The pogies were bunched up so tightly that their silver backs could be seen breaking through, pushed above the water’s surface by other members of the school in a desperate attempt to oxygenate the water.
It’s one of the first signals of red tide, said sixth generation Gulf County commercial fisherman Eugene Raffield – a phenomenon he learned about as a child and a sure sign that the baitfish are suffocating.
“Over the years, dads and granddaddies and uncles have taught you to watch sea life,” he said. “Birds, turtles, dolphins, water quality, and you get kind of a feel for what’s goin’ on around you, a natural feel.”
Raffield first saw the pogies, or Atlantic menhaden, performing the strange ritual on Sunday afternoon when his family took the boat out for a leisurely weekend float. He knew to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission the minute he got to the office Monday morning.
From there, he called his local county commissioner, who called the county administrator, who called the county attorney.
By Tuesday morning, the fisherman found himself before the Board of County Commissioners in an emergency meeting called to hear Raffield’s plan for the best course of action.
The meeting lasted a little under an hour, with many questions asked and answered.
“In 2016, you passed something similar,” said County Attorney Jeremy Novak, recommending a local emergency declaration. “Different from 2016 to now, you have a worldwide pandemic. You have people with respiratory problems throughout Gulf County. You have people already complaining about coughing from red tide when they’re combatting COVID.”
“Different from 2016 is you have a whole bunch more layers on top of it.”
The Florida Department of Health in Gulf County notified the public of a red tide bloom on Oct. 14, two days after the meeting, and encouraged those with respiratory problems to avoid coastal areas, where they may experience more adverse effects.
They also recommended individuals avoid swimming near dead fish, a concern for the county commissioners and the Tourist Development Council ahead of a busy weekend for tourism.
By the end of the meeting, commissioners had declared a local state of emergency for seven days and unanimously passed a resolution to allow Raffield and other local fishermen to take their boats out and fish with nets over the size allowed by Florida law.
“(The resolution) provides some four corners, or some parameters,” Novak said. “And it defines how this commission aspires to help and cooperate in collaborative effort with state agencies.”
Raffield knows baitfish, like menhaden, are the first that wash up on the shores during a red tide bloom. When fish are in distress, they come to the surface looking for oxygen. The time to catch them, the fisher said, is when they are still alive.
Then, they can be sold to certified retailers and don’t wash up on shore, where clean-up efforts cost taxpayer money.
“What’s it going to hurt?” Raffield asked. “The fish are going to die anyway.”
He and his crews began fishing in Gulf County waters for distressed baitfish on Wednesday morning, he told the Star, using purse seine nets that are about 600 yards long.
“We went out today, and we’ve already harvested some fish, and we’re going right back out tomorrow,” Raffield said on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re going to keep on going out for the seven days that the county commission did the emergency act.”
On board, the crew carried letters from the county authorizing the use of such a large net.
Purse seining has a controversial history in Florida because of its ability to bring in immense numbers of fish. There have been periods of time when the practice was banned altogether.
Today, the use of purse seine nets is dictated by a Florida constitutional amendment from the ‘90s, colloquially known as the “net ban,” which requires that all commercial nets be limited to a size of 500 square feet.
“That’s like telling me to get a rake and rake the whole bay in one day with a one-armed man,” Raffield said in the meeting, explaining his crews would need larger nets to feasibly limit the effects of red tide.
The law allows for exceptions to be made in instances of “governmental purpose,” and so, the permission was granted.
County commissioners agreed to contact both the FWC and the governor as the emergency meeting drew to a close with the intention of better defining instances of “governmental purpose.” But for now, they felt time was of the essence.
“We don’t have just plenty of time,” said District 5 Commissioner Phillip McCroan. “We don’t have seven to 10 days to wait for them to say ‘OK. Start now.’ These guys have got to get busy.”
The red tide bloom is suspected to have spread to Gulf County from Franklin County, where the bacteria that causes red tide was first detected around Oct. 1.
Small fish began washing up on Gulf County shores near Cape San Blas on Sunday and Monday, according to social media posts. The FWC reported fish kills due to red tide in Gulf County beginning Oct. 12.
Novak told the Star that both the FWC and the governor's office had received copies of the county's two resolutions but that they had not heard back from them as of Thursday afternoon.
According to our media partners at WMBB, there had been reports of larger marine life, including stingrays and sea turtles, washing up on Gulf County’s shores as of Thursday morning.
The Star has contacted the FWC for comment and will update this report as needed.