REDINGTON SHORES — Ken Bish saved up for six months to celebrate his 60th birthday with a four-day trip to a beach resort for some fishing. He carefully monitored the reports about the Red Tide algae bloom. On Friday, when he checked into the Hotel Sol, the Tampa truck driver thought he was in the clear and would be reeling in fish the next morning.
"Then on Saturday at 11 o’clock, the death tide rolled in," he said Tuesday afternoon. Bish, clad in a pair of baggy blue trunks, was the only person on the beach. The only fish he’d "caught" were the big piles of rotten ones he had photographed earlier that morning.
Just four hours later, the white sand around him was all but devoid of dead fish. In their place were lots and lots of tire tracks, evidence that crews from a Cape Coral contractor called Lil Mo Marine Services had swooped in Tuesday and cleaned the beach.
"They were pretty good about cleaning everything up," Bish said.
So went the first day of Lil Mo’s full counterattack against Red Tide, according to company vice president Alex King.
That included dispatching boats to scoop up dead fish before they reached the shore, sending machines to sift the beach sand and scoop up the piles of dead wildlife to be hauled away and assigning people with big rakes to put the fish into piles until the machines arrive.
The company’s goal is to be quick and thorough with the cleanup, leaving no trace that Red Tide ever hit, King said, "and then the next thing you know, the tourists are back enjoying their day."
Some signs of Red Tide, though, were harder to erase: the toxins floating in on the sea breeze that tickle your throat and make you cough, for instance, and the brownish cast to the waves rolling in making them look like whitecaps at a sewer plant.
The ongoing Red Tide bloom started back in November and has intensified in recent months, killing more than 100 manatees, more than 500 sea turtles, more than a dozen dolphins and tons of pinfish, baitfish and other species across the west coast of Florida. It has also disrupted the state’s summer tourist season and threatens the traditionally lucrative fall.
Over the weekend it finally reached Pinellas’ beaches, casting its detritus on some of the popular tourist spots while other beaches remained pristine.
Redington Long Pier appeared to be the epicenter of Tuesday’s influx of dead sea life. South of the pier lay thousands of dead pin fish and medium size fish, some too decomposed to identify. The smell was overwhelming.
The state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, which monitors blooms, collected 92 possible Red Tide samples from beaches and waterways around the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday. That’s an all-time record, said research scientist Kate Hubbard. There was even one sample taken from Bay County in the Panhandle.
In Indian Shores, the town had originally planned to handle the dead marine life washing in by using a bulldozer to bury everything beneath the beaches. That’s a legal disposal method, said town spokeswoman Darlyn Stockfisch. But by Tuesday, she said town officials had decided that they simply could not keep up with the load that way.
"It’s just going to keep coming and keep coming," Stockfisch said.
As a result, she said, they took Pinellas County officials up on the offer to let Lil Mo’s crews take over raking up and hauling away the tons of fish that kept piling up.
From Friday to Monday, the county landfill took in 33.5 tons of dead fish, said Pinellas environmental management director Kelli Hammer Levy.
The county has a grant agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection for $1.3 million to cover the cost of the cleanup, Levy said. It hired a disaster cleanup company called DRC Emergency Service to do the work, and DRC then hired Lil Mo as a subcontractor.
"We will see how long the $1.3 million lasts," she said.
King said his company’s approach to Red Tide — sending boats to collect dead fish before they hit the beach — is a new one, and Pinellas County its first client. He said Lil Mo had about 40 employees working Tuesday.
"It was a good day for us," he said. "But the county is talking about how there may be a need to scale up" to deal with the continued onslaught.
Bish, standing in the edge of the surf beneath the Redington Long Pier, was already mourning his wasted birthday trip. He held up his phone and flipped through the photos of all the dead marine life he’d seen: lots of eels, some speckled trout, a mackerel, a grouper, even a tile fish, a species that lives on the outer continental shelf far offshore.
Then he showed a photo of a snook: "That one broke my heart. That’s what I came out here to fish for."
Times photographer Scott Keeler and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes