After two weeks of slow dissipation along the Pinellas County coast, Karenia brevis – the harmful algal bloom that causes the red tide – seems to be gaining strength.
According to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) sampling, a low concentration of K.brevis persists from the southern tip of Pinellas north to Indian Rocks Beach. However, the highest levels were recorded at the northern end of the Pinellas County coast. Average concentrations begin around Sand Key, with a lingering sample outside Clearwater Harbor.
The FWC also recorded average concentrations around Clearwater Beach, and high concentrations are present off Caladesi and Honeymoon Islands. Overall, the FWC observed flowering levels of K.short in seven samples taken from Pinellas County last week. JP Brooker, Florida Conservancy director for the Ocean Conservancy, noted that high concentrations persist from Pinellas County south to Port Charlotte.
“I see red tide presence all along the west-central and southwest coast of Florida, so it’s still there,” Brooker said.
Brooker points to the 2018 red tide event which lasted until 2019 and said it took sustained colder weather to clear the red tide from warm Gulf waters. He adds that the state just passed peak tropical storm season, and while the region got its first glimpse of a ‘cold front’ today, it will be some time before the warm gulf water begins to cool significantly.
“What really concerns me is the hot water,” Brooker said. “I think the warm water is going to keep the red tide lingering, and we see that. We see it flowing out a bit, and then you look at the map today, and there it is.
Last week the FWC reported three fish kills. One occurred at Caladesi Island Beach State Park, another at the Bellaire Beach boat launch, and the last fish kill was seen Sept. 20 at Madeira Beach. While the FWC did not list dead fish species at Caladesi and Madeira Beach, dead groupers were spotted at the Bellaire boat launch.
While Brooker said it was most likely a gag grouper, several dead goliath grouper were pushed into Tampa Bay and spotted off Pinellas during the height of the current red tide in July. Even so, the FWC is meeting in early October to discuss reopening the goliath grouper for recreational fishing. These large fish, which can grow to the size of a refrigerator and weigh 800 pounds, have been protected since 1990 after the species near extinction.
The FWC plans to institute a tag system with permits awarded through a lottery while limiting harvesting to juvenile goliaths. Brooker said the idea is that the data gathered from harvesting the smaller goliaths will help understand the stock, but in reality, “the smaller goliaths don’t provide the science that we really need.”
“The red tide event has impacted these very large individuals, and to me the FWC plan seems to come at exactly the wrong time in terms of red tide and other water quality issues,” said Brooker. “And that doesn’t solve the problems that we need to tackle.”
Brooker is also worried that another release of Piney Point — which is a distinct possibility if the rains persist — could cause another catastrophic red tide like the one in late June and early July.
According to Thursday’s latest update, Piney Point has received 30.6 inches of rain since early June and is expected to see another 1.7 inches in the last week of September. Current storage capacity for additional rainfall is only 8.8 inches. This capacity is expected to change with rainfall amounts, as well as adjusted on-site water management procedures.
As part of the site’s water management efforts, sewage piping to the North Region Water Reclamation Facility resumed on September 2. To date, over 2 million gallons have been transferred offsite. “Spray evaporation” also continues at the site. The NGS-South Reservoir currently holds approximately 274 million gallons of wastewater.
“It wouldn’t take a lot of rain to be in a situation where we’re straddling the reservoir limits there,” Brooker said. “A big rain event is sure to dump some of that water from Piney Point back into the bay.”
There’s good news, as Brooker said he’s still optimistic Tampa Bay will stay safe from the red tide unless another tropical storm pushes it back into the bay.
“There is a high concentration just outside the bay that could be pushed back into the bay by a storm,” he said. “But I hope that window is closed.”