By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
This isn’t a good time to plan a Florida vacation.
My godparents – Aunt Stel and Uncle Joe – moved to Bradenton, near Tampa, after Joe retired as chief of the New Jersey State Police sometime during the 1970s. Until they moved away from NJ, my family celebrated our holidays with them. Stel was my mother’s half sister, and more or less raised her from a young age, after her family broke up. After Joe and Stel moved to Florida, we saw them less often, but occasionally visited, once to celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary sometime during the 90s. And then IIRC, Joe’s funeral was also held sometime during the summer. Afterward, I tried to visit Stel every other year or so, when I would bring Polish specialties – kielbasa, pot cheese, poppy seeds – to Florida, and she shared her recipes with me – her unsurpassed poppy seed cake – along with decades of knowledge gleaned from cooking and baking.
I tried to make my visits during the cooler month,s as Florida during the summer is not a place anyone anyone wants to be – even before global warming started to kick in with a vengeance. You don’t have to take my word for it. Dip into any of the books in Peter Matthiessen’s Florida trilogy – Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone By Bone – set in the early 20th century, in which Florida’s braising weather is a brooding presence. I read the original versions but I understand that Matthiessen subsequently amalgamated, reworked, and edited the originals to to form Shadow Country, published in 2008.
So, if I were to write a Florida horror novel, I would set it at this time of year.
Adding to the stress of the weather, I’ll largely skip past and only mention Florida’s COVID-19 travails. Republican governor Ron DeSantis has been firmly in the COVID denialist camp. His state is now suffering from his approach – but at the moment, I’m not all too sure that blue states will, in the medium to longer term, fare all that much better with the policies they’ve pursued. Especially as their vaccine triumphalism caused them to relax longstanding public health protocols as they rushed to declare Mission Accomplished.
What I want to discuss instead in this post is a human-created catastrophe: the red tide that has swamped the Florida coast bringing ashore shoals of dead fish. The tide has particularly beset Tampa Bay.
The best single account I’ve seen thus far has been the Guardian’s, Thousands of fish killed by toxic red tide wash ashore on Florida beaches:
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.
The Guardian lays blame for the slow government response on the state of Florida, and in particular, DeSantis:
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.
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.
In June, scientists and state environmental officials downplayed the severity of the red tide and its link to the spill. “I don’t think that the red tide originated as a consequence of Piney Point,” Tom Frazer, Florida’s former chief science officer, said in a roundtable held by the governor. The state’s press release recapping the discussion made no mention of the Piney Point spill.
But some residents argue the state failed to prevent the disaster at Piney Point that caused or at the very least intensified the harmful algal bloom – and it’s not stepping up to prevent the next.
In the face of state inaction, environmental groups have sued the state. Per the Guardian:
“If we continue to have outbreaks of red tide, that’s certainly going to have a major impact on Florida’s economy and the wellbeing of coastal communities,” said Glenn Compton of Mana-Sota 88, an environmental watchdog critical of the phosphate industry.
Earlier this month, conservation groups sued the governor and other Florida regulators, hoping to take the state to task. The lawsuit argues that Piney Point is an ongoing threat to public health as well as a threat to marine ecosystems and protected species. The groups asked a federal judge to oversee the cleanup, closure and investigation of the plant. “The Piney Point disaster is Exhibit A in a long list of Florida’s failures to protect our water and wildlife from the harms of phosphogypsum,” Jaclyn Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release.
The Guardian’s account made no mention of any pending federal action. Nor did today’s Common Dreams report, Corporate Polluters and DeSantis Face Ire as Hundreds of Tons of Sea Life Dead in Florida, which laid blame on corporate polluters and Florida state regulators. The feds are limited in any action they could do, absent a state declaration of emergency – which DeSantis is unwilling to provide. According to Common Dreams:
Experts are linking Florida officials’ decision to pump wastewater from the Piney Point fertilizer plant into the Tampa Bay earlier this year to the deaths of hundreds of tons of marine life which have piled up along Florida’s coastline—threatening the region’s biodiversity as well as its crucial fishing and tourism industries.
The wildlife has washed up along the Tampa Bay area’s popular beaches in recent weeks, where local officials and scientists are linking the mass deaths to a red tide bloom that’s been spotted near the shore in several areas.
But surely this year’s unusually severe red tide in Tampa Bay was foreseeable once the Piney Point disaster occurred. From Common Dreams:
Red tides can occur naturally in the Gulf of Mexico, but this year’s toxic algae bloom, caused by an organism called Karenia brevis, has come weeks earlier than usual and is now being linked to a disaster at the decommissioned Piney Point plant in May, after state officials initially denied the connection.
The former phosphate plant’s reservoirs were breached in the spring, threatening nearby residential communities with 20 feet of wastewater containing radioactive byproduct and forcing local officials to relieve pressure on the reservoirs by releasing 200 million gallons of the wastewater into the Tampa Bay.
“While minor fish kills have been observed in years with less extreme blooms, the real indicator this year in the past two weeks has been the excess amount of fish kills that we’ve been noticing,” Joe Whalen, communications director for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, told The Counter late last month.
In June, however, state experts dismissed the red tide’s connection to Piney Point.
And I can’t help but thinking that if this catastrophe had occurred on Trump’s watch, we’d hear louder calls for some federal assistance in cleaning up the mess, rather than resting responsibility on the call of Florida state officials alone.
The Tampa Bay Times reported Sunday that expected weather patterns might prove to be a boon, in that they might keep the worst of the glut of dead fish offshore, Red tide conditions persist along Florida Gulf Coast
…the National Weather Service forecasts east winds beginning on Aug. 9, which should help with the respiratory irritation and keep dead fish offshore.
The Florida paper cautioned people against eating fish and especially, shellfish:
Do not harvest or eat fish that are sick or dead. You can eat fish caught when they are live and healthy if they are then filleted and rinsed thoroughly with fresh water. Do not eat shellfish, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, clams, oysters or scallops harvested in areas with red tide. They are filter feeds and can become contaminated with the toxin. It is safe to eat fish and shellfish from commercial restaurants.
This year’s algal bloom is particularly severe, but red tides are not a novel phenomenon off of the Florida coast, according to the Tampa Bay Times:
Red tide is a bloom of higher-than-normal concentrations of a microscopic alga known as Karenia brevis, or K. brevis. It forms offshore and moves onshore due to wave action. It is naturally reoccurring and may or may not become a problem in any given year.
Red tide has been documented in the southern Gulf of Mexico as far back as the 1700s and along Florida’s Gulf coast since the 1840s. Fish kills near Tampa Bay show up in records of Spanish explorers.
The cause of the blooms is not known and no one knows how long any bloom may last.
Karenia brevis produces brevetoxins that affect the central nervous system of fish, causing them to die. The toxins also affect birds, sea turtles, other marine animals and people.
“Wave action can break open K. brevis cells and release these toxins into the air, leading to respiratory irritation. For people with severe or chronic respiratory conditions, such as emphysema or asthma, red tide can cause serious illness,” the [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] says.
Toxins can also accumulate in oysters and clams, which can lead to Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning in people who eat contaminated shellfish.
Florida seems to be enduring modern-day versions of Biblical plagues: the weather, COVID-19, the Miami tower collapse, red tide. Hurricane season approaches and I can only hope the state has a mild one.