ST. PETERSBURG — Red Tide, which chased the tourists away from Pinellas County's beaches last week, has now infiltrated the Intracoastal Waterway and started stinking up residential canals too.
"The Intracoastal got hit hard today," Pinellas County Environmental Management director Kelli Hammer Levy said Monday.
The toxic algae bloom, considered the worst in a decade, started the week off by depositing thousands of dead fish at the Harbourside Condominium complex in South Pasadena. The condo's maintenance staff was trying to clean them up but more kept coming.
"This is the worst I've ever seen, and I've been here 11 years," said manager Bill Marger. He said the dead fish ranged "from tiny to large."
The Intracoastal is a 3,000-mile inland waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of the United States, with about 40 miles of that skirting the western edge of Pinellas County between the mainland and the coastal barrier islands. It's popular with canoeists, kayakers and paddle boarders.
But now it's a conduit for dead fish, some of which are killed near shore and some from far out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Fish were washing up at Maximo Park and along the shoreline in the Pink Streets neighborhood on the southern tip of St. Petersburg.
Erica Harris and Craig Joseph walked a dog together on the path next to the shore at Maximo Park. They could smell the dead fish before they saw them.
"We could smell it as soon as we came into the park area," Harris said. "It smells like something dead."
One social media post suggested a dead dolphin had washed ashore near the Pink Streets, but a state official said it turned out to be a large dead eel.
Fish carcasses are also starting to clog up residential canals connected to the waterway. Not all of the residents living on canals can count on the county cleaning up the mess.
"We are going in and cleaning out canals where there is a high quantity of fish," Levy said. "But we're getting a lot of calls where we go out and it's just 12 fish."
In those cases, she said, the neighbors should just skim out the fish, put them in a trash bag and set them out with the regular garbage.
"We're also getting a lot of requests to clean up private beaches," she said. The county is not responsible for cleaning those, either, she said.
Using a $1.3 million grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the county has hired a contractor to try to intercept the dead fish before they get to shore. The contractor has also deployed workers with rakes to collect any fish that get through and land on the beaches.
Through Saturday, the county had hauled 172 tons of dead fish to its solid waste disposal facility, according to Levy. She did not have a more recent figure.
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Fish that are hauled in from offshore can be burned in the county's waste-to-energy incinerator, she said. The ones picked up from the beach have to go straight into the landfill because the sand clinging to their scales means they cannot be burned, she said.
Nobody knows what causes the scattered patches of microscopic Red Tide algae to suddenly multiply by the millions and turn the water the color of rust. The blooms start 10 to 40 miles offshore in the gulf, and then winds and currents move them toward shore.
The one going on now has been hanging around offshore since November, making it the worst Red Tide outbreak in a decade. It's been blamed for killing more than 100 manatees, more than 500 sea turtles, dozens of dolphins and tons of fish, not to mention making scores of sea birds sick.
The blooms can be fueled, and their life extended, by feeding on nutrients. Close to shore, the source of such nutrients can be fertilizer in stormwater runoff and fecal waste from leaking sewage lines and septic tanks. The blooms can also be prolonged by dust that blows across the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara Desert.
Residents of Southwest Florida have become so outraged by the ongoing bloom that, in staunchly Republican Sarasota County, more than 100 people showed up to protest a campaign appearance by Gov. Rick Scott, whom they dubbed "Red Tide Rick," according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.