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There have been a few times in my life when I have looked out over Tampa Bay in disgust. Saturday was one of them. Waves of dead fish rolling through Shell Key Preserve will bring fear to any of us who love and appreciate our natural communities. Yes, I had heard the reports, first Charlotte Harbor and Venice were affected by red tide right after Hurricane Ian. Sarasota was not long after. Reports over the last two weeks tracked the red tide bloom northward, and the optimist in me was hoping for a glancing blow this late in the season – but the red menace had other ideas.
We all know by now that red tide is a natural phenomenon, typically blooming offshore and occasionally migrating back to the coast in the late summer or fall. The massive red tide bloom from last year, triggered by the Piney Point industrial wastewater release and summertime rains, was catastrophic for our fisheries, wildlife and our economy. Red tide may naturally occur but the urbanization of our coast resulting in excessive nutrients flowing into our bays and rivers clearly accelerate nearshore blooms, causing them to be more widespread and persistent over time.
How long will it last this year, we do not know. Pinellas and Hillsborough County do a tremendous job removing the dead fish when they do come ashore, which helps us to deal with the bloom but does not solve the problem. Researchers have been studying red tide for more than 80 years to try and solve the complex life cycle, and hopefully find the trigger that starts and stops the harmful algal blooms. We do know that efforts by local governments and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to limit nutrient inputs to Tampa Bay are critical to long term water quality goals and important to stop feeding red tide blooms.
Community based restoration activities of Tampa Bay Watch also play a significant role in maintaining water quality and buffering red tide blooms. Mother Nature’s kidneys, the incredible oysters native to Tampa Bay, can filter out nutrients and algae at the rate of 50 gallons a day. However, we have lost about 90% of the historical coverage of oysters. Even at Tampa Bay Watch’s current rate of 200 tons a year of shell reefs returned back into Tampa Bay, we still have a long way to go.
Citizen stewardship by supporting the construction of oyster shell communities and living shorelines is essential. Controlling our fertilizer use, cleaning up after our pets and installing Florida friendly plants all play a role in reducing nutrients and supporting water quality and habitat goals in Tampa Bay. And above all, we must educate and involve our children. They will inherit the bay we leave them – and face a growing challenge to mitigate the effects of red tide on the water quality and health of Tampa Bay.
Peter A. Clark is founder and president of Tampa Bay Watch.