The red tide that has been present along the Gulf Coast of Florida for nearly a year persists, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The state agency said that red tide, which comprises high concentrations of the plankton Karenia brevis, “persists in Southwest Florida and extends from northern Pinellas to Lee Counties along 125 miles of coastline.”
The agency reported in a statement that aerial photos and water samples taken on Sept. 6 and 11 show red tide extending 10 miles or more offshore in some areas. “A bloom of K. brevis was also observed in northwest Florida for the first time this past week,” said the statement. Fish kills were also reported off Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Lee counties.
High concentrations of K. brevis occurred in water samples for five counties in southwest Florida, and Pinellas, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties showed increased concentrations. In northwest Florida, very low to low concentrations were reported from Okaloosa to Bay counties.
The extreme red tide all but shut down boating along Florida’s southwest coast in July and August.
“This red tide is right up there with the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Richard Pierce, associate vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota. “It’s severe and lasting. While it’s patchy and tends to move around, it has extended from Tampa Bay all the way down to Naples.”
The U.S. Senate held hearings several weeks ago regarding the impact of the red tide on marine businesses and tourism along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Nicole Vasilaros, NMMA’s senior vice president of government relations and legal affairs, said the hearings “were an opportunity to elevate the issue to a national level.”
She expects there will be more congressional hearings, as the red tide has had such a devastating impact to Florida’s regional economy. “I think it’s going to have a national stage going forward,” Vasilaros said. “There will also be conversations about how involved the federal government is with assistance and aid packages. That will be part of the calculation, as well.”
(For more information on the impact of Florida’s red tide on the boating industry, see the October issue of Soundings Trade Only.)
Pierce said Mote identified the first patches of red tide in October 2017. “There are always a few cells of K. brevis per liter of water in the gulf,” Pierce says. “But when they grow to 30 million cells per liter, it becomes so toxic that nothing else can survive.”
In July, fish kills covering the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva islands made national news. On Sanibel, 60,000 pounds of marine life — fish, sea turtles, dolphins and dozens of manatees — were hauled from the beaches. In August, the red tide extended north toward Sarasota and into Tampa Bay. By early September, more than 100 manatees were reported dead.
Red tide can cause respiratory problems for humans, so boating and sunning on the beaches came to a halt for much of late summer. Hotels and coastal restaurants saw their businesses dry up. Boat-rental operations, charter-fishing businesses, marinas and boat dealers also saw revenues dry up. Dealers said they lost sales on new boats.
“We experienced a growing volume in tows for the year through June, but when this crisis hit and then lingered, our business dropped about 50 percent for August,” said Capt. Kyle Potts, who operates TowBoatUS out of Port Charlotte, Florida. “The water quality issues in South Florida are a growing concern for the health of our local economy.”
Tarpon fishing and the guides who run charters also took a hit through August, said Capt. Chris Whitman, owner of Stillwater Charters in Fort Myers.
“We had extended, bad blooms on the 100-mile stretch from Sanibel to Boca Grande, so the fish stayed offshore instead of running where they normally run,” Whitman said. “We canceled a lot of trips this summer.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission took the extraordinary step of changing rules for snook and redfish to catch and release, at least through September.
“We’ve seen the devastation to redfish and snook populations in southwest Florida, and we support the catch-and-release initiative taken,” Brian Gorski, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Florida, said in a statement.
Numerous other marine businesses were affected. Louis Chemi, chief operating officer of Freedom Boat Clubs, saw a dramatic drop in the number of rental boats going out in July and August. Most members have not canceled their memberships, Chemi adds, suggesting they understand the red-tide situation was temporary.
Despite the lingering red tide offshore, most marine businesses have reported a return to normal operations. Whitman said in early September that the inshore waters seemed to be clearing, and fishing guides were on the water again. Boat dealers in Sarasota and Fort Myers reported clear waters, and marinas around Fort Myers said algae blooms and fish kills that had hurt business had dissipated.
Pierce said some scientists theorize that red tide is like a forest fire that cleans out everything in its path and rebalances the ecosystem. The red tide is a natural phenomenon, he said, and there is no real way of cleaning it out.
“There are other harmful blooms all over the world,” Pierce said. “And this red tide occurs from the Mexican coast all the way over here. It’s a natural phenomenon that can’t really be controlled.”