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State probes if red tide is to blame for fish kill in Tampa

July 3, 2021 GMT
Dead fish are pictured along the sea wall at Ballast Point Park, in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. There have been reports of fish kills and a fishy smell along the bay recently, shortly after fish kills were reported along the Pinellas beaches Wednesday. (Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Dead fish are pictured along the sea wall at Ballast Point Park, in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. There have been reports of fish kills and a fishy smell along the bay recently, shortly after fish kills were reported along the Pinellas beaches Wednesday. (Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The smell of dead fish belied the look of the place — the perfect portrait of a lazy summer day at Ballast Point Park.

Rain clouds hung heavy over the manicured playground and waterpark as dozens of children raced around in their bathing suits. A few fishermen cast their lines into the dark waters of the bay while families lounged at picnic tables, eating ice cream.

But at the watery edge of the park, along the Hillsborough Bay shoreline, hundreds of rotting fish and rusty red algae pooled among the mangroves, riprap and iconic Bayshore Boulevard balustrade.

State investigators are testing whether the culprit is Red Tide, as it has been with fish kills along Pinellas County’s waterways, perhaps fueled by the emergency pumping of wastewater from an old fertilizer plant at Port Manatee.

Fishing guide Graham Taylor stepped carefully to avoid decomposing sheepshead, pompano and smaller silver fish that washed ashore at the Ballast Point boat ramp. When it came time to back his truck and trailer into the water, flies swarmed through the air and fish scales squished into the grooves of his tires.

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The fish began to bob to the surface of Tampa Bay’s main waterways in early June, Taylor said, so he and other local fishing guides have had to “follow the fish” in search of clean waters.

For a while, they headed to the Alafia River but the algae blooms are popping up even in the waterways at the eastern edges of Hillsborough County, he said. Now, they’re settling for some unlikely fishing grounds in their pursuit of snapper, snook and redfish — the urban stretches of the Hillsborough River.

“The flow of the river forces a lot of that toxic algae out, but it’s been a battle to stay a step ahead of it,” Taylor said. “Red Tide is just an algae, it’s a plant, so if you enrich the bay with fertilizers ... you’re just inviting the red tide to your home.”

State scientists are still investigating whether there’s a connection between reports of rapidly spreading Red Tide blooms and the state’s decision in March and April to pump 215 million gallons of polluted wastewater into Tampa Bay from a leaking reservoir at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant near Port Manatee.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reiterated Wednesday that the Piney Point discharge did not cause Red Tide in Tampa Bay but it may have made it worse.

On Wednesday, the commission reported elevated concentrations of Karenia brevis in 98 water samples throughout the Tampa Bay area — 18 from Hillsborough County’s waters, nine from Pinellas, eight from Manatee, and one each from Pasco and Sarasota counties. The state’s Red Tide map showed a high concentration Tuesday and Wednesday near MacDill Air Force base just west of Ballast Point Park.

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Hillsborough County issued an advisory Wednesday afternoon about large red tide blooms in Tampa Bay and warning that exposure to airborne particles of the microscopic algae can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause coughing and sneezing. The county will dispose of dead fish that wash up on county-owned beaches, but not on private property, the advisory said.

In addition, the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough issued an advisory this week warning of Red Tide at Davis Islands and Picnic Island and erected caution signs along Ben T. Davis beach and Cypress Point.

Water conditions along most Pinellas County beaches, though, showed much lower concentrations of red tide than last month, when the beaches were in the medium-to-high range — welcome news for local retailers heading into Independence Day weekend.

A steady easterly wind will likely sweep Red Tide blooms away from Florida’s coastline this week, researchers at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science reported Wednesday.

By the start of next week, though, that weather pattern will shift directions, which could blow patches of Red Tide blooms back towards the shoreline.