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Fish kills, breathing problems and burning eyes: How red tide is impacting Pinellas beaches

“This thing may linger,” one career red tide expert said.
 
Dead fish are seen along the shore of the intracoastal waters near the Dunedin Marina on Wednesday.
Dead fish are seen along the shore of the intracoastal waters near the Dunedin Marina on Wednesday. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published March 8, 2023|Updated Nov. 23, 2023

Every coastal Southwest Florida county — from Pinellas south to Monroe — saw toxic red tide blooms over the past week as the patchy wave of algae nears its fifth month of life in Gulf of Mexico waters.

The stubborn red tide has left its mark on both wildlife and people: Tons of fish, from the mighty goliath grouper to the agile pinfish, were found dead on Gulf beaches since this weekend. Human respiratory issues such as coughing and sneezing have also been reported in all seven Southwest Florida counties, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Related: Here’s the aerial view as red tide blooms off Pinellas County right now

“We are getting a sloshing, back and forth, of whatever red tide organisms are out there right now,” said Bob Weisberg, the former director of the University of South Florida’s Ocean Circulation Lab. Recent onshore winds haven’t helped the problem.

“It could very well be that this thing may linger,” Weisberg said.

A beachgoer walks past a dead fish along Honeymoon Island State Park Beach on Wednesday in Dunedin.
A beachgoer walks past a dead fish along Honeymoon Island State Park Beach on Wednesday in Dunedin. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Pinellas County was behind only Sarasota County for the most red tide blooms detected in water samples over the past week, according to state wildlife data updated Wednesday afternoon.

Of the 79 water samples that documented high levels of red tide, 27 were in Sarasota County and 26 were in and offshore of Pinellas County, wildlife data shows. Scientists consider a bloom to be 100,000 red tide-forming cells for every liter of water.

Reports of run-ins with the toxic algae are also increasing at regional poison control centers, data shows.

Related: Tampa Bay weather to cool down for spring break

As of Monday, there were 36 red tide exposures reported so far this year to Florida’s Poison Control Centers, said Jemima Dougé, a health care education specialist at the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa. That compares to just two reports last year over the same time frame, and 15 in 2021.

All of those incidents included reports of red tide-related symptoms, such as coughing, eye irritation or worsening asthma, Dougé said. Another 10 people have called the regional center with questions about how red tide could affect travel plans and how to avoid contact with red tide.

Weisberg said he’s getting calls from friends asking about upcoming travel plans to the Tampa Bay area. It happens during every bloom.

“I cannot say when it’s going to go away,” he tells them. “We really can’t project what’s going to happen two months from now ― but we have to pay attention to what’s going on now.”

Beachgoers are seen at Honeymoon Island State Park.
Beachgoers are seen at Honeymoon Island State Park. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Beach festival nixed over red tide concerns

A beachside festival on Indian Rocks Beach scheduled for April 15 — more than five weeks away — was canceled Tuesday. Organizers cited the red tide forecast.

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While data shows algal blooms are currently exploding just north of the city, it’s hard to determine what — if any — red tide impacts will still be in the area around the time when the festival was planned. Leading state red tide researchers keep their forecasts to within days, not weeks, because ocean and wind conditions can change rapidly.

Still, it was too much of a risk to go forward with the event, according to Marybeth Dunn, president of the Indian Rocks Beach Homeowners Association.

“It’s so early in the year — red tide is going to be hanging on for a while, and it’s more than likely going to get worse as time goes on,” Dunn said. “This is a fairly big event. We had vendors, sponsors and events lined up. So we wanted to give them an opportunity to get other gigs.”

The association, which spearheads the annual BeachFest, said in a news release it consulted with officials at the Pinellas County Health Department before canceling the event over public health concerns. But the association “appears to have made the decision to cancel their BeachFest event on their own,” health department spokesperson Tom Iovino said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

Flags indicating no swimming or wading and dangerous marine life are posted along the beach at Honeymoon Island State Park.
Flags indicating no swimming or wading and dangerous marine life are posted along the beach at Honeymoon Island State Park. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

In Tampa Bay, fish kills and a dead manatee

Red tide is beleaguering local wildlife around Tampa Bay. Since Monday, nearly two tons of debris, mainly dead fish, were cleared from Pinellas County beaches and brought to the landfill, according to spokesperson Tony Fabrizio.

On St. Pete Beach, cleanup crews have been collecting about two 40-pound bags of dead fish per day. Roughly 1,000 pounds of fish were cleared from beaches there since the start of the month, according to Mandy Edmunds, a parks supervisor with the city of St. Pete Beach. Over the weekend, species such as pinfish, sheepshead and mullet dotted the coastline at Pass-A-Grille Beach.

The county hasn’t activated its dead fish cleanup contractor yet, meaning most of the response so far is sporadic and manageable, Fabrizio said. About 20 tons of dead fish and debris have been cleared since Dec. 12. In comparison, in summer 2021, as many as 9 tons of dead fish were cleared from St. Petersburg shores in just one day.

Still, it’s not just fish succumbing to the toxic algal blooms lately.

A dead loggerhead sea turtle washed ashore on Madeira Beach on Saturday, causing a flurry of concerned outcry from city residents on social media. State wildlife officials say the turtle had no identifiable cause of death, so experts are attributing it to red tide. A full necropsy will take place the first week of April, according to Fish and Wildlife Research Institute spokesperson Carly Jones.

Since this latest bloom began in October, Florida wildlife biologists have documented 104 sea turtles they think died from red tide across Southwest Florida, Jones said. Of those, 63 were loggerhead sea turtles.

A nearly 10-foot manatee was found March 1 floating dead against a seawall in Boca Ciega Bay. It was starting to decompose, a sign it had likely been in the water for a few days. When state veterinarians completed tests on the animal a day later, they found it had wet lungs, bloody eyes and a darkened kidney, according to a necropsy report.

It’s one of seven manatees suspected to have died from red tide so far this year, data shows.

Below: The latest red tide water samples from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

What to expect in the short term

The most recent water sampling done by Pinellas County’s environmental management team Tuesday showed the highest concentrations of red tide were near Clearwater Beach, Fabrizio said.

In the waters just offshore of Pinellas, researchers are predicting some movement away from the coast through Saturday. In an email, Fabrizio recommended people going to the beach this week should check conditions at www.pinellas.gov/redtide before they go.

“If you are at the beach and experience respiratory problems, leave the location and go to an air-conditioned space for relief,” he said.