Stacks of dead fish, dolphins, turtles and manatees are rotting on the Florida coast in a soup of reddish-brown ocean water after a devastating so-called “red tide” algal bloom hit the region’s marine life.
The city council in St Petersburg, Florida, last week called for a state of emergency and said crews need help to remove the dead sea creatures from the beaches. More than 800 tons of dead fish and marine life have washed ashore in the Pinellas county area – and the smell is already hit the cities.
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Red tides are common in the area, but this year’s incident is so serious that some experts are questioning whether a pollution accident at a former fertilizer plant called Piney Point could be one reason it’s so bad.
In March, a dam at a reservoir near the defunct facility that stored phosphate wastewater began to fail, leading to temporary evacuations of local residents on April 1. Two days later, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency. The plant released 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay in an effort to prevent the reservoir from collapsing.
the current algae Bloom can be traced back to December 2020, when it started traveling north along the coast to the Tampa Bay area. Tropical Storm Elsa also brought strong winds, allowing fish to accumulate on shores in much larger and smellier amounts.
Although the blooms existed before the spill, the extra nutrients from the Piney Point disaster created a cascading situation that quickly got worse and boosted the algae blooms. Robert Weisberg, a professor at the University of South Florida, shared: local news channels he believed that discharges into Piney Point could fuel that same boom and make things worse. “I don’t think it would have reached the level we see now without Piney Point,” Weisberg explained.
Tom Frazer, now dean and professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, said during a discussion hosted by DeSantis that nutrients from the Piney Point phosphate plant could help fuel the outbreak.
“I don’t think the red tide came about as a result of Piney Point,” Frazer said during the discussion on the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Saint Petersburg. “One of the things we saw early on with the red tide was that it was south of the drainage area, while the red tide continued to migrate a little bit or move north to lower Tampa Bay.
“It’s very possible that nutrients recycled nutrients in the system as a result of Piney Point contributed to that. But there are a large number of food sources along the coast. And again, we’ve tried to target many of those nutrient sources.”
Red tide is a higher than normal concentration of a microscopic plant-like organism. In Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, the species that causes the most red tides karenia brevis. Red tides were recorded in this area as early as the 1700s and along the Gulf of Florida coast in the 1840s. It can cause respiratory problems for humans, kill fish and other marine life, and cause shellfish poisoning in humans.
Blooms usually begin in the fall and fade in January, but summer blooms in the area have occurred a handful of times in more recent history: 1995, 2005, and, most recently, 2018. That year, a prolonged red-tide bloom killed marine life the size of manatees and manatees. dolphins, caused widespread health effects and drove tourists away from beaches.
Saint Petersburg city officials have said the carnage this year is worse than in 2018. “Tampa Bay is very sick right now, really extremely bad. Conditions we haven’t seen in decades,” said Justin Bloom, board member of environmental groups Tampa Bay and Suncoast Waterkeeper.
This weekend locals worried about red tide will march in Saint Petersburg to demand more protection of the waterways. They ask the Florida governor to declare a state of emergency and demand a plan for Florida to end phosphate mining in Florida.
“Failure to implement policies to protect the environment and prolonged climate denial have caused the current disaster in Tampa Bay,” said a statement from protest organizers. “The Tampa Bay community is demanding that our state leaders declare the current flood crisis a state of emergency.”
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