Manatee County officially declared a local state of emergency Tuesday morning because of red tide, which officials say will allow the county to pursue any possible assistance from the state and federal governments.
The only funding to date is a $750,000 grant through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which the county is expecting to receive to help pay for cleanup efforts associated with red tide. Another $8 million has been appropriated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be distributed to counties affected by red tide.
Some of those funds are likely to go to Mote Marine in Sarasota, but are not expected to be use to pay for cleanup efforts.
County commissioners, which approved the declaration with a unanimous vote Tuesday, earlier this month discussed releasing funding to hire local fishermen to help offset local losses, but the state grant requires a procurement process. The county has hired a company out of Louisiana, instead, but local fishermen can apply as subcontractors.
Currently three collection boats are working the Gulf of Mexico and other area waters. Also, local fishermen are both volunteering their time and equipment and are available for private hire by neighborhoods still suffering from the odor of red tide and decaying fish.
Charlie Hunsicker, the county’s director of parks and natural resources, said crews deployed Monday to creeks and canals, but county crews have been working seven days a week from sunrise to sunset since red tide began dumping dead fish on local beaches.
“We as a government have taken responsibility for our Gulf-facing beaches,” Hunsicker said. “Our workers have been deploying Monday through Sunday, making three or four passes a day on the beaches and the results are clear. This county is doing more than anybody to keep our famous sandy white beaches. We cannot stop the effects of Mother Nature on our beaches, but we can do our best to clean it up.”
Hunsicker said the ongoing efforts as more intense than the cleanup after Hurricane Irma, which dropped millions of pounds of debris that took months to pick up.
“Imagine if that hurricane never stopped,” Hunsicker said. “You clean and the hurricane is still on you and is dropping debris constantly. These are the logistics we face in this on-water cleanup. It’s a more difficult task than addressing a single storm event.”
Hunsicker said only Mother Nature can predict when this crisis will end and the issue is, “managing our expectation of how long this problem will be on us.”
Red tide, he noted, “continues to grow and blossom and is horrendously expanding. This is a marathon. Neighborhoods are suffering but those neighborhoods can fund the local fishermen themselves but cannot be reimbursed by the county due to the requirements of the grant. We are gong to see the end of this episode. We’ll be back in business. We just have to pray that the end comes quickly.”
Commissioner Betsy Benac said it will take everyone working together to see this crisis through to the end.
“We’re going to do what we can,” she said. “But we are not in charge of Mother Nature and cannot solve this problem. We can only keep working on this and work together.”
The county is calling on neighborhood associations and individuals to take action, to pick up the dead fish when possible. The contracted crews will only work the Gulf and inlet waters where accessible and will not stray from their contractual requirements. The county will supply dumpsters to neighborhoods asking for them.
“We have our entire organization focused on this problem and are taking people away from their other daily duties,” said County Administrator Ed Hunzeker. “The problem keeps on coming. It’s unprecedented in its magnitude.”
Hunzeker said his office is tracking the costs, but there is a finite amount of funding available, “and we have no idea how long this problem will persist. If you remember Irma, everyone wanted their neighborhood cleaned first. Every bay and inlet waterway that has fish will want us there to get that fish first, but the fish is coming faster than we can pick them up. This is a marathon and can’t run it like a sprint. We have to be prepared to be in this for the long haul.”
There could be some good news for the local commercial fishing industry. John Banyas, owner of Cortez Kitchen, asked for, and received a letter of support from the commission to present to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is considering a request for an emergency temporary use permit to expand fishing net size.
Banyas said FWC is interested in his idea to allow local fishermen to harvest mullet before the fish die because of red tide.
“It looks like 50 percent of the floating fish I’ve seen is mullet and that’s our fishery,” Banyas said. “When this passes and the smell goes away and the restaurants and hotels come back, our fish won’t be alive. Our mullet season in the future is dead. That’s not going to come back this year. If we could get a percentage of those fish before they die, why wouldn’t we want to do that?”
In the meantime, Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie, a former county commissioner, reminded everyone that “the island is open for business. The restaurants, hotels, parks and recreation, come on out, it’s not that bad. We’ve seen a lot worse and you can walk along the beaches. It’s wonderful out there.”
Chappie credited Manatee County crews for making that possible and keeping the beaches clean as dead fish continue to roll ashore.