Tierra Verde bridge blast killed hundreds of snook, tarpon, captains say

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ST. PETERSBURG — People in boats plucked limp fish from among scores of dead snook and tarpon floating on the waters around the Tierra Verde Bridge.

Charter fisherman Terry Russo was near the bridge in his boat “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems.” He had just been recovering from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, and he and fellow charter fisherman Michael Anderson were angry. They depend on keeping these populations of protected fish healthy against threats such as Red Tide.

But Red Tide didn’t kill the fish this day, Russo and Anderson said. It was an underwater bomb detonated May 18 to remove support pillars as part of the state Department of Transportation’s demolition of the old Tierra Verde bridge on the Pinellas Bayway.

“That’s just clueless,” Anderson said. “The economic impact after what we just went through with COVID? Are you kidding me?”

The state said it took steps to protect the fish — known to live by the bridge and use its pier pillars for food and protection — and worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure the blast was safe for dolphins, manatees and porpoises. None of these sea mammals were killed, the agency said.

But a fish kill was reported, according to a fish and wildlife spokesperson.

That’s because the state didn’t do enough to protect them, Anderson insists, even though snook are a species of such concern that Florida closes fishing for them from May 1 through Aug. 31. Snook fishing was closed altogether for a time beginning in 2018 because of a previous Red Tide.

“We can’t take snook home and these clowns can blow up a bridge,” Anderson said, piloting his charter boat around the bridge one day last week. “They should know that the bridge is covered in snook.”

The May 18 blast removed portions of the old Tierra Verde drawbridge linking Isla Del Sol and the mainland with the Tierra Verde islands and Fort DeSoto Park. A $56 million high-rise replacement span had opened by then.

Anderson estimated that more than 100 snook, 150 tarpon and many other fish were killed in the explosion. Many of the snook were swimming out toward the Pass-a-Grille area to breed, he said.

It was inevitable some fish would be killed, said Kris Carson, Department of Transportation spokesperson. Carson did not have an estimate of how many might have died. A crew with the fish and wildlife commission responded to reports of a fish kill but couldn’t confirm it, spokesperson Melody Kilborn said.

Asked what steps the state took to protect the fish, Carson pointed to devices called coffer cells— steel structures placed in the water to contain the blast and keep the fish away from its immediate range.

In addition, Carson said, an underwater “fish scare” warning signal was sounded 30 seconds before the blast. The signal doesn’t drive out all fish and some might return before the explosion, she said.

Any fish within 100 yards of the explosion probably died because of the powerful sound waves it created, said Steven Murawski, a professor and chair of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.

Murawski had no comment on measures the state took to protect the fish, but said options with such projects can include blowing bubbles up from the seabed to create a barrier against the lethal sounds of the blast and setting a net around a wider radius to keep out fish.

“You can do a lot more things,” he said. “It just requires time and money.”

With crews operating barge-mounted cranes, demolition continues at the bridge site. Some smaller support pillars remain, jutting from the water with seabirds on top or looming just below the surface and marked by small construction lights.

These pillars will be removed by mechanical means in the next two to three weeks, said Carson with the Department of Transportation. Machines couldn’t remove the larger pillars so they had to be demolished with explosives, she said.

Anderson, of Reel Animals charter fishing, has been fishing in the Tampa Bay area for more than 20 years and co-hosts fishing shows on radio and television. Russo runs Mustang Sally Charters.

Right now, spring to early summer, is the peak of their business. Fishing charters often run two trips a day this time of year to make up for the harder times.

They’re struggling to recover from the pandemic shutdown and from the pollution entering their fishing grounds from the spill in early April at the Piney Point phosphate-waste reservoir on Port Manatee in Bradenton.

Russo said he lost nearly 50 fishing trips at the beginning of the pandemic.

And last week, a Red Tide algae bloom — deadly to sea life and sickening to humans — surfaced near Pass-A-Grille and Indian Shores. That’s right were the breeding snook were heading.

The waters around the Tierra Verde bridge have long been popular with charter captains, but since the explosion there’s been a drop off in snook and tarpon — two of the most popular game fish that they target.

“Put it this way,” Russo said. “We tarpon fish around there, and there’s no tarpon.”

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