CLEARWATER — The beach equivalent of a Zamboni zooms along the sand. A man stoops over to snatch up a stray fish carcass with a litter grabber and slings it into a bucket.
Each day at the crack of dawn city staff start work on Clearwater Beach. They head back out at noon, and then again at 3 p.m. to scour the shore. Their mission? Obliterate signs of Red Tide.
The worst outbreak of toxic Red Tide in a decade has hit Pinellas County. County officials said hundreds of thousands of dead fish have washed up on area beaches, casualties of the algae bloom spreading along the Gulf Coast. But it is not that obvious so far on Clearwater Beach. A combination of luck and aggressive cleanup efforts have largely kept them off the shores of one of the country's highest rated beaches.
“People have been telling us they can’t believe how fast we get them up — how fast we jump on (the dead fish) if we see them,” said Larry Bruce, Clearwater beach supervisor.
Still, city officials worry the reports will spook tourists who are expected to flock to the beach during the approaching busy season.
People don't seem to understand that the effects of Red Tide don’t look the same on every beach, said David Yates, CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. "We have people calling us every day thinking they can't go to the beach."
And that just isn’t true, he said. Yates walks along the beach most days. He said the water has been "clean, immaculate.You wouldn't know there's Red Tide,” he said.
So on social media, as in cleanup efforts, the city is relentless in its efforts to dispel the shadow cast by Red Tide.
"It's a beautiful day on #ClearwaterBeach where we're thankfully seeing very little, if any impacts of #RedTide today," Jason Beisel, city spokesperson, tweeted on Sunday, attaching birds-eye footage of the beach — bright skies, white sand and clear water.
Beisel has been putting out this type of social media messaging essentially every day since Red Tide hit Pinellas, to combat the negative messaging around Red Tide. There are headlines about hundreds of thousands of fish showing up on Pinellas County beaches, Beisel said, and that puts this mental picture in people's heads of what Clearwater Beach looks like.
"That may be the case for some beaches, but we make sure our beach never looks like that," Beisel said.
He personally treks out to the beach daily to report what he’s feeling, what he's seeing and what cleanup crews are reporting.
But that's not enough, he says. He can post incessantly on Twitter and Facebook and say the beach is not seeing effects, and people still won’t be convinced.
"But if we show it, they'll believe it more," he said.
So he sends out the city's drone to hover over the sand, or he'll snap some photos on his phone, or start a Facebook Live video. He does at least one of these things every single day without fail to show people what the conditions are, and what the city is doing to clean up. Even when it's not necessarily a good day, such as two weekends ago when Clearwater was hit a bit harder with Red Tide: a substantial amount of fish washed up and lifeguards had to wear masks to protect them from respiratory irritation.
The City Council recently discussed whether to take money out of a reserve fund to pay for a marketing blast about Red Tide, specifically to mitigate the effects of reports on area tourism. Ultimately, council members decided against it, instead relying on the in-house marketing team's efforts.
“We can’t be putting out a story that we don’t have Red Tide today, because tomorrow we may well have Red Tide. We may not have fish on our beach today but tomorrow we will,” Mayor George Cretekos said at the work session.
The city’s public communications department should continue to put out daily reports, the mayor added.
The city is also relying on the county's tourism arm Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, which is working on messaging and marketing efforts around Red Tide, including more advertisements about non-beach activities and development of BeachesUpdate.com, which provides regularly updated information on beach conditions across Pinellas.
The agency has approval from the county administration to tap into reserves for combating public perception on Red Tide on an as-needed basis, and has allocated $250,000 from reserves for a marketing campaign after Red Tide is completely gone from the area.
Even when there's no Red Tide, Clearwater Beach is one of the few in the state where staff rake the beach 365 days a year, Bruce said. A beach rake dragged along by a tractor skims the top of the sand, picking up most trash and fish corpses, anything substantial.
That’s because so many businesses in the area are reliant on beach tourism. Though, the pristine Clearwater Beach that today draws crowds of tourists on the weekends wasn’t always such an economic powerhouse for the city. A policy put into place 15 years ago to entice hotels and luxury resorts brought a flush of investment and development. And it seems the city is going to fight tooth and nail to prevent Red Tide from taking that tourism away.
Right now, Red Tide likely isn't taking away too much business — it's the slow season anyway, Yates said. But most people are booking trips right now, and if the perception that the beaches are stinky and flooded with fish is out there, that could seriously affect holiday bookings at local businesses, Yates said.
"If you look at the tourism impact Red Tide has had south of us (in Sarasota), it's been devastating. That's why having planning in place is absolutely critical. Good planning is what has allowed Clearwater to stay open as a really great beach."
On Saturday, nearly every square foot of Clearwater Beach was covered with beach towels and umbrellas. The crowd was strong, and Bruce was happy.
"We saw zero fish, which was great news. All weekend people were back on the beach," Bruce said. And as of Monday, the clean up crew were back to normal shifts.
"But if the wind changes and more fish come in, we have people on standby ready to clean again,” said Jason Slaughter, an equipment operator for the city.