The crews start work early in the day – raking the shores, collecting the fish, carting them from the coast. It’s hard work, and the toxins produced by the red tide irritate the eyes and the lungs.
They’ve been out on the beaches for two weeks now, fighting a bloom that started in Franklin County’s waters and has been making its way along Gulf County’s shoreline since Oct. 10.
It’s not a permanent fix, and by the next morning, the crews will get sent out to collect more dead fish washing ashore. But their efforts have rendered Gulf County beaches useable for the time being.
"Our regular beach raking vendor that comes and does the seagrass whenever that’s a problem, they’ve made sure to have extra equipment out here for us,” said Kelli Godwin, the executive director of the Gulf County Tourism Development Council. “And then our crews are working overtime to make sure that it’s clean and everything looks good.”
Red tide blooms, usually caused by an overgrowth of Karenia brevis, can produce chemical toxins that suffocate marine life and cause respiratory and skin irritation in humans.
The Florida Department of Health in Gulf County has issued a health alert related to red tide events in Gulf County, encouraging those with respiratory conditions to avoid coastal areas and others to exercise caution when swimming or fishing.
“Some people may have mild and short-lived respiratory symptoms such as eye, nose and throat irritation similar to cold symptoms,” the health authority said in a press release. “Some individuals with breathing problems such as asthma might experience more severe symptoms.”
Initially limited to Gulf County beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, the DOH has now issued additional warnings for sites on the St. Joeseph Bay. Specific locations mentioned include George Core Park, Crescent Palms Drive, Pig Island, Salina’s Park (Gulf side), Stump Hole, Cape Palms Park public access beach, Dunes Drive public access beach, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (Gulf side) and Eagle Harbor Boat Ramp (Bay side of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park).
These alerts will remain in effect until further notice.
In Cape San Blas and Indian Pass, two of the areas most affected by the Red Tide event, South Gulf Fire Chief Mike Barrett has been trying to keep residents informed of health developments and cleanup efforts via Facebook.
“This is definitely a work in progress,” he wrote on Thursday night. “Please use caution while on the beach, people and pets should avoid any contact with dead fish. Be safe.”
Facebook has become a place where residents can share information about the Karenia brevis bloom. They go there to vent, share photos and warn their neighbors of particularly hard-hit areas.
More recently, tourists planning vacations to Gulf County have joined the conversation, asking about beach conditions and for tips from locals on dealing with respiratory effects.
Barrett said in recent days, the social media community has taken particular notice of cleanup crews’ efforts.
“I know we’ve had a lot of praise over the weekend on social media,” Godwin said. “Everybody’s thankful to see that tractor riding by, and they were able to save someone’s wedding, you know, a visitor that was in town.”
Godwin said that tourism is still healthy in Gulf County, despite the Red Tide bloom. In order to keep people coming and business open, she said, the county has had to adapt.
Beach cleanup efforts are part of a two-prong approach that Gulf County lawmakers are taking to battle the Red Tide bloom. To execute the other part, which focuses on collecting dying fish before they wash ashore, the Board of County Commissioners authorized a temporary lifting of a ban on purse seine nets.
The nets are typically too large to be legally used by commercial fishermen in Florida waters.
The Tourism Development Council, Godwin said, has also had to evolve their approach.
“They’re still coming,” she said. “And then if anybody’s having respiratory issues or wanting to do stuff off the beach, our crew here in our office, our concierge, are taking phone calls and answering chats here on our website and our emails for other activities they can do.”
Florida Poison Control Centers have a toll-free 24/7 Hotline for reporting of illnesses, including health effects from exposure to red tide at 1-800-222-1222.
Please visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research website for additional information on the locations where red tide has been found: myfwc.com/research/redtide/statewide/.
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