‘They’re all dead.’ That may be why red tide has quit dumping fish on local beaches, official says

Dead fish are no longer lining Manatee shores because of red tide. According to one county official, the answer is simple.

“I often wonder that even though we’re still seeing high levels of red tide along our shorelines, we’re not seeing the number of dead fish that we used to, and I’m afraid it’s because the fish aren’t there,” said Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County’s director of parks and natural resources, during Thursday’s meeting of the Tiger Bay Club. “Some of our offshore reefs at the moment look like deserts. They used to be resplendent with plants and sea fans waving in the reef. That’s all gone. They’re all dead.”

Dead fish lined the shore of Anna Maria Island in August. Even though red tide is still affecting the area, the fish aren’t piling up anymore. Ryan Callihan rcallihan@bradenton.com

The topic of Thursday’s gathering of local leaders focused on the issues with Florida’s water quality and what can be done to fix it. Each of the four guest speakers shared their personal experiences with Manatee’s water, ranging from the verge of bankruptcy to a cancer diagnosis.

A red tide bloom that lasted for almost a year almost put Ed Chiles out of business in 1996. The local restauranteur had just opened Beach House on Anna Maria Island, but the bloom killed his business and he was forced to lay off his entire staff. It was around that time that Chiles became a red tide activist and founding member of Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START).

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While he thanked the county for their efforts to mitigate the effects of red tide, he believes the Florida’s water quality regulations have been moving in the wrong direction for at least a decade.

“I’m at risk, and we are all at risk. We are at risk for our livelihoods. We’re putting paradise at risk. We are at a health risk,” Chiles said. “So it’s time to start banging on the table and doing something about it. I think it’s time we say to anyone polluting our inland or marine waterways to stop. You either do it right, or don’t do it.”

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That call to action was echoed by Alan Jones, owner of Jones Potato Farm. He said education was the key, and that it was for time for everyone to figure out what they can do to prevent nutrient-loading runoff that scientists believe feeds red tide.

“The only way that we’re gonna be able to make an impact into these algae blooms is to reduce or eliminate those nutrient loads into the environment. If you live in Florida, if you do business in Florida or if you visit Florida, you’re part of that problem,” Jones said. “Once we all come to that core, we can have a conversation about what we need to do to be a part of the solution.”

Jones also suggested a tax incentive for those willing to learn what they can do and implement changes that lower the amount of excess nutrient runoff.

But not every water issue is related to the ocean, said Just for Girls CEO Becky Canesse, who began cancer treatment a year ago. She suspects that Mosaic’s sinkholes are to blame for her medical issues.

“My surgeon’s physical assistant leaned in with great intensity and said ‘Where have you been exposed to massive amounts of radiation?’ and I just couldn’t imagine what he was asking of me,” said Canesse.

It was “a life-transforming question,” she said, and it led her to do her own research to investigate the quality of water used at her East Manatee home. Test results came back with evidence of radioactive contamination.

“We found alpha was much higher than safe limits and radium in my well water was three times higher than safes limit,” Canesse said. “I couldn’t move fast enough to put the word out on my Facebook page for family and friends. My neighbors started testing as well and we found there’s a lot of radium and a lot of cancer in Manatee County.”

Hunsicker explained that, in contrast to well water that is pulled from 200 feet below the ground, most of the county’s drinking water comes from 1,200 feet below ground, which “buffers it from anything that might happen above ground.”