By John Morton
More than 30 tons. That’s how much debris, made up mostly of dead fish, was collected by Sarasota County in the two-day period of Aug. 4 and 5 along its 16 beaches, nearly 3 tons of which came from Siesta Key, as another round of red tide caused misery throughout the region.
By the end of the month, nearly 70 tons of debris was collected, the county reports.
Red-tide warning signage first appeared on July 13, and it remains, while 11 of the county’s beaches were also hit with no-swim advisories at some point due to unacceptable levels of bacteria. Turtle Beach was one of them, holding the dismal designation between Aug. 5 and 10, while Siesta Beach managed to avoid making the list.
But that’s not to say things weren’t rough there, to which members of a family of more than 50 from Ohio can attest. They stuck it out for their entire two-week stay, but they suffered.
“The biggest thing is the coughing,” Kathy Ernst, of Cincinnati, said of the poor air quality as she held a cloth over her face on Aug. 4 while shore-bound winds reached 30 mph. In the background, tractors rolled by in a first effort to collect the thousands of dead fish.
“My 13-year-old daughter won’t even get in the water,” Ernst continued, “so there’s not much for her and the other kids to do. And my poor mother, who’s 95, can’t even leave the room because she has asthma. And she’s the reason we all get together here every year.
“I even had to call my doctor and get Prednisone, which is an oral steroid, in order to deal with this.”
The first major fish kill arrived Aug. 5, prompting clean-up efforts on the Key via trucks and raking. The county also placed dumpsters at Beach Access 5 and Beach Access 7 to assist with both public and private debris removal.
A reprieve would come the next week, thanks to calm conditions, but Tropical Storm Fred would change all that during the weekend of Aug. 14 and 15, sending another massive fish kill to the shore on Aug. 17.
While the Ohio family hung in there, not all visitors did.
“I was in our lobby, and people were checking out early,” Ernst said. “This area is going to lose some business when the word gets out that the summers here aren’t something you can rely on.
“It’s a shame, because everyone up north has been so eager to finally get away from everything.”
Steve Canavaugh, president of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and owner of Tropical Shores vacation rentals, said he received reports of “some” people leaving early, “but not many.”
A similar red-tide event struck the Key in the summer of 2018, moving up from the Fort Myers Beach area. That bloom was fueled, experts reported, by nutrient-rich polluted water releases from Lake Okeechobee.
Ann Frescura, the chamber director, said she heard no reports of businesses being impacted, but said there were some tourists who visited the island’s information center in hopes of learning of options for non-beach activities.
This year, a March wastewater leak at the Piney Point reservoir in Palmetto, which sent 215 million gallons into Tampa Bay, is believed to be a contributing factor to the intense bloom that headed south. It is reported to be 300 square miles in size.
Is this year’s red tide as bad as what 2018 saw?
“This isn’t anything like 2018,” Cavanaugh said. “The beaches turned pink!”
Nicki Wheeler, part of the Ohio group of visitors, was also here at that time.
“That year, I saw a dead manatee. That was hard to take,” she said. “But on my walk this morning, I found a dead seahorse. That’s not what you’re accustomed to seeing here.
“I’d say it’s almost as bad. And it’s all just so, so sad.”
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