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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014

Tourism officials, politicians worrying about red tide in Pinellas

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Published:   |   Updated: September 3, 2014 at 05:32 AM

The ominous bloom of red tide that has been hovering offshore of Dixie County for weeks is making its way toward the sun-splashed, tourist-clogged beaches of Pinellas County, researchers say.

Scientists studying the bloom say prevailing winds and currents indicate the bloom could sweep the coast of Pinellas County, contaminating the beaches and bringing with it the stench of dead fish and an incessant scratch in the back of the throat.

Dead fish began to litter the shoreline of Honeymoon Island over the weekend. That doesn’t mean red tide has arrived here. The fish appear to mostly be deeper water fish that likely succumbed to the toxins of red tide far offshore before currents brought them to the beach.

Red tide has not yet reached the shoreline; samples taken along the Gulf coast show no red tide. The presence of the dead fish, though, is another indicator that the red tide that has been lingering north and west of Pinellas County has not dispersed like local officials had hoped.

A month ago, the bloom was estimated to be about 90 miles long and 60 miles wide, the largest measured red tide bloom since 2006. The bloom was about 20 miles offshore, with the heaviest concentrations near Dixie and Hernando counties.

The edge of the bloom is now two to file miles from northern Pinellas County, said Jason Lenes, a researcher with the University of South Florida’s Collaboration for Prediction of Red Tides.

The bloom remains slow moving and marine biologists say it stretches from the surface to the bottom, its neurotoxins killing just about every fish and sea creature it comes into contact with.

“The bloom is quite patchy,” Lenes said. “Concentrations are in the low to medium range with the largest concentrations found offshore near the bottom.’’

Red tide is a naturally occurring algae that typically blooms far off the southwest coast of Florida in the summer and occasionally makes its way east toward shore. It’s unusual to have a bloom this size so far north, researchers say.

Offshore fishermen have reported seeing thousands of dead and dying bottom-dwelling reef fish, including grouper, hogfish, white grunt, triggerfish and snapper. Sea turtles and crabs also are falling victim to the bloom.

Alina Corcoran, a research scientist in charge of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service’s harmful algal bloom program, said dead fish began washing up on Honeymoon Island this weekend and all indications point to some of the toxic algal bloom brushing up against the Pinellas coast.

“It’ll be close enough,” she said. “There’s a possibility we will see red tide inshore.”

Researchers say there’s not much they can do about red tide, which was first documented in the 1700s by explorers.

Last week, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-St. Petersburg, fired a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asking for an increase of federal resources to “fight the recent red tide outbreak in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“The bloom is moving southward and is showing signs of its effects in the waters of my district,’’ Jolly said. “Many of my constituents have reported evidence of fish kills and damage to other marine life throughout the water column. Within a very short period of time, we expect the effects of the bloom to show up on our pristine beaches, at our marinas and in our residential canals.”

Jolly said he is aware NOAA has research facilities in the region and is partners with other entities, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of South Florida, that also conduct research into red tide.

“I’m interested to know what additional efforts NOAA plans to dedicate to the red tide outbreak at hand,” Jolly wrote.

“The last major red tide bloom in 2005 had significant impact on our fisheries, the marine recreation industry, the local tourism industry, and the quality of life of all Pinellas residents,” he said. “The current bloom has the potential to affect our economy in much the same way as the 2005 event.”

Earlier this summer, the unusual bloom in the northeast Gulf of Mexico caught the attention of researchers, who figured it may have been part of the typical bloom off the southwest coast that broke off and caught a northern current to bloom between Dixie and Hernando counties.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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