By John Morton
It had been pestering Siesta Key since October, and surged in late February and early March, but the island caught a break when red tide diminished substantially beginning the second weekend of March.
And that’s right when the spring breakers began to flood the beaches.
The timing was perfect for Dave Thorp, who with his family left behind freezing temperatures in Minneapolis for a March 11 arrival at Midnight Cove II. However, he almost took a detour.
“We read the internet chatter and looked at the Florida red tide water sample reading maps and almost changed plans the go to Key Largo – but we stuck it out. And we are glad we did,” said Thorp, who was looking forward to his third consecutive spring visit to Siesta. “When we arrived Saturday, there was no red tide at all, and it’s been perfect beach-going. The few dead fish that were washed up Saturday and Sunday were cleaned up overnight Sunday.”
Haley Heffern of Indianapolis also visits Siesta Key every March with her husband, Shawn. After arriving on March 11 as well, the expectant mother was bracing for what would be her first red tide experience.
“We heard it was bad a couple of weeks ago, and we were a little worried, but we decided to come anyhow. All we are noticing is a bit of a smell, but nothing we can’t handle. And we are relieved to see that our complex where we’re staying has taken care of it,” she said, referring to the removal of any dead fish by staff at the Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club, where she stays. “There was no way we were going to cancel. Even if he had to stay by the pool, this beats what is going on back home.”
Now, on the heels of local water testing on both March 13 and 20 that showed little to no traces of red tide being present, it appears at least a reprieve is in place.
But things did seem dire for about a month. On Feb. 8, Sarasota County issued a red tide advisory for all 16 of its public beaches as conditions worsened. Testing by the Sarasota County Health Department showed Siesta and Turtle Beach were most often in the “low” category as far as the number of Karenia brevis cells present per a milliliter of water, within the range of 10 to 100. Minor respiratory irritation and minor fish kills are common at that stage.
Karenia brevis is the microscopic organism associated with red-tide algae blooms.
However, in late February, Turtle Beach spiked to 120 on that chart, reaching the “medium” level (101 to 1,000) that is synonymous with significant respiratory irritation among humans and a significant fish kill.
Mark Smith, the Sarasota County Commissioner who resides here and represents District 2 that includes the north half of the island, spoke at a March 7 commission meeting about the need to address the situation.
“In the tourist-centric areas of our county we’re going to have to find a way to go a little above and beyond because of the economic impact the red tide has on us,” said Smith, noting that residents of Siesta Key had been contacting him about dead fish removal “on a daily basis, even nightly.”
The county conducts mechanical raking on Siesta Key every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, regardless of conditions. Regarding fish kills and other marine debris, it conducts additional emergency clean-ups only when conditions meet a certain threshold. During the latest bout of red tide, the situation has yet to require such action.
The policy, put in place in 2013, includes these details:
• Officials must determine that – after two tide cycles – the volume of beach debris has accumulated to a point where the debris and dead fish from a two-mile continuous stretch of beach can fill one 5- cubic-yard truck.
• Beaches eligible for county cleaning must be county-owned and open to the general public.
• Beaches not owned or controlled by the county may be eligible for cleaning below the mean high-water line when they’re close to county-owned beaches or beach access.
Paige Hartmann, who owns The Inn on Siesta Key along Beach Road and is one of the business owners who contacted Smith, is not pleased with the policy.
“It’s antiquated – it needs to be updated,” she said. “Sarasota County needs to be proactive rather than reactive on this.”
Hartmann said she did receive three cancellations, which hurts when you run a six-unit inn. She did manage to fill those vacancies, losing only a couple days of income, and emphasized her nice pool and the perfect February weather to interested parties.
“I even heated my pool an extra amount,” she said. “We made the most out of what we could, and so did the guests.
“But one complaint I kept hearing was about the dead fish on the beach. ‘Why is no one cleaning this up?’”
One day of a particularly high tide further illustrated the deficiency of the county policy, Hartmann said. It left many dead fish beyond the mean high-water line.
“Even if the county would have helped, they would have ignored them [because of that guideline],” she said.
With some guidance from the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, Hartmann learned of a recent state executive order that allowed for the bypassing of a permit related to beach cleaning. She was able to provide some fish-removal on her own as a result.
“But it was only good through March 31,” she said. “Let’s hope we don’t more of this coming. But you know we probably will – we know it’s out there.”