ST. PETERSBURG — As Red Tide washed tons of dead fish upon Tampa Bay shores, Aimee Conlee grew concerned.
Conlee had to cancel summer camp and other activities at her business, Urban Kai Stand Up Paddle Board Shop, and recalled how just last weekend she hosted a Yoga on the Water class in the morning, near clear waters. By the afternoon, dead fish had begun to invade the area.
So Conlee decided to act and reached out to Suncoast Surf Rider, a nonprofit focused on beach and ocean conservation. Together with the Suncoast Sierra Club, they organized a protest on Saturday at the St. Petersburg Pier, calling for measures to address and prevent Red Tide.
“This is not political,” Conlee told a crowd of at least 100 people who showed up to the event. “This is life. This is water, and water is life.”
Protesters had several demands, listed by Suncoast Surf Rider chair Thomas Paterek: declare a state of emergency for Tampa Bay; create a plan for closing Piney Point’s facilities; implement policies recommended by expert groups; stop phosphate mining in Florida; fix Florida’s infrastructure; move to clean energy; and make polluting companies pay for clean up.
The crowd marched from the pier to the Vinoy Park beach volleyball courts and back, shouting “Save our Bay, Make Polluters Pay.”
“Thank you,” the protesters shouted to people who were cleaning up dead fish from a boat. A man on the boat netted a mass of rotting fish flesh into a trashcan on deck, swarmed by flies. A stench hung in the air and worsened as protesters approached the volleyball courts.
Angela Chang, 35, and her boyfriend, Nick Sierra, 34, of Longboat Key heard about the protest through Instagram. Sierra said he’s seen how states in the Pacific Northwest have addressed environmental disasters and feels Florida is behind in its response to Red Tide. Chang said the couple spends many of their weekends out on the water or at beaches.
“I can see fish dying everywhere, which is really sad,” she said. “So we are here to support.”
Red Tide is a collection of harmful algae, and the algae feast upon nutrients regularly found in Tampa Bay, such as nitrogen. Excess nitrogen enters the water in many ways, including through fertilizer runoff and wastewater released from land.
This year, scientists say, the Red Tide is almost certainly finding more fuel because more than 200 million gallons of polluted water was dumped into the bay between late March and early April off the grounds of the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County.
The state allowed the release by property owner HRK Holdings because regulators feared a large, leaking reservoir was about to collapse and send a devastating flood into surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. That wastewater was dumped into the bay at Port Manatee and carried a lot of nitrogen with it.
Piney Point is owned by HRK Holdings. When a Times reporter called the cell phone number of HRK Holdings principal owner William “Mickey” F. Harley and identified herself on Saturday, the man who answered hung up.
Protesters drew attention to the Piney Point release as they marched Saturday. Neighbors Kathleen Bohrnsen and Aldo Della Sera, both 57, came from the Coquina Key waterfront neighborhood in St. Petersburg to show their support. Bohrnsen held a sign that said “Declare a State of EMERGENCY!!” while Della Sera held a sign that read “Prioritize the Health of Tampa Bay.”
“Red Tide is a natural occurrence,” Bohrnsen said. “But not this kind of Red Tide. Not this early, not this degree.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Aimee Conlee’s last name.