A serious Red Tide bloom that killed life on two reefs off the coast of Clearwater Beach five years ago may have provided critical data that will help scientists predict damage to life in the Gulf of Mexico from the ongoing BP oil spill.
Heyward Mathews, a professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College, says information he gathered following the Red Tide bloom in 2005 may provide a critical baseline of information when he and others try to predict how long it may take life in the Gulf to recover from the oil spill.
“We don’t know when the oil will reach our beaches here, or even if it will get here at all,” Mathews said. “But if it does, and if we experience serious damage to fish and other life in the Gulf, we may have a good baseline of data that could be immensely valuable.”
The Red Tide bloom in 2005 was one of the worst such events in about 50 years. The tide killed fish, and the decomposing life forms absorbed oxygen on the bottom of the gulf, killing almost all the remaining marine life on the reef.
Two reefs off Pinellas County were affected – a natural reef, and an artificial reef that Mathews built in the 1960s. After the Red Tide bloom, Mathews and some of his students would boat out to the reefs and then dive down to count fish and other life forms. Over time, they were able to get a handle on how long it took for life to return to the reefs.
Fish came back first. Conchs and starfish are still missing.
The baseline of information that resulted from the Red Tide bloom can be critical to predicting how fast the Gulf area off Pinellas County may recover if it is damaged by crude oil from the BP leak, Mathews believes. But he thinks future research may offer another benefit, as well.
Diving down to the reefs and photographing the active life there might be an effective way to convince tourists and others that the waters off Clearwater are still clean and pure, he said.
“I think that short, three-minute videos that really show the good quality of the reefs might be more effective in convincing tourists to come than the kind of ads that we see running on TV now,” Mathews said.
Mathews and some of his associates plan to form a non-profit corporation to gather and distribute video of the offshore reefs to television stations and other news outlets. Those videos, he said, should be valuable in convincing tourists and others that the Gulf waters off Clearwater are pure and undamaged.
He said the non-profit will apply for grant money to fund the effort. If that fails, he said he will fund the non-profit from his own pocket.
See videos of the interview with Hayward Mathews: