U.S. Rep. David Jolly takes a look at Red Tide first hand, calls on increased research funding

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U.S. Rep. David Jolly spent the first part of his day on a boat Thursday. Dressed down in khakis, a white button down and a blue baseball cap, Jolly had one goal: figure out how bad a red tide bloom off the coast of Pinellas could affect the local economy.

“The good news is we have not seen a significant result of Red Tide on shore,” Jolly said. “The great news is our beaches remain the most beautiful beaches in the world today.”

During the voyage several miles into the Gulf, there were jellyfish, flying fish and all sorts of fish not many people on the boat knew the names of, but there were no dead fish.

Red Tide is an influx in bacteria that kills fish. The result is a major blow to the fishing industry both commercially and recreationally. It drives tourists away from the area, leaves local restaurants with a lack of locally caught fish and it stinks. Bad. Mike Colby who is the captain for Double Hook Charters said a Red Tide event in 2005 killed his revenue between 30-40% that year.

“I think I can remember the day before the ‘05 tide came into the pass. We found some small Spanish Mackerel swimming around right off the jetty. We had a half-day fishing trip. We caught a dozen of them and that was the end of my fishing,” Colby said.

Earlier this week, Jolly sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urging them to increase research in the area.

“The more we learn about it, the more we can mitigate it,” Jolly said.

But that isn’t enough to deal with what’s already happening. Dr. Heyward Mathews, professor emeritus at St. Petersburg College, says Red Tide isn’t the bi-product of manmade pollution and, so far, studies on how to get rid of it have yielded little to no results. Some have even made the problem worse. So, the 90-mile by 60-mile patch of Red Tide floating 5-10 miles off Pinellas’s pristine beaches can’t be erased by anything other than, just, time.

“You could try a prayer,” Mathews said.

So far, the worst impacts of the Red Tide have been seen in Pasco County. Some dead fish have been found on Honeymoon Island in Dunedin. But the bloom is slowly moving South.

If it gets sucked into Tampa Bay or any of the area’s complex systems of canals it could mean major trouble for the entire beach economy. For charter boat companies it leaves an added problem.

“We have fishing customers that have booked trips with us three, four, five, six weeks in advance of all of this,” Colby said. “So, our uncertainty is what do we tell that customer?”

He calls it “the gravy on the roast beef.”

The company Double Hook Charter volunteered its boat for Jolly, some of his staff, a biologist and reporters to go check out the bloom. It seemed nothing like a scientific endeavor. The Gulf waters were crystal clear and sparkling blue. The sky was wide open blue and sunshine and the breeze knocked the heat down enough to enjoy the ride. The bloom itself looked like nothing other than just more water. And the lack of dead, floating fish may or may not be a good sign.

On one hand, maybe the fish aren’t dying. On the other, a shift in winds over the past weekend and throughout the week could have blown the carcasses further north. Worse, the fish could be sinking.

As Mathews explained to the group, if that happens, the fish decompose at the sea floor and suck up oxygen in the process. That, in turn, kills other fish.

The toxins released by Red Tide affect, basically, fish and marine life with spines, but they don’t kill smaller organisms like oysters and clams. Dead fish do though, and it takes years to restore that ecosystem.

Mathews says that’s what happened in 2005 when a Red Tide Bloom cost the average Gulf Coast business in the Clearwater area between $25,000 – $50,000.

“That’s why we have to get the fish out of the water,” Mathews said.

Jolly, who was elected during a special election mid-cycle, was sworn into office right in the middle of budget planning. He asked for increased funding for NOAA to increase research efforts in the Gulf and plans to do so again.

“My intent as we begin this next budget cycle is to work very hard and make a very aggressive push for expanded research funding for NOAA like we’ve never seen before,” Jolly said. “It will be a fight.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.