Florida Red Tide: Who Will Fix This Mess?

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.

The red tide has killed more than 1,700 tons of marine animals in Pinellas County so far, according to Vox. The algae bloom was also linked to the deaths of 17 manatees between May and July.

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.

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  1. Felix_47

    I think the Fanul brothers have put a lot of phosphorus in the water. They are the largest sugar cane growers around Lake Okeechobee. One is a big democrat donor and the other is a big republican donor. They can maintain the high US price for sugar by making the politicians continue the embargo against Cuba, where they are from.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If the Fanjul brothers are uniquely harmful black-hat bad actors in the sugar field, perhaps one can find out which retail and otherwise brands of sugar are Fanjul outlets specifically? And giving various people various reasons to boycott Fanjul’s sugar might degrade and attrit revenue streams reaching the Fanjul brothers.

      I got a modest start looking at wikipedia. Here is the entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanjul_brothers
      Here is the text giving the start of a few trails which might lead one to retail specific public-facing Fanjul sugar brands.
      ” It comprises the subsidiaries Domino Sugar, Florida Crystals, C&H Sugar, Redpath Sugar, former Tate & Lyle sugar companies,[3] American Sugar Refining,”

      Here is another link which gives some of Fanjul’s brands for selling sugar to the public.
      Here is some text from this site most specifically about Fanjul brands of sugar.
      ” Its sugar is sold under brand names Domino, C&H, Florida Crystals, Redpath, Jack Frost, and Tate & Lyle.”
      So there are some brands of sugar to try organizing people to avoid buying in order to avoid subsidising the creation of more Red Fanjul Tides.

    2. Sam F

      I have investigated government corruption in Florida, and found that the DOJ, FBI, and HSI refused to investigate the obvious theft of $120 million of conservation funds by Repub politicians, I sent full evidence to the local and state offices and headquarters and OIG offices of all agencies, six times over three years, including six Appendices of Fact and seven Memoranda of Law. And the federal courts have refused to seal the case or request investigation, and in federal courts in other states, Repub judges grabbed the case and denied venue with absurd excuses,

      These crimes extend to all industries in Florida, where corruption=democracy and money=virtue no matter how it is obtained.

      I also uncovered corrupt schemes in which Florida crooks collect illegal-size “donation” bribes to public officials, distributed those to scores of fake LLCs to make direct contributions look legal in size. The crooks are then given public offices that control their businesses: $2000 buys a state committee membership and $32,000 buys the chairmanship. The crooked federal agencies refuse to investigate.

  2. JTMcPhee

    DeSantis and the rest of the ruling sh!ts of course have their lairs way up in Tallahassee and so are immune to all this. Plus, the river of the “mother’s milk of politics” flows ever more strongly toward the northwest corner of the state, and the corrupt Debbie-does-corruption Wasserman Schultz Democrats just siphons a share and the rest of us can go pound sand…

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Do DeSantis and the others live on Florida’s panhandle coast? Or do they live inland? Because if they lived on the coast, perhaps there could be a way to cause some massive localized red tides right where the elites live at, so they can share in the fun.

  3. Randy

    Scott didn’t do anything about this during his entire tenure and Floridians punished him with a seat in the US Senate. No hope, no future.

  4. Walt

    Who’s phosphate wastes were government officials forced to dump in Florida’s public domain?
    This nation celebrates the concept of private property as few others, yet the account doesn’t identify the corporation that owns the Piney Point plant and its wastes. The PBS News Hour report on the breach also failed to identify ownership.

    1. Walt

      Retraction: The April 4 PBS News Hour text report identifies HRK Holdings as the owner of the site. I apologize!

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    Some red tides are phosphorescent. Do the waves on Tampa bay glow at night? If so, perhaps that could be regarded as a thin film of silver lining to the red tide events.

  6. PlutoniumKun

    Ah, red tides. When I was 15 my school biology teacher told us he had been working on red tide research at a marine institute before joining the school. When someone asked him if they’d made any progress on the research he said with unmistakeable bitterness, ‘If we had, I wouldn’t be here’.

    Although they are a natural phenomenon, I think they are almost certainly exacerbated by nutrient pollution. However, proving cause and effect is extremely difficult.

    1. juno mas

      Um, proving cause and effect is not difficult. As you stated “they (red tides) are almost certainly exacerbated by nutrient pollution”. The phosphogypsum (by product if making phosphate fertilizer in Florida’s soft rock) that was released into the bay (to prevent an overtopping of the Piney Point tailings reservoir) saturated the sea water with phosphorus. Phosphorus is the catalytic nutrient that supercharges ALL algal blooms; including “red tides”. Algal blooms of any kind are deleterious to aquatic fish because algae consume oxygen in the water when they die (decompose).

      Red Tide algae (Karenia brevis) however contains toxins that kill fish, waterfowl. and other animals that feed on them. (The toxin is transmitted.) There should be no surprise that this Florida red tide has occurred after the phosphogypsum spill. Algal blooms can be created on command with over-saturation of freshwater lakes or coastal seawater. (Experiments done in the lakes of Minnesota during the 1970’s proved this. It is why phosphorus is no longer in washing detergents—it super charges algal blooms.

      That any aquatics scientist would feign surprise at the arrival of this summers red tide is to suggest political pressure.

      1. juno mas

        Here is a readable examination of the science behind aquatic nutrient pollution, if interested:

        “The Algal Bowl”, D.W. Schindler and J.R. Vallentyne (2008)

  7. Mikel

    “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.”

    Calling Gordon Ramsay and Kitchen Nightmares…

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If I heard of a red tide event anywhere, I would avoid eating restaurant fish and shellfish anywhere in that area or supplied with kinds of fish/shellfish that “could” come from that area for a good long time. I would be afraid of the authorities working with the business community to launder some red tide fish through the system.

  8. neo-realist

    At least a blue state such as Washington, in spite of some increase in the infection rate over the past 2-4 weeks due to relaxation in the protocols, will not wallow in the anti-science attitudes and backward ideological obstinacy of states like Florida, Arkansas and Texas, and will make the necessary changes to mask mandates and other needed adjustments to protective measures in the public and private sector if need be. You’re not going to see the overflowing ICU’s and ER’s in Seattle as you see in Houston or Washington state setting new records for covid deaths like Arkansas cause people and the politicians in those red states believe that mere freedom and personal responsibility will solve the pandemic problem.

    1. newcatty

      I have a serious question:

      Are there people moving away from Florida. Especially from areas on coasts or along other waterways that are experiencing more frequent, and intense, red tides? As stated at end of article

      Florida seems to be enduring modern-day versions of Biblical plagues.

      Has the sunshine state begun to loose some of its luster?

      1. SteveB

        People are moving TO Florida in droves… East coast West coast housing is on fire and building like mad… Most surprising to me is the amount moving from CA to FL…

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Someone should do a study to find out if the Californians who are moving to Florida ( of all places) are manmade global warming deniers. ( If they are, Florida, especially coastal seaside Florida, is a good place for them to go).

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