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Heading to the beach this weekend? Red tide blooms are declining in the Tampa Bay area

Pinellas County waters were clear of red tide blooms as of Friday afternoon, according to an update from state scientists
 
Someone paddles through the water at Pass-a-Grille Beach on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in St. Pete Beach. Red tide conditions have improved in Pinellas County over the past week.
Someone paddles through the water at Pass-a-Grille Beach on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in St. Pete Beach. Red tide conditions have improved in Pinellas County over the past week. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Feb. 3, 2023|Updated Feb. 3, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Beachgoers and outdoor recreators can head into the weekend with some relief: The threat of red tide continues to decline in the Tampa Bay area.

Pinellas County waters were clear of red tide blooms as of Friday afternoon, according to an update from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“Conditions have improved in the greater Tampa Bay region, with only background to very low levels observed in lower Tampa Bay over the past week,” Kate Hubbard, the director of the state’s Center for Red Tide Research, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

State water monitors detected Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide, in 37 different samples in southwest Florida over the last week. Of those, just 10 contained toxic “bloom” levels of more than 100,000 cells per liter of water, data shows. Monitors found eight bloom samples in Lee County, one in Collier County and one in Sarasota County.

That’s a nice reprieve for the bay area compared to mid-December, when crews cleared hundreds of pounds of dead fish from St. Pete Beach over the course of one weekend, and beachgoers reported trouble breathing, watery eyes and runny noses on Pass-A-Grille Beach. Fast-forward to February, and Pinellas County’s solid waste department has not reported any marine debris, like smelly and rotting fish, “for weeks,” according to spokesperson Tony Fabrizio.

Toxic red tide blooms clash with clearer Gulf of Mexico water just offshore of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria Island near the lower section of Tampa Bay on Dec. 17, 2022. Lately, conditions have improved for the lower Tampa Bay area.
Toxic red tide blooms clash with clearer Gulf of Mexico water just offshore of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria Island near the lower section of Tampa Bay on Dec. 17, 2022. Lately, conditions have improved for the lower Tampa Bay area. [ MAX CHESNES | Times ]

“This continues to be a dynamic bloom — since it was first observed in October, it’s moved around a fair amount, with that trend continuing over the past few weeks and over the next few days, based on short-term forecasts,” Hubbard said.

There are a few variables responsible for the improved conditions lately, according to Yonggang Liu, director of the University of South Florida’s Ocean Circulation Lab. Strong winds from recent cold fronts, paired with the offshore loop current brushing the west Florida continental shelf, have wedged the toxic algal blooms away from the Tampa Bay coastline, Liu explained.

The University of South Florida currently has a glider about 35 miles offshore of Clearwater measuring the ocean’s chemistry (nutrients and oxygen), biology (biomass like plankton), and physics (currents, temperature and density) to help researchers better understand the latest red tide bloom, according to Liu. Gliders are robots that collect data in the sea without the need for humans onboard.

The glider is still detecting chlorophyll near the seafloor, but it’s been a much lower amount compared to the past month. Chlorophyll is an indication of how much algae is in the water. A high chlorophyll concentration means more algae in the water, according to Liu.

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Over the next few weeks, the red tide bloom may gradually weaken if there aren’t many new red tide cells lurking offshore.

“This is a good sign for us in Tampa Bay,” Liu said.

While Tampa Bay is currently in the clear, red tide is still flaring up further south, near the Charlotte Harbor area, according to Hubbard. So the monitoring efforts will continue: A collaborative 10-day ocean survey, led by the Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory, is heading out Monday to take water samples along the southwest Florida coastline. The effort is being funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Water quality researchers are still keeping a close eye on the bloom, though. As with all toxic algae flare-ups, conditions can change quickly.

“Resource managers are watching this persistent bloom closely,” Maya Burke, Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s assistant director, wrote in an email to the Times. “If the red tide cells remain close to the coast as the rainy season picks up, we may be in for another challenging summer and fall.”