Red tide conditions remain grim along Pinellas County’s beaches

Gray circles show locations where red tide was not present or in background concentrations in water samples taken July 15-22. White circles are locations with very low concentrations, yellow is for low, orange is for medium and red marks locations with high concentrations.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported improvement in red tide conditions in Tampa Bay; however, the same can’t be said for Pinellas County’s beaches.

For the last few weeks, FWC has reported a bloom of the red tide organism, scientific name Karenia brevis, along the state’s west coast and a patchy bloom persists along Pinellas County’s beaches. In a report released July 23, FWC said red tide had been detected in 126 water samples with bloom concentrations found in 69 of those samples, including 10 from Pasco County, 29 from Pinellas County, four from Hillsborough County, four from Manatee County and 22 from Sarasota County.

Fish kills suspected to be related to red tide were reported in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota and Lee counties. Respiratory irritation was reported in multiple locations in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Water samples taken July 15-22 in Pinellas found high concentrations offshore Anclote Key Lighthouse, alongshore/inshore Indian Rocks Beach, La Contessa Pier in Redington Beach, Madeira Beach, John’s Pass Park Beach, Treasure Island Beach, Upham Beach Park in St. Pete Beach and Pass-A-Grille Beach.

Conditions as of 10 a.m. July 23, as reported at beachesupdate.com, included high levels of red tide with high respiratory irritation at Pass-A-Grille, St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island, Indian Shores and Indian Rocks Beach.

Medium levels of red tide were reported at Albert Whitted in St. Petersburg. Medium levels with moderate respiratory irritation were reported at Clearwater Beach, Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island.

Low levels with moderate respiratory irritation at Shell Key, Fort De Soto, Egmont Key, Coquina Key Park in St. Petersburg, Belleair Beach and Sand Key.

According to the website, many dead fish were reported at St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island, Indian Shores and Indian Rocks Beach. Some dead fish were reported at Pass-A-Grille, Belleair Beach, Sand Key, Clearwater Beach, Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island.

County officials advised that red tide conditions would likely remain more severe as long as onshore winds continued. However, conditions change daily.

Red tide was the topic of conversation during the July 21 meeting of the Tourist Development Council. Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism marketing agency, said his staff is communicating daily with county staff and in turn to stakeholders and visitors to keep people informed of the ever-changing conditions.

He encourages the public to visit beachesupdate.com for the latest in beach conditions as reported by county staff and to read the frequently asked questions section.

He asked TDC members to report what they’ve been “hearing and seeing” about red tide around Pinellas.

Doreen Moore, owner/president of Travel Resort Services Inc. in Madeira Beach, said she continues to hear news about a large patch of red tide in southern parts of the county, which has her concerned. She said thus far she had not seen a “major exodus” of visitors from the county although some had called with questions and concerns. She said her business was taking it daily on a case-by-case basis.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said he hated to even talk about red tide while his city’s tourism industry was doing well. He said there had been no change in hotel occupancy.

“We’re packed all the time,” he said.

He believes red tide is causing more concern among locals compared to visitors who, according to Hibbard, “don’t understand it.”

On the other hand, St. Pete Beach Commissioner Melinda Pletcher said red tide was having an impact on tourists “without a doubt.” She said although crews were working daily to keep the beaches clean, there was no way to take a walk or a bike ride without knowing red tide was there.

She thinks more could be done in advance. She wants more spending to be more proactive rather than reactive and questioned why tourist development fund money couldn’t be spent to help pay for red tide needs.

“It’s all about visitor experience,” she said.

Russ KImball, CEO of Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach, said he had been through quite a few red tide events.

“There’s nothing known that can stop it,” he said, adding that the county had stepped up its cleanup efforts like no other year.

He said the Gulf side had been hit very hard and unlike most years, the Bay side also had experienced more problems than usual. He pointed out that the county had already spent $1 million on cleanup efforts.

Hayes agreed that it had been a surprise this year to find more dead fish in the bay after Hurricane Elsa passed by adding to the fish kills and respiratory irritation.

Phil Henderson, president/CEO of StarLite Cruises in Clearwater, said this year’s event is a challenge due to the dead fish becoming trapped in inlets where they are more difficult to remove compared to those coming ashore the beaches. He said the fish kills are causing most of the problems. He suggested that the county put more boats in the inlet areas to do cleanup.

Clyde Smith, general manager of Bilmar Beach Resort in Treasure Island, said guests had begun checking out of his establishment about 48 hours prior to Wednesday’s meeting, but he’s not sure why as nothing new had occurred in the past few days.

Hayes said his agency had not yet detected a significant change in bookings or visitors’ stays. He said more calls were coming in but not cancellations. Smith expressed what many were thinking: a desire for red tide to go away soon.

Hayes said he is “extremely impressed” by the work being done by the county’s Public Works Department. He said in 2018, 1,800 tons of dead fish and marine debris were disposed of during the red tide event. As of July 20, this year’s cleanup efforts have resulted in 1,300 tons of red tide debris.

Hayes thinks it is important to stress all the things there are to do on vacation in the county besides trips to the beach, including museums, Clearwater Marine Aquarium and county and city parks. He is most concerned about businesses, such as paddleboard operators or fishing charters.

Meanwhile, people are still out sightseeing and doing things, he said. In some areas, the beaches are packed. The county and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater are still working to keep everyone informed, even if its bad news, he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference at the Florida Wildlife Research Institute on July 21 where he pledged his support and said necessary funds would be available to help the county fight red tide.

Pinellas County Commission Chair Dave Eggers thanked the governor for the $2 million in funding received from the state thus far and praised the effort by all involved including Florida Department of Environmental Protection and FWC, as well as the county’s Public Works Director Kelli Levy.

Some have been pressuring DeSantis to declare a state of emergency for the county due to red tide; however, the governor says needed resources are available without a state of emergency. Robin Miller, president and CEO of Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, agreed saying a state of emergency does not help, but instead focuses a negative light on the area.

Health advisory

The National Weather Service issued a beach hazard statement on Saturday due to respiratory irritation from red tide. The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County issued a health advisory on June 10, which remains in effect. Symptoms of red tide irritation include coughing, sneezing and tearing eyes.

DOH says people who experience respiratory symptoms should stay away from beach areas or go into an air-conditioned space. Irritation may vary by beach and throughout the day. Irritation is more likely when the wind is blowing onshore. People with asthma, emphysema or any chronic lung disease could be more sensitive.

Residents who live in beach areas should keep their windows closed and run the air conditioning. DOH says when outdoors, residents may want to wear a paper mask, especially when winds are blowing onshore.

DOH advises people and dogs to not swim around dead fish or other dead marine life, and pets should be kept away from sea foam. Do not harvest or eat distressed or dead fish or molluscan shellfish, such as clams and oysters. If fish are healthy, rinse the fillets with bottled water and throw away the guts. Shellfish purchased at a restaurant or other commercial establishment is safe to eat.

About red tide

Red tide is a bloom of higher-than-normal concentrations of a microscopic alga known as Karenia brevis, or K. brevis. It forms offshore and moves onshore due to wave action. It is naturally reoccurring and may or may not become a problem in any given year.

Red tide has been documented in the southern Gulf of Mexico as far back as the 1700s and along Florida's Gulf coast since the 1840s. Fish kills near Tampa Bay show up in records of Spanish explorers.

The cause of the blooms is not known and no one knows how long any bloom may last.

Karenia brevis produces brevetoxins that affect the central nervous system of fish, causing them to die. The toxins also affect birds, sea turtles, other marine animals and people.

“Wave action can break open K. brevis cells and release these toxins into the air, leading to respiratory irritation. For people with severe or chronic respiratory conditions, such as emphysema or asthma, red tide can cause serious illness,” FWC says.

Toxins can also accumulate in oysters and clams, which can lead to Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning in people who eat contaminated shellfish.

Reporting dead fish

In St. Petersburg, residents can report dead fish by visiting https://www.stpete.org/residents/public_safety/red_tide.php.

The rest of the county can visit www.pinellascounty.org/redtide and click on “Pinellas County Red Tide Reporter.” Click on “Submit a Report” to add the location, type of problem, comments, contact information and photos. Location information can be provided by either typing in an address or creating a point on the map.

Residents also can report fish kills to FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute fish kill hotline. Call 800-636-0511 to report fish kills, diseased fish, or fish with other abnormalities. Residents can dispose of dead fish with their regular trash.

If you see a sick bird, a bird off balance or unable to walk or stand, call Birds in Helping Hands at 727-365-4592 or the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary at 727-391-6211.

For current conditions statewide, visit https://myfwc.com/research/redtide/statewide/. Call 866-300-9399 from anywhere in Florida to hear a recording about red tide conditions throughout the state. Callers outside of Florida can dial 727-502-4952.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.

Revised to add information from governor's press conference and NWS beach hazards statement.