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State Environmental Officials Tour Tampa Bay, Pledge Help In Red Tide Fight

Florida Department of Environmental Protection interim Secretary Shawn Hamilton, left, and state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission director Eric Sutton tour Tampa Bay
Florida DEP
Florida Department of Environmental Protection interim Secretary Shawn Hamilton, left, and state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission director Eric Sutton tour Tampa Bay.

They say the state is directing resources for the cleanup, including money and spotter planes. But they maintain that a state of emergency declaration — which some have called for — won't change anything.

The state has been ramping up efforts to combat the unprecedented red tide bloom that is killing untold numbers of fish in Tampa Bay.

This week, the heads of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Department of Environmental Protection met with local officials and toured Tampa Bay. They say the state is directing resources for the cleanup, including money and spotter planes, and no state of emergency declaration — like some have called for — would change anything.

Health News Florida's Steve Newborn talks with Eric Sutton, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Shawn Hamilton, interim director of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Where have you toured and what devastation have you seen?

ERIC SUTTON: Last week, I saw what I would describe as very unusual amount of fish kills in Tampa Bay, and the extent of the bloom was very unusual, pretty much a 50-year event. And many of the species of fish that were being killed are the prized ones in this area. And then to watch and work with our partners with Pinellas County, the city of St. Pete, watch their cleanup efforts, I returned two days ago. I went up in the air, been going on the water, and have certainly seen some improvement. And in Tampa Bay, the (red tide) cell counts are down significantly. But I have also seen yesterday, while it looks a little better in Tampa Bay, we've seen a pretty big bloom off of the coast, particularly from Fort De Soto, on up to Dunedin. We've seen quite a few blooms off the coast.

So we're seeing it as bad on the beaches as we've seen it in Tampa Bay so far?

SUTTON: They're really two different systems, I would say, based on what I saw in the air. They're pretty large blooms. And I suspect that we're going to see some significant fish kills off the coast, and we'll be partners with cleaning the beaches. And we're already plugged in and trying to help them identify that with some of our assets we have, including a dedicated helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft.

Eric Sutton and Shawn Hamilton met with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley to discuss joint efforts for red tide response

What is the state doing to help contain this threat? You have a lot of resources in the ground, and are you directing your people out there as well?

SUTTON: I would caution there's really not much we can do to contain red tide. We've gotten a lot better at being able to detect when and where it may be. We have increased our monitoring, I think 165% is the number. I think that means not just our people out there are collecting samples, it means a lot of our partners and volunteers, from fishermen to county governments, as those samples come in, they help us to kind of see what's going on in real time.

SHAWN HAMILTON: I think the other side of that is the response actions to help clean up and mitigate the impacts from dead fish, etc. And so one of the things we've done is provide direct lines to funding for the counties and municipalities who are actively engaging in contracts to perform those cleanup actions. And that's an important component - removing those dead fish, to make sure we don't have exacerbated impacts from those dead fish. And I just wanted to commend St. Pete and Pinellas for the efforts thus far, they have put some yeoman's work in coordinating those emergency responses, and I think they should be acknowledged for that hard work. Absolutely.

The city of St. Petersburg and various business and environmental groups have called for the governor to declare a state of emergency. Do you believe that's necessary, or would it make any difference?

SUTTON: One of the key things with the state of emergency that is based on our experience from (red tide in) 2018, is to provide that direct line to funding - and we've done just that early on, and we've made sure that those municipalities are aware that that's available to it.

Is there a clear line of funding to do to perform response efforts? And is there some kind of dedicated source of funding? Where does that money come from?

SUTTON: This past (legislative) session, the department has a funding pot that was dedicated for this function along with other algae-type research. And so there is a funding mechanism available to the to the department to respond to this issue.

I like to ask to kind of describe what you've seen, the smell, the look, and is it getting any better?

SUTTON: Well, it depends on where you are. That's the interesting thing about red tide is there's it's so dependent upon the wind direction, currents and rainfall. It's a multi-variant problem. I can only speak anecdotally. I know that last week when I was here, in St. Pete, it was really bad. I mean, I have a pretty high tolerance. And I definitely could smell it, feel it, there were still some effects and the dead fish were just everywhere, and it really stunk pretty bad. And now that the setting is in the same place, I don't even really smell it at all. However, you know, we're going to see those similar effects of respiratory (distress) and the smell start hitting the beaches based on wind directions that we're predicting.

The state Department of Environmental Protection and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have ramped up water monitoring in the greater Tampa Bay area.

A lot of the local people I've talked to that have have blamed - indirectly or not - the release of all the nutrients from the Piney Point phosphate plant for - if not causing this — exacerbating it. Can you all discuss that? Whether you think that has been a factor in this?

HAMILTON: I think the clearest answer to that is that is an ongoing debate and discussion, right? Did did that spill cause it? I think the answer is to focus on the given - nutrients can exacerbate blooms. That that is a given fact. Is red tide naturally occurring? Yes, that is a given fact. I think the focus needs to be right now on the recovery and providing the resources to make sure we do everything we can to help the communities who are directly impacted on this. The debate will continue, and we will engage in the science and follow the science on that. And I think the other side of that conversation is mitigating the risk - that is Piney Point, right - and making sure we focus on closing that site and in removing that from being a future risk.

So is this something we're just going to have to hold our noses and bear with it for the time being? Or is there some kind of light at the end of the tunnel we can point to right now?

SUTTON: There's light at the end of the tunnel. I mean, this too, shall pass. But for the time being, I think it's with us for a while. We just learned from 2018 and 19. You know, hope springs eternal, but I think we'll have to deal with the localized issue for the next couple of weeks and hoping that it unfolds day, day to day. Long term look, we can say Tampa Bay has a really good estuary program. They've done a lot of work over the past 50 years. So it's a resilient community, we will see it come back, and probably it never comes back as fast as we want. But red tide is a natural disturbance. So the ecosystem is resilient and will bounce back. And it's important for the people in Tampa Bay to have that hope.

Any any other thoughts you'd like to share?

HAMILTON: The governor's directed all hands on deck. We will be here, we will make sure we engage in providing the support and the resources and doing everything we can help with municipalities to coordinate responses, etc. And so that will continue and you should expect that presence.

SUTTON: And to Shawn's point, we've met with local leaders, local officials, we've made some aviation resources available to help with the monitoring and cleanup efforts, and Sean's provided finances and we're here to talk to whoever we need to talk to for as long as we need to talk.

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.