Purple Tide Algae Bloom Killing Fish In Florida : NPR

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Dead fish and eels killed by a red tide in Tampa Bay are gathering in St. Petersburg. Eric Higgs / Tampa Bay Estuary Program Hide caption

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Eric Higgs / Tampa Bay Estuary Program

Dead fish and eels killed by a red tide in Tampa Bay are gathering in St. Petersburg.

Eric Higgs / Tampa Bay Estuary Program

The past few weeks have been anything but normal for beachgoers in the Tampa Bay area. Discolored, soupy water laps the coast, and the beaches are full of dead, rotting marine life.

Maya Burke, a lifelong Pinellas County resident, knows the sights – and smells – are far from normal at this time of year.

“The bay really hurts right now,” she said. “There are significant numbers of dead fish along the food chain, from small feeders to tarpon, manatees, dolphins … if it swims in the bay, it washes up dead.”

The fish hordes were killed by a red tide, a large “bloom” of poisonous algae that appears on Florida’s Gulf Coast about once a year. Exposure to flowers can cause respiratory irritation in humans; they can be fatal to fish and other marine animals. But Burke, who is the deputy director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, and marine scientists agree: A bloom of this intensity shouldn’t be happening in Tampa Bay now.

Fish have been washing up on the coast of the bay since early June, drifting out of massive clumps in the sea, where they first gathered at the point of bloom known as the “fish kill”. Possibly due to the strong winds caused by tropical storm Elsa, fish are piling up on the banks in much larger and smelly quantities. The worst can now be seen in nearby St. Petersburg.

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Algal blooms are natural, the timing and severity are not

The microscopic algae that create red tides, known as Karenia brevis, are found naturally in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. However, according to Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, intense blooms are rarely seen in the Tampa Bay region during the summer.

Flowering usually begins in autumn and disappears in January, but summer blooms in the region have also appeared a few times in recent history: in 1995, 2005, and most recently in 2018.

“That’s not normal,” said Stump. “The fact that the past three years have passed is not a good thing.”

Fish were washed up on the Sanibel Dam after they died in a red tide in Sanibel, Florida in 2018. Joe Raedle / Getty Images Hide caption

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Fish were washed up on the Sanibel Dam after they died in a red tide in Sanibel, Florida in 2018.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Officials have cleaned up 600 tons of life in the Dead Sea

St. Petersburg city officials said the red tide appeared to be even worse than it was in 2018, when a long-lasting bloom killed marine life the size of manatees and dolphins, causing widespread health damage, and driving tourists off the beaches.

The clean-up is ongoing and there is no end in sight. Some fish need to be picked up by hand, and the crews need to remove rotting fish quickly or the nitrogen-hungry algae will only feed on their nutrients, Burke said.

As of late June, the Pinellas County Solid Waste Department reported that 600 tons of Dead Sea life had been collected by cleaning teams across the county. During a press conference, St. Petersburg emergency manager Amber Boulding said more could be washed ashore until the bloom clears. When this will happen is not known, according to Stumpf.

“We scrape the beaches, we clean them – as soon as these tides change, we have fish again,” said Boulding. “We don’t know the end.”

The reason for the severity and the location of the red tide is controversial

Another unknown Florida face made this summer’s bloom so strong. Precipitation, wind, and the phosphorus and nitrogen levels in the water can all play a role, according to Stumpf, but the cause cannot yet be confirmed.

Tom Frazer, dean and professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, recently said in a discussion at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg that a sewage leak at a phosphate factory in April could fuel the outbreak, but it wasn’t root cause.

Whatever the cause, Burke says, the early red tide results this summer are horrific.

“It’s just not the bay we’re used to,” she said.

Josie Fischels is an intern at the NPR News Desk.