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5 environmental stories that have impacted Tampa Bay in 2021. What’s next?

5 environmental stories that have impacted Tampa Bay in 2021. What’s next?

The environment dominated headlines in Tampa Bay this summer and fall, despite an enduring coronavirus epidemic that threatened the region’s waterway.

Some headlines felt familiar, as old problems returned this year.

Here’s a reminder of the past and a cheat sheet to help you plan for 2022.

Piney Point

Aerial drone image from Piney Point taken April 14 from Palmetto.
Aerial drone image taken from Piney Point, April 14th from Palmetto

Piney Point was once home to a fertilizer company. However, today, there are no signs of it. Instead, there are phosphogypsum stacks that were radioactive byproducts of the industry and looming over the Piney Point property near the Manatee–Hillsborough border.

Late March saw workers from HRK Holdings discover a leak inside a plastic-lined wastewater tank. Engineers feared that the liner would fall apart and that hundreds of millions of gallons polluted water could seep into homes and businesses nearby and eventually to Tampa Bay.

The state granted permission to HRK Holdings to dump contaminated waters into the bay through Port Manatee in order to ease the pressure on the phosphogypsum pile. Although not radioactive enough that people cannot work near it, the government strictly regulates its use. In less than two weeks, the company added a year’s worth of nitrogen to one section of the estuary.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, backed by wildlife experts, marine business owners and politicians, talks about the states overall effort to combat the recent Red Tide outbreak plaguing Tampa Bay waters on July 21.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is backed by wildlife experts and marine business owners, and talks about the state’s overall effort to fight the Red Tide outbreak that plagued Tampa Bay waters on July 21. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

The Piney Point discharge contaminated other areas of the bay. The fuel for algae is nitrogen. Scientists believe that the pollution contributed to the toxic Red Tide that struck Tampa Bay several weeks later. (More details below).

Fury was widespread from long-serving charter captains to local politicians to scientists and waterfront residents. For decades, the Piney Point property has been leaking and spilling at its waters edge. The threat remained long after the plant was closed, even though state environmental regulators ignored or ignored warning signs.

HRK Holdings was joined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to continue fighting to prevent Piney Point’s release of more wastewater. This continued for the remainder of the year, even after the liner was removed. Workers treated the water and disposed it before summer rains could cause flooding to the ponds.

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So far, there have not been any major discharges. However, the site is not yet completely closed.

Red Tide

City employees work together to remove a dead Goliath grouper from the waters at Crisp Park on July 14 in St. Petersburg. It was likely poisoned by the Red Tide bloom that sent tons of dead marine life washing onto the city's shores in 2021.
On July 14, St. Petersburg’s Crisp Park, city employees worked together in removing a dead Goliath Grouper. It was likely poisoned in the wake of the Red Tide bloom which saw tons of dead marine animals wash onto the city’s shores back in 2021. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Around the Fourth of July, dead fish floated into St. Petersburg’s waters. For weeks, huge, stinky plumes drifted across Tampa Bay and out to the Gulf. Maggots crawled among concrete seawalls and fish scales. Shrimp boats circled waterfront parks, netting carcasses.

In 50 years, a toxic Red Tide bloom hadn’t reached this high into the bay.

Pinellas County, the epicenter of the dead sea life and debris collection, was 1,859 tonnes, according to Tony Fabrizio, spokesperson. The algae was not only a threat to marine mammals, but also to humans. People reported difficulty breathing at beaches, fueling fears of a decline in tourism as businesses rebounded from the peak of the pandemic.

Red Tides grip began to ease after a few weeks, but bloom concentrations still continued to be visible off Pinellas throughout the summer and early fall. Still, visitors kept coming.

The effects of Red Tide can be seen at Pass-a-Grille Beach on Sept. 15, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of fish lie dead on the beach.
Red Tide’s effects can be seen at Pass-a-Grille Beach, Sept. 15, where hundreds or even thousands of dead fish lay on the shore. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Tampa Bay Times ]

What caused the bloom to explode? Scientists believe the bloom was caused by winds blowing an existing Red Tide in this manner. The bay was then left in a salty condition that allowed the algae growth. Piney Point pollution almost certainly played a part, providing a large amount of nitrogen for the organisms to eat.

The toxic algae attracted Gov. Ron DeSantis was also in Tampa Bay with top environmental officials from the state, who promised to send money for the county’s cleanup.

According to Fabrizio, the total cost of Pinellas is $3,024,625.44.

Dying seagrass

Sheila Scolaro, public outreach specialist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, examines a sample of manatee grass while collecting data on algae and seagrass in the shallows off Piney Point on April 7 in Palmetto. Scolaro was working to establish a baseline for the existing species in the water in order to create a long term record of the effects, if any, to exposure to nutrients from the discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater from the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
Sheila Scolaro (public outreach specialist, Tampa Bay Estuary Program) examines a manatee sprig while collecting data on the algae and seagrass in the shallows of Piney Point on April 7. Scolaro was establishing a baseline for the species in the water to record long term effects of exposure to nutrients due to the discharge of millions gallons of wastewater from Piney Point’s old phosphate plant. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Tampa Bay is more than just the region’s name. It also drives tourism and livelihoods. It all depends on seagrass which keeps the bay healthy, and marine life thriving.

After years of progress, bays seagrass coverage failed to reach its key goal of 2021. A regular survey showed a 16 percent decline, or 6,350 acres lost.

The estuary is a national treasure. The estuary’s horseshoe is a mix of fresh-and saltwater, providing a home to a wide range of marine life, including crabs, snook, dolphins, and other species. The bay was once an embarrassment. It looked like a rotting dish, choked by pollution. It is now considered an environmental success tale because of decades of costly restoration projects and better oversight of sewage disposal.

Brian Rosello, 44, head of the Florida Recreational Fishing Union, speaks during the Rally to Save Florida From Red Tide on July 25 in Tampa.
Brian Rosello (44), head of the Florida Recreational Fishing Union speaks at the Rally to Save Florida From Red Tide, July 25 in Tampa.


Some environmental leaders were concerned about the future of seagrass because of recent Red Tides, Piney Point discharges, and the latest seagrass loss.

Seagrass is an ecosystem cornerstone, providing food and shelter to animals. Its health is an indicator of the overall environment’s health.

A section of Old Tampa Bay, near Feather Sound in Pinellas County is particularly concerning. Here, an algal species called “Algae” is found. PyrodiniumThis is believed to be clouding the water, denying seagrass the sunlight it requires to survive. This is the main cause of much of the loss. Researchers say that fertilizer runoff and sewer pollution can pollute the water, which in turn encourages algae to proliferate.

According to the latest survey, 34,000 acres of seagrass were still present in the bay. This is significantly more than it was at its lowest point. However, environmentalists warn that a few bad blooms could cause a backslide and reverse years of hard-won progress.

Climate change

Egmont Key off the coast of Fort DeSoto in Tampa Bay. In 2019, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as one of the most threatened historic properties in the state because of climate change and rising seas.
Egmont Key, off the coast from Fort DeSoto in Tampa Bay. It was listed by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the most endangered historic properties in the state due to climate change and rising seas in 2019.

Last year, Florida lawmakers approved a series of sea level rise policies called Always Ready. This was a priority for Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor). The new laws marked a departure form the status quo of the past decade in Tallahassees, when climate change was rarely given serious consideration at the Capitol.

In 2021, the Legislature directed money to flood infrastructure projects. They also requested a research hub for flooding at the University of South Florida. They also ordered a vulnerability analysis for the state that includes sea level rise.

The governor announced a three year plan in December that will provide $270 million of state money for dozens flood defense projects. These projects include raising parts of an Oldsmar water treatment facility and expanding Maximo Park’s natural shoreline bulwark in St. Petersburg.


Two dead, emaciated adult manatees recovered from Brevard County are prepared for necropsy at the state's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab in March.
Two adult manatees, two dead and emaciated, were found in Brevard County. They will be necropsied at the state’s Marine Mamal Pathobiology Lab in March. [ Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ]

This was the deadliest year for Florida manatees, with over 1,000 people killed. Many of these manatees were starving in Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast because they lack seagrass. The death zone is located 120 miles from Tampa Bay. However, the pain has spread across the peninsula.

Manatees are now considered a threatened species. Their status was upgraded from endangered to listed as “endangered” in 2017. Manatees are now considered endangered by some politicians and advocates. This is to ensure that they are subject to more scrutiny and support.

ZooTampa is one of the many critical care facilities that have stepped in to assist sick manatees. Their pools are already full. Clearwater Marine Aquarium hopes to build its own rehabilitation facility.

Tampa Bay did not spare the manatees. Red Tide was the cause of their deaths this summer.

The northern Indian River Lagoon is the epicenter of the starvation epidemic. It is a warning to the rest the state about the fragility and dangers of polluted estuaries. In the last decade, thousands of acres have been killed by algal blooms that were fueled in part from nutrient-laden land runoff. Warm discharges from a power station heat the lagoon, causing manatees to congregate there each winter.


A manatee surfaces for a breath of air off a boardwalk at Tampa Electrics award-winning Manatee Viewing Center on Nov. 1 in Apollo Beach. After being closed for 19 months, the viewing center opened for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
A manatee swoops down to take a breath of fresh air from a boardwalk at the Manatee Viewing Center, Tampa Electrics’ award-winning Manatee Viewing Center. This was Nov. 1 in Apollo Beach. After being closed for 19 years, the viewing center reopened for the first-time since the COVID-19 pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]


It’s winter again and state wildlife officials will spend most of 2022 trying not to see another mass die-off in Indian River Lagoon. Manatees will be fed lettuce by hand as part of this effort to prevent them from starving. The operation will take place only around the affected area of the lagoon on the East Coast.

In other places, including Tampa Bay, manatees often have plenty of seagrass to consume. It is not recommended to feed wildlife as it can lead to animals becoming dependent on humans. People shouldn’t feed manatees in Florida. It could be considered harassment and therefore illegal.

Even with additional rescue crews and backup feeding, the state expects manatees in the early 2022 to die more. It will take years for seagrass acreage to be restored. As temperatures drop, manatees will continue to return to warm waters around a power station in Brevard County. They will not have enough food.

Climate change and Tallahassee

Florida’s elected leaders begin to plan for the effects of climate change. But they haven’t entertained bills that would limit fossil fuel emission that causes global warming.

Environmentalists believe the state is only trying to adapt sea level rise to its costs without addressing the root causes. The Legislature passed laws last spring that critics claim will make clean energy more difficult for cities.

This is a new battle line in climate change, and it does seem unlikely that Tallahassee will make any progress soon. DeSantis made the flood infrastructure plan public in December. He was also asked about how he would tackle climate change. The Republican governor mentioned high gasoline prices as an example. Complex supply issues cannot be explained solely through energy policiesAnd he said: What I’ve found is that people use global warming as a pretext to do all the left-wing things they want to do when they talk about it.

DeSantis continued by saying that Florida is prone to flooding, but we also have storms. Let’s not react every time something like this happens. Let’s be proactive and build strong infrastructure.

Tampa Bays future

Gary Raulerson, an ecologist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, left, collects a bag containing samples of algae from Sheila Scolaro, public outreach specialist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, right, while analyzing algae and seagrass in the shallows off Piney Point on April 7 in Palmetto. The team was working to establish a baseline for the existing species in the water in order to create a long-term record of the effects, if any, from exposure to nutrients from the discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater from the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
Gary Raulerson (ecologist, Tampa Bay Estuary Program), left, collects a bag of algae samples from Sheila Scolaro. Sheila is a public outreach specialist with Tampa Bay Estuary Program. The bag was collected while Raulerson was analysing algae and seagrass near Piney Point, April 7, in Palmetto. The team was trying establish a baseline for existing species in water in order to create long-term records of the effects of nutrients from the discharge of millions upon millions of gallons from the Piney Point phosphate factory. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Scientists will continue to monitor the bay’s environmental effects as the area moves further away from the Piney Point dump, summer Red Tide, and other pollution sources.

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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had to temporarily ban anglers’ ability to keep certain species in the bay. This ban was lifted in October. Some restrictions are still in place in Southwest Florida, following the 2017-19 Red Tide Bloom that decimated the coast and raised concerns about long-term declines of fish populations.

Local leaders plan to conduct another survey of the seagrass coverage in Southwest Florida later this year. In Tampa Bay, more frequent monitoring will continue. Florida will be affected by the health of seagrass.

Will Piney Point ever go away?

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is now suing Piney Points’ owner, HRK Holdings. As a court-appointed receiver, an independent Tampa lawyer manages the site day to date.

Manatee County was granted a permit this month to construct a well deep beneath the ground. This will allow Piney Point’s wastewater to be pumped to a depth of 3,000 feet below the surface, so that the ponds can be permanently closed. Local environmental groups and critics have tried to slow down or stop the process, claiming they fear it could threaten the Floridan Aquifer’s water supply.

Work continues to prevent stacks and lakes from failing again. Those efforts will likely continue next year, when another hurricane season hits and increases Piney Points lingering threat for the environment.

Red Tide coverage

Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some solutions.

Is seafood safe to eat?Here are some ways that Red Tide influences what you eat.

Can I go fish?The state has imposed restrictions on saltwater fishing.

Pine Point: Red Tide may be fuelled by environmental disasters

Red Tide resources

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission maintains a website.It tracks where Red Tide was detected.

Florida Poison Control Centers provide a 24/7 toll-free hotline for reporting illnesses, including Red Tide exposure.

Call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-636-0511 to report dead fish to Tampa Bay.Online filing a report on a fish kill.

Call the Mayors Action Center in St. Petersburg at 727-893-7111, or use St. Petersburgs.Seeclickfix website.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is the county’s tourism wing and offers an online beach dashboard at

How to stay safe in the water

Do not swim with dead fish.

Red Tide blooms should be avoided by those with chronic respiratory conditions. If you feel that Red Tide is affecting your health, leave.

You should not harvest or eat mollusks from the area. Fillets of healthy fish must be raised with clean water and the guts should be thrown out.

Pet owners must keep their pets out of the water and away from dead fish.

Residents who live near the beach should shut their windows and use air conditioners with appropriate filters.

Protect yourself on the beach with a mask

Source: Florida Department of Health Pinellas County

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