Florida Gulf Coast Facing Prolonged Algae Bloom, Threatening Ecosystems and Fisheries

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

St. Petersburg, Florida, has fallen victim to what could be one of the most prolonged red tides in recent history. Hundreds of tons of dead sea life have washed up on shores as the ecological disaster takes root, and experts say the end isn’t yet in sight. Officials are trying to pinpoint a trigger for the algal bloom, but for now, residents and cleanup crews are struggling to handle the fallout. 

Why This Matters: The crisis is the latest in a series of ecological hurdles the state faces as it attempts to combat sea-level rise and biodiversity loss. About 25% of Florida’s species are at risk of losing 50% of their populations by 2060. Pollution, development, and rising temperatures compound the threats to biodiversity, and the Gulf of Mexico is no exception.

  • The state has now broken the manatee death record in just the first six months of 2021; 841 manatees have died this year, primarily due to algal blooms and loss of seagrass.
  • This record broke the previous peak of 830 deaths in 2013, also due to algal blooms.

This new bloom is a direct threat to the entire coastal Florida ecosystem. It won’t only disrupt wildlife but also fisheries and tourism that communities recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic rely on.

Blooming Beaches: St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman said that cleanup crews had hauled 477 tons of dead marine life from coastlines in the past few weeks. This bloom has impacted the bay more than expected; experts say that red tide rarely makes its way into the bay and usually remains in the gulf. Experts believe the change is due to powerful southerly winds, which brought algae to an area where the Piney Point fertilizer plant site had dumped nitrogen-rich waste. 

It’s not just wildlife having a bad beach day. Residents are reporting the strong, penetrating smell of dead fish wafting into their homes. The algae produce fish-killing toxins that, when encountered by humans, can cause breathing trouble, itchy throats, and watery eyes. These symptoms could worsen cases of COVID-19 as the Delta variant sweeps through the nation.

Robert Weisberg, a physical oceanography professor at the University of South Florida, used a forecasting model to predict the course of this red tide and found no signs of imminent relief. “The bay is not very happy right now, to say the least,” he said.

Officials are at a loss as well. “It’s here. It’s bad. And there’s not much we can do other than make sure we’re all communicating well,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Director Eric Sutton told the Tampa Bay Times. “There’s no signs that necessarily it’s going to be coming to an end soon, but I’ve learned enough not to try to predict Red Tide either.”

Environmental groups and fishermen expressed concern about the long-term effects on the ecosystem and economy in a meeting on Tuesday. They worry that this bloom could rival a prolonged bloom in 2018 when Pinellas County pulled 1,800 tons of dead sea life from shores. Daniel Andrews, the co-founder of Captains for Clean Water, told the Tampa Bay Times that the damage to fisheries is “not something that goes away as soon as the Red Tide does.”

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