Florida’s Red Tides Are Getting Worse and May Be Hard to Control Because of Climate Change

A task force appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis is calling for research and investment in mitigation. Environmentalists say the real fix is cracking down on polluters.

Thousands of dead fish float in the Boca Ciega Bay located near the mouth of Madeira Beach on July 21, 2021 in Madeira Beach, Florida. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Thousands of dead fish float in the Boca Ciega Bay located near the mouth of Madeira Beach on July 21, 2021 in Madeira Beach, Florida. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

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A task force appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to address the state’s algal bloom crisis concluded in a recent report that “without hard work and careful planning” adverse human health impacts and widespread wildlife mortality would most likely “worsen” because of climate change and the state’s growing population. 

The blooms are caused by high concentrations of a plant-like microscopic organism known as Karenia brevis fed by nutrients in runoff from stormwater, agricultural lands and wastewater treatment plants. A key stimulant is phosphorus from fertilizer used on farms and ranches in the Kissimmee River Basin, which forms the headwaters of the Everglades and drains into Lake Okeechobee, which in turn reaches the coasts through rivers and man-made canals.

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The algal blooms, which at one point in 2018 covered 90 percent of the lake’s surface, can have devastating impacts on ecological resources and communities, causing respiratory and eye irritation in humans and “widespread reports of fish, sea turtle, marine mammal, and other wildlife mortalities,” according to the Florida Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force.

Released on Jan. 10, the task force’s report recommends more research to determine the causes of red tides, more investment in mitigation technologies and continued work under the Clean Waterways Act of 2020. 

What the task force described as a “prolonged 2017-2019 red tide event” began with an algal bloom on Lake Okeechobee and resulted in “estimated total losses of nearly $1 billion in revenue and an additional loss of $178 million in tax revenue in 23 Gulf coast counties.”

The impacts of climate change, which the task force said “may be impossible to change,” contribute to the algal blooms “through a complex variety of mechanisms including warmer water temperatures, changes in salinity, changes in rainfall patterns… changes in coastal upwelling, and sea level rise.”

But environmental advocates criticized the task force’s latest recommendations, arguing that the panel failed to hold the polluters accountable and ignored the most obvious solutions, which involve better enforcement of existing laws by the state regulators. The Clean Waterways Act of 2020, they have noted, doesn’t require agricultural interests to reduce phosphorus runoff and continues to rely on what is effectively a system of voluntary compliance.

“The task force recommends throwing taxpayer money at unproven mitigation technologies,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, adding: “If the state regulators instead just stopped pollution at the source by holding polluters accountable, Florida would have a much better chance at turning the corner on its water quality crisis.”

Lopez said untreated sewage discharge, nutrient runoffs from various sources, and toxic waste from phosphorus mining leaking into Florida’s open waters act as a booster for red tide, which thrives in nutrient rich conditions. “The task force has ignored the elephant in the room because state regulators are not holding the polluting industries accountable through enforcement action,” she added. 

Florida Gov. DeSantis had reactivated the task force in August 2021 and appointed 11 experts to energize its mandate. Originally established in 1999, the task force had been dormant for over 15 years. DeSantis also listed red tide among his priorities during his recent State of the State address on the opening day of the 2022 legislative session. 

A Rapidly Growing Threat

Occurring almost every year in late summer or early fall, red tide algae is most prevalent along Florida’s southwest coastal areas. But in the last three years, red tide has become a serious yearlong problem for the state and city authorities, fisheries and tourism industries, as well as residents near shoreline.  

Alicia Norris, 52, a mother of three, has experienced it first hand. She cannot shake off that sickening, nauseous feeling in the summer of 2018 from the stench of dead fish, turtles and manatees rotting in reddish-brown coastal waters along the shorelines of St. Petersburg in the state’s Tampa Bay area. 

She was out by the beach delivering online purchases from Amazon to the wealthy residents along the St. Pete coast, a side gig. “I rushed back to my van, rolled up the windows and blasted the air conditioners because I could not breathe,” she said. 

Norris, whose father is a member of the Oneida Tribe, recalled feeling unwell for days, her chest tightening up. “I said to myself how are people even living out here,” she said. She ultimately learned that some people in the neighborhood were temporarily relocating. “That’s when I realized how awful it was,” she said.

Now a real estate agent in Pinellas County, Norris said growing up in Florida has left her no stranger to red tide. “But I will tell you the red tide in recent years is not like it used to be,” she said. “It is like red tide on steroids.” Back in the 1970s, she recalled, red tide would subside in a week or two. “I remember it being a little stinky down at the beach,” she said. “And the fish kill was very small.”

But that has changed in recent years. Last July, Pinellas County officials reported collecting 600 tons of dead fish as the red tide peaked. City authorities in St. Petersburg called for a state of emergency in order to clean up dead sea animals from the beaches. Dead dolphins, manatees and other marine mammals were removed in large numbers from the beaches and coastal waters.  

Between July and November last year, the number of dead manatees tragically reached 1,003, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported. The previous record was 830 in 2013. At least 44 manatee deaths were linked to red tide, the highest such count ever.   

In the midst of a clean up frenzy, cities were hit with stench and airborne toxins, triggering an avalanche of health-related complaints. The last spell of red tide began in December 2020 and lasted a year. The 2017-2019 red tide referenced in the task force report persisted for 15 months, according to logs maintained by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In 2012 and 2013, the blooms killed hundreds of manatees and other marine life.

Toxic Phosphate Ponds May Supercharge Red Tide

The severity of the ride tide that began in late 2020 was so grave that experts pondered whether a phosphate wastewater leak from the now-defunct fertilizer plant at Piney Point in Manatee County contributed to particularly high toxicity of algal blooms.  

In March 2021, the leak was discovered in the reservoir pond—or Phosphogypsum stack—holding 480 million gallons of toxic wastewater produced from phosphate. Phosphogypsum stacks are formed to retain watery radioactive waste created during fertilizer production and phosphate mining. It is estimated that for each ton of phosphoric acid produced, five tons of phosphogypsum waste is created and stored indefinitely in 200-foot deep lakes or retention ponds.

The mining activity at the Piney Point facility ended 20 years ago when the company went bankrupt. But the highly toxic and potentially radioactive contaminants are still stored in these huge radioactive ponds. 

There are about 70 such phosphogypsum stacks throughout the U.S. and 25 of these giant toxic wastewater ponds are in Florida. The EPA determined 30 years ago that phosphogypsum presented a substantial risk to the environment because it is radioactive, extremely acidic and corrosive. It also contains carcinogenic heavy metals like lead, chromium and cadmium. 

“We had very bad red tide blooms in Tampa Bay over last summer because of the Piney Point incident,” said Lopez, director of Center for Biological Diversity. She explained that red tide thrives in waters rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, and the discharge of nutrient-rich wastewater from Piney Point was like a booster shot for red tide blooms. 

“This in addition to corporations and municipalities authorized to release wastewater into Florida waters,” Lopez continued. “Then there is nonpoint source discharge, which is, when it rains, all that water takes with it anything that’s sitting on the surface—fertilizer, pesticide, oil, dog poop—all of which eventually enters the waterway.”

That wastewater, rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, becomes fuel for algae like the red tide and blue green algae found in Florida, Lopez concluded. “Most of these phosphogypsum stacks like Piney Point are located next to communities of color, including Indigenous communities. 

Angered by state authorities’ decision to release hundreds of tons of toxic pollutants in Tampa Bay, five environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court last year against state environmental officials, DeSantis and operators of the defunct Piney Point phosphate fertilizer plant. The groups alleged that the discharge of the wastewater violated the Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Endangered Species Act.

Tracy Penokie, 44, lives in Pinellas County’s Clearwater area, 20 minutes from Norris. The mother of two girls, Penokie was born in Michigan and settled in Florida 30 years ago. She works at a health food store and also has an online business selling herbal oils and skin care products.    

Penokie, whose ancestors were from the Odawa tribe of the Navajo Nation, said the red tide has worsened in the last three years. “If I’m exposed to red tide for long, I get flu-like symptoms that linger for days. And it becomes really hard for me to work, which is really hard on me, especially right now with Covid,” she said. 

For Penokie, polluted waters sever her connection with nature, which, she said, affects her spiritually. “We don’t really have rivers to cleanse ourselves in. So, for me personally and many Indigenous people, the ocean is the place to pray. A place to give offerings such as tobacco to the waters and leave your prayers there. In the last three years, since we’ve been dealing with red tide, I have felt extremely disconnected from that connection.” 

She said excessive nutrients from agricultural lands end up in runoff and make algal blooms stronger. “The entire Tampa Bay area was affected during last year’s red tide. It was so bad,” she added. 

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Sam Johnston, an engineer with over four decades of public service, said some of the blame also lies with stormwater treatment facilities that are permitted with no required monitoring of their discharge. He said many major outfalls, such as the City of Sarasota’s downtown watershed, discharge unmonitored substances directly to area bays and Florida waters. 

“Without compliance monitoring, who’s to know what they’re dumping into open waters,” he said. Such facilities, often receiving “presumptive criteria” permits, which assume permit holders will comply with sewage treatment laws, he said, can discharge wastewater without monitoring “and then kind of walk away.”

Without compliance monitoring, he said, there is no way to ascertain whether the treatment facilities are abiding by the rules and not discharging excess nutrients into water bodies and feeding the harmful algal blooms.    

It is impossible to understand specific causes or sources that trigger and sustain red tide and algal blooms until stormwater discharge is monitored and tested for compliance, Johnston said.

He added that it’s more than a coincidence that the red tide blooms occur in populated coastal areas that contribute stormwater discharges. “The best course of action would be to develop a robust set of data for potential sources that feed and generate red tide in order to effectively address solutions and mitigation for these and other harmful algal blooms,” he said. 

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Norris has banded together with community members and founded Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality (FIREE), a nonprofit group. She’s been organizing events and educational seminars with other rights groups and hopes to build pressure on local authorities to address the menacing red tide blooms.  

“As an Indigenous person, we see all of the living entities as our relatives—the water, the air and the trees and all life,” she said. “Just like us humans, they have rights and they’re equal to us. And if we are hurting water, we are hurting ourselves.”