Does it seem like red tide has never been worse in Charlotte and Sarasota counties?
With lots of publicity and political overtones, the situation may have seemed especially dire this year during an election season.
But that perception does not exactly depict reality — at least according to years’ worth of data analyzed by the Sun, spanning key points of measurement like cell counts for red tide-causing algae, manatee deaths, some tax data, and area airline traffic.
Still, high concentration red tide dragged on longer this year with more fish kills than in the past, and some local beach traffic declined. Some area water and beach-based businesses also reported suffering financially this year due to red tide conditions.
Looking forward, the situation is improving with red tide starting to dissipate from the Southwest Florida coast, according to the state’s latest red tide maps.
Not the worst, some science shows
Some data indicates red tide overall was just as bad 17 years ago.
The Sun analyzed data from the years 2000 to the present, provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute which maintains a database monitoring harmful algae blooms.
This data showed the abundance of Karenia brevis, the red tide organism, measured by how many cells per liter are present in specific sample locations.
If there are more than 1 million cells detected per liter, this is considered a high concentration. High concentrations of red tide cause respiratory irritation, probable fish kills and water discoloration, according to FWC.
Though red tide is natural, once it’s “transported inshore, they are capable of using man-made nutrients for their growth,” the FWC said on their website.
Especially with the political controversy surrounding red tide this election season, some believe we need to do something quick.
“Red tide as we know it today is not naturally occurring,” said Suncoast Waterkeeper Andy Mele in an editorial piece he submitted to the Sun earlier this year.
Using information from University of Miami marine biology professor Larry Brand, Mele suggested that three sources of nutrient pollution have increased dramatically in nearshore coastal waters: Stormwater runoff, animal waste and fertilizer and phosphorous from surrounding counties.
But looking at high concentrations of K. brevis, FWC’s data indicates our most recent red tide bloom is not unprecedented: The occurrence of red tide this year has been similar to 2001 in both Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
However, only data that have completed FWC’s proofing process are included, with most of the data since July 2018 having yet to undergo this process, according to Kelly Richmond, the institute’s communications director.
Though 2018 saw a larger average concentration of the red tide organism, 2001 saw more days with these high concentrations.
Charlotte County has had 127 occurrences of high concentration red tide since 2000, with almost a quarter of these coming from 2001 and almost a fifth coming from 2018.
Meanwhile in Sarasota County, just three percent of the 541 occurrences of high concentration red tide happened in 2018. The worst year for Sarasota was also 2001, which had 107 occurrences.
The average red tide cell counts for these years are similar, with 2018 high concentrations having a slightly larger average of 8.9 million cells per liter, while 2001 averaged 8.3 million cells per liter.
Dragging on longer
Time-wise, though, this has been the longest span of high concentration red tide in Charlotte county, allowing for more damage to be done. This year, Charlotte has experienced four months (and counting) of continuous red tide, whereas in 2001 it lasted for two months, between August and September.
According to information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the fall 2018 red tide event affecting Florida, “this year’s bloom is different than what we’ve seen before in several ways.”
“While not unprecedented in its duration, this bloom is unusually persistent,” the administration said.
This year has shown the largest number of fish kills caused by red tide, or sudden appearances of dead fish in a body of water, according to FWC’s fish kill database directory. Charlotte County has seen 80 fish kills this year so far, and Sarasota County has seen 166. The second-highest year since 2000 was 2016, with Charlotte and Sarasota having 50 and 53 fish kills, respectively.
The longest bout Sarasota County has had since 2000 was from January 2005 to that September. That year, both counties had a total of 69 fish kills.
However, manatees may not have been affected as badly by red tide this year.
The Sun analyzed FWC’s red tide manatee mortality data that goes back to 1996. This data shows suspected and confirmed red tide caused deaths. Suspected deaths either have a low level of brevetoxin (the poison contained in red tide that actually kills things) detected, or tissue samples are being tested at FWRI’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, or the carcass was recovered within a known bloom boundary and no other cause of death was apparent. This data extends to all of Florida.
This year, 124 manatees were suspected and tested positive for dying due to red tide. This is more than double last year, which was 67 total. But 2013 was the all-time worst year for manatees, with 277 total suspected and positive deaths. That year, both Charlotte and Sarasota counties had reported high concentrations of red tide for two months, January and February. There were also 151 manatee deaths in 1996.
Isn’t tourism down?
Not really — we seem to be doing OK — at least according to some overall numbers.
“We’re only really seeing the effect of red tide in the bed tax data in Lee (County),” said Florida Gulf Coast University professor of economics, Dr. Christopher Westley. “Not necessarily in Charlotte County … People know about it, and it’s not stopping people from coming.”
Charlotte County experienced an “artificial fill” in bed tax collections in September 2017 due to Hurricane Irma hitting surrounding areas, according to the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau. When looking at the five percent tourist development tax revenues for Charlotte County, this makes it seem like the county under-performed in 2018 by 15 percent. In reality, fiscal year 2017/2018 had an average growth of 4.5 percent over FY 2016/2017, with September under-performing by almost $4,000 compared to FY 2015/2016.
“Really, it’s down slightly, but not down 15 percent,” said marketing director for the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau Chip Futch. “We would expect it to be up, so that is most definitely red tide.”
The most damage caused, according to the bureau, was perception.
“Unfortunately, there was some misinformation that there was red tide in the Harbor,” said Jennifer Huber, the tourism public relations manager for the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau.
According to FWC’s dataset, there hasn’t been a high concentration of red tide in Charlotte Harbor since November 2016.
As a result, there were roughly 420 million negative media impressions about Charlotte County this summer, the bureau said, or the potential reach of articles that portray the destination in a negative way. “It’s been a huge problem,” Futch said.
“People need to know that just because red tide was affecting the marine life on the coastal areas, it wasn’t affecting the Harbor,” said Sean Doherty, the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau’s interim director. “You have to take money that you would usually spend on something else,” like promoting various hotspots in the area, “to counteract that.”
“People and social media allow their emotions to speak rather than any analytical data and facts,” Doherty said. “It’s an outlet for them and I don’t think some people realize how negative that can be.”
“It comes from a good place, but what they don’t realize is the impact,” Futch agreed. “There’s ways to be impactful without causing irreparable damage to thousands of workers in Southwest Florida.”
Taxes, traffic a mixed bag
Charlotte County’s taxable sales data also shows a similar story to tourism. Though Charlotte County’s taxable sales grew by $1.3 million in September 2018 since 2016, it didn’t grow as much as it should have. This year Charlotte County has seen an average of $24.2 million each month compared to that month in 2016.
Since red tide has been a phenomenon observed for as long as there’s been a recorded history of Southwest Florida, Westley said red tide effects have probably already been priced into this region’s assets, meaning people account for that loss.
However, “some people are of the opinion that this time, things are different,” Westley said. Even though he said it’s very unlikely, people are worried this concentration of red tide could be here to stay, and they will have to adjust for good. Mainly, the real estate industry would suffer, he said, as realtors would have to adjust their prices to accommodate for less-favorable beach conditions.
Gasparilla Island did face some declines in traffic compared to the year before. When analyzing Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority’s weekly traffic counts for 2017 and 2018, starting on June 17 traffic fell below 2017’s counts consistently, other than the week when the bridge was closed due to Hurricane Irma.
“I believe (this data) is a good representation of the local impacts of red tide this summer,” said Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority executive director Kathy Benson-Verrico. “The majority of our cash tolls are beach, dining, fishing and shopping traffic.”
Meanwhile, visitation at Punta Gorda Airport (PGD) has not apparently suffered.
The passenger count has been following typical trends of previous years. This year, PGD has had 1.32 million passengers, as of October, whereas 2017 had a total of 1.29 million passengers the whole year.
The total number of passengers for 2018 compared to this time last year show an increase of almost 25 percent.
“As far as PGD is concerned, our airport and passenger traffic has not been impacted by red tide,” said PGD spokesperson, Kaley Miller.
Originally published in the Charlotte Sun on Dec. 16, 2018.