Updated 11/19, 11:30 a.m.: A previous version of this story stated that water testing had been done Monday, November 5. It was tested on Tuesday, November 6.
First spotted and photographed by residents in Town Shores, two images of a large brown area in Boca Ciega Bay located close to the condominiums were posted to a Gulfport-related Facebook page on Tuesday morning, November 6. The images drew the attention of city staff followed by county officials who were first alerted to the social media post by an area television journalist.
By Tuesday afternoon, after water testing, a red tide bloom of Karenia brevis was confirmed in the bay near Gulfport, said Division Director of Pinellas County Environmental Management Kelli Levy.
“We had staff working in the area cleaning up dead fish in the intra-coastal waterway,” Levy told the Gabber. “So, I gave them the location and asked them to go grab a sample.”
After the initial lab analysis, the results showed “a very significant concentration of red tide,” she said. “It’s a very high, very intense bloom. And, our staff did report significant respiratory irritation in the area” of Gulfport. “As soon as I saw the picture, I knew what it was.”
Summaries of lab results are published on the division’s Facebook page, PinellasEnviroNews.
“My main concern is that it is so concentrated that really, if I were to put an oxygen probe in that bloom, there would be no oxygen there,” said Levy. “I expect that if this stays like this over the next few days, we’re going to see some significant fish kills.”
Because winds can cause bloom organisms to become airborne, county testers typically wear N95 respirator masks that filter out toxins from the air so they are not breathing it in, said Levy. The facemasks are available at local hardware stores in packages of 10 for about $15.
“A lot of times when a bloom gets this concentrated, it can’t sustain itself,” she said. “I’m hoping it’s going to exhaust itself.
“It has been bad enough when we saw these types of pictures off our Gulf beaches. Because there is a lot of open water out there in the Gulf of Mexico, there is a lot of circulation. Inside the bay, there is much less circulation and less flushing.”
Levy said the county would be monitoring the bay bloom closely over the next few days to see if it breaks up or starts to spread.
“We are prepared in case we see extensive fish kills,” she said. “We’ll take care of that.”
Some initial posters on Facebook wondered if the brown area documented in the photos was sewage being dumped into the bay by Gulfport or another waterfront municipality. A few said they were sure it was.
After testing results from the county were received on Tuesday afternoon, Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly said, “Emphatically, there was no sewage discharge.”
Gulfport Marina Harbormaster Denis Frain inspected the local red tide bloom from a city boat.
The blue-green colored area in the photographs posted on Facebook is “the clean water colliding with the red tide,” said Frain. “Most of the red tide is from the mooring field to the entrance of Town Shores. The middle of the bay is clear. And, the south side of the bay by Isla Del Sol is also clear.
“Right in the back of Town Shores is really heavy red tide.”
Westerly winds push it toward Gulfport, he said.
“My throat is killing me,” said Frain. “I had to come back in.”
Single-cell Karenia brevis organisms have two flagella that give them the ability to swim on their own, said Levy. Mostly, the algae are carried by tide action and winds.
County officials will conduct another water quality test in the bay on Wednesday, she said. Once test results are evaluated, additional special testing will be scheduled as needed. Routine monitoring tests are conducted on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
As part of their protocol, city staff have also notified officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said O’Reilly.
Additional information about red tide is located on the county’s website at pinellascounty.org/environment/watershed/red-tide.htm.