Drone catches algal bloom off Florida coast before Memorial Day weekend

algal bloom

Millions of Americans are looking forward to venturing outdoors and celebrating pre-pandemic style this Memorial Day weekend. But beachgoers in Florida’s Tampa Bay area may need to be cautious and mindful, and not just because 50% of American adults are yet to be fully vaccinated against COVID.

Florida-based drone pilot Michael McCarthy, whose nature and wildlife videos are regularly featured by national and international news networks, has caught on his aerial camera algal bloom creeping up off the Indian Rocks Beach coast. McCarthy tells:

Lyngbya (blue-agree alga) and trichodesmium (sea sawdust) have shown up in the Tampa Bay area just in time for the Memorial Day weekend. It arrived at the St. Petersburg area beaches on the evening of May 24, 2021, and the line of ‘muck’ along the shore that is seen in this video extends north all the way to Clearwater, Florida. When the wind is blowing onshore, there is a distinct smell from it.

Pinellas County Environmental Management, the agency responsible for monitoring and protecting the region’s environmental resources, has also admitted to a local news outlet that blue-green algae is indeed blooming off Pinellas beaches. Public Works Director Kelli Hammer Levy says:

Trichodesmium has been found offshore and nearshore of the mouth of Tampa Bay, Manatee County, and further south. We don’t know the cause. Extra nutrients are not helpful though.

But even as residents complain that “disgusting algae, reddish brown stuff” is forcing them to keep out of the water, Levy doesn’t want Memorial Day weekend revelers to worry yet:

No public health issues, just not pretty.

While local officials may not consider the presence of blue algae microorganisms a public health emergency yet, it’s worth noting that blooms can become dangerous if they produce toxins, use up the oxygen in the water, release harmful gases, or become too dense. And they flourish easily, needing just sunlight, slow-moving water, and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, that Levy mentioned.

What makes the situation more worrisome is the fact that a defunct fertilizer plant in the area released a ton of nitrogen-rich wastewater from its facility in April. That polluted water, local newspapers note, has made its way to the estuaries and marshes along the eastern shores of Tampa Bay, putting some of the region’s most sensitive and unique habitats at risk.

Florida is no stranger to toxic algal blooms. In 2018, a massive red tide bloom in the state killed 200 tons of marine life and caused $8 million in economic losses. But officials agree that, right now, it may be too early to forecast what this year will bring. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are keeping their eyes peeled.

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