Director of county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department points to lack of State of Emergency as reason for consultation with agencies
On Aug. 4, Sarasota County staff finally received the “all clear” from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to begin more regular cleaning of beaches to remove dead fish and other marine debris resulting from the red tide bloom offshore.
Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), explained during a news conference that staff members would use mechanical equipment, along with hand picking.
“Over the course of the last couple of days,” she pointed out, “we have seen the [red tide] effects increase.”
On the afternoon of Aug. 4, FWC reported that sampling for the algae that causes red tide, Karenia brevis, had found bloom concentrations in 19 samples from Sarasota County over the past week. The presence of more than 100,000 of the algae cells per liter constitutes bloom concentrations, FWC notes.
The reason staff needed the FDEP and FWC approval, Rissler pointed out, is that Gov. Ron DeSantis has not declared a State of Emergency in regard to this ride tide outbreak, as he did when conditions were worse in 2018.
“It was really important for us,” she added, to confirm that the permits the county holds for beach cleaning and grooming would allow the type of operations necessary to remove debris from the shoreline. “It’s also turtle nesting season,” she pointed out.
“We got that OK this morning,” Rissler said.
In 2013, she noted, the County Commission approved the beach cleaning policy that remains in effect. “We stick by that,” Rissler added. “We like Mother Nature to help us [clean the beaches].” Certain types of seaweed are good for the environment, she said.
However, if, after two tide cycles, the debris remains onshore at a level that meets the policy criteria, then staff will start cleaning the beaches.
In response to a July 16 email from a Longboat Key resident upset about dead fish in a canal, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis wrote, “It is not practical or financially feasible to try and remove the fish. The combination of the tides and the fish sinking are usually a timelier resolution within our canals.”
During the press conference, Rissler emphasized that staff checks the conditions at each of the county’s 16 beaches every morning. Varying red tide effects are being seen day-to-day, she noted. For example, one beach may have more noticeable aerosol issues — producing what the public has come to call the “red tide cough” — while dead fish may be more widespread on other beaches.
After county staff posted a red tide update on the Sarasota County Government Facebook page on the afternoon of Aug. 3, a number of people commented about how widespread the odor of marine debris and dead fish had become.
“The smell along the length of [U.S.] 41 is heinous,” one woman wrote.
Another person commented, “Smelled it as soon as I opened the door; east of 41, south Sarasota!”
A third person added, “I can’t breathe,” noting that he lives near the intersection of Beneva Road and Webber Street in Sarasota.
One more woman wrote of seeing “lots of dead fish” at Nokomis Beach. She added, “[M]y throat started getting irritated within minutes.”
Aerosols proving biggest effect
“Our biggest effect right now is the aerosols” along the county coastline, Rissler stressed during the press conference. “The onshore wind isn’t helping that.”
The Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) has emphasized the need for persons with chronic respiratory conditions, including asthma, to avoid beaches where red tide aerosols are present. The red tide can exacerbate such health problems, DOH-Sarasota staff has pointed out.
All 16 of the county-operated beaches continue to have signs posted, warning the public of the presence of red tide.
Still, Rissler noted during the press conference, “Our impacts thus far are nowhere near our impacts in 2018.”
Nonetheless, she continued, staff met last week with representatives of the contractor with whom the county has an agreement in place to provide more intensive cleaning operations if red tide effects produce heavier fish kills than staff has been seeing. “They can mobilize within 24 hours,” Rissler said of the contractor’s workers.
The contractor can pick up dead marine life in the Gulf of Mexico as well as on the shoreline, Rissler noted. “We have all those resources at our disposal if we need them.”
Dead fish are put into lined dumpsters or trash trucks and then taken to the county landfill in Nokomis, where they are buried, she explained.
Rissler also talked about her staff members’ ongoing collaboration with their counterparts in neighboring counties — Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Charlotte and Lee. They talk about measures taken that work and those that seem to have little impact, she added.
Further, on Aug. 2, she said, interim FDEP Secretary Shawn Hamilton conducted a conference call with county administrators, so they could exchange information “and we all can be on the same page.”
A day after Rissler’s press conference, county staff noted on Facebook that staff members used rakes to clear the beaches on Siesta and Lido keys and on Venice Island. One crew was working to pick up debris by hand on Casey Key, the post added.
During the press conference, Rissler said the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s Offender Work Program would be assisting staff with the clean-up efforts.
That program, which began when Tom Knight was sheriff, allows low-level offenders who historically would have been required to spend time in jail over the weekends to serve their sentences instead by performing public service.