While Tampa Bay has been clear of red tide for weeks, algal blooms persist off of the Pinellas coast after Tropical Storm Fred stayed well to the west of the area.
Kelly Levy, Director of Public Works for Pinellas County, said that while the number of fish kills resulting from red tide has decreased, the county still collected about 13 more tons of dead fish and debris since last week’s update. That brings the total to 1,836 tons, or about 3,672,000 pounds, she told the Tourist Development Council at their meeting on Wednesday.
A tropical storm can push harmful algal blooms inshore, just as Elsa did with the Tampa Bay on July 6, but they can also break apart blooms and push them farther into the Gulf. That was the hope with Tropical Storm Fred, although the system stayed well to the west of the Pinellas coast before making landfall in the Panhandle Monday afternoon. While it is still too early to know for certain, the early indications are that the storm did not have the desired effect. Levy said she went out Tuesday to see if there was any change and to take pictures.
“We’re still seeing impacts,” said Levy. “There’s a significant bloom right now off of Madeira Beach and Treasure Island.”
Levy said that dead fish have also been observed around the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. She added that the largest bloom in the area extends from Venice to Sarasota, and “that could jump the mouth of Tampa Bay and end up in our waterways, which is what happened in 2018.”
Steve Hayes, President of Visit St. Pete Clearwater, said that he is fortunate to get daily updates from Levy, calling the information “invaluable.” He said he asked Levy if the tropical storm had changed anything on Tuesday night, and “sure enough, she had some pictures and sent a sad face.”
J.P Brooker, Director of Florida Conservancy for the Ocean Conservancy, told the Catalyst that a tropical storm “could blow out a red tide – and that’s what we were all hoping for.” However, he added it is still too early to tell what long-term implications there may be. He said that while there have not been any detections of red tide in Tampa Bay “for a couple of weeks,” there are medium to high concentrations from Homosassa in Citrus County to Cape Coral in Lee County.
“I think it’s certainly too soon to say that Tropical Storm Fred got rid of the red tide because FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission) is still reporting blooms all up and down the West Central Florida Coast,” said Brooker. “I think a bigger hurricane could have had more impact.”
Brooker said water temperatures remain warm, and there are still plenty of nutrients available for Karenia brevis – the organism that causes red tide – to feast on. One of those nutrients is Trichodesmium, also called sea sawdust, which continues to bloom offshore. Another is the Saharan dust still being carried to the Gulf “in a pretty significant way.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be seeing this bloom going anywhere,” said Brooker. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to be seeing the same levels of fish kills on our beaches, but the red tide is still out there, and Tropical Storm Fred didn’t necessarily blow it out the way a bigger hurricane could have.”
Levy echoed Brooker’s comments at the meeting, reminding the council that August is the peak of “red tide season” and that the last severe event in 2018 started around the same time. Fortunately, Levy said that this year’s red tide has not had a serious impact on tourism thus far.