ST. PETERSBURG — The 9 a.m. bayside air reeked of dead fish.
Megan McDonald smelled it as she approached the park with her friend’s two dogs, and walked up to the concrete seawall and looked down at the water. There were thousands of tarpon and snook floating sideways.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” said McDonald, 27.
The six volleyball courts, usually full, had only two in use.
“Where is everybody?” a passerby asked between points.
“Red Tide,” replied a player.
Normally packed on a Saturday morning in July, the stench was strong and the scene was quiet at Vinoy Park as thousands of dead fish lined the seawall, spread out into the bay and turned St. Petersburg’s bayside into one of the state’s epicenters for Red Tide.
The scattered blooms of the organism that causes Red Tide, Karenia brevis, is concentrated near St. Petersburg’s beaches and parks. Of the 15 tons of dead fish the city has collected in the past 10 days, city officials believe nine were blown in by Tropical Storm Elsa, St. Petersburg Emergency Manager Amber Boulding said at a Friday news conference.
Crews stood on the edge of the seawall, scooping fish in their nets, adding to the nine tons of fish they collected in the previous 24 hours. The volleyball nets soon emptied. A biker sped along the sidewalk, one hand on the handlebar and the other on her nose.
One couple walked over to see the damage. Morgan Janssen had told Freddy Hensley about the strong stench and closed businesses that Red Tide blooms from 2017 to 2019 had caused along the Gulf Coast. Hensley visited to see a widespread outbreak for the first time.
“I wanted to show him this morning because I was like, ‘No, you have to believe me. There’s fish everywhere,’” Janssen said as Hensley scooped at the fish with a tree branch.
Others continued their normal routines. Along his favorite breezy spot at the park, Al Nixon sat on his bench, resting his arm on its back and greeting passersby like always.
He visits Vinoy Park every day, a friendly face to some and a confidant to others, but lately, he’s seen less foot traffic than normal. He noticed people “just trying to get through the walk” because of the smell. For some people who stopped to chat, the conversation often led to the stench of the water.
“It doesn’t change my mood. I’m just a play-it-by-ear, why-be-sad type of person,” he said. “It’s somewhat disappointing because you don’t see the people that you normally see and have normal chats with.”
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Pinellas County helped city efforts in cleaning up waterways and beaches in St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a Saturday morning Facebook post. The city called on a debris removal contractor that usually helps with storms to clean the debris. It also sought assistance from the state.
Dead fish are also popping up in Treasure Island, scattered mostly one-by-one instead of in groups, several people who lead beach cleanups said. The Bay Side Yacht Club, a cleanup group from a cul-de-sac on Bay Plaza, met for free eggs and bacon at Caddy’s before starting their monthly beach cleanup.
City crews picked up the dead fish, but what bothered Richard Harris the most was what had caused one of the more pervasive problems from storms: the cigarette butts that Elsa had pushed to the high tide line.
“Last month, during the month of June, when I did the cleanup, I picked up 271 (cigarette butts),” he said just after 10 a.m. “Today, I’m up to 535.” (He ended the morning with 821).
As noon approached in Vinoy Park, Daniel Larouche sat in his hammock, next to a candle he lit to keep the flies away. He sleeps in the hammock most nights by a lake, then walks 30 minutes each morning to the edge of the park, where there’s a bathroom he can use and cold water fountains. He grew up in St. Petersburg, working various jobs, but ended up homeless. Vinoy Park is his go-to spot.
“A lot of people you see walking, they’re in air conditioning most of their lives. So they come out here for 20 minutes or 30 minutes to walk,” he said. “And they don’t really feel that smell. You just get used to it.”
He set up at the edge of the park, far enough where if the air is still, coffee and cigarettes can help dull the smell of the water. It was “kind of, sort of” less crowded than normal away from the main sidewalk, he said.
Fitness classes came and went. It would clear out more as the afternoon heat approaches. Crews would continue to net the fish. Eventually, the smell would return to normal.
But not on Saturday.
“There’s only so much (the city) can do,” Larouche said.
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 the concentrations.
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 in St. Petersburg, call the Mayor’s Action Center at 727-893-7111 or use St. Petersburg’s seeclickfix website.
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.
- Visitors to the beach can wear paper masks, especially if the wind is blowing in.
Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County