Blocked: People are building their own barriers to block Red Tide

Published September 21 2018
Updated September 21 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — To combat the waves of dead fish that keep washing ashore during the Red Tide bloom, some Pinellas County businesses and homeowners are borrowing a tactic from the president himself:

They’re building a wall.

Take the folks at Admiral Farragut Academy, which sits on a cove off the Intracoastal Waterway. When the bloom invaded the Intracoastal, thousands of dead fish clogged it. Workers cleaned it out, but more dead fish washed in. Someone suggested blocking off the cove with some sort of barrier.

"We needed to think fast," said science teacher Sari Dietche. The school obtained several silt barrier fences used in construction work and strung them across the cove on Tuesday. It worked.

"It prevents dead fish from floating into the basin," said Dietche, who worked with the crew who installed it.

The school is far from alone in taking this approach, said Kelli Hammer Levy, the director of Pinellas County’s environmental management division.

"We’ve had a number of requests for (oil) booms," Levy said Friday. "I’ve had two requests today."

Such booms are commonly used in trying to contain oil spills, such as the 2010 BP spill, but they can also be used to keep other objects away from the beaches. Pinellas County used such a boom to block dead fish from washing into a cove in Fort DeSoto recently, Levy said.

But the boom in anti-bloom booms relies more on makeshift contraptions than government property. When businesses and homeowners ask the county to supply them with booms, the response is no.

The reason, Levy said, is that the county’s booms are just too big.

"They can’t be handled by a citizen," she explained. "They weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds. We put them in with cranes."

Instead, county officials "show people where to go online to learn how to build one using pool noodles and weights, or how to go online and buy one," Levy said.

RELATED: Your Red Tide questions answered.

Depending on the size, a containment boom such as the ones used in oil spills could cost anywhere from about $300 to more than $1,000. The price may persuade some people to try the do-it-yourself route.

"A lot of people are very creative," Levy said.

The idea of blocking the dead fish is not new. When Red Tide was at its worst in the Sarasota area, the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel set up an anchored buoy system that prevented any dead fish from invading its marina.

Meanwhile, Pinellas County’s contractors continue dispatching boats to skim the dead fish and other creatures from the water before they reach the beaches, and then on land use rakes to scoop up anything that gets through.

Red Tide first reached Pinellas shores on Sept. 8, and in the 12 days since, Levy said contractors have hauled 588 tons of dead fish to the county’s waste-to-energy facility.

The bloom has devastated the region’s marine life, killing not just fish but also manatees, sea turtles and dolphins. It has also sickened shore birds and sea birds. Some 20 endangered red knots were picked up from Pinellas beaches and taken to wildlife rehabilitation centers this week, according to Lorraine Margeson, an avid birder who monitors nesting behavior at Fort DeSoto.

The Red Tide algae bloom was first detected back in November, and it has been lingering along the Southwest Florida coast ever since, becoming the worst bloom in a decade.

RELATED: When will Red Tide go away?

In a report issued Friday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission experts said the bloom now covers 135 miles of the gulf coast, from Collier to Pinellas counties, as well as patchy spots off the Panhandle.

Over the past week, the concentrations of Red Tide decreased in areas off Pinellas, as well as Charlotte and Sarasota counties. But the numbers increased off the shoreline of Collier, Lee and Manatee counties, the report said.

All of those counties suffered from fish kills related to Red Tide, the report said, and beachgoers reported respiratory problems from breathing in the algae’s toxins in Lee, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties, as well as Gulf County in the Panhandle.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.