If you’re wondering whether red tide has made its way to Manatee County yet, the simple answer is yes.
It just depends on where you are looking. At least, that’s the way conditions were as of Sunday afternoon.
By Sunday, reports of dozens of dead fish, a foul smell in the air and terrible coughing fits reached as far north as Bradenton Beach.
But in Anna Maria, near the northern tip of the island, there were no obvious signs of red tide.
Suzi John and her two daughters, Missy and Sarah, just started their summer vacation, traveling down to Florida from Cincinnati. On Sunday, they tried to go to Bradenton Beach first but left after red tide irritated their throats. They settled on a beach close to Bean Point.
“My throat was irritated and burning when we were down there,” Suzi said. “This is much nicer.”
The algae bloom, known as Karenia brevis, has wreaked havoc along Florida’s southwest coast, seemingly creeping its way farther north with every passing day. By late last week, it had reached Sarasota County, leaving Siesta Key with brown water and hundreds of dead fish lining the shore.
Even farther to the south, red tide has been blamed for the deaths of thousands of fish, as well as sea turtles, manatees and other marine life.
While northern Anna Maria Island seemed safe Sunday, the murky brown water was a signal that full-blown red tide may soon arrive.
That’s what Allison Rodriguez noticed when she got to the beach. Having traveled from Georgia with her mother, husband and two children, Rodriguez said she was looking forward to the clear waters that southwest Florida beaches are known for. But that was not the case Sunday.
“We really didn’t know where to go,” Rodriguez said looking out at the water. “Hopefully we will find clearer water if we go a bit north.”
The microscopic organism exists offshore throughout the year. It only becomes a problem when the algae blooms at high concentrations, said Robert Weisberg, a professor of physical oceanography at the University of South Florida.
”This year has been a bad year. It started off as a bad year and I think it’s just going to get worse,” he said.
In a report released Friday afternoon, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported very low background concentrations of the algae in two water samples collected from Manatee County. The report also mentioned two fish kills in the county.
The next red tide report is scheduled to come out on Wednesday, Aug. 8., FWC officials said.
For some local shops and bars on the Island, business hasn’t been affected much — yet.
“Actually, if anything we are busier because of it right now,” said Amanda Foster, retail manager at Ginny’s & Jane E’s Cafe and Gift Store on Gulf Drive in Anna Maria.
“It’s because people are coming up here from beaches to the south to escape it. We haven’t seen anything yet, but we know it’s coming and we are dreading it. The phone goes off all morning with people asking if we have red tide yet.”
At Harry’s Grill, which is just a few storefronts down from Ginny’s, employees said the same: It hasn’t impacted business yet, but it probably will soon if the algae’s trajectory stays the same.
But for businesses to the south, like at the Holiday Inn on Lido Beach, the situation is much dimmer.
“Workers were telling people at check in to go out to the beach and make sure they’re comfortable before staying there,” said Richard Wilhelm, who is on vacation from Illinois for the week.
Wilhelm and Anita Minturn said they are staying on Anna Maria Island, but were down at Sarasota beaches until they realized how bad the red tide was.
“It was really nice of the hotel workers to do that,” Wilhelm said, “but yeah, that’s how bad it is down there.”
This year’s outbreak started early, as most blooms appear in September or October, Weisberg said.
“Once it does, it makes toxins and it kills fish, and the nutrients from the dying fish then feed more of these red tide organisms,” he said. “They’re just nice and happy because they’re living in their own grocery store.”
Several factors likely aggravated the conditions this year, including heavy rainfall and the release of water from Lake Okeechobee, the professor said. Each factor merged to create the hurricane of algae blooms.
John said she and her daughters will just keep trying to escape the red tide until they go back home next Saturday.
“This really makes me sick, it’s such a shame,” Suzi said. “But I guess we will just wait and see and keep heading north if it gets bad over here.”