TAMPA — When it comes to Gasparilla, most everyone thinks of three things: boats, beer and beads.
All three are plentiful at the festival each January when pirates invade Hillsborough Bay, but according to local environmental professionals, one poses an unintended threat to the bay's ecosystems.
Florida Aquarium curator Eric Hovland said that during the Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful's Gasparilla cleanup day last year, more than 1,600 strands of beads were collected.
Most came from along Bayshore Boulevard, the street lining the bay where hundreds of thousands of people celebrate each year.
"Those are just the beads we cleaned up, the ones we could reach," he said. "That's not counting the ones falling off boats and making their way into the water."
Hovland explained that the beads, which became a popular Gasparilla tradition around the 1980s, are comparable to fishing line or plastic six-pack rings. They create the potential for entanglement, which can make it difficult or even impossible for animals to feed or fly, he said.
Various local shops specializing in Gasparilla beads, including Buccaneer Beads and South Tampa Trading Co., attest to selling more than a million individual strands of the shiny, brightly colored necklaces each year.
With that number of beads floating around the city, Hovland said he hopes revelers will eventually make it a priority to practice "responsible beading."
"In just one day we add so much potential hazard to the water and the animals that inhabit it," Hovland said. "(Gasparilla) is a huge fun part of our culture here, but it does have an impact when we don't make an effort to enjoy it in a responsible way."
David Hastings, an Eckerd College marine science professor, said although the beads entering the bay present several concerns, he primarily worries about unsafe chemicals.
"We like colored things, but the coloring contains heavy metals like lead, arsenic and cadmium, and these are, of course, extremely harmful toxins both for wildlife and for us," he said.
Hastings said studies have shown two-thirds of throw beads, which are manufactured overseas, had over 100 parts per million of lead.
"That may seem like a low level, but I think lead levels to be concerned about are much lower than that," he said.
Hastings said another problem to be concerned about is organisms eating individual beads that break apart.
"Just as we are attracted to the shininess and brightness of the beads, animals will be, too," he said. "So they are filling up with something that has no nutrition and may become undernourished."
Hastings said whether the beads float and go into the marsh or sink into the sediment, there is no reason to be introducing them into the environment. Why not bubblegum or popcorn or flowers? he said.
"At some point we'll stop throwing them. Not because we don't like them, but because over time we will all realize they are harmful to our environment," he said. "So let's get them out."
St. Petersburg resident Doran Cushing, a boat captain for 30 years, said the bead problem came to his attention during last year's festival when he chartered a catamaran through the bay.
"As we proceeded into the bay people were throwing beads from boat to boat," he said "Ninety percent of them ended up in the water. That's plastic that's going to be there forever."
Cushing said passengers riding with him this year have been informed that beads will not be acceptable aboard his boat.
"They can throw all the beads they want when we get to shore, but there is just no reason for it on the water," he said.
Hovland said being conscious about where trash goes doesn't mean the fun should be taken out of Gasparilla.
"The bay has made such a recovery over the past 20 to 30 years, and that is something we should be really proud of in this area," he said. "So when we're all done partying and we feel trashed in the morning, we don't want the bay to feel that way too."
Megan Reeves can be contacted at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.