Tierra Verde Bridge explosion killed hundreds of snooks and tarpons, captains say

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ST. PETERSBURG – People in boats plucked soft fish from dozens of floating dead snooks and tarpons covering the waters around the Tierra Verde Bridge.

Charter fisherman Terry Russo was near the deck in his “No shoes, no shirt, no problem” boat that day. He had just recovered from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, and he and fellow charter fisherman Michael Anderson were angry. They depend on the maintenance of healthy populations of fish protected against threats such as the red tide.

But the red tide didn’t kill the fish that day, Russo and Anderson said. It was an underwater bomb that exploded on May 18 to remove support pillars as part of the Department of Transportation’s demolition of the old Tierra Verde Bridge over the Pinellas Bayway.

“It’s just plain ignorant,” Anderson said. “The economic impact after what we just experienced with COVID? Are you kidding me?”

The state said it took steps to protect the fish – known to live near the bridge and use its jetty piers for food and protection – and worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure the explosion was safe for dolphins, manatees and porpoises. None of these marine mammals were killed, the agency said.

But a fish death has been reported, according to a fish and wildlife spokesperson.

That’s because the state hasn’t done enough to protect them, Anderson insists, even though snook is such a concern that Florida is closing fishing for them from May 1 to August 31. Snook fishing was completely closed for a while starting in 2018 due to a previous red tide.

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

A new high rise Tierra Verde Bridge has been opened to traffic, but construction continues until it is fully open in a few months. An explosion planned to help demolish the old drawbridge killed hundreds of fish, according to charter captains. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

The May 18 explosion removed parts of the old Tierra Verde drawbridge connecting Isla Del Sol and the mainland to the Tierra Verde Islands and Fort DeSoto Park. A replacement span of 56 million dollars was then opened.

The snook, with its distinctive black stripe and underbite, is popular with those who fish and the captains they hire.
The snook, with its distinctive black stripe and underbite, is prized by those who fish and the charter captains they hire. [ Courtesy Pam Wirth ]

Anderson estimated that more than 100 snooks, 150 tarpon, and many other fish were killed in the blast. Lots of snooks were swimming towards the Pass-a-Grille area to spawn, he said.

It was inevitable that some fish would be killed, said Kris Carson, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. Carson did not have an estimate of the number of people who may have died. A Fish and Wildlife Commission crew responded to reports of fish kills, but could not confirm it, spokeswoman Melody Kilborn said.

When asked what measures the state had taken to protect the fish, Carson pointed to devices called box cells, steel structures placed in the water to contain the explosion and keep the fish out of immediate reach. .

In addition, Carson said, an underwater “scare fish” warning signal was issued 30 seconds before the explosion. The signal does not chase all the fish and some could return before the explosion, she said.

Any fish within 100 yards of the explosion likely died from the powerful sound waves it created, said Steven Murawski, professor and chair of biological oceanography at the College of Marine Sciences at the University of Florida in South.

Murawski has not commented on the state’s measures to protect the fish, but options with such projects may include exploding bubbles from the seabed to create a barrier against the deadly sounds of the explosion and setting up a net around a wider radius to prevent fish.

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

A new high rise Tierra Verde Bridge has been opened to traffic, but construction continues until it is fully open in a few months.  An explosion planned to help demolish the old drawbridge killed hundreds of fish, according to charter captains.
A new high rise Tierra Verde Bridge has been opened to traffic, but construction continues until it is fully open in a few months. An explosion planned to help demolish the old drawbridge killed hundreds of fish, according to charter captains. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

With crews using barge-mounted cranes, demolition continues at the bridge site. A few smaller support pillars remain, protruding from the water with seabirds above or looming just below the surface and marked by small construction lights.

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

A planned explosion removed the heaviest pillars of the old Tierra Verde Bridge and machines are now being used to remove the smaller ones, some marked by construction fires.  The explosion killed hundreds of fish, according to charter captains.
A planned explosion removed the heaviest pillars of the old Tierra Verde Bridge and machines are now being used to remove the smaller ones, some marked by construction fires. The explosion killed hundreds of fish, according to charter captains. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

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

Right now, from spring to early summer, it’s the peak of their activity. Fishing charters often run two trips a day at this time of year to make up for the more difficult times.

The fishermen are preparing for a fierce battle when a tarpon hits the line.
The fishermen are preparing for a fierce battle when a tarpon hits the line.

They are struggling to recover from the halt in the pandemic and pollution entering their fishing grounds following the early April spill at the Piney Point phosphate waste reservoir in Port Manatee in Bradenton.

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

And last week, a bloom of red tide algae – deadly to marine life and sickening to humans – surfaced near Pass-A-Grille and Indian Shores. It’s true where the breeding snook was heading.

The explosion killed fish on their way to spawn.

The waters around the Tierra Verde Bridge have long been popular with charter captains, but since the explosion there has been a decline in snook and tarpon – two of the most popular game fish they target.

“Express it that way,” Russo said. “We are tarpon fishing over there, and there is no tarpon.”

A new high rise Tierra Verde Bridge has been opened to traffic, but construction continues until it is fully open in a few months.  An explosion planned to help demolish the old drawbridge killed hundreds of fish, according to charter captains.
A new high rise Tierra Verde Bridge has been opened to traffic, but construction continues until it is fully open in a few months. An explosion planned to help demolish the old drawbridge killed hundreds of fish, according to charter captains. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

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