ST. PETERSBURG — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sought to assure the Tampa Bay community on Wednesday that he is taking its Red Tide struggles seriously after weeks of calls from local leaders and residents to do more.
DeSantis said there has been an “all hands on deck” response to the ecological crisis from his administration since the beginning: money spent to pull fish from the bay, research to prevent future blooms and state employees partnering with local governments to mitigate the disaster.
“We’re proud of the efforts that are going on,” DeSantis said.
The St. Petersburg news conference was rolling along as planned until a local reporter informed DeSantis that Mayor Rick Kriseman, who was not invited, had accused the Republican administration of politicizing the response.
DeSantis snapped at the reporter for relaying Kriseman’s message: “Well, you should look to see, is that credible to say that?”
“It’s never been political,” he added. His office later added that Kriseman never asked to attend. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, St. Petersburg City Councilman Ed Montanari, a Republican, and Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers, also a Republican, joined local business leaders and the state’s top environmental official, who defended the governor’s handling of the outbreak.
Kriseman, the City Council, Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried (who will run for governor in 2022) and environmental groups have all called on DeSantis to declare a state of emergency, saying it would allow even more resources to be dedicated to the clean-up effort. That’s how the governor’s office helped the west coast during the 2018 outbreak, when Pinellas removed about 1,800 tons of dead sea life and debris.
DeSantis on Wednesday said Kriseman and other city officials have not articulated why a state of emergency is needed and he insisted he had already allocated money in the state budget to respond to this kind of problem.
“It would send a message that somehow all of Florida is having problems, when in fact the economy’s open. People should be coming,” Desantis said. “This place is open. They’re doing well and so it would have been very irresponsible to do that.”
Proprietors of local businesses standing beside the governor agreed.
“We represent nearly 1,000 businesses on the beaches, and a state of emergency does not help our economic vitality at all,” said Robin Miller, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
So far 1,442 tons of dead sea life and debris have been removed from Pinellas shores as of Tuesday, county officials say, most of that coming from St. Petersburg in recent weeks. As of this week, state officials say they’ve given $2.1 million to Pinellas for clean-up costs incurred by Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg.
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After touring the water off St. Petersburg’s coast by boat on Wednesday, DeSantis reported that Tampa Bay “looks a lot better than it did last week.”
Officials say the nature of the Red Tide crisis is shifting and that the worst effects could soon be felt along the beaches, especially Indian Rocks Beach and Madeira Beach.
Meanwhile, DeSantis downplayed any connection between the area’s algae problems and another environmental disaster this year, the leak in a reservoir at the old Piney Point phosphate plant site in Manatee County. In April, officials okayed a discharge of the polluted water into Tampa Bay so that it wouldn’t spill into neighborhoods.
Instead, the governor blamed Tropical Storm Elsa for pushing the toxic bloom into Tampa Bay earlier this month.
“The scientific consensus is clear: it didn’t cause the Red Tide,” DeSantis said. “Red Tide was here.”
Scientists have said Piney Point is not the reason Red Tide showed up in Tampa Bay, and several environmental factors may have a role in the current outbreak. They also have not declared that the discharge had no effect. Recycled nutrients from polluted Piney Point water could very well be helping feed the Red Tide, according to researchers and clean water advocates. Studies are ongoing in hopes of better understanding the effects of the discharge.
The event Wednesday marked DeSantis’ first visit to St. Petersburg related to Red Tide since June 17, when he dismissed concerns of an algae event on par with the ecological disaster of three summers ago.
“This is not 2018,” DeSantis said at the time.
He then shifted his focus to other matters, including the catastrophic collapse of a condo building in Surfside, Elsa’s arrival and the wave of immigrants showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border, which he toured last week in Texas. He has also held multiple events to address the protests in Cuba against the communist leadership.
In the meantime, Tampa Bay’s outbreak metastasized into a full-blown crisis, marked by truckloads of dead fish, an overwhelming stench near St. Petersburg’s waterfront that threatens the region’s tourism and fishing industries. Protesters gathered in St. Petersburg and Tampa in a public call out for help.
DeSantis’ top environmental leaders assured local residents Wednesday that their attention has not veered from Tampa Bay since the beginning of the outbreak.
“I’m going to be here until this event is done,” said Eric Sutton, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has been assisting the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby offered a tongue-in-cheek welcome of the governor, saying: “While his leadership and presence would have been appreciated during the height of Red Tide’s impact on St. Petersburg (we understand traveling to the Mexican border took precedence), we are pleased to have the governor back in St. Pete.”
Times staff writers Zachary T. Sampson and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: The tonnage of Red Tide debris was updated.
• • •
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