Shellfish business owner blames Piney Point for recent red tide in Tampa Bay

8 On Your Side

TERRA CEIA ISLAND, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s been a difficult six weeks in Terra Ceia for Bay Shellfish Company, but Wednesday morning there was a small surprise for owner Curtis Hemmel as he discussed red tide’s impact on his and other businesses.

“Oh,” Hemmel said while scooping out a handful of tiny shells. “We have oysters. So these are the first oysters that survived.”

Hemmel, and one of a handful of other business owners who depend on Tampa Bay aquaculture, offered their opinions on the red tide debate to Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in a roundtable discussion about their industry and the impact of the Piney Point breach nearly three months ago.

University of South Florida Scientist Tom Frazer, the state’s former chief science officer, said last week the release of an estimated 220 million gallons of wastewater did not cause recent red tide. But Frazer added the nutrients could be feeding the bloom.

Hemmel, whose 25-year-old company is the state leader in clam production, is more suspicious.

“There’ve been other closures in this part of the bay,” Hemmel said. “But it doesn’t occur in May, April and June.”

Hemmel points to the calendar that he said shows the recent outbreak is only the second in the last 15 years that darkened the water this early in the season. The one in 2018 was blamed on heavy rain, something missing so far this year.

“When you look at the historical record for this area, I think you can come to a pretty strong conclusion that yes, the current red tide is due to the nutrients,” Hemmel said. “The massive amount of nutrients that were released into lower Tampa Bay.”

In Wednesday’s Piney Point discussion aqua-culture leaders offered frustration about what the state has and has not done for their industry with emotions and even some fist-pounding.

“Excuse me,” one man said, fighting back tears. “I get emotional. I’m concerned about our industry. Red tide is happening more.”

Fried, often critical of Gov. Ron DeSantis before and during her run for his job, talked and took notes from the head of the table.

When asked about the state missing warning signs, including Piney Point owner HRK’s engineer asking the Department of Environmental Management (DEP) just a year ago for help to repair the stack that eventually breached, Fried jumped at the chance to critique current and past administrations.

“At what point when a private industry is coming in waving the flag saying, ‘Hey, we need help here. This is the situation.’ And the government does nothing, says nothing?” Fried said. “Why was there not a concerted effort to fix this before it became this ticking time bomb that exploded?”

A spokesperson for HRK has yet to respond to a request for comment.

The permitting process is ongoing with the DEP for the $10 million, 3,500-foot deep well that would be used to inject the rest of Piney Point’s stack water.

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