TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing a potentially new crisis as he readies his 2022 reelection: thousands of tons of dead fish.
A new red tide algae bloom expanding in southwest Florida has left more than 650 tons of dead marine wildlife floating in waterways and polluting the tourist-heavy region of Tampa and St. Petersburg with decomposing sea life. About 200 St. Petersburg employees have been cleaning up beaches there, and Pinellas County has already spent more than $1 million to mitigate the environmental mess.
DeSantis’ critics over the last week have criticized the Republican governor for his response to the algae bloom, urging him to take more drastic measures before the problem becomes worse.
“Governor DeSantis needs to take immediate action as the impacts of Red Tide hurt families and businesses in the Tampa Bay area,” Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who is challenging DeSantis in 2022, said on Thursday. His district includes affected areas in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is also running for governor, earlier this week called on DeSantis to declare a state of emergency and blamed the red tide on April discharges from the Piney Point phosphate plant in Tampa Bay. Her spokesperson Franco Ripple said Thursday that Fried was “hearing nothing from the Governor, the same as with other crises.”
The current trouble has echoes of 2018, when a massive red tide devastated southwestern Florida, killing fish, manatees and turtles and costing businesses millions of dollars in lost tourism dollars. It was one of the worst algae blooms in the state’s history and stretched along more than 120 miles of coastline. At the time, DeSantis was running for governor and used the calamity to hammer his opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum.
After he was elected, DeSantis vowed to protect the environment and stop the red tide. He formed a task force in 2019 to examine the issue and prevent another outbreak, and the state Legislature allocated $4.8 million for it.
But DeSantis has downplayed the current threat, saying the algae bloom is more localized and has so far not declared a state of emergency. His predecessor, former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, declared a state of emergency in 2018 about nine months into that year’s algae bloom.
“This is not 2018,” DeSantis said in June.
DeSantis on Monday said he had directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to respond with “all hands on deck” and use funds he requested in the past to battle red tide along the coast, mostly by removing rotting fish.
“This is why we got that money in the first place,” DeSantis said. “We want to be able to respond with full force. We are doing that.”
Last week, DeSantis clashed with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman after the mayor urged the governor to provide more assistance. A DeSantis spokesperson suggested Kriseman was deliberately lying about the dilemma.
Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, said the governor will need to take visible action to counter the images being left with voters even after he met with scientists in St. Petersburg in June to discuss red tide.
“For the average voter, when they see dead fish, they smell the odor of dead fish and their eyes and their nose are burned by the toxic airborne particles, that could affect the way they view the governor — and could affect the vote,” Jewett said.
Republican Party of Florida executive director Helen Aguirre Ferré defended DeSantis, saying he had secured more than $625 million annually for water programs, including $25 million to combat red tide and other algae blooms. She said Crist and Fried’s criticism of the governor “shows a level of desperation.”
A spokesperson for the governor accused his critics of using the algae bloom for political reasons.
“The Governor’s steadfast commitment to Florida’s environment and natural resources is clear,” said Jared Williams, the governor’s deputy communications director. “While some aim to use red tide to score cheap points, Governor DeSantis’ record speaks for itself.”
DeSantis has received strong backing from the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida on his support for Everglades restoration. But other environmentalists accuse the governor of continuing the short-sighted policies of Scott, while green-washing his own environmental record.
“When Floridians go outside and see a 400-pound grouper pulled out of the water, that tells a lot a more than a slick PR campaign,” said Jonathan Webber of Florida Conservation Voters.
“I think that’s what Floridians are going to look at in 2022 when they are evaluating — should they be rehiring this guy for another [term]?” he said.