Five counties in Florida remain at the mercy of the weather and water currents as a “red tide” algae bloom continues to choke their waters, marine life and economies.
Red tide has spread to roughly 130 miles of coastline in Florida’s Manatee, Collier, Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
When algae blooms and then dies, it releases toxins that can kill marine life. Red tides are amorphous and can be steered by wind and water currents.
One day, with the winds blowing off-shore, only a few dead fish may wash onto beaches. The next could be a bad day with red tide staining the crashing waves, littering white sands with dead fish and other marine life.
Florida’s Governor Rick Scott has issued a state of emergency for the five counties and local governments now face an uncertain and uphill battle as they work to clean up their shorelines.
More than 2,000 tons of dead marine life
Manatee County has picked up 164 tons of fishkill so far this August. Sarasota County, just south, has picked up more than 149 tons.
But those counties pale in comparison to Fort Myers’ Lee County, about 50 miles further south.
Since August 2, contractors hired by Lee County have picked up over 1,700 tons of dead sea life. That number doesn’t include marine life collected by the county’s parks and recreation department, nor does it include counts on the islands of Boca Grande and Captiva.
The overall total also does not include dead fish collected from the extensive network of privately owned canals throughout the five counties.
Charlotte and Collier counties told CNN they were not keeping track of any fishkill collections on their beaches. But Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s database shows that Charlotte County had seven reported fish kills so far in August and Collier has had 13.
During this same time last year, Charlotte County had one reported fish kill and Collier County had none.
Charlotte County includes the Cape Haze Aquatic Preserve, the Gasparilla Sound-Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve and the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. Combined, those three preserves cover 140,605 acres of protected marine wildlife.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says Charlotte County is handling cleanup in these preserves. Charlotte County told CNN they are not keeping track of how much dead sea life has been collected or costs relating to red tide cleanup.
Businesses have lost more than $8 million
Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing arm, tells CNN it’s currently surveying businesses in the five counties to determine how much business they have lost during the red tide crisis, which has lasted for more than nine months.
Sanibel and Captiva Island’s Chamber of Commerce reported losses of over $4 million from a red tide outbreak in July. August numbers have yet to be released.
Sarasota County lists its August damages from red tide at more than $1.4 million.
Just north of Sarasota County, Cortez Surf & Paddle in Manatee County relies on clear beaches and clean water for its business. Now that red tide has moved in, owner Rochelle Neumann told CNN they haven’t been able to make any bookings.
“I have no way of knowing if this is going to last two weeks or four more months,” she said. “This may shut us down permanently.”
The Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce estimates red tide has cost businesses there almost $2.7 million so far in August.
And it’s not just businesses owners that are being squeezed. Employees of businesses in Fort Myers Beach are estimated to have lost $559,770 in wages this month.
Governments are budgeting millions for cleanup
With red tide still choking waters along Florida’s Gulf Coast and with no clear end in sight, state and local governments are preparing for a long fight.
FWC tells CNN that 7,600 water samples have been processed since they began monitoring the bloom in November 2017.
The price tag of cleanup in Sarasota County has reached more than $96,000. Other counties are working with state agencies to clean their beaches.
Manatee County just received a $750,000 grant they’ll be using for expenses relating to the cleanup. Lee County received some $1.3 million in assistance from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.