New report reveals the devastating impacts of the 2018 red tide bloom across eighteen measures of community wellbeing in Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay region and how emergency responders faced the challenge with innovation and long hours
TAMPA BAY AND SARASOTA BAY, FL: The 2017-2019 red tide bloom along 120 miles of Southwest Florida’s coastline was one of the longest and most severe red tide blooms in recent memory—a wildlife massacre of massive proportions that received national media attention. The Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay region was engulfed by late summer 2018 when the bloom grew to 1000 times the lethal concentration for fish and wildlife and stayed deadly for months. A new report by the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, funded by the Tampa Bay Environmental Restoration Fund and the Sunrise Rotary Club Foundation of Sarasota, chronicles the red tide impacts and how our communities responded.
The Red Tide Impact and Response Assessment examines conditions in the 5-county Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay region (Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, and Sarasota Counties) before, during, and after the red tide event across eighteen measures of community wellbeing, including beach conditions, fish, wildlife, recreation, social media sentiment, human health and welfare, tourism, and business sales. It further summarizes the regional emergency response to the red tide event, highlights some of the notable actions and innovations inspired by necessity, identifies gaps and challenges, and lists recommendations for future red tide response.
“Given the extreme conditions out there, the actions and sacrifices of county, city and agency staff and volunteers were remarkable,” said Dr. Jennifer Shafer who interviewed environmental and emergency managers from each of the five counties for the study. “They worked long strenuous hours above and beyond their regular duties. We talk a lot about heroes these days—and rightly so—but these heroes were largely unknown and underappreciated by the public.”
More than 2400 tons of dead marine life was cleaned from beaches and bay waters across the region. Bird hospital admissions were up 300%, but most sick birds never made it to the hospital. An unprecedented 190 turtles and 68 manatees lost their life in our region alone. Across the entire Florida west coast population of manatees, one out of every 12 lost their life in 2018, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Fish kill reports to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were 400% above normal, and scientific surveys of fish abundance in Sarasota Bay seagrass beds showed an 84% decline in August and September 2018 compared to the same period in 2017, based on data shared by Elizabeth McCabe with Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program which also maintains a network of hydrophones throughout the bay. “Three days after the red tide arrived in Sarasota Bay, our underwater listening stations fell nearly silent of the normal sounds of snapping shrimp and fish,” reported Dr. Athena Rycyk, Assistant Professor of Biology and Marine Science at New College of Florida.
It wasn’t just wildlife. By many measures, human communities also experienced declines in health and happiness. Asthma cases were up across the region as much as 16–17% in Sarasota County and Pinellas County. Calls to 211 social service hotlines reached a 3-year high across the region. September 2018 saw more calls than September 2017, the month that Hurricane Irma hit the region. In Sarasota and Manatee Counties, the peak came in October 2018 when calls for food, utilities, and housing assistance spiked 300% over 2017. Manatee County’s islands, in particular, experienced year over year revenue losses of 10% for hotels and 27% for restaurants. Manatee’s commercial fisheries took a 25% hit in 2018. Boating activity was down 24% in Sarasota and Pinellas Counties, based on marine fuel sales records from Florida Department of Revenue.
Perhaps the single most important red tide response innovation was prioritizing cleanup of floating debris before it impacted shorelines or sank to the bottom. Dead fish left to decay in the water may contribute to a longer red tide bloom, more severe water fouling that may be responsible for seagrass die-offs, and increased long-term nutrient loads in the bay. Pinellas County utilized a variety of vessels and manpower of a cleanup contractor and local fishermen and charter captains to collect 1862 tons of red tide debris; Pinellas was awarded a $7.5 million reimbursement grant from Florida Department of Environmental Protection for their cleanup effort. Future red tide response could be made easier and more effective with regional cooperation for sharing data, surveillance, equipment, and contractors. “I think there is great potential here for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to use the Red Tide Impact and Response Assessment and help implement the recommendations with its member governments,” said Alana Todd, environmental planner with TBRPC. “It’s a hazard we hope won’t return anytime soon, but like a hurricane, we know the next big red tide is coming sooner or later,” concluded Dr. Jennifer Shafer, Executive Director of the Science and Environment Council.
The report and media-ready infographics can be viewed and downloaded from scienceandenvironment.org/project/redtide.
About Science and Environment Council
The Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida is a not-for-profit consortium of 40 leading science-based environmental non-profit and government organizations in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. SEC is a leader in Southwest Florida, convening discussions, informing policy, and enhancing public awareness about science-based conservation and sustainable practices to protect and restore our natural environment.