A stubborn red tide that has ebbed and flowed along Florida’s Gulf Coast since Hurricane Ian’s landfall is once again threatening some Pinellas County beaches.
The toxic algae has slogged its way back to the Tampa Bay area after nearly three weeks of reprieve: As of Friday morning, there was a moderate to high risk of breathing irritation caused by red tide at some beaches in every coastal county from Pinellas south to Collier, according to federal ocean scientists.
State water samplers this week detected red tide blooms at several locations in lower Tampa Bay, including Anna Maria Island and Mead Point, and along the Pinellas coastline at Treasure Island Beach, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. A bloom is considered 100,000 red tide-forming cells for every one liter of water.
“This bloom continues to be patchy and dynamic,” said Kate Hubbard, the director of the state’s Center for Red Tide Research.
In a text message, Hubbard offered her short-term prediction for the bay area with a slight dip in temperature coming: “Surface waters will continue northward, until they reverse and push southward as the front passes through later this weekend. This switch could help push (red tide) out of Tampa Bay.”
Translation: Red tide may be sticking around, at least for the next few days.
Pinellas County’s environmental management team did its own water testing Tuesday and found high levels of red tide at Pass-a-Grille, medium concentrations at Madeira Beach and Treasure Island, low levels at Fort De Soto and very low levels at Redington Shores, according to spokesperson Tony Fabrizio.
The risk for breathing impacts is higher with onshore winds. As of Friday morning, the wind had slowed from the night before, and was forecast to remain light and variable from the west-northwest at 5 to 10 mph in the afternoon on Treasure Island, weather data show.
An autonomous, red tide-detecting “ocean glider” is offshore of Tampa Bay this week and operated by the University of South Florida, Hubbard said. It’s keeping a close eye on ocean currents.
State biologists say they received reports of fish kills this week in Pinellas, and respiratory problems at popular shorelines like Boca Ciega Bay, Pass-a-Grille Beach and Treasure Island Beach. Florida’s wildlife commission updated an executive order Monday allowing for the removal of dead fish from Pinellas down to Collier County, according to spokesperson Carly Jones. It’s in effect until March 31.
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Southwest Florida continues to face the brunt of this latest red tide bloom. Of the nearly 60 water samples that found blooms this week, 21 were in and offshore of Lee County; 18 in Sarasota; nine in Charlotte and five in Manatee County, according to state data. The lingering blooms to the south may come back to threaten Tampa Bay in the future, said Yonggang Liu, director of the Ocean Circulation Lab at the University of South Florida.
“Presently, the winds are southerly and will remain that way for several days — so whatever is already near shore at the surface will be further concentrated along the shore and also transported toward Tampa Bay from the south,” said Bob Weisberg, a physical oceanographer at the University of South Florida.
He added: “I do not anticipate red tide getting any better in the near future.”