Fighting through the stomach-churning stench of rotting fish and with a backdrop of city workers hard at work behind him, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman held a press conference to update the public on the ongoing red tide problem.
Held at the waterfront Crisp Park, Kriseman said that crews have collected over 500 tons of various dead sea life thus far, with no end in sight. While the area thought it had been spared any serious effects from Tropical Storm Elsa, Kriseman credits the storm with pushing fish from the gulf into the bay.
“We’re seeing a lot of species in here that we don’t normally see in the bay, that are clearly from the gulf,” said Kriseman. “That’s why I think Elsa had something to do with the severity we are experiencing.”
Kriseman said that this is the worst red tide he can recall, and that the city is not used to seeing the number of different species affected. Besides dead fish, crews are picking up dead dolphins and sea turtles, and there has been an unconfirmed rumor of a dead manatee. He said that is especially worrisome as the state recently broke the record for manatee deaths in a year.
“I don’t think any of us were expecting this,” he said.
Illustrating his point was the bloated goliath grouper floating against the seawall behind him. City workers estimated it to be around 400 pounds, and a front-end loader was needed to scoop it up and into a rollaway dumpster onsite while city officials and members of the press looked on with a queasy curiosity.
Kriseman said the has been asking Governor DeSantis for help to no avail.
“When Rick Scott was governor he declared a state of emergency and sent help and resources down,” he said. “DeSantis hasn’t done that yet.”
Kriseman said his biggest fear is the uncertainty over when this will end, and the burden it has put on city workers. Almost 200 workers across almost every department have been working nonstop since July 1 to mitigate the problem, taking manpower away from other city issues. These workers also had no idea that picking up dead fish would one day be part of their job description
“But this is what they do,” said Kriseman. “Because they care about the city, and they care about the residents of this city.”
They are using shrimp boats and various vessels to gather as many as they can while they are still in the bay, as once the dead animals reach shore they have to be picked up one by one. Once they get tangled up in the mangroves along the coast the process becomes even more tedious and time consuming. Time is of the essence, as the rotting fish left in the water then provide more fuel for the algae blooms that cause red tide.
Many citizens are quick to point the finger at the former Piney Point phosphate plant that leaked more than 200-million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the bay two months ago. Kriseman said that while he is not an expert on the matter that it could be a contributing factor.
“First off, what happened at Piney Point should have never been allowed to happen,” said Kriseman. “Did it contribute? It certainly is a possibility. Warmer waters due to climate change is a possibility. The amount of nutrient and fertilizers – it all adds and contributes.”
Kriseman said that it is too soon to discuss financial help to area businesses that depend on the water for their livelihood. Right now, his focus is on cleaning the bay and once the city gets the problem under control they will then consider the financial impacts. He said that everyday and every incoming tide brings a new wave of dead fish.
As of now there is no timetable for when this nightmarish scene will be over. Kriseman said that if the city does not get any additional resources from outside the area that this could be an ongoing problem for the foreseeable future.
Claude Tankersley, Public Works Administrator for the city, said that in the previous two days alone that crews have collected 124 tons of dead marine life. He also said that it is hard to tell if progress is being made, despite constant efforts over the last three weeks.
“I think we are keeping it from getting worse,” said Tankersley. “The fisherman that have been helping us say the fish look only look about 24 hours old.”
“We’ve been doing this for three weeks and we’re getting fresh fish every single day.”