Amid the worst red tide outbreak the area has seen in 50 years, the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club hosted a panel of local experts for an in-depth conversation on the crises afflicting bay area waters and beyond.
The luncheon on Friday marked the return of in-person events for the club following a year of meeting virtually. Held at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the meeting was attended by local officials Senator Darryl Rouson, City Council Chair Ed Montanari, and Vice-Chair Gina Driscoll – whose district includes both the yacht club and areas of St. Pete that have been hit hard by red tide. They were joined by Tiger Bay members and guests to hear from some of the brightest minds on the subject.
The panel consisted of J.P. Brooker, Director of Florida Conservancy for the Ocean Conservancy, Dr. Kate Hubbard, research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and Thomas Frazier, Dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. Alison Barlow, Executive Director of the St. Pete Innovation District, moderated the discussion.
“You may not realize, these folks are rock stars nationally,” Barlow said of the panel. “They are well-known in their field, well-esteemed, and if you go to any conference in this field, they are swarmed with people that want to talk with them.”
Hubbard explained to the crowd that while the area has experienced red tide in six of the last 10 years, this year is unique due to the locations and concentrations of Karenia brevis – the organism that causes red tide. The harmful algal blooms are rarely found so far into Tampa Bay and not usually at such a high concentration.
“Those occurrences don’t happen very often, and the last time we saw those two things go hand in hand was 1971,” said Hubbard.
Hubbard noted scientists are making strides in modeling and sampling efforts – such as tracking nutrients released by the Piney Point spill. She said that USF has a great tracing model that showed released nutrients stayed in the same area for a while, but within a few weeks were “all over” the bay at reduced concentrations. She called it a “complicated issue.”
Brooker took the opportunity to discuss how red tide is affecting Florida’s marine wildlife. He said that 10 percent of the state’s manatee population died this year, although the numbers are not in for how many were directly caused by red tide. It also impacts conservancy policy, as the FWC is considering opening up goliath grouper for recreational fishing for the first time in decades. This comes as pictures of the majestic fish being scooped out of the water using heavy machinery after succumbing to K. brevis have been circulating.
Brooker said that after successful conservation attempts, the fish stock has rebounded – but all it takes is one event like the current red tide to decimate the stock, and “all of a sudden you’re back to the brink again.”
Brooker also called for the public to hold government officials and private entities accountable for protecting Florida’s waters. He also announced that on Thursday, the 12th District of Florida officially filed a lawsuit against the owners of Piney Point.
“It’s a combination of enforcement and legislation at all levels of government,” said Brooker. “It’s really an all-hands-on-deck approach that’s needed to deal with the litany of water quality problems we’re facing.”
Frazier added that leaking septic tanks are a serious contributor to the problem. He said that Florida is home to 12 percent of the nation’s septic tanks. This is due to a lack of adequate wastewater facilities to accommodate the large population, which grows by 1,000 people every day. He called the state now recognizing that failing septic systems are an environmental problem “a step in the right direction.”
Brooker asked attendees to reach out to elected officials to educate them on the current crises. He said that more education and outreach are needed on these issues and that “so many people live on the bay, but don’t understand how the bay or the Gulf actually works.” He said that he is hopeful that will lead to relief for what seems like the “perpetual water quality nightmare in west-central Florida, and quite frankly, statewide.”
Brooker added that this is an apolitical issue that anyone living in Florida should be passionate about it.
“Water quality in Florida should be like corn in Iowa – it should be an absolute no-brainer to care about,” he said.
While the red tide has dissipated in the bay, it has strengthened along the Pinellas coast – following a forecast Hubbard gave to City Council weeks ago. Hubbard said that the last red tide event of this magnitude happened in 2018 and lasted for 16 months, ending in December. The Gulf Coast is currently in its ninth month of this event, and she cautioned that this is typically the time more algal blooms emerge offshore.
“So, that’s something over the next few months we will be keeping a close watch on,” said Hubbard.
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