risks of swimming near fish kills, which are associated with harmful bacteria.

Red Tide can also be dangerous to pets, so keep them away from those areas and dead marine life. If they’re exposed, wash them right away.

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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.

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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