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Here’s what to know about red tide in Pinellas County this week

The worst of the red tide has diminished over the past few days. But it’s not gone yet.
 
The beaches off Indian Rocks Beach are flush with visitors despite the presence of red tide earlier this month.
The beaches off Indian Rocks Beach are flush with visitors despite the presence of red tide earlier this month. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 20, 2023|Updated Nov. 23, 2023

The dead and rotting fish that dotted the shores of St. Pete Beach at the start of the month have declined in recent days, a signal that toxic red tide has loosened its fiery grip on the Pinellas County coast.

Cleanup crews cleared roughly 1,000 pounds of dead fish from the shores of St. Pete Beach in early March, filling at least two 40-pound bags of dead fish per day.

But last week, crews picked up no more than 40 fish total, according to Mandy Edmunds, the parks supervisor with the city of St. Pete Beach.

“It’s looking much better right now,” Edmunds said Monday.

Pinellas County has enjoyed a streak of improved red tide conditions in recent days as the thickest toxic algae patches have started to lose their steam around the Tampa Bay area. The recent cold fronts may have helped break up the worst of it.

But with conditions changing day by day, anything from a slight shift in wind direction to a changing undersea ocean current can be the difference-maker for whether you’ll see dead fish or have breathing irritation while at the beach. Knowing that, it’s still something to keep an eye on, experts warn.

“It looks like we’re getting a bit of reprieve for the moment,” said Maya Burke, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s assistant director. “But we know these blooms tend to be patchy and can change.”

From the current beach conditions to the latest forecast, here’s what you should know about red tide in the Tampa Bay area this week.

Dead fish lay at the high tide line on Clearwater Beach on March 9.
Dead fish lay at the high tide line on Clearwater Beach on March 9. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Where’s the red tide right now?

State water scientists detected red tide in 79 samples along Florida’s Gulf Coast over the past week.

Of those, 18 were considered to be at a “bloom” level. If 1 liter of water contains more than 100,000 red tide-causing Karenia brevis cells, that’s a red tide bloom that can cause fish kills and respiratory issues.

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

Twelve of those samples detected red tide blooms in and offshore of Pinellas County, according to the most recent Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. There were also two samples that detected blooms in Manatee County.

The most recent sampling results in Pinellas County show an improvement from last week: There were seven locations with “medium” red tide blooms. Those levels can fall anywhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 cells per liter.

These are the areas with the most intense red tide conditions recently, according to state data:

  • Clearwater Beach
  • Sand Key Park
  • Wallace Cove in Boca Ciega Bay
  • Maximo Park in Lower Tampa Bay
  • Shell Key south of Pass-A-Grille Beach
  • Southern Skyway Fishing Pier
  • South Skyway Causeway on the northeast end of Lower Tampa Bay

Check the conditions for yourself: Below are the latest red tide water samples from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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It’s not just state scientists who are out monitoring the water. Pinellas County sent out its own environmental management staff Friday morning and found most of the peninsula clear of intense red tide blooms. Only northern beaches like Clearwater and Honeymoon Island showed low levels, and there were also a few mild patches near Fort De Soto on the county’s southern tip.

“The winds and currents have worked in our favor over the last week,” county spokesperson Tony Fabrizio said in an email. “Conditions have continued to improve.”

Is there still a risk of breathing problems at beaches?

At high toxin concentrations, exposure to red tide can cause teary eyes and a scratchy throat, and people with asthma or chronic lung conditions can experience more severe symptoms.

As of Monday morning, Pinellas County was the only county along the Southwest Florida coastline that had a moderate risk of respiratory irritation from red tide, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast.

A forecast valid through Tuesday afternoon showed beachgoers near Shell Key south of Pass-A-Grille Beach had a moderate chance of facing breathing problems — the highest risk of any location along Florida’s Gulf Coast. To the north, Clearwater Beach and Three Rooker Island had a low risk. Everywhere else in Pinellas County has a “very low” risk, data shows.

The trend of better conditions was seen up and down Florida’s Gulf Coast. More than 100 miles of coastline, stretching from southern Pinellas as far south as Marco Island in Collier County, had a 36-hour forecast of clearer air and a very low risk of breathing issues, according to the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System.

The wind was blowing 12 mph from the north on Treasure Island Monday. Usually, onshore winds, which blow from the west to the east on Florida’s Gulf Coast, bring the worst breathing conditions as they carry red tide’s toxins to the beach. The winds have helped to keep the worst respiratory irritation at bay.

See below: The latest red tide-related respiratory forecast for the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

What’s the forecast showing?

Ocean currents are expected to start pushing lingering red tide to the south starting Tuesday, according to Kate Hubbard, the director of the state’s Center for Red Tide Research. It’s still unclear, though, whether currents will push red tide cells out of Tampa Bay.

State staff at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute were out Monday morning collecting water samples, which will help paint a better picture for the week ahead, Hubbard said.

Related: Tampa Bay: Do you have questions about the latest red tide? We have answers.

“Our last satellite imagery was from Friday, due to cloud cover over the weekend, but it looked promising,” Hubbard said Monday.

The latest models from the University of South Florida show red tide likely won’t intensify over the next few days, according to the university’s Ocean Circulation Lab. The lab also agrees with Hubbard that ocean currents will shift soon to the south.

“This may help to transport red tide cells away from our coast, at least temporarily,” according to Yonggang Liu, the lab’s director.

The latest red tide outlook from the University of South Florida shows conditions have largely improved over the past week for the Tampa Bay area.
The latest red tide outlook from the University of South Florida shows conditions have largely improved over the past week for the Tampa Bay area. [ Courtesy of the University of South Florida ]

Red tide resources

There are several online resources that can help residents stay informed and share information about red tide:

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a website that tracks where red tide is detected and how strong it is.

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 fish kills and get them cleaned up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism wing, runs an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.

Pinellas County shares information with the red tide respiratory forecast tool that allows beachgoers to check for warnings.

• • •

How to stay safe near the water

  • Beachgoers should avoid swimming around dead fish.
  • Those with chronic respiratory problems should be particularly careful and “consider staying away” from places with a red tide bloom.
  • People should not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rinsed 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.

Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County