Now that the Red Tide algae bloom that's been lingering along the Southwest Florida coast since last November has finally reached Pinellas County's beaches, a lot of readers have questions about the toxic bloom's effects. Here are some answers.
Why did Red Tide land here after all this time?
The algae bloom shifts a bit each day, depending on winds and currents. This Red Tide algae bloom, the worst in a decade, has slowly been creeping northward along the gulf coast. It hit Anna Maria Island near the mouth of Tampa Bay in early August, and then showed up about 5 miles off Fort DeSoto by the end of August. It reached Pinellas' famous beaches over the Sept. 11 weekend and has been here ever since.
Where is it?
Generally speaking, all the beaches south of Tarpon Springs have been hit. As of Monday the bloom had also invaded the Intracoastal Waterway as well as residential canals, so it's popping up all over.
Is the stench from the dead fish or from the algae bloom?
The fish stink like dead fish do. But the toxins in the Red Tide are what get into your throat and make you cough and wheeze. If you already have respiratory problems, the toxins will make them worse.
When will the Red Tide go away?
No one knows. Just as blooms begin 10 to 40 miles offshore for unknown reasons, so too do they end on their own time schedule. The one influence humans have over Red Tide is that pollution can fuel a bloom and keep it going with fertilizer in stormwater runoff and leaks from sewage and septic tanks.
How can we keep track of which beaches have dead fish?
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has a "current beach conditions" web page that's frequently updated. You can find it here: https://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/current-beach-conditions. The county's own website is not updated as often, but carries more complete information: http://www.pinellascounty.org/environment/watershed/red-tide.htm.
You can also check visitbeaches.org, which is run by Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
What's Pinellas County doing about this?
Using a $1.3 million grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the county has hired a contractor that's dispatching boats to intercept the dead fish before they reach the beaches, and also sending people with rakes and big machines to scoop up any fish that get past the boats. So far about 172 tons of dead fish have been collected from the water and the beaches, according to county officials.
What happens to all those dead fish the contractor's collected?
The dead fish are loaded into bins that then get hauled to the county's solid waste disposal plant. If they're taken from the water, they go into the county's waste-to-energy incinerator. If they're scooped up off the sand, they are put into the landfill, because sand can't go into the incinerator.
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Does everything go to the county landfill and incinerator?
No. Any dolphins, manatees or sea turtles are sent to the state's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory near the Eckerd College campus for a necropsy, which is what an animal autopsy is called. Those are all protected species, so biologists want to verify that Red Tide was the cause of death, and perhaps pick up some clues to how to combat it in the future.
Are other wildlife affected?
A: Yes, seabirds and shore birds that eat fish have been showing symptoms of neurological problems. Wildlife rehabilitation experts have rescued and treated quite a few laughing gulls and other species.
Does the county also clean up residential canals and private beaches?
A: According to Pinellas County Environmental Management director Kelli Hammer Levy, the county will clean out canals that are clogged with dead fish — but if the number of fish in the canal is fairly small, then it's up to the neighbors to skim them out and put them in the trash. Private beaches are the responsibility of their owners, not the public.
Is Red Tide related to the blue-green algae bloom in South Florida that has made national news?
No. Red Tide is a saltwater species, while blue-green algae is found only in freshwater. However, both are considered toxic.
Is it OK to eat seafood right now?
Most seafood restaurants aren't serving fish and crustaceans that were caught locally, so you'll be fine. Also, you probably won't have any trouble getting a table.
Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.