The good news is the algal blooms causing red tide appear to be dissipating in Tampa Bay; the bad news is that red tide has now become more concentrated along south Pinellas beaches.
That was the focus of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council (TDC) meeting on Wednesday, as the gulf beaches are the jewel in the county’s tourism crown. TDC opened the meeting with aerial views of St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island, in which the murky discoloration of the water is striking.
Red tide outbreaks are typically more common offshore, and the severity in the bay this year is atypical. Steve Hayes, President and CEO of the TDC, said that “the surprise was more of it being in the bay versus it being on the beach, and you saw that right after the tropical storm.”
The Karenia brevis concentrations map from the county website showed levels to be highest from the Ft. DeSoto pier up to Indian Rocks Beach. Sand Key north to Honeymoon Island showed moderate to low concentrations. Hayes said these discrepancies along the coast are common and unpredictable.
“It changes on a daily basis,” said Hayes. “It could be bad one day in one location and the next day it could be fine.”
TDC board member Doreen Moore said that while large patches of red tide were reported off of the south beaches, she has not seen a major exodus of visitors. While there have been many calls with questions and concerns, she said, “you can’t predict what’s going to happen next week.”
Frank Hibbard, Mayor of Clearwater Beach, said that it is business as usual in his city and that business is booming.
“I hate even talking about it because right now we’re doing pretty well,” said Hibbard. “Two weeks ago, we were worse … It is packed – all the time. To an extent I haven’t seen before in 20 years.”
Hibbard said that with a lack of dead fish and no odor, he does not think that tourists even grasp the seriousness of the problem. He said that it is mainly locals that are concerned after seeing it on the nightly news and in the daily papers.
“But we’ll deal with it as it comes,” he said.
Melinda Pletcher, Commissioner of St. Pete Beach, sees a very different situation.
Pletcher said that it is “without a doubt” affecting tourism, and more needs to be done proactively to keep it from reaching the bays and the coast in the first place. She said this is a great marketing opportunity to showcase other activities in the area, but the beaches are the reason that most people come.
“This is a catastrophic event,” said Pletcher. “I would like to see us put some funds together with the county and address this in a more preemptive mode before all of it comes into the bay. There are people that do oil spills and all that kind of stuff, who could have got a lot of this mitigated so we’re not out there hand-scooping fish.”
She said that this is not a new problem and that officials could keep it out of the bays and off of the beaches “fairly easily” if they dedicated more significant resources towards securing the companies and equipment needed to do so.
“This is all about experience,” said Pletcher. “If tourists come and have a bad experience, are they even going to come back?”
Hibbard replied that until something is invented to put in the water and stop the red tide, officials are just going to have to deal with the ramifications.
TDC member Russ Kimball agreed that there are no proactive solutions, but said he feels like the county’s response has consistently gotten better over the last five to seven years, particularly after the severe outbreak of 2018.
Fellow member Phil Henderson echoed Kimball’s response and suggested diverting some resources from the coast where he sees less of a problem than the harder hit inland areas.
“That’s the worst thing – when you see an inlet that has basically trapped so many of them (dead fish) there,” said Henderson. “Why can’t they take one or two of those boats in and clean that up?”