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St. Petersburg council to DeSantis: Declare Red Tide emergency

City Council enters the Red Tide debate a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis rebuked St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman for asking for help.
Dead fish pile up along the shore of North Shore Park on Thursday. St. Petersburg City Council is poised to vote on a resolution asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency as the Red Tide crisis continues.
Dead fish pile up along the shore of North Shore Park on Thursday. St. Petersburg City Council is poised to vote on a resolution asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency as the Red Tide crisis continues. [ MARTIN FROBISHER | Times ]
Published Jul. 15
Updated Jul. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council sent its own SOS to Tallahassee as the city drowns in Red Tide-poisoned fish.

Council members voted 7-0 to approve a resolution late Thursday night asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency as a severe Red Tide bloom and an onslaught of dead marine life continue to plague St. Petersburg’s coastline.

They acted the day after the governor’s office rebuked Mayor Rick Kriseman when he made a similar request at a Wednesday news conference. The mayor noted that’s how the governor’s office helped Florida’s west coast during the 2018 Red Tide outbreak. But DeSantis’ office accused Kriseman of trying to “score cheap political points” and said the state is already working to help the city and Pinellas County defray the growing costs of cleaning up dead fish.

“We need help from the state,” said City Council member mayoral candidate Darden Rice, who proposed drafting the resolution. “I do think we need to put an exclamation point on this. How could we not call this an emergency?”

Related: Red Tide costs swell while St. Petersburg mayor, Gov. DeSantis bicker

Rice said an emergency order could help pay for the clean up and bring in the Florida Department of Health to address potential respiratory issues caused by the toxic algae. Council member Robert Blackmon, who is also running for mayor, approved Rice’s afternoon motion but wasn’t there when the final vote was taken at 10:58 p.m.

“The Governor’s office and (the Department of Environmental Protection) continue to coordinate with both the counties and the city to ensure their needs are met,” said a statement from the governor’s spokesman, Jared Williams. “As has been previously stated, funding is being provided without the need for an executive order, and that funding can be used to meet any need the local communities have. Once a resolution is received, our office will review the request.”

Removing hundreds of tons of dead fish has already cost the city at least $700,000, Public Works administrator Claude Tankersley told council members. The labor and equipment needed to scoop up dead fish carcasses will cost the city more than $60,000 a day as the crisis continues, he said. Another $1.2 million will be spent to address the maintenance and repair work that isn’t being done because the city has diverted about 200 workers to clean-up duty.

Pinellas County has now collected 791 tons of dead marine life found along St. Petersburg and the county’s beaches. More than 600 tons likely came from St. Petersburg’s shores.

On Wednesday alone, St. Petersburg officials reported 142 tons were removed.

Related: No Red Tide relief in sight as dead fish overwhelm St. Petersburg
A dead goliath grouper seen among the other marine life found Thursday along North Shore Park. St. Petersburg crews are struggling to clean up the waves of Red Tide-poisoned fish washing ashore from Tampa Bay.
A dead goliath grouper seen among the other marine life found Thursday along North Shore Park. St. Petersburg crews are struggling to clean up the waves of Red Tide-poisoned fish washing ashore from Tampa Bay. [ MARTIN FROBISHER | Times ]

Cleaning up the coast does more than take away the dreadful smell of festered fish, said J.P. Brooker, director of the Florida Conservation for Ocean Conservancy.

“Red Tides thrive as fish that are already in water dying continue to rot,” he said. Dead fish release nutrients, which help fuel Karenia brevis, the microorganism that causes Red Tide.

“If we’re not using all of our employees to get fish out of the water, that means the Red Tide is likely to last longer and be worse,” Tankersley said.

The city has tried to bring in more workers through temporary labor agencies, he said, but a labor shortage has made staffing and retaining additional workers difficult.

City leaders said they need the governor to declare a state of emergency to gain access to more workers and equipment, which would help remove the dead fish faster — before it makes the Red Tide situation even worse.

Council member Brandi Gabbard said she’s been in contact with the governor’s office this week requesting aid.

“The ask is always manpower, equipment and money,” Gabbard said. “We can’t just do it with money, and we can’t just do it with reimbursement. We need all hands on deck.”

Related: Could Tampa Bay’s Red Tide be connected to Piney Point disaster?

Experts told the council that, while Red Tide is hard to predict, the toxic algae bloom could linger in the bay.

The algae blooms have already reached concentration levels not seen in Tampa Bay since 1971, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission research scientist Kate Hubbard said.

Brooker said the April release of 215 million gallons of polluted wastewater into the bay from the defunct Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County is “certainly a contributing factor,” along with warm waters, decomposing fish and the Saharan dust plume.

“My opinion is that we’re in for a summer of slime,” Brooker said.

The city can help alleviate Red Tide by reducing the amount of nitrogen entering the bay with continued clean-ups and potentially with stricter regulations of fertilizer, he said.

Related: St. Petersburg cleans up 9 tons of dead fish in 24 hours due to Red Tide, Elsa

City Council passed a separate resolution urging the Pinellas County Commission to extend its annual nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer ban beyond the traditional June 1 to Sept. 30 window.

Gabbard requested that resolution be amended to urge the county to distribute the emergency funds from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“You have been given money that’s allocated,” she said. “Now that money needs to come to us.” That resolution, which also passed 7-0, included the request that the county expedite providing the city with state funding.

The county has been briefed on the city’s cleanup expenses and is working on an agreement to transfer funds to St. Petersburg when it receives them from the state, Tankersley said.

Council chair Ed Montanari said the county has so far allocated $900,000 to St. Petersburg. He said he took an aerial tour of Tampa Bay on Wednesday, where the dead include tarpon, snook, goliath groupers, dolphins and a sea turtle.

“Once you get into Tampa Bay, the damage is huge,” he said. “We do need help.”

Times staff writers Matthew Griffin and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.

• • •

Red Tide resources

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

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

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

To report fish kills and get them cleaned up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.

To report them in St. Petersburg, call the Mayor’s Action Center at 727-893-7111 or use St. Petersburg’s seeclickfix website.

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

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

• • •

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