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09/08/18: Sarasota grapples with red tide's effects

Sarasota beaches were inundated with the unpleasant sights and smells associated with red tide this weekend. How does the community deal with the fallout?

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the presence of several tons of dead fish on Sarasota County’s most popular beaches puts a noticeable damper on activity in the area.

Beginning Aug. 1, county officials began responding to what longtime residents have described as a particularly strong red tide bloom. From July 26 to Aug. 2, the state recorded elevated levels of Karenia brevis algae, a microscopic organism which produces toxins that can kill fish and other wildlife, along the southwest coast of Florida.

There are several negative effects associated with the phenomenon. There’s the smell. The effects on respiratory conditions along the coast. It can cause a reddish hue in the water. And, of course, there’s the dead fish. Since Aug. 2, the county has cleaned up more than 50 tons of fish and debris from Siesta Key and Lido Key beaches.

Naturally, an intense red tide bloom cuts into the number of people interested in visiting coastal areas. That’s bad news for businesses near the beach, according to Wendall Jacobsen, general manager of Beach Bazaar and chairman of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

“Obviously, the beach is such a good resource,” Jacobsen said. “I definitely think it’s had a negative effect on the end of our summer season.”

Jacobsen joined a chorus of locals who characterized the recent red tide bloom as one of the worst they could remember. Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, offered a similar assessment. He said he’s seen a significant drop-off in visitors to Lido Beach and said the red tide had created uncomfortable conditions in the area.

“It’s very difficult to be out there,” Shoffstall said. “The smell is so bad, it irritates the eyes and my dog has been coughing.”

Jacobsen credited the county for its efforts to clean up the beaches, and he said the conditions were improving during the beginning of the week. Still, he bemoaned the fact that managing red tide was largely out of the control of experts, let alone merchants forced to deal with the fallout.

“Once it’s here, it’s here,” Jacobsen said. “We’ll just have to cross our fingers for some rain or some wind.”

Official response

Although it might feel like a recent phenomenon, this particular red tide bloom sprouted last October, Mote Marine Laboratory scientist Tracy Fanara said. The bloom initiated 40 miles offshore of Sarasota and moved south toward Collier, Charlotte and Lee counties. Then it spread north along the beaches.

Many details surrounding the algae blooms continue to elude researchers. Scientists know red tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon. But there are a variety of conditions that can help red tide strengthen and persist — some of which humans can contribute to — which makes forecasting the effects a challenge.

“There are so many different factors that go into red tide blooms, including salinity, nutrients, wind, chemistry, biology,” Fanara said. “So many different things come into play, and that’s why we’re doing so much research to try and find out what this special recipe is to sustain blooms and initiate blooms.”

As scientists try to learn more about red tide, county officials are focused on managing the outcomes.

Andrea King, the county’s director of beaches and water access, has been part of the daily effort to monitor local shorelines for the effects of red tide. If workers noticed fish kills on the beaches, county staff and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s Offender Work Program cleaned it up.

That work included mechanical raking on larger segments of the beach and removing the fish by hand on stretches where the machinery couldn’t be used. There’s no high-tech equipment used to monitor the progression of the red tide bloom. Instead, county staff is left to track the effects on a day-by-day basis.

“It’s really just human eyes, and the same people seeing the same sites every day,” King said.

The county’s recorded fish kill numbers trended downward after the weekend, with King and others expressing optimism the red tide bloom was moving away. However, the short-term improvements don’t necessarily mean the worst is over. Red tide remains difficult to predict, and shifting conditions could still facilitate continued negative effects along our shores.

“It really depends on the winds — the winds are just so key,” King said. “Nobody can control it and foresee how long they’re going to be blowing.”

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