Florida submerged by red tide – but is spill from fertilizer factory making it worse? | Florida


Stacks of dead fish, dolphins, turtles and manatees are rotting on the shores of coastal Florida in a soup of reddish-brown seawater after a devastating “red tide” algal bloom struck marine life in the area.

St. Petersburg, Florida city council called for a state of emergency last week, saying crews needed help cleaning up dead sea creatures from beaches. In the Pinellas County area, more than 800 tons of dead fish and marine animals have washed up – and the smell is already hit the cities.

Red tides are occurring in the area, but this year’s incident is so serious that it has some experts questioning whether a pollution accident at a former fertilizer factory called Piney Point could be a reason it is so serious.

In March, a dam of a reservoir at the old factory that stored phosphate wastewater began to fail, causing temporary evacuations of neighboring residents on April 1. Two days later, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency. The plant dumped 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay in an attempt to prevent the reservoir from collapsing.

Current algae flowering dates back to December 2020, when it started moving north up the coast in the Tampa Bay area. Tropical Storm Elsa also caused strong winds, which could cause fish to crowd the shores in much larger and smelly quantities.

Even though the bloom already existed before the spill, the additional nutrients from the Piney Point spill created a cascading situation that quickly escalated and stimulated algal blooms. Robert Weisberg, professor at the University of South Florida, said local news stations he believed the landfills at Piney Point could fuel this same proliferation and make matters worse. “I don’t think it would have taken off at the levels we see without Piney Point,” Weisberg explained.

Tom Frazer, now dean and professor at the College of Marine Sciences at the University of South Florida, said in a discussion moderated by DeSantis that nutrients from the Piney Point phosphate plant site could help fuel the ‘epidemic.

“I don’t think the red tide is due to Piney Point,” Frazer said during the discussion at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. “One of the things we saw with the red tide early on was that it was south of the dump area with the red tide continuing to migrate or move north in the lower part. from Tampa Bay.

“It’s quite possible that nutrients, nutrients recycled back into the system as a result of Piney Point, could have contributed to this. But there are a large number of sources of nutrients along the coast. And, again, we’ve tried to process a lot of these nutrient sources. “

Dead fish from the red tide washed up along a waterfront park in St. Petersburg. Photography: Arielle Bader / AP

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 is Karenia brevis. Red tides were recorded in this area as early as the 1700s and along the Gulf Coast of Florida in the 1840s. It can cause respiratory problems in people, kill fish and other marine life and cause poisoning. by mollusks in humans.

Blooms typically begin in the fall and disappear in January, but summer blooms in the region have occurred a few times in more recent history: 1995, 2005 and, more recently, 2018. That year, a bloom long-lasting red tide has killed marine life as large as manatees and dolphins, caused widespread health effects, and kept tourists away from beaches.

St. Petersburg city officials said this year’s carnage was worse than in 2018. “Tampa Bay is really sick right now, really extremely serious. Conditions we haven’t seen in decades, ”said Justin Bloom, board member for environmental groups Tampa Bay and Suncoast Waterkeeper.

This weekend, locals worried about the red tide will walk in St. Petersburg to demand increased protection of waterways. They are asking the governor of Florida to declare a state of emergency, as well as a plan for Florida to end phosphate mining in Florida.

“The failure to adopt policies that protect the environment and long-term climate denial created the current catastrophe in Tampa Bay,” a statement from the protest organizers said. “The community of Tampa Bay demands that our heads of state declare a state of emergency for the current red tide crisis. “


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