Sarasota County now cleaning up marine debris from red tide, locals wish it started sooner

Red Tide

Photo: WFLA

SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – Red tide has been impacting all 16 beaches in Sarasota County for a few weeks, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that county staff decided to launch clean-up operations geared at red tide-related debris.

Some locals and visitors have been asking — why the delay?

Sarasota County has a beach clean-up policy that was adopted by the commission back in 2013. County officials say the policy is meant to provide direction for managing the removal of seaweed, dead fish, and other marine debris left behind from storms and tidal changes.

The policy allows Sarasota County to collect/remove marine debris manually or mechanically if it spans more than two miles of public beach and is not naturally removed by two tidal cycles.

The county has been monitoring red tide conditions daily. The decision to launch the clean-up operation came this week. County staff also confirmed Wednesday that their permits do allow them to do beach cleaning at all county beaches.

Sarasota County’s clean-up response is far different from what we are seeing in neighboring Manatee County where a more proactive approach is taking place. Manatee County has cleaned about 19 tons of marine debris from the gulf, bay, and shoreline so far. Crews are raking the beach clear of debris daily from 7 a.m. to about 1 p.m.. Shrimp boat captains are also helping by clearing marine debris from the water before it reaches the popular beaches on Anna Maria Island.

Dr. Dave Tomasko explains every little bit makes a difference. Decaying fish produce nitrogen, which can fuel algae blooms like red tide.

He shared this example with us:

“10 tons of fish would probably contain about 140 pounds of nitrogen. One pound of nitrogen can produce about 300 pounds of algae of different types,” said Dr. Tomasko. “So, 300×140, that is an awful lot of algae that could perhaps be kept out of the system,” he continued.

In addition to the environmental impacts, fish kills take a toll on the economy.

“Cleaning it up doesn’t hurt at all. Honestly, if you have been out to a beach where there is red tide, it is kind of irritating, but when there is red tide and dead fish, it is more than irritating, it is really kind of gross. When you see a beach that is like strewn with maggots, people aren’t gonna come back there if they see that,” said Dr. Tomasko with Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.

8 On Your Side spoke with several tourists visiting Lido Key Thursday.

“We tried to walk down the beach and pick up seashells and it is just a dead fish everywhere. Really it is kind of sad,” said visitor Michael Bender. “I don’t think I would roll the dice and risk coming back and having the same scenario play out again,” he continued.

“It kind of makes you not want to go on the beach anymore. It smells gross,” said another visitor from Orlando.

Dr. Tomasko thinks it might be time for county leaders to take another look at their 2013 policy.

“I think it does make a lot of sense to not have the public expect to see a ‘Disney World’ type of beach where everything looks like it was engineered. That is not a normal Florida beach, but this isn’t a normal Florida beach either,” said Dr. Tomasko. “So I kind of think maybe what they’ve got is a policy that reflected an earlier time before we had the 2018 and now the 2021 red tide and I think it would make sense to revisit it. It had good intentions, I think it was probably really useful at the time, but everything we are doing that we can do to reduce it is good,” he continued.

8 On Your Side contacted the entire board of county commissioners Thursday asking if they’re considering making changes to the beach clean up policy. We haven’t received a response back to that message.

However, the commissioner who represents Lido Key and part of Siesta Key told 8 On Your Side over the phone Thursday, he plans on bringing up the topic of red tide beach clean up at the next board meeting later this month.

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