More Than 600 Tons of Dead Sea Life Wash Up on Florida Coast Amid Red Tide

Crews cleaned up nine tons of dead fish in just 24 hours after Tropical Storm Elsa pushed the fish toward shore

A photograph shows dead fish on a beach with seaweed and the ocean in the background
Neurotoxins secreted by the algae Karenia brevis kill marine life including fish, dolphins and manatees Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP

Since late June, crews in Pinellas County, Florida have cleaned up over 600 tons of dead sea life from Tampa’s coastline amid a red tide outbreak, Josie Fischels reports for NPR.

The red tide is a sudden overgrowth of Karenia brevis, rust-colored algae that secrete a deadly toxin. Blooms of K. brevis rarely affect the Tampa Bay area in the summer—the last time the area saw a red tide in summer was 2018. This year’s disaster already shows signs of being worse than the red tide three years ago, said Amber Boulding, St. Petersburg’s Emergency Manager, in a press conference, per the Washington Post’s Julian Mark. Officials in the region had hoped that Tropical Storm Elsa would help send the algae and its victims out to sea, but instead it pushed more debris to shore.

“Tampa Bay is really sick right now, really extraordinarily bad,” says Justin Bloom, a board member for local environmental groups Tampa Bay and Suncoast Waterkeeper, to Matt Cohen at the Tampa Bay Times. “Conditions that we haven’t seen in decades.”

Blooms of K. brevis are deadly to marine wildlife because the algae secrete brevetoxins, which interfere with the nervous system. They cause animals to swim in circles until they eventually become paralyzed, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Clumps of dead fish that gather near blooms are called “fish kills.” Strong winds, like those from Tropical Storm Elsa, push the fish kills to shore.

"It certainly doesn't seem like, as we had all had our fingers crossed, that Tropical Storm Elsa helped the red tide situation. It certainly didn't flush it out of Tampa Bay. It's possible that in some areas, it did make it worse," says Lisa Krimsky, a University of Florida Institute of Food & Agriculture Sciences regional water resources expert, to CBS News.

The city of St. Petersburg has been particularly hard hit by the surge of dead sea life washing ashore, which brings the smell of rotting fish. Crews of about 120 people from several city departments have been cleaning the shorelines by scooping dead fish from the water’s surface with pool skimmers, putting them in trash bags and loading those into a dump truck, reports the Tampa Bay Times. In a period of 24 hours, the clean-up crews collected nine tons of dead fish.

"The bay is really hurting right now," says Pinellas County resident Maya Burke to NPR. "It's significant numbers of dead fish all up and down the food chain, from small forage fish all the way up to tarpon, manatees, dolphins. ... If it's swimming in the bay, right now it's washing up dead."

Scientists are still investigating the cause of this year’s Red Tide. Bloom tells Tampa Bay News that the Piney Point disaster in April, when a former fertilizer plant in Manatee County released 215 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay, may have contributed to the sudden growth of algae, which feed on phosphorus and nitrogen that can be found in fertilizer.

For now, officials do not know how long the Red Tide will last. When the Tampa Bay area last faced a summer algal bloom in 2018, the effects lasted until 2019 and more than 1,800 tons of dead marine life washed up on Pinellas beaches.

“We think back to our last red tide bloom in 2018 and how serious it was. And talking to the staff here, this is worse,” said Boulding during the press conference, per the Washington Post. “They’re seeing … more fish kills coming in. We go up and take aerial footage, we still see more out there in the bay.”

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