Dead baitfish dotted the shoreline like seashells and the air reeked of rot Saturday morning on Pass-a-Grille Beach.
Cleanup crews with the city of St. Pete Beach cleared roughly 1,500 pounds of dead fish from the shoreline this weekend, including at Pass-a-Grille, as a Red Tide bloom lingers offshore of Pinellas County.
Crews topped their blue 5-gallon buckets with fish for three days between Thursday and Sunday, and the “worst” day for fish kills so far was Saturday on Pass-a-Grille, according to Mandy Edmunds, parks supervisor for the parks and recreation department at the city of St. Pete Beach. The beaches were clearer on Monday morning compared to over the weekend.
“The cleanup has included a variety of species,” Edmunds told the Tampa Bay Times over the phone Monday morning. Pinfish, mullet and catfish are among the species included in the die-off, according to reports made to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission since Thursday. A waste collections service contracted by the city will now dispose of the fish.
Still, 1,500 pounds over one weekend pales in comparison to what was collected in just 24 hours during last summer’s Red Tide blooms. Over the course of one day in July, St. Petersburg cleanup teams slogged 9 tons of dead fish into dump trucks.
But before noon Saturday, cleanup crews on Pass-a-Grille Beach estimated “hundreds” of pounds of dead fish had already been collected. Several plastic buckets, lined with black garbage bags, were filled with piles of rotting, smelly pinfish and seaweed. Crews used handheld trash pickers to grab the fish one by one. Full buckets were then loaded into the back of a utility vehicle as teams slowly walked northward.
State water samplers detected “bloom” levels of the organism that causes Red Tide in 29 water samples over the past week, including four in and offshore of Pinellas County and four roughly 10 miles offshore of the mouth of Tampa Bay, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. Crews documented the Karenia brevis organism at more than 100,000 cells per liter in and around Pinellas County. At that level, respiratory irritation and fish kills are both possible.
State water samples also pinged a “high” reading of more than 1,000,000 cells per liter inside the mouth of Tampa Bay at Maximo Park last week, the latest data show. At that level, fish kills and breathing problems are likely and the water can become discolored.
At the county level, officials will start tracking dead fish collection this week if the trend continues, according to spokesperson Tony Fabrizio. For now, that responsibility is up to individual municipalities within the county, like St. Pete Beach.
The Florida wildlife commission plans to add Pinellas County to an active executive order, issued Nov. 30, that would allow for large-scale removal of dead fish if needed, according to spokesperson Carly Jones. The county should be added within the next two days.
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With changing winds and ocean currents both playing a role, the Red Tide bloom may stick around for a few more days between St. Pete Beach and Madeira Beach, according to Yonggang Liu, director of the Ocean Circulation Lab at the University of South Florida.
“Our model-simulated current patterns indicate that the Red Tide may still be around for the next few days,” Liu wrote in an email to the Times. “It may move slightly further northward along the West Florida coast prior to the arrival of a cold weather front later in the week.”