A Florida fisherman and television host accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission director Eric Sutton of downplaying the current Red Tide outbreak in order to keep money flowing into Florida while ignoring the problem. At a news conference Wednesday in St. Petersburg, the Governor didn’t deny the accusation.
Tyler Kapela’s whole life is on the water.
He’s a member of Pelagic’s professional fishing team; he’s hosted a number of fishing shows for NBC Sports; the Discovery Channel and more. He’s also an author with a degree in environmental and marine science.
But most days, Kapela makes a living taking tourists from around the world out on charter boat trips from a dock in Tierra Verde.
“People want to come out,” he said. “They fly down here from wherever and they spend money in the hotels just to come down and fish with me from all over the world.
Profit over prevention
Kapela was on a St. Pete Chamber of Commerce Zoom call this week and said Sutton’s message was clear.
“Eric Sutton told the chamber of commerce: ‘Here’s the message we need to get out there. We need to keep this away from the media so they’re not talking about it, so they’re not showing all these pictures of dead fish. Tell them Florida is open. Come on down to the beach,’” Kapela said.
He said DeSantis is patting himself on the back for a cleanup effort that doesn’t address what’s causing devastating blooms — humans dumping excess nutrients into water.
He said the State is putting profit before prevention.
Sutton spoke to WMNF after the conference and said what he meant was that the focus should be on facts-first. But when asked about the statement and cleanup during the conference, DeSantis didn’t shy away or deny the allegation. He backed it up.
“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” DeSantis said. “Just like the reason why I reconstituted the task force in ’19. The reason why we’ve done $14.8 million for Red Tide research here.”
He added cleanups help while scientists study.
“I hope to be able to come back here at some point in the future and say you know, they’ve tried this treatment. They’ve tried this. It can mitigate x,y, and z and all these other things,” he said. “I think we’ll get there. We’ve made some progress with blue-green algae. Red Tide is a little more difficult. But you’ve got some of the best people in our state that are studying this. And they now have the resources and backing of the state government to be able to do the best we can.”
But there are known ways to reduce the severity of Red Tide, like limiting pollutants and runoff allowed to make its way into Tampa Bay. And it’s those measures, Kapela said, that DeSantis refuses to acknowledge or address. Instead, he said Florida leaders placate to influential industries like phosphate and sugar that have been known to pollute Florida’s waterways.
During the conference, DeSantis said the Bay and Gulf’s waters look better this week than last week. The current Red Tide outbreak has killed about 1,000 tons of sea life in the past few weeks alone. And FWC’s most recent sampling data shows high levels of the karenia brevis bacteria that cause Red Tide from Pasco County down to Sarasota. Lower levels have been found as far as 10 miles off the Pinellas County coast.
“If you go to the beach it reeks of dead fish. It makes you cough. It is disgusting. Essentially, if you’re swimming in it with your family, you’re swimming in toxic waste,” Kapela said. “They’re telling people to come down here and swim in toxic waters they created so it doesn’t hurt business. And then they get away with it.”
Red Tide was first documented in Florida in 1844 and is believed to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. However, Red Tide blooms have become more devastating and longer-lasting in recent years. It’s now known that nutrients in water, like those from fertilizer byproducts, can intensify outbreaks.
Kapela, who makes his living on Florida waters, said clean up without focusing on what’s making outbreaks so bad might help keep businesses open now, but could ultimately devastate Florida’s waters and coastal tourism. Already, estimates from Florida tourism boards put losses from a 2018 outbreak in the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.
Pointing to Piney
While official data remains inconclusive researchers and environmentalists have tied the intensity of the current outbreak to the nutrient-laden water spilled from the Piney Point phosphate plant in April. Nutrients, like nitrogen, present in the 215 million gallons dumped near Port Manatee are known to fuel Red Tide.
“I mean it’s clear if you go back in FWC log of where they sampled, the Red Tide sampling is all around Tampa Bay,” Kapela said. “The epicenter is right at the mouth of the Piney Point dump.”
But the Governor shifted blame from the spill to Hurricane Elsa.
“The scientific consensus is clear. It didn’t cause the Red Tide. The Red Tide was here. I think the biggest impact on Tampa Bay was Elsa. Unfortunately.”
Fish kills associated with Red Tide were reported in Tampa Bay waters in early June and by the end of the month filled marinas around Pinellas with dead fish. Elsa became a hurricane on July 2 near Barbados, almost 2,000 miles away from Florida. It made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast July 7.