Red Tide leaves beaches stinky
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
TREASURE ISLAND -- The four girlfriends hoped to spend their weekend doing each other's nails, sipping mimosas and splashing in the surf at Sunset Beach.
But Friday night, the salty air outside their beach house smelled "fishy," and by Saturday morning, dozens of dead fish had washed up on the shore.
The women tried to brave the gulf anyway.
"You can stay in the water if you want," Roberta DiZinno told her friends after one dead fish floated past her. "I'm getting out."
Most beachgoers joined DiZinno on the sand on Saturday, leaving the water to the hundreds of smelly fish washing ashore. The Florida Marine Research Institute detected low levels of Red Tide on Friday night at a reef 10 miles off Sand Key and at another reef five miles off Indian Rocks Beach.
No one knows how long the fish and their stench will linger.
"Unfortunately, we don't know exactly why it comes," said Allison McDonald, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, "so we don't know where it will appear next."
Red Tide remains a mystery of marine science. Researchers have called it an "amorphous blob" of single-celled algae blooms
The toxic algae can cause respiratory irritation in humans, particularly those with asthma or emphysema. The algae deplete oxygen in the water, and their toxins paralyze fish, preventing breathing.
This outbreak involves much lower concentrations of Red Tide than in years past, but the fish are washing up in popular public places, McDonald said.
"People haven't seen them coming by the thousands and thousands," she said, "but they're washing up everywhere."
Red Tide hit the Pinellas shore this weekend just as beachgoers were hoping to recover from the hottest week of the year. Even at night, temperatures never dropped below 81 degrees last week.
On Pinellas beaches Saturday, parents asked other families whether it was safe to let their children swim. Authorities say Red Tide is generally not hazardous for healthy people, but contact with dead fish may expose people to harmful bacteria.
Public works crews went to work picking up the dead fish, mostly reef fish, such as hogfish and grunt. Good Samaritans warned families pulling into parking spots to take a long whiff before dropping quarters into parking meters.
Dead fish washed ashore Saturday mostly between Upham Beach in St. Pete Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, though some were also reported as far south as Pass-a-Grille and as far north as Belleair Beach.
McDonald said the marine research institute planned to take more samples Sunday, looking at Red Tide levels from Honeymoon Island to the Sunshine Skyway.
Saturday's unpleasantness sent visitors looking for other beaches.
"We come here every week, whether it's rainy or cold," Mark Fennell, from St. Petersburg, said of Upham Beach. "But we're going to Pass-a-Grille."
At Sunset Beach, DiZinno and her girlfriends put up with the stench, played bocce ball on the beach and planned to give each other pedicures Saturday night.
"We're here for the weekend," Barbara Pricher said. "We're making the best of it."
-- Times staff writer Mike Brassfield and photographer Lara Cerri contributed to this report.
Current information about the red tide outbreak is available at www.floridamarine.org.
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