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Protesters call for stepped up government action after Red Tide outbreak

During a rally at City Hall, local residents lamented the cost of the outbreak, which has killed marine life around the Tampa Bay area.
Jack Tenney speaks during the Rally to save Florida from Red Tide, Sunday July 25, 2021 in Tampa.
Jack Tenney speaks during the Rally to save Florida from Red Tide, Sunday July 25, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jul. 25
Updated Jul. 26

TAMPA — Among the crowd were recreational fishermen and a beach ambassador. A teacher and an attorney. A restaurant sustainability coordinator and a YouTuber with more than five million subscribers.

All of them share a connection to the waters of the Tampa Bay area. On Sunday, they gathered in Tampa for a rally, where speakers lamented the Red Tide outbreak that has poisoned those waters and called for changes that they said could stop it from happening again.

Marisa Barnas, 51, told a crowd of more than 100 people gathered outside Tampa City Hall that she had found a dead sea turtle washed up on the beach. She pointed a finger at polluted water dumped into the bay in March and April off the grounds of the old Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County.

“If you look at a map, you can’t deny which way this water’s going,” Barnas said.

While scientists have yet to definitively connect the Red Tide outbreak with the discharge, some of them say it may have worsened things. The state allowed the release of 215 million gallons of polluted water by property owner HRK Holdings because regulators feared a large reservoir was about to collapse.

HRK Holdings principal owner William “Mickey” F. Harley declined to comment on Sunday’s rally.

Marisa Barnas, 51, of Redington Shores, brought a sign with photos she took at the beach of dead animals to the Rally to save Florida from Red Tide, Sunday July 25, 2021 in Tampa. Barnas started to pick up some fish on her own but says she couldn’t keep up with the mass amount.
Marisa Barnas, 51, of Redington Shores, brought a sign with photos she took at the beach of dead animals to the Rally to save Florida from Red Tide, Sunday July 25, 2021 in Tampa. Barnas started to pick up some fish on her own but says she couldn’t keep up with the mass amount. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Barnas is a special education teacher in Lansing, Illinois. She lives in Redington Shores for part of the year, and normally she enjoys tanning and swimming.

But she’s prone to bronchitis, and she said in an interview that she has mostly stopped going to the beach. Some days she can’t open her windows. She still checks on the condition at the beach in the mornings, and on Sunday she carried a poster with pictures of dead aquatic life she’d found.

“I would like to see laws that protect our environment,” Barnas said. “I mean, I really feel like dumping waste into the bay has caused this.”

Rallygoers called on the state government to take steps to prevent future disasters.

“We want polluters to pay. We want a plan created for the closure of Piney Point,” Reese Drew, a 25-year-old Clearwater resident, told the crowd. “We want recommendations mandated from local experts to be taken seriously.”

Drew called for an end to phosphate mining in the state, as well as other environmental goals like statewide clean-energy targets. And she asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency due to the Red Tide outbreak.

DeSantis has said his administration has already mounted an “all hands on deck” response to the crisis, from partnering with local governments and spending money to pull fish out of the bay to supporting research to prevent future blooms.

Rallygoers held signs on Sunday that read, “STOP PHOSPHATE MINING” and “DEAD ENVIRONMENT DEAD ECONOMY.”

Brian Rosello held one that said, “ACCOUNTABILITY FOR PINEY POINT.”

Rosello, 44, is president of the Florida Recreational Fishing Union. But fishing in the bay is a bad idea right now, he said.

He commended the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for working to help people return to fishing, but he said he wants to see consequences for people and companies over their roles in Red Tide outbreaks that go beyond fines.

“When we get on the water and we make mistakes, we get our boats seized from us. We get taken to jail,” Rosello said. “Anybody can pay a fine.”

Brian Rosello, 44, head of the Florida Recreational Fishing Union, speaks during the Rally to save Florida from Red Tide, Sunday July 25, 2021 in Tampa.
Brian Rosello, 44, head of the Florida Recreational Fishing Union, speaks during the Rally to save Florida from Red Tide, Sunday July 25, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

After the speeches outside City Hall, a group of about 50 people marched down the Riverwalk. “Save the bay!” they chanted. They dispersed after reaching Armature Works.

But Tampa Bay residents say they aren’t done calling for change in the wake of the Red Tide outbreak. Stefanie Hinton, a 35-year-old St. Petersburg resident, has helped set up a Facebook group for people to coordinate activism.

And Jackson Tenney, a Florida native whose YouTube channel has more than 5.6 million subscribers, told the crowd there would be weekly rallies during the crisis.

Why the shared passion?

“The ocean connects us all, right?” said Ali Cammisa, 26, at a speech outside City Hall. “Emotionally, geographically, financially, literally in every way. And we have to stand up for it, and we have to do what’s right.”

• • •

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