Red Tide toll: 732 tons of decay
Pinellas County officials say all communities can be reimbursed for overtime to remove dead fish.
By WILL VAN SANT
Published September 10, 2005
CLEARWATER - Since the Red Tide bloom turned lethal in June, 732 tons of dead fish and other marine animals have been cleared from Pinellas beaches, county officials say.
That's nearly 1.5-million pounds of deceased sea flesh, with some sand and seaweed likely thrown in.
"It's a real bad Red Tide outbreak," said assistant county administrator Jake Stowers. "It killed the sponges and the crabs. I have seen redfish, trout, snook, jacks, mullet and others. And then the bait fish. The eels are dying. Turtles and manatees."
It's been so bad that coastal towns and cities have hired day laborers and paid overtime to remove the bloated sea life from beaches.
Recognizing the importance of the beaches to the local economy and quality of life, county leaders have promised to compensate communities for the extra hours, equipment and work force needed to clean up.
The final price tag has yet to be tallied. Some officials have put the figure as low as $100,000, others as high as $500,000. Regardless, Stowers said the county would likely continue to pay compensation as long as the problem continues and claims can be verified.
The decision came after Indian Shores sent a letter to the county on July 21, asking to be reimbursed for the extra costs of labor, equipment and overtime. County leaders agreed and declared that all communities would be eligible for help.
Already, St. Pete Beach, Madeira Beach, Indian Rocks Beach and Clearwater are gathering pay records and invoices that must be reviewed by the county before compensation is paid.
Indian Shores will receive $10,277. Since June 1, nearly 13 tons of dead fish have washed up on the town's 2.6-mile beach. Conditions were particularly bad over the July 4 holiday, when visitors were treated to the sight of workers picking up dead fish by hand.
"And of course we got complaints, phone calls," said Indian Shores mayor Donald Taber. "A lot of unhappy people, a lot of unhappy tourists. It's a natural disaster, so to speak."
St. Pete Beach public works director Scott Graubard said that in the eight weeks prior to Aug. 26, his small crew of workers logged 726 hours picking up dead fish. Graubard estimates the town is eligible for $20,000 in reimbursement.
But it's the hidden costs that have truly hurt the beach cities.
While his workers have been on fish duty, routine upkeep of streets and the waterfront have taken a back seat. Work orders have piled up. It's been a "nightmare," Graubard said.
"Last summer we had to deal with the hurricanes," he said. "This summer it's dead fish. I can't wait to find out what next summer brings."
Just to the north in Madeira Beach, the fish kills have taken a toll on community services director Mike Maxemow and his workers.
"I am about over this," Maxemow said. "We have spent a lot of time out there on those beaches. I know the crews in July did not have a weekend off."
Cynthia Heil, senior research scientist at the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said the current Red Tide outbreak is the worst in the area since 1971.
Researchers don't have all the answers, but Heil said warmer surface water temperatures brought on by a hot summer may have made this year's bloom particularly bad.
Karenia brevis, the scientific name for the Red Tide organism in Florida, is a single-celled, toxin-producing plant that can swim. It takes roughly an hour for one to propel itself through a foot of water.
The organism does not like to swim through dramatic changes in temperature. And this year the layer of water in the gulf that divides warm waters near the surface from the cooler waters below is particularly well-defined.
According to Heil, the trapped bloom probably killed coral and sponge on the bottom. As they decayed, oxygen was leeched from the water, creating a dead zone by early August.
It has taken another natural force, Hurricane Katrina, to bring some relief.
As the storm moved toward New Orleans, Heil said it whipped up the gulf enough to return some oxygen to the starved waters. Though it didn't do much to the Red Tide bloom itself, Heil said it's a start.
"Getting the oxygen back is the first step," she said. "We were very pleased to see that."
Will Van Sant can be reached at 727-445-4166 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified September 10, 2005, 01:22:18]
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