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The Truth About Tampa Bay's Decline & Rise of Red Tide

Thousands of dead fish, coming soon to a shore near you. Again.

The Truth About Tampa Bay's Decline & Rise of Red Tide

Trophy-sized tarpon reached its final resting place in a mangrove hollow, along with hundreds of baitfish, during the 2021 supercharged red tide bloom in Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Capt Brian Jill

Captain Tyler Kapela set the spot lock on the trolling motor as Al Cowan and I cast freelined threadfin herrings towards the bridge pilings.

Here, beneath a span of Tampa Bay’s iconic Sunshine Skyway, it was 27 feet deep. That’s not very deep, but I still would have thought a sinker would have been necessary to target gag grouper. But Kapela confidently said the grouper will find your bait.

tyler kapela holds up healthy gag grouper on boat
Gag grouper lurk along the edges of the deep shipping channels that lace Tampa Bay. This one grabbed a freelined live threadfin herring.

We were targeting gags in December of 2022, before the January through March season closure for this species. Gags are among the many gamefish that call Tampa Bay home. Redfish, seatrout, snook, tarpon, mangrove snapper and many others are targeted here. Migratory Spanish and king mackerel are also in the mix.

Kapela says the gags are active here from the first cold front of the year, when the water temperature gets in the low 70s, all the way into the season opener on April 1. Come April, you’re just as likely to catch a tarpon as you are a grouper, he explained. The Skyway Bridge can be very productive for those two species and everything in between, but not today. Kapela pulled up the trolling motor and we made a short run to the Port Manatee channel, a mile-long, 40-foot-deep channel that serves one of Tampa Bay’s largest commercial shipping ports.

As the guide was positioning the boat just to the shallow side of the channel, I was thinking how ironic is this, we were lining up to fish near the origins of the Piney Point disaster.

tampa bay map piney point discharge site

Today, no account of fishing Tampa Bay is complete without reflecting on what happened in the summer of 2021.

I had learned of Kapela the same time people from all over the world did, on July 13, 2021. That was the day when the guide posted to his Instagram account a video of himself covered in dead, rotting fish. “What is happening right now in Tampa Bay is absolutely devastating!” he lamented in his post. “The water in the majority of the bay is poison, so toxic in fact that it is killing dolphins, manatees, all fish, and is even making it impossible for humans to breath the air. You have to see it to believe it.

two fishermen with looks of frustration behind a pile of dead fish in tampa bay
Tyler Kapela captured the ire and frustration of Tampa Bay anglers during the summer 2021 red tide fish kill, which many think was supercharged by nutrient pollution.

A severe red tide bloom, on a devasting scale for Tampa Bay, had followed in the wake of nutrient-rich wastewater releases from an old, disused phosphate processing facility near Port Manatee, on the lower east shore of Tampa Bay.

As Kapela recalled, when we started our fishing day near the Skyway Bridge: “There were dead fish for as far as you could see, 20 miles that way,” he said while pointing west. “And 20 miles that way,” pointing east. “Catastrophic.”

dead tarpon and baitfish float on surface of water in tampa bay
Large tarpon floats amongst a sea of dead baitfish during the height of the red tide bloom in 2021. Photo Credit: Capt. Brian Jill

The dumping of the wastewater was triggered by an unfortunate, and evidently preventable, series of events.

The Piney Point facility, closed since 2001, still brimmed with millions of gallons of toxic water stored on top of mountainous phosphogypsum stacks. For years, the state of Florida and subsequent owners of the property had dawdled, trying to figure out what to do with it. Eventually, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) agreed to allow the current owners of the Piney Point property to store dredge material from neighboring Port Manatee in the reservoirs. There were early warnings about this plan. In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted the potential consequences of adding dredge material to the lined reservoirs. The worst case scenario, the Corps cautioned, would be a tear in the plastic liner, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

In 2011, a wastewater leak, said to be caused by dredge material, resulted in an emergency discharge of millions of gallons of toxic water into Tampa Bay. Strike one.


piney point nutrient dumping
Water laden with nitrogen and other nutrients pours from a pipe at the Piney Point site in the aftermath of the early April crisis at the former Manatee County fertilizer plant.

A leak occurred again, in late March 2021, prompting officials to approve the release of over 200 million gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater. This massive flush resulted in an almost immediate algae bloom (strike two), and within three months one of the worst fish kills in Tampa Bay in memory. Strike three.

The fishery has slowly returned but remains vulnerable, according to Kapela and other guides I’ve spoken to. Still, you’ve gotta be ready for the big bite, as I would soon be reminded.

On my third cast of a frisky threadfin, drifting it over the dropoff of the Port Manatee channel, I got hammered. I lost the fish.

After re-baiting, I didn’t step back up on Kapela’s forward casting deck, choosing instead a little bit more freeboard to be better prepared for my next strike.

Kapela says that in the spring you have just as good of a chance of catching not only grouper here but also cobia and tarpon. He uses a simple setup suitable for all three. He likes a 7-foot 11-inch rod and spinning reel with 65-pound braid and 80-pound fluorocarbon leader and 8/0 circle hook.

fisherman with bent rod and hooked gag grouper in the water
To be ready for any potential species, Kapela recommends a 7-foot 11-inch spinning rod setup with 65-pound braid, 80-pound leader and 8/0 circle hook.

He said he’s trolled the channels with large Mann’s Stretch lures. He also has caught them casting large-lipped X-Rap lures or swim baits. But, his preferred approach is freelining large frisky threadfin herrings.

We caught more groupers and they sure fought like healthy fish. But, the water looked like pea soup. There was definitely some kind of bloom going on. I asked Kapela about it and he said it should be clear this time of year, but hadn’t been since June.

Blair Wickstrom holds up gag grouper caught in tampa bay
Writer with a healthy gag from the trip.

“The main part of the bay is in rough shape,” he said. He suspected that the broken-down macro algae rotting off the flats was probably creating the bloom. Kapela has been guiding here for 14 years. He has a degree in marine science and a spirit of advocacy welcome in today’s age.

The grouper bite slowed and it was late morning, so I asked if we could see a little bit more of the bay. Kapela agreed to take us over to fish the Tarpon Key flats.

Al Cowan reeling in bent fishing rod on tarpon key flats near mangrove island
Al Cowan, the writer’s brother-in-law, fights a redfish hooked near Tarpon Key. Grassflats in this area are looking unhealthy in recent times.

In about two feet of water about a mile from Tarpon Key, the turtle grass looked healthy and the water was clear. But, the closer we got to the island, the clarity worsened. We began seeing silt covering the seagrass.

“It was just getting back to looking good, from the terrible red tide we had in 2018, when the Piney Point disaster hit in 2021,” Kapela said. “Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of mullet on the flats, no pinfish and the grass just looks bad. Something at the base level has changed. You don’t see the shrimp and crabs. None of the natural rhythms are happening. The fry bait have been completely absent. Things that should be happening just aren’t.

hundreds of dead fish floating on the surface of the water during red tide in tampa florida
Besides gamefish, bait populations are hurting as well, says Kapela. They were hit hard too.

“I’ve seen it change a lot,” he said. “It seems we’re getting a bad red tide every couple of years now; we’re simply not giving the seagrass a chance to recover. In June 2022 the inshore fishing was as bad as I’ve ever seen it. A macro algae, probably pyrodinium, had smothered the bay, killing what was left of much of the seagrass.”

One of Kapela’s fellow guides, Dustin Pack, describes parts of Tampa Bay in grim terms. “We’re seeing a wasteland where there used to be grass,” Pack explains. "The numbers of redfish, snook and trout are down drastically, especially redfish," Pack said. Pack, a board member of the Tampa Bay Waterkeeper Alliance, said things were already trending bad prior to Piney Point.

two fisherman celebrate catching redfish on tarpon key in Tampa
Al Cowan with the stray redfish catch of the day.

Anglers familiar with the history of Tampa Bay might find this news surprising. The bay was long regarded as a success story. Seagrass recovery was documented from 1982 through 2016 following pollution control efforts. That recovery, a doubling of acreage, looks to be a going the wrong way now.

Recreational anglers surveyed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for the 2022 Annual Review of Redfish Management Metrics overwhelmingly said the number one and two threats to the fishery were water quality and habitat loss.

graph of seagrass coverage in Tampa Bay from 1950 to 2020
Southwest Florida Water Management District data indicate a drop in seagrass coverage in recent years. Data for 2020 was provisional at the time of press, but certainly matches anecdotal reports from area fishing guides.

To get things turned around in Tampa Bay, Ed Sherwood, Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said, “It is going to take significant public investments in wastewater and stormwater infrastructure to have a more profound effect on nutrient loading to the bay.” Sherwood also said, “Support from the angling community would be appreciated in making those investments at the local and state-level to our public sewer and stormwater systems.”

Lindsay Cross is a recently elected state house representative, and former policy director for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Cross, from St. Petersburg, says additional upgrades to wastewater facilities are key. Also needed is a statewide evaluation process for wastewater plants and a prioritized plan for upgrading them.

aerial piney point water retention ponds
Aerial view shows the three retention ponds at Piney Point, holding process water.

As for the elephant in the room, the approximately 500 million gallons of onsite wastewater still being held in the Piney Point gypsum stacks, the current closure plan calls for the water to be treated and then injected into deep water wells by the end of 2024.

“The likely alternative to the plan would have been disposal to surface waters and then to Tampa Bay,” Sherwood said. “So, neither option is ideal, but the deep-well injection avoids another potentially long and protracted discharge of nutrients directly to Tampa Bay.”

piney point disaster
Radioactive water flushing into the Tampa Bay in 2021. A sight we could, unfortunately, see again soon.

But the long-term plans for Piney Point seem to cause Sherwood more concern. “The lined gypsum stacks will continue to leach water for potentially decades. And these site closure activities are beyond the charge of the current, court-appointed receiver. Therefore, there is currently no entity or funds to deal with the ‘full and final closure’ of the facility during the course of these long-term stormwater management activities.”

Dead Goliath grouper floats in the Tampa Bay with the city skyline in the background
Dead Goliath grouper in Tampa Bay. The releases we saw in 2021 weren't the first bout of toxic water dumping, and it won't be the last with no concrete closure plan or funding in place for Piney Point. Photo Credit: Capt Brian Jill

Anglers can help by supporting the many environmental organizations focused on Tampa Bay solutions. [A few are listed in this month’s Call To Action, linked here.]

Captain Pack is optimistic. “We know what needs to be done, and we’ve done this before,” he said. “We can come back again. Shoot, today unlike 15 or 20 years ago it has become the norm, or even ‘cool’ to be environmentally conscious.”

tyler kapela holds snook in water beside his boat with pier in background
Some anglers are optimistic about the bay's ability to bounce back, but with red tide already rearing its head on the Gulf coast in early March, we won't hold our breath on that just yet. Many changes need to be made to ensure the longevity of the bay, see how you can help below. Be sure to double-check current red tide status updates here before making plans in the spring and summer of 2023.

Shining the social media spotlight on fish kills and other threats to Tampa Bay, a la Tyler Kapela, certainly is a step in the right direction. FS



Tampa Bay Waterkeeper:

Suncoast Waterkeeper:

Tampa Bay Estuary Program:

Sarasota Bay Estuary Program:

Tampa Bay Watch:

Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2023

Find out more about Piney Point and Florida's Phosphate Problem here.

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