Florida is fighting through an early and serious algae scourge. More than 790 tons of dead fish have washed up on beaches in Florida over the past few weeks as a red tide grips the Tampa area.
Clusters of red tide have been found this summer at high bloom levels running along western Florida beaches from south of Sarasota north to Tampa. The clouds of red ooze are a byproduct of Karenia Brevis, an algae that produces neurotoxins that can kill fish and wildlife, including creatures as large as manatees. It can also make humans sick as well. The current bloom began crawling up Florida’s coast in December 2020.
Red tides can occur naturally, but this year’s bloom is extremely early and already having serious impacts on public health and Florida’s summer. Health officials from two counties have issued warnings cautioning about the impacts of the bloom, while the fishing industry said that the die-offs have impacted business. In St. Petersburg, locals report that the noxious smell of the red tide is invading everyday life and causing some respiratory problems.
“If a door in my house is open, the kids go and close it quickly, because it smells so bad outside,” resident Anandea Bergeron told WFLA.
In an effort to help manage the smell of death and decay, local governments have asked residents with private docks and access to waterways to contribute to cleanup efforts. Nearly a dozen macabrely named “dead fish only” dumpsters have been set up through the Tampa Bay region where residents can dispose of fish that have succumbed to the bloom.
On Thursday, St. Petersburg’s city council asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency over the ride tide, while protesters gathered in the city this weekend to demand the government take action. In 2018, Florida declared a state of emergency over a serious red tide bloom that made a rare jump over to the state’s Atlantic coast; DeSantis’s office told Bay 9 News that a state of emergency for this red tide isn’t yet needed.
The timing of this red tide this early in the year—red tides usually form in the fall—is not normal,” Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told NPR. Summer red tides like this are pretty rare. There have been only three others recorded since the 1990s: Ones in 1995 and 2005, and the devastating bloom in 2018.
“The fact that it’s been three years since the last [summer] one is not good,” Stumpf said.
A central point of discussion in Florida has been the role of pollution in driving this red tide formation—particularly pollution from Piney Point, an old fertilizer plant. In April, officials at Piney Point discharged more than 2 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay in order to stabilize the rest of the facility after a dam holding back the wastewater began to fail and the governor ordered an evacuation of the area near the reservoir.
Blooms of K. Brevis occur naturally in the late summer and early fall off the coast of Florida, but scientists have said they can be supercharged by human-made pollution, especially fertilizer and agricultural runoff that provides more nutrients for the algae to feast on. While many locals and experts have blamed Piney Point for the current crisis, some scientists caution drawing a direct line between the discharge event and the algal blooms.
“Nutrient chemistry in seawater is a complex issue, and this is certainly true for Tampa Bay,” University of South Florida chemical oceanography professor Kristen Buck, who studied the water around Piney Point following the waste release, told the Tampa Bay Times. “Red Tides are also a complex phenomenon. At this point, we simply do not have data to support a direct cause-and-effect relationship.”
Buck and other scientists are studying how the nutrients in the wastewater from Piney Point may be showing up in animals affected by the red tide, but establishing a causal relationship will take time. But that hasn’t stopped people affected by the tide to continue speculating about how Piney Point could have played a role.
It “doesn’t take much to put two and two together,” Tampa Bay Estuary Program executive director Ed Sherwood told the Tampa Bay Times, noting that 2021’s uncommonly hot and dry weather has also meant that heavy rains have not washed nutrients into Tampa Bay, which would be an alternate explanation for the red tide. “We didn’t see this level of algal production this time last year.”