Red Tide loosens grip on Pinellas, but persists in the Gulf of Mexico

The toxic algae bloom is still present in locations from Collier County to the Panhandle.

While parts of Pinellas County have experienced Red Tide, Clearwater Beach has been free of dead fish and the accompanying smell. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]
While parts of Pinellas County have experienced Red Tide, Clearwater Beach has been free of dead fish and the accompanying smell. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]

ST. PETERSBURG — Red Tide’s grip on Pinellas County’s beaches weakened over the weekend.

County officials on Monday even scaled back their response to the waves of dead fish that began covering the shoreline on Sept. 8.

"The winds are keeping it pushed offshore, which is to our benefit," Kelli Hammer Levy, Pinellas County environmental management director, said Monday. "That doesn’t mean it’s gone."

READ MORE: Summer of Red Tide reaches the Panhandle.

In fact, testing Monday found high concentrations of the algae at Indian Rocks Beach and Belleair Beach, she said. Nevertheless, the county is switching from monitoring conditions daily to checking three days a week, and Levy sent more than half the cleanup workers home.

"If the conditions start to deteriorate, we will ramp right back up," Levy said.

She said county officials are aware that there’s still a massive toxic algae bloom floating offshore, 10 miles wide and stretching from Collier County to northern Pinellas. And there are still fish kills, such as one that turned up this weekend in Bunce’s Pass off Fort DeSoto. The county dispatched a contractor with a large shrimp boat to scoop it up before it reached shore, she said.

READ MORE: Answers to questions about Red Tide

The Red Tide bloom was first detected offshore in November, but in recent months it moved close enough to shore to disrupt the tourism industry across more than 100 miles of Florida beaches.

The bloom — and the piles of dead marine life that accompany it — slowly crept northward, finally reaching Pinellas earlier this month. County officials responded by hiring a contractor to send out boats to intercept the dead fish before they could reach the shore, and to deploy workers with rakes and big machines to quickly clean up anything that made it past the boats.

WHERE (AND WHAT) IS RED TIDE? Visit our Visitor Information section for more about Red Tide.

Through Saturday, they have dispatched 688 tons of dead fish to the county’s solid waste site to either be incinerated or buried in the landfill, Levy said.

Still, the specter of Red Tide left a lot of beaches looking deserted this weekend. That prompted Treasure Island officials to announce Monday that the town is offering free parking at its beaches.

READ MORE: Is Red Tide affecting Florida's seafood? It's best to ask before you eat.

Meanwhile the county, which has been fielding tons of phone calls about all the dead fish, has switched to an online form to do the job.

The web-based tool is designed so citizens and municipalities can report large numbers of dead fish due to the Red Tide bloom. Beachgoers can click on under the header "How to Handle Dead Fish."

Last week Gov. Rick Scott — stung by hecklers who dubbed him "Red Tide Rick" at a recent campaign stop — announced Monday that he’s giving Mote Marine Laboratory $2.2 million to spend on testing technology that might someday stop Red Tide in its tracks.

READ MORE: Red Tide can affect birds along the shore.

Mote has already been testing an ozone water treatment machine to cleanse the toxic algae from the water. It successfully killed Red Tide blooms in a Boca Grande canal in August, but would require a far larger machine to do the job properly, Mote officials said.

Mote is also part of an international drive to test the use of clay to kill the algae bloom, a move Scott’s office announced last week.

READ MORE: Africa's dust may be partly to blame for Florida's Red Tide.

A previous attempt at using that method about 15 years ago ran into serious public backlash. That was in part because the clay came from phosphate mines and in part because early tests found it was bad for some marine life, such as clams.

"The first rule is do no harm," Mote CEO Michael Crosby told reporters at a news conference on Monday. "You don’t want to make things worse."

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Sept. 24, 2018.

Craig Pittman is the environmental reporter at the Tampa Bay Times. A native Floridian, he is the author of several books about the state.