Hundreds of tons of dead marine life have washed ashore and wafted a putrid stench along Florida’s beaches in recent weeks amid a toxic red tide bloom spreading in its waters.
Thomas Patarek lives just a half mile away from the waterway.
“When I walk my dog in the morning, I can smell the dead fish,” he told the Guardian. “I can feel the red tide in my throat.”
While red tides occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico, experts feared a large bloom was imminent after a toxic breach at the Piney Point phosphate plant in late May. In order to prevent a devastating collapse of the site’s reservoir – which held some 480 million gallons of wastewater – state officials pumped wastewater out of the reservoir and into storage containers and a local seaport, according to the Tampa Bay Times. On Thursday, the state’s environmental agency filed a lawsuit against the former phosphate mining facility’s owner over the breach. “Today, the department took a pivotal step to ensure this is the final chapter for the Piney Point site,” according to a statement by the agency’s secretary.
The massive spill threatened nearby residents with a 20-foot wall of water and led to the evacuation of nearby residents and businesses. Experts now believe the wastewater that was dumped into Port Manatee, which leads into Tampa Bay, could be supplying a buffet of nutrients for bacteria to feast on, which could have caused the algae bloom. Warming waters due to climate change are also making red tides worse, according to experts.
Paterek is the chair of Suncoast Surfrider – a nonprofit that works to protect the state’s oceans and beaches. Earlier this month, he received a frantic call from a friend and local paddle boarding business owner who was in tears over the sight of dead fish on the beach.
A community rallied around that cry, but a coordinated state response has been slow. So far, the state has given $1m towards cleanup efforts for the fish killed by the red tide. Patarek and his group organized a protest calling for the state’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, to declare a state of emergency that would free up more resources to clean up the fish-clogged bay. The city council of St. Petersburg, one of the areas hardest hit by the scourge, also pushed for a state of emergency declaration to coordinate a state and federal response.
DeSantis has not been receptive to their appeals. While the governor argues that declaring a state of emergency would hurt tourism across the state, residents have been left to deal with the damage, and argue that the algae bloom is a massive ecological crisis that could have been avoided.
“We need a stronger response, so that we can function. It’s a quality of life issue,” Patarek said. “We have commercial fishermen, business owners and people that live near the water that say they’ve never seen anything like this.”
Curt Hemmel founded Bay Shellfish Company, Florida’s largest bivalve hatchery, in 1996. “Based on our 25 years experience in the area, and knowing how red tide acts in Tampa Bay, I feel completely confident that the current red tide bloom is more excessive thanks to Piney Point,” Hemmel said, adding that red tide blooms almost never happen this early in the summer.