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Red Tide may recede in Tampa Bay but worsen off Pinellas beaches

Toxic algae have devastated local waters, killing immense numbers of fish and other sea life. Some manatees have been found dead, too.
Workers from the city of St. Petersburg use a turbidity boom to corral dead fish as they float near the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on July 16.
Workers from the city of St. Petersburg use a turbidity boom to corral dead fish as they float near the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina on July 16. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 20
Updated Jul. 20

ST. PETERSBURG — The latest Red Tide monitoring shows some improvement within Tampa Bay, officials say, but conditions are worsening for several gulf beaches.

“Our aerial imagery is showing that the bloom has kind of transported out of the mouth over the last few days. Within the bay ... it’s night and day from a week ago,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Eric Sutton. “However the bloom has now moved, it’s off the coast, and it’s expanded, and we’ve seen high bloom concentrations from Longboat Key up essentially to Dunedin and that area.”

Related: Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some answers.

Red Tide is “pretty extensive” off the beaches, Sutton told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. It is atypical for a toxic bloom to reach as far into the bay as it did this month, but more common in the gulf. In some spots on the western shore, Sutton said, the Red Tide has reached all the way up to the beach, while in other places it may be drifting a mile or so offshore. The bloom is not one unbroken block of algae but pockets that move according to winds, tides and other environmental factors.

The toxic algae have devastated waters around Tampa Bay, killing immense numbers of fish and other sea life. Sutton said the state has found multiple manatees — likely numbering in the single digits — that appear to have been affected by Red Tide, though the cause of their deaths will not be confirmed until researchers further study the animals’ bodies.

This has been a record year for manatee deaths, with 850 dying as of July 9, according to the state. That is largely attributed to the loss of seagrasses on the east coast, where manatees have starved around wintering zones along their Atlantic migration route. Now Red Tide threatens them on the west coast.

The last time Florida saw a bloom like this, so far into Tampa Bay at this time of summer, was in 1971, according to a Conservation Commission researcher.

Pinellas County as of Monday had picked up more than 1,270 tons of dead marine life and debris. Workers were finding dead fish on beaches from Indian Shores to the south. On Tuesday, they saw a major fish kill by the Dunedin Causeway, said county spokesman Tony Fabrizio.

Related: Is it safe to eat seafood in the Tampa Bay area during Red Tide?

The bloom seems to have been carried out of the bay by standard forces, including currents and wind, Sutton said. Persistent rainfall has helped freshen the waters of Tampa Bay, he said, lowering salinity levels that had been high weeks ago. The salinity may have made the estuary conducive to growth of the organism behind Red Tide.

But the algae have not left the area entirely, and scientists cannot be certain the bloom will continue to decline in the bay.

“The trend looks like it’s going down,” Sutton said, “but we’re not out of the woods.”

St. Petersburg officials and environmental organizations have made repeated calls for Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency. As of early this week, the state has agreed to provide $2.1 million to Pinellas for clean-up costs incurred by the county and city of St. Petersburg.

Related: Environmentalists urge DeSantis to declare Red Tide emergency

The governor’s office has said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection holds a fund to use in the response, so there’s no need to initiate a state of emergency, which is what happened during a bad Red Tide bloom in 2018.

The agency’s interim secretary, Shawn Hamilton, said that money is available specifically to help reimburse local governments for the cost of cleaning up fish kills. He said the agency has enough funding to surpass the aid it provided in 2018.

Pinellas alone picked up about 1,800 tons of dead sea life and debris that year.

“Those are the types of levels we’re ready to support if needed,” Hamilton said.

If the region suffers other damages, like business foundering due to a decline in tourism, Hamilton said the state tourism agency Visit Florida and the Department of Economic Opportunity, which administers state and federal aid programs, could step in to help.

• • •

Red Tide coverage

Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some answers.

Is it safe to eat seafood? Here’s how Red Tide affects what you eat.

Can I go fishing? The state is limiting saltwater fishing.

Piney Point: The environmental disaster may be fueling Red Tide.

Red Tide resources

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

• 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 dead fish for clean-up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.

• 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.

How to stay safe near the water

• Do not swim around dead fish.

• Those with chronic respiratory problems should be careful and stay away from places with a Red Tide bloom. Leave if you think Red Tide is affecting you.

• Do not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rised 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.

• Beachgoers can protect themselves by wearing masks.

Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County