Over the past couple of weeks, fish kills and terrible water quality conditions invaded Tampa Bay, Florida. Chances are you saw the environmental carnage making the rounds on social media over the weekend. Well, if you didn’t, it wasn’t pretty–excavators scooping thousands of pounds of dead fish, dead tarpon, high concentrations of red tide, and it’s all likely to worsen as water temperatures keep rising and the rainy season progresses.
500+ tons of dead marine life picked up in St. Petersburg as of July 14, according to the Tampa Bay Times
Hurricane Elsa made landfall in Florida last Wednesday, dumping almost 11 inches of rain in some regions of Florida. Elsa’s high winds and heavy rains were a recipe for disaster and created the perfect conditions for the devastating fish kills and red tides we’re now witnessing. You may remember an article earlier this summer, Florida Water Quality Outlook 2021: Brace For Impact, where we spoke with the folks over at Captains for Clean Water. “What we have now ,” said Daniel Andrews back at the end of May, “is a dining room table with a bunch of breakable plates and glasses, and someone is getting ready to do the tablecloth trick. Sure, it could end well; but more than likely, most of the items will be shattered.”
By the looks of it, the party trick was not successful, and things may get a lot worse. Whenever there is a big rain, and storm surge for that matter, large amounts of nutrient pollution enter waterways. Those excess nutrients are a big component of the ongoing Tampa Bay situation. The nutrients fuel red tide (karenia brevis) and other harmful algal blooms, which in turn lead to fish kills and have serious human impacts, as well.
Currently, Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg have the highest red tide concentrations on Florida’s west coast. That may or may not be a coincidence. Back in April, more than 200 million gallons of nutrient laden industrial wastewater was pumped directly into Tampa Bay, in an attempt to avert a full collapse of the containment reservoir. The Piney Point event brought national attention and outrage to Florida’s water crisis, but little substantive action was taken and authorities and the state began the waiting game.
Now that water temperatures are nearing 90 degrees and rainfall runoff is increasing, Tampa and its surrounding areas are bracing for the full effect of poor water quality, and many are already calling it the worst it’s ever been.
A Emergency Response manager with the city of St. Pete, Florida, provided an update on the current situation last Friday: “As far as what I’m hearing, we’re seeing larger fish kills than what we saw in 2018. But it seems to be concentrated in the St. Petersburg area.” The 2018 red tide season was particularly devastating for the entire state of Florida–that red tide inflicted more than $8 million in business losses and killed more than 200 tons of marine life.
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Tampa Bay fly fishing guide, Captain Dustin Pack, said that he’s “never experienced a fish kill to this magnitude in Tampa Bay. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.” What’s particularly concerning with this red tide event are the type of fish dying. In the past couple of days, Dustin received pictures of a 5′ hammerhead shark and a Cobia floating dead–those are strong fish that normally do not succumb to red tide. In addition, “if tarpon are dying it’s bad. If they can’t withstand the water quality by breathing air, it’s really bad.”
None of this is new. Red tide is naturally occurring. However, it’s greatly intensified by human-caused factors, mainly nutrient pollution. For this reason, Dustin added “I believe calling it red tide gives the entities responsible (i.e. Piney Point, the state of Florida, golf courses, over fertilized yards) a scape goat.”
In addition to being a full time fly fishing guide, Dustin is a board member for Tampa Bay Water Keeper, and “[they’re] working hard to make sure those who are responsible are held accountable.” Unfortunately, nothing can be done in the short-term; you can’t just clean billions of gallons of estuary water. You have to fix it at the source, which means addressing the nutrients entering the waterways and restoring the natural flow of water. The reality is that nothing can be done to avoid whatever is going to happen at this point. But, Dustin is hoping that these jarring images produce some national attention to bring more awareness and advocacy to fixing these long-term issues. One way you can help achieve that is by calling the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (800-636-0511) and bring more attention to this ongoing issue. Ultimately, if FWC doesn’t get involved, none of this is getting to Governor DeSantis.
Photos courtesy of Capt. Dustin Pack