‘Heartbreaking’ scene at Robinson Preserve as crews clean up after red tide fish kill

The skies over Robinson Preserve on Friday were filled with vultures after an attack by red tide this week left thousands of mullet dead.

It happened over a time period when for the first time in weeks, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported an increase in the presence of Karenia brevis, the organism responsible for red tide, though concentrations were still running in the medium category.

The “medium” presence hasn’t changed for Manatee County’s offshore waters following Friday’s update, but FWC is reporting a 5-25-percent decrease from the Dec. 5 update.

Park rangers, staff and volunteers were on hand Friday hauling bucket loads of dead fish from Robinson Preserve’s waterways. Crews on boats plucked the dead fish from the water and loaded them into plastic 5-gallon buckets and hauled them to shore so they could be dumped into tractor buckets.

The fish were first hauled to a nearby dumpster but that quickly filled up. Workers then hauled the corpses to another area of the preserve for later pickup.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said volunteer Sam Starrett, who has been a park volunteer since Robinson Preserve opened in 2008. “I’ve seen fish kills in here before, but nothing like this. It’s too bad.”

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Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources took to its Facebook page Friday morning to notify the public of the cleanup. While Robinson Preserve’s trails remained opened, officials also advised people to “take this opportunity to visit neighboring preserves” not affected by red tide, like Emerson Point in Palmetto.

Despite the posting and news of the red tide outbreak within the preserve, it didn’t stop visitors from coming. It didn’t take long when entering the park’s northern entrance to begin picking up the scent of dead fish and red tide. The deeper people walked, the more prevalent the odor and by the time anyone reached the watch tower, the sights associated with the smell became apparent.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Helen Lewis, a 22-year resident who has taken thousands of photographs in Robinson Preserve during her daily visits. “It’s unbelievable what the government allows to be done to put this red tide on steroids. I was crying last night because of this. I just love nature so much and this is just so sad, so heartbreaking.”

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Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker said red tide getting into the preserve, “Is no mystery, although disappointing to see it come in like a fog and meandered back to our backwaters. But even the level of mortality is spotty through the preserve. It’s very heavy in some locations and not in others.”

Hunsicker said it’s important to get the cleanup done quickly to avoid having the dead fish take even more oxygen out of the water during the decomposition process.

“We want to avoid that double whammy of red tide effects and the extraction of oxygen during decomposition, which can make the matter worse,” Hunsicker said. “We are trying to avoid that one-two combination punch, which has really dramatically changed our living coastal environment in both plants and animals.”

While the site of a massive fish kill and the ensuing cleanup can be visibly dramatic for the public, Hunsicker said, “This is not an extinction event by any means. You can believe that Mother Nature’s evolution with these fish has seen them deal with this before and they will deal with it again in the future. “

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The long-term impacts of this red tide event, which began last October and hit Manatee County by summer, will take some time to evaluate.

Hunsicker said it took two years to revover from a 2005 red tide event that left a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Rhode Island.

“So when talking about the long-term, that’s whole another essay,” he said.

Staff writer Ryan Callihan contributed to this story.