TALLAHASSEE – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis faces a potential new crisis as he prepares for re-election in 2022: thousands of tons of dead fish.
A new bloom of red tide algae spreading across southwest Florida has left more than 650 tons of dead marine animals floating in waterways and polluting the Tampa and St. Petersburg with decaying marine life. About 200 St. Petersburg employees cleaned up the beaches there, and Pinellas County has already spent more than $ 1 million to mitigate the environmental damage.
Critics of DeSantis over the past week criticized the Republican governor for his response to the algae bloom, urging him to take more drastic action before the problem escalates.
“Governor DeSantis must take immediate action as the impacts of the red tide are affecting families and businesses in the Tampa Bay area,” said Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), Who challenges DeSantis in 2022, on Thursday. His district includes the affected areas in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, also a candidate for governor, earlier this week called on DeSantis to declare a state of emergency and blamed the red tide on the April releases from the phosphate plant in Piney Point in Tampa Bay. His spokesman Franco Ripple said Thursday that Fried “had no news from the governor, as with other crises.”
The current problems resonate in 2018, when a huge red tide devastated southwest 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 over more than 120 miles of coastline. At the time, DeSantis was running for governor and took advantage of the calamity to hammer down his opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum.
After his election, DeSantis made a commitment to protect the environment and stop the red tide. He formed a task force in 2019 to look into the problem and prevent another outbreak, and the state legislature has allocated $ 4.8 million to it.
But DeSantis played down the current threat, saying the algal bloom is more localized and has so far not declared a state of emergency. His predecessor, the former Republican Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in 2018, about nine months after the algae bloom began that year.
“It’s not 2018,” DeSantis said in June.
DeSantis said Monday he had asked the State Department of Environmental Protection to respond with “all hands on deck” and use the funds he had requested in the past to fight the red tide along the coast, mainly by removing rotten fish.
“That’s why we got this money in the first place,” DeSantis said. “We want to be able to respond with full force. We are doing it.”
Last week, DeSantis clashed with St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman after the mayor urged the governor to provide more help. A spokesperson for DeSantis suggested that 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 left to voters even after meeting with scientists in St. Petersburg in June to discuss the red tide.
“For the average voter, when he sees a dead fish, he smells of dead fish and his eyes and nose are burned by the toxic particles suspended in the air, which could affect the way he perceives the governor – and could affect the vote, ”says Jewett.
Florida Republican Party Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré defended DeSantis, saying he has raised more than $ 625 million a year for water programs, including $ 25 million to fight the red tide and other algal blooms. She said Crist and Fried’s criticisms of the governor “showed a level of desperation.”
A spokesperson for the governor accused his critics of using the algae bloom for political reasons.
“The governor’s unwavering commitment to Florida’s environment and natural resources is clear,” said Jared Williams, the governor’s deputy director of communications. “While some aim to use the red tide to score cheap points, Governor DeSantis’ record speaks for itself.”
DeSantis has received strong support from the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida for its support in the restoration of the Everglades. But other environmentalists accuse the governor of continuing Scott’s short-sighted policies while greening his own environmental record.
“When Floridians come out and see a 400-pound grouper come out of the water, it says a lot more than a skillful public relations campaign,” said Jonathan Webber of Florida Conservation Voters.
“I think that’s what Floridians are going to look at in 2022 when they assess – should they rehire this guy for another [term]?” he said.