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Phosphate processing plants in the greater Tampa Bay region have caused some of Florida's worst environmental disasters. Accidents like the spill at the former Piney Point plant fill the history books in Florida.

Tampa Bay Shellfish Growers Are Worried Wastewater Could Lead To Algae Blooms

Farmers in lower Tampa Bay sorting oysters using a machine on their boat.
Jessica Meszaros
Lost Coast Oyster Company has a floating farm at Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve in Manatee County.

Shellfish growers have long-term concerns about the wastewater pumping from the former Piney Point phosphate plant into the waters of Tampa Bay, including the potential for toxic algae and the reputation of the bay’s water quality.

The nutrient-rich water pouring from a leaking Piney Point reservoir into Tampa Bay is projected to end up in areas like Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, where some shellfish farms live.

Lost Coast Oyster Company has been growing shellfish in lower Tampa Bay for about a year and a half, selling between 17,000 and 18,000 oysters so far.

Brian Rosegger of St. Petersburg owns the company with his wife Lindsay Rosegger. He said there's a general consensus among growers there that the main concern is potential for red tide blooms. The nutrients being pumped into the bay are essentially food for toxic algae.

Oyster farmer Brian Rosegger standing at a dock in Manatee County.
Jessica Meszaros
Brian Rosegger, co-owner of Lost Coast Oyster Company.

"In the event of a wide-scale algae bloom that's taken root here in Tampa Bay, we would be closed to harvest,” he said. “And also, just the way that a harmful algae bloom could really impact the ecology of the bay."

Historically, there was a pretty prolific oyster industry in Tampa Bay until the 1950s when water quality became poor and seagrasses died, he said. But they have since bounced back.

And Rosegger said he's worked really hard to change people's misconceptions about Tampa Bay's water quality, but he worries this latest wastewater event will set back some of that effort.

"We've made tremendous strides to really get people on board with what we're doing,” he said. “Even in a best-case scenario, where perhaps the nutrient loading of the bay doesn't lead to a harmful algae bloom, we worry that the reputation of the bay may have been might have been sullied in some way that could affect our brand."

Rosegger said there’s a primary misconception floating around that the water is highly radioactive and toxic.

“While it's certainly upsetting to see what's happened with Piney point, I think the main takeaway here is that we're dealing with nutrient-enriched water now,” he said.

“Everybody owes it to themselves to really take a hard look at nutrients going into the bay and understanding those processes and being very informed of what nutrient enrichment can do to an estuary.”

Floating oyster farm in Tampa Bay waters.
Jessica Meszaros
Lost Coast Oyster Company's floating shellfish cages in Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve.

Some scientists have actually said that it's a good thing the polluted water is heading toward the bay's shellfish farms because clams and oysters are filter feeders and could help to clean the water.

While oysters don't have the ability to readily absorb all the nitrogen and phosphorus being discharged, Rosegger said they can consume the algae which would result from the nutrients.

"It's that double-edged sword, right? Because if the algae and the harmful algae bloom proliferates to a rate that's above our thresholds for where we can harvest, then we're closed for harvest. So it's both good and bad," he said.

But he said shellfish are remarkable creatures that do have tremendous potential to at least partially mitigate some of the nutrient loading that is happening in our estuaries.

Rosegger is going to provide some of his clams and oysters to the state for testing to help facilitate the ongoing environmental response.

Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s Piney Point dashboard is integrating data from various agencies, and that’s helping Rosegger stay informed. Other than that, he said, all he can do is sit back and wait to let this event run its course.

Click here to view the dashboard

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.