Red Tide reappears on Pinellas beaches after Hurricane Michael

The storm appears to have shifted the toxic algae bloom back to land on the Gulf Coast.

Dead mullets littered the ground in Treasure Island in Pinellas County on Thursday, a day after Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle. [Scott Keeler | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Dead mullets littered the ground in Treasure Island in Pinellas County on Thursday, a day after Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle. [Scott Keeler | Florida Beach Insider photo]

It’s back.

The Red Tide algae bloom that was floating offshore in recent weeks, giving Pinellas County’s beaches a bit of relief from the waves of dead fish and irritating odors in the air, has returned. Gusts of wind spun off from Hurricane Michael apparently pushed it back close to Florida’s Gulf coast shore.

John’s Pass, Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, Redington Shores and Indian Rocks Shores all had high concentrations of the algae when tested Wednesday, said Kelli Hammer Levy, director of Pinellas’ environmental management division.

"Pretty much every beach has been impacted by dead fish this morning," Levy said Thursday. "We’ve got a lot of cleanup to do today."

Surfers at Pass-A-Grille on Wednesday who were taking advantage of the big waves generated by the storm said they were catching whiffs of the algae bloom’s toxic odors as they rode their boards.

"It’s definitely still out there," said Travis Miller, 32, of Tampa, as he packed up his gear.

HOW TO HELP: If you spot dead fish, call the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s toll-free fish kill hotline at 1-800-636-0511.

Down in Sarasota County, Stephanie Kettle of Mote Marine Laboratory said that area is likely to be in the same situation.

"The winds kind of shifted and started blowing the bad stuff back onshore," Kettle said. Mote’s scientists, who have been tracking the algae bloom for months, predicted "we would definitely start to see Red Tide come back closer."

The staff at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, the lead state laboratory in researching and tracking Red Tide, did not respond to a request for comment.

Normally, a Red Tide bloom begins in the late summer or early fall and lasts through the winter until February or March, when it dissipates on its own. But the current bloom, which was first detected nearly a year ago, has lasted so long, and become so deadly for marine life that scientists have dubbed it the worst in a decade.

As of last Friday, the Red Tide bloom stretched 145 miles along the state’s Gulf coast from northern Pinellas County down to Collier County, as well as touching several Panhandle counties and a few beaches on the state’s Atlantic coast from St. Lucie County to Miami-Dade County. Fish kills and reports of beachgoers with respiratory problems followed at each location.

Pinellas’ beaches had gotten some respite recently because the bloom had been shoved offshore by easterly winds. That kept the dead fish and poisonous air away from the beaches, giving them some semblance of normalcy.

Sometimes a hurricane can dissipate a bloom with its turbulent wind and water, and sometimes it can bring heavy rainfall that makes a bloom worse by feeding it with polluted runoff. In this case, all Michael did was push it around.

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 11, 2018.

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