Jim Armstrong says he will never get used to the hours he and his crew spend scooping up the hundreds of pounds of rotting fish killed by Red Tide and washed up on Treasure Island beach since Friday.
"You can never really get used to it, but you pretty much have to," said Armstrong, a city public works employee. "It's a shame that all that wildlife has to die, but it's a natural occurrence."
Amid the shrill squawks of scavenging sea gulls, the four-man team was busy Sunday raking odorous fish parts into piles, shoveling them into a front-end loader and emptying the load into a nearby dump truck.
When it's over, Armstrong and company say, they will have removed about 12 tons of trout, blowfish, catfish and stingrays.
At a reef 10 miles off Sand Key and at another reef 5 miles off Indian Rocks Beach, the Florida Marine Research Institute had detected low levels of Red Tide on Friday night.
The mysterious toxic algae deplete oxygen levels in the water, which in turn suffocates and kills fish that end up baking in the beach sun. Red Tide also produces a toxin that attacks animals' nervous systems and gills, preventing them from breathing. "The initial smell is what gets you," Gulfport resident Cathryn Lefevre said, while her three young sons splashed in the distant waters off Treasure Island. "But I guess we're getting used to it sitting out here."
Meanwhile, the waters off Pass-a-Grille and St. Pete Beach showed few signs Sunday of a Red Tide outbreak.
Members of the Wroblewski family of Riverview were packing the car after a day at St. Pete Beach when they found out about the outbreak.
"We didn't notice anything," said Rob Wroblewski. "It was like any other day we've come to the beach."
While the sight of dead fish floating by may cause some concern, experts say swimming in waters affected by Red Tide is generally safe.
"If you have sensitive skin, it could cause skin irritation, and if it gets in your eyes it might not be comfortable _ but that's about the extent of it," said Allison McDonald, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
McDonald said the marine research institute plans to take more samples Wednesday, looking at Red Tide levels from Honeymoon Island to the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
As for how long it could last, "It's hard to tell," McDonald said. "Because it's something that is a natural occurrence, it's hard to tell how long it will stick around and when it will occur again."
For more information
Current information about the Red Tide outbreak is available at www.floridamarine.org