March 20, 2023
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
CALL TO ACTION
CONTACT ONE OF THESE ORGANIZATIONS TO SEE HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Tampa Bay Waterkeeper: www.tampabaywaterkeeper.org
Suncoast Waterkeeper: www.suncoastwaterkeeper.org
Tampa Bay Estuary Program: www.tbep.org
Sarasota Bay Estuary Program: www.sarasotabay.org
Tampa Bay Watch: www.tampabaywatch.org
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2023
Find out more about Piney Point and Florida's Phosphate Problem here.