As cleanup continues, more species fall victim to red tide bloom

Fish are dying by the tens of thousands off the Pinellas County coast due to a persistent red tide algae bloom. Clean-up crews are now trying to get the dead fish before they wash ashore.

The two-pronged approach involves shrimp boats offshore and additional crews inshore. And while it sometimes feels like a never-ending cycle, workers finally feel like they're making some headway.

"We are winning the war today," proclaimed Jay Gunter of DRC Emergency Services. "We really have gotten a handle on this side of Pinellas, which I'm talking about the St. Pete Beach area. We've really made a huge effort to keep it out of Treasure Island best we can; the Intracoastal."

Gunter is leading a fleet of contracted boaters out into the bay. Shrimp boats are bay filling their nets with dead fish. At the same time, at least six additional crews are conducting the inshore cleanup.

So far, crews have picked up 410 tons of dead marine life.

"I am basically the trash man," Gunter continued. "I can see what Mother Nature does and get it picked up and cleaned up best I can."

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Pinellas public works director Kelli Levy, who is coordinating the effort, says there's a major difference between this fish kill and the one that affected the region in 2018.

That one was largely on the gulf side. This one, however, seems to have originated in the bay -- which complicates the cleanup.

"It’s easier to manage on the gulf side," Levy offered. "Once it starts getting inside and you're dealing with residential canals and you've got multiple inlets where it can come in, it's much more labor intensive to manage."

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This one also seems to be killing a wider range of species earlier on.

"We're seeing grouper, we're seeing snook; we're seeing a lot of those important species like right here within the first month," she continued.

And while Levy says the cleanup is most important, she realizes the community wants to know if this situation is connected to the wastewater leak at the old Piney Point phosphate plant.

It's hard to give a concrete answer, she said, but she pointed out that significant spikes in nitrogen levels can increase the likelihood of a deadly algae bloom -- and Piney Point contributed at least 215 tons of nitrogen to Tampa Bay.

"That event -- that was a lot of nitrogen to put into Tampa Bay and expect nothing to happen."

Meanwhile, experts are urging people to avoid areas where the algae bloom is the worst. They say this is a toxin that can cause health problems.

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