ST. PETERSBURG — Toliver and Jessica Tucker are used to the dark, oily water, the bulging eyes, the gray flesh decaying to a pulp in the city’s bayous.
They have even become accustomed to the smell — God, the smell — of all the rotting fish in gruesome flotillas, victims of a toxic Red Tide in Tampa Bay.
But the maggots? The maggots are new. White and wriggling, they circle the scales of rotting sheepshead. They climb seawalls at the water’s edge.
The other day, Toliver saw one inching up the cockpit of the shrimp boat he and his wife sail as contractors in the urgent effort to drag millions of pounds of dead fish from Tampa Bay.
“These canals are sick,” said Toliver, 43. “It’s devastating. I’ve thought about crying.”
Pinellas County has hired an ad hoc armada of shrimp boats like the Tuckers’ to comb local waters with nets. About 30 boats have helped; in total, the county has collected more than 1,440 tons of dead sea life and debris from the beaches to the bay. And the work continues.
The boats are the most effective tool for keeping fish off land, where they are not only a grisly sight but harder to pick up once they become entangled in sand, trees and rocks. Cleaning the bay is not just a matter of vanity. The dead fish, if left to degrade, could supply more nutrients to fuel Red Tide.
Most days, the Tuckers wake up about 4:30 a.m. to drive south from their home in Spring Hill, sometimes with their son. They stripped the livewell from the center of their 25-foot boat, Southbound, to make room for all the dead fish they pick up. They start work just after dawn and don’t finish until dusk.
In that, they know, they are not alone.
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The Tuckers’ first job gathering dead fish was in 2018, when a Red Tide bloom in the Gulf of Mexico cratered their bait shrimp business. No one was fishing near shore, and no one wanted to buy their shrimp.
The timing was awful. Married for nearly two decades, they were about to buy a house.
“We were broke and had nothing in the bank, and they wanted closing costs,” Jessica recalled. She was sure they would lose the property. Then the contracting gig came, giving them a steady paycheck.
So far, this year’s bloom hasn’t been as bad for Tuckers Flats Fishing. The couple works out of Hudson and was still running one boat and crew there to catch enough shrimp for continuing orders.
But if the bloom endures, sales could bottom out again.
The Tuckers sell shrimp for $60 per thousand. The boat they left behind hauled in 14,500 the other day.
In Pinellas, they make $170 an hour, Toliver said. They pay for their own gas and expenses and drive an hour or more to reach the boat launch each day. They trailer the Southbound every night. Another one of their boats, Westbound, was helping with Red Tide, but they recently sent it back to shrimping — typically an overnight job — because the crew struggled with the heat.
The pay is solid, Toliver said, but the work is brutal. “You’ve got to understand what we’re touching.”
Toliver grew up in Tarpon Springs and has long fished around Tampa Bay. The couple trawls for shrimp here each fall and winter.
The Tuckers know how life on Florida’s west coast rests on a ripple, always spreading from the water. It’s why people live here and why they visit, spending money on seaside hotel rooms and rum punches at tiki bars.
If there were no gulf, no Tampa Bay, this would just be another chunk of flat land.
The Southbound shoves off from a ramp at Demens Landing, passing Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on the St. Pete Pier, where the Tuckers like to grab lunch.
Sometimes, at the end of the day, Toliver lines up the boat and angles the motor so the wake hits the breakwater by the restaurant just right, freeing dead fish from the rocks so they can be netted.
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The shrimp boats pass each other on a course entering and exiting Demens Landing, where a forklift hoists the loads of dead fish they collect into a series of dumpsters. While underway, outriggers stretched wide, the boats look like hulking birds. Each carries a couple of people to manage the nets cast over the edge.
Once the nets are full — and it doesn’t take long — the shrimpers gather them to release plumes of dead fish in the middle of the boats, filling green bags with long handles. In an hour or so, maybe even less, the Tuckers can haul away up to 3,000 pounds.
When they finish, spindly fish bones remain, piercing the Southbound’s nets.
Toliver and Jessica stretch dishwashing gloves over their hands, but inevitably, their bare skin ends up touching dead fish or Red Tide anyway. It feels like an alcohol burn. They carry a 5-gallon bucket of bleach water, in addition to hand sanitizer, wipes and antibiotic ointment.
The GPS screen plots their days in a spiderweb of green lines, past the Vinoy, a string of waterfront parks, around the Historic Old Northeast and up Coffee Pot Bayou.
This arm of the bay was a hotspot recently, Toliver says, swaths almost entirely covered in dead fish. Where the die-offs are most severe, rotting carcasses drift so close together they look like pavers. It’s as though someone could hop off a seawall and walk around without getting wet. The sour air smells like a hundred refrigerators packed with tuna were left unplugged to rot in a parking lot.
The stench gives Toliver a headache. They don’t often wear masks, they say, because the boat has an open cockpit that allows for a breeze when they’re moving.
He and Jessica leave their rubber boots outside the house when their day is done. On one long drive back to Spring Hill, Toliver felt like he could smell death the whole way home.
They take turns at the wheel of the Southbound, and Jessica pulls out her phone in hopes of capturing some sense of what they are witnessing. Like when fish swim in spastic circles before suddenly turning belly up, dying in front of their eyes.
Toliver wishes Gov. Ron DeSantis would come for a ride on the Southbound, to see what they see.
• • •
The outboard motor makes the Tuckers’ boat maneuverable. Jay Gunter, the man running contractors like them in Pinellas, calls it a mini shrimp boat.
They can pull right up to the seawall by Straub Park, where city workers extend pool skimmers to scoop fish from the tideline.
The job is worse on land. It’s slow but necessary work. The Tuckers look on in pity from under the shade of a bimini top.
“They’re dying,” Toliver says of the crews. “There’s no breeze.”
Occasionally, city employees will call out, directing boats toward fish kills they cannot reach. In especially tight spaces, under docks and lifted boats, operators use Weedoos — essentially small, floating front-end loaders — to cart debris to the deck of an idling pontoon.
Toliver cuts the Southbound northeast, out of sight of downtown toward Venetian Isles. The shoreline is fully developed with luxury homes, touting panoramic views of Tampa Bay and bayside pools adorned by statues. Toliver scans the manicured lawns, trim and green as country club fairways.
Like others who work on the water, the Tuckers blame the April wastewater dump from the Piney Point fertilizer plant for polluting the bay and helping feed this bloom. But they know the release is only one source of contamination.
All the lush lawns around them likely use fertilizer, Toliver thinks, and the runoff puts more nutrients into the bay. He knows the unbroken line of manmade seawalls is not good, either, long ago crowding out mangroves and oyster beds that helped keep the bay clean and balanced.
The Tuckers pass other shrimpers and a woman on a center console cleaning out dead fish with a teenaged deckhand.
Toliver yells to them all, saying thank you.
He steers the Southbound through a marina by Smacks Bayou, where a day earlier they removed thousands of pounds of rotting fish. Toward the back, where the water meets Snell Isle Boulevard, the Tuckers find hundreds of dead fish in a shallow bend.
“Oh my God, it’s wretched,” Toliver says. “It’s just rotting corpses.”
The water is cloudy and lifeless. They know oxygen levels have plummeted so much that nothing can survive. For all the carcasses the couple removes, tides and winds blow in more each day.
Toliver thinks about how many families could have been fed with all this seafood, and how long the bigger fish might have lived.
“That’s a snook,” Jessica says.
“No,” Toliver says, peering down. “That was a grouper at one time.”
The cove would be too narrow for outriggers, so the Tuckers call for a Weedoo and head off, finding another putrid clot around Cordova Boulevard.
“This is horrible,” Tolliver says. He spots an eel, a few feet long, that he thinks was some kind of moray. It may be the biggest he’s seen. It floats upside down near an empty Four Loko can.
This also bothers the Tuckers, how there is always garbage mixed in with all the death.
Onshore, a woman spots their boat and steps out to a patio, letting two dogs run along the seawall above the Southbound.
Toliver looks up and yells.
“We got help on the way, hon.”
About this story: Times reporters went out for a few hours on the Southbound on Friday, July 16, with Toliver and Jessica Tucker. The couple gave reporters a tour of the area they have been working and spoke about the process of picking up dead fish. The bloom’s worst effects have since moved toward the gulf beaches.
• • •
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