Grieving the loss of fish life from Tampa Bay’s largest red tide bloom in local memory.
From the street, my wife Julie thought the corpse was a dead manatee. Red tide (Karenia brevis) had instead claimed a Goliath grouper, a species of sea bass that inhabits deep water, pilings and reefs, and that reaches up to 800 pounds. I did not expect to see one at the city park where Julie and I walk our dog.
K. brevis, a dinoflagellate natural to the Gulf of Mexico, is a whipped one-cell organism that releases a nasty neurotoxin. Exposed fish, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission explains, twist violently and swim in corkscrews; they experience paralysis, lose equilibrium, vomit, and convulse; when their gills stop functioning, they suffocate.
I imagined a final script for this enormous, biblical fish. K. brevis would secrete the toxin, driving it well into Tampa Bay. The bay is not more much than ten feet at most points, so the grouper probably would have followed shipping lanes into water with less salinity (normally clear of red tide), then hooked a left near downtown St. Petersburg, where it died. High tide pulled the bloated carcass over the sand bar off Lassing Park, where Julie and I live, leaving the grouper in a calf-deep pool.
By 8 o’clock that morning, city sanitation workers were on the scene, snapping photos with their phones. Someone had already called Fish and Wildlife. I waded into the bay for my own shot, with the grouper’s cubit-length ventral fin stuck upside-down in a stiff death wave.
“Make sure he washes his feet thoroughly,” a city worker told my wife.
Staff from St. Pete’s Sanitation, as well as Parks and Rec units, collected well over a thousand tons of fish in July 2021, casualties of the largest red tide bloom in local memory. The county burns most of the dead marine life at a waste-to-energy incinerator (along with wet sand, seaweed, and other debris), then buries the rest. But the fish get no funeral.
So how do we emotionally process a loss this big? Most of us vacillate between anger, confusion, or denial.
K. brevis, the most recent scientific research tells us, is a tricky little bugger—a “physiologically versatile organism that has adapted to a physically and chemically dynamic environment.” Though blooms occur offshore, a “tide” of microorganisms will feast off pollution closer to land, sometimes for months. Local environmentalists, wanting a root cause, point to last spring’s wastewater dump at Piney Point, an old fertilizer plant near Tamp Bay’s south entrance. If only the problem were that simple.
A special issue of the journal Harmful Algae calls K. brevis the “poster organism” for “algae problems worldwide.” Scientists have traced 12 different feeding sources. Sewage, agricultural run-off, lawn fertilizer, some naturally occurring bacterium, and a host of man-made abuses yield oversized blooms, followed by the kills.
Anyone paying attention is pissed. The Goliath grouper should be chilling in some grotto at the bottom of the sea.
In my own small attempt to move past unproductive anger, I patrolled my local park through the worst of July’s red tide. Carrying a bucket and grabbers, I tallied the loss. I filled one bucket each morning for a week.
A pattern quickly emerged. Puffers and cowfish took the worst hit. I collected more than my share of baitfish—alewives, pinfish (the bane of dock fisherman), and cigar minnows.
Friends who know these waters much better than I expressed surprise at the number of eels, Anguila rostrata, a species that inhabits rivers and even freshwater caves. Wildlife maps suggest the eels got caught in the Gulf’s loop current, back from spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea.
The daily collection introduced me to critters I should have known already; I gathered quite a few toadfish, their distended bellies ballooning through rotten undersides. Others, I have paid handsomely to pull off my line in a day charter: fat redfish and mangrove snapper.
Back when I trawled the piers and seawalls with my son, I would typically pull up pinfish, but on a good day, I might snag a sheepshead. And under any other circumstance, I am happy to see a snook.
Faced with a tragedy, we humans either gawk or turn away. Newspaper reports emphasize the garish tonnage of dead marine life and rotten stink—not the individual species. Photo captions read: “dead fish in the water at Vinoy Park,” “pile of dead fish gathered,” and so on. Reporters refer to the kill in aggregate. When we anonymize any loss, however, we distance ourselves not just from the trauma, but from our responsibility.
To fill just one bucket of fish, the tiny fraction of a few million pounds, felt like watching a bad car wreck. Each morning after my vigil, I texted photos to slightly annoyed family and friends. I sat with a neighbor from the Panhandle, and over a late afternoon beer, we scrolled through the images on my phone. It felt like a wake.
Was that a mackerel, based on the tail, or hardhead catfish? After some debate, we settled on the latter, a hardhead cat (Arius felis). Others had rotted beyond recognition, into almost pornographic decay.
In a current wave of new scholarship, anthropologists, psychologists, and social workers provide terms for the psychic costs of environmental loss. Michael Wright defines ecological stress disorder (ESD) as a “visceral emotional response” to the “actual or perceived degradation of their environment.” Glenn Albrecht, describing the trauma experienced by Indigenous people in Australia, coined “solastalgia”—a word for the powerlessness and loss of wellbeing from changes beyond our control. Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo describe a similar condition of ecological grief.
The task of refining these diagnoses should be left to scholars at their academic conferences. Expect new designations to appear in your therapist’s DSM handbook soon. Aldo Leopold noted some time ago that the cost of “an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.” Picking up dead fish felt wrong.
But grief is part of love. We experience loss because we care. That leaves a question now before Floridians: do we love the Gulf enough to reduce nutrient loads in our waterways? Can we protect a home for marine life?
After seven days, the red tide had receded from my corner of Tampa Bay. Tire tracks in the sand marked where sanitation workers had come before me. All that remained were exoskeletons of cowfish, horseshoe crabs, and bones half buried in the muck.
On my last morning vigil, I stumbled onto a single rotten ray. My first thought was devil ray, though the concave skull suggested a cownose (Rhinoptera bonasus). Flies swarmed the stinking carcass; the ray was too big for my bucket, too heavy for my flimsy grabbers. I considered dragging the ray by the tail to the dumpster, a couple of hundred yards away. But I was overwhelmed by the thick flies and close stench.
Daily life returned to the beachfront, almost too quickly, as if K. brevis had never visited. The last remains dried in a culvert. That morning, a neighbor practiced yoga on the lawn; another enjoyed morning coffee under the shade of a palm tree.
The city finally mowed. Grass grows wildly here in July and the Parks Department had fallen behind, besieged by the ugly job of hauling off dead marine life. Clippings bunched along the high water mark, where nitrogen-rich debris would run straight into the bay, feed more algae, and start the cycle of killing once again.