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Red Tide's impact along Pinellas beaches: 'It's overwhelming. You can't even breathe.'

Jacky Neeley and his son Buck Kneeley off load dead fish from their shrimp boat the "Lucky Buck" at the Belleair Causeway boat ramp Monday afternoon 9/10/2018. They gathered the victims of red tide about 3/4 to a mile off shore from Pinellas County where they found lots of dead fish. The smelly haul was dumped into a dumpster which was immediately put on a truck to be taken to the dump. Neeley and his son headed back out to gather another load. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Sep. 11, 2018

The Red Tide algae bloom swept into the gulf waters near Tampa Bay from Southwest Florida over the weekend. Yet on Monday afternoon Madeira Beach was mostly clear of the mounds of dead fish seen elsewhere along the coast.

Beach-side business owners complained that tourists had been wrongfully spooked away from their normally bustling destinations because of all the Red Tide announcements that had been sent out over the weekend.

But the announcements were right. Red Tide did hit Pinellas County. The beaches were largely clear of dead fish because Pinellas officials had dispatched a flotilla of boats to scoop them up before they reached the shore.

The boats dumped tons of dead fish in truck-sized bins to be hauled to the landfill. By Monday, county officials were struggling to keep up with the influx of rotting pinfish and snapper.

"This is massive," said Kelli Levy, Pinellas' director of environmental management.

And at this point, no one can say when it will end.

Previous coverage: Red Tide arrives in Pinellas, killing hundreds of thousands of fish

From Friday through 8:15 a.m. Monday, the county landfill had already been on the receiving end of 17.35 tons of dead fish, Levy said. But the fish continue dying at such a high rate that officials need more equipment to keep up with all the dead sea life floating in, she said.

Currently, two shrimp boats and three other pieces of commercial equipment are being used to collect the fish. But it is not enough. Contractors are being asked to bring in more equipment, including large beach rakes to scoop up what makes it to shore.

The rust-colored bloom could be seen from the air off Redington and Madeira beaches on Monday afternoon. Red Tide emits toxins that kills aquatic life, and not just fish but also sea turtles and manatees. It can also cause respiratory irritation in people, particularly those who already suffer from asthma and other ailments.

Previous coverage: Recalling the devastating Red Tide of 2005 and dreading a repeat

Levy said that no one should think there won't be impacts from Red Tide because they don't see dead fish piling up on the beaches. Unlike the counties to the south, which have been coping with Red Tide for months, Pinellas had time to prepare for the onslaught, she said.

This Red Tide bloom began back in November. State officials say it's the worst one in a decade.

In North Redington Beach, Mayor Bill Queen said the city will have to put another trash bin out to hold all the dead fish after they rake the beach Tuesday morning. On Monday, the beach was deserted.

"It's overwhelming," Queen said. "You can't even breathe. It's sad. We're going to have our hands full for a few days."

Curt Preisser, Madeira Beach's spokesman, said city officials first noticed that Red Tide was 5 miles off the coast on Friday afternoon. The city sent out two fishing trawlers to start scooping up dead fish and carrying them to the Belleair Causeway, where the county had installed big green bins for collecting the fish for the landfill.

"It's a big bloom," Preisser said. "And we're not getting all of them."

By 10:30 a.m. Monday, Madeira's work crews had picked up many of the fish that had washed up overnight. But they continued to work through the day as the smell of fish lingered in the air.

The stink chased tourists away. One hardy soul who remained, Linda Kleitz, described the popular John's Pass Boardwalk as a "ghost town."

She estimated only half of the 15 units in her timeshare condo were occupied. She watched a stream of vehicles up and down the beach working to clean up all weekend.

"But you can see the dead fish coming in again," she said. "We cannot be on our balcony long before we start coughing and gagging."

To the south, Treasure Island workers toiling through the weekend scooped up the fish from the beaches and loaded them into a "hopper," a portable container the size of a Dumpster.

Mike Helfrich, Treasure Island's director of public works, said the city had filled one of those hoppers during Monday's cleanup. But he remembers prior algae blooms that were worse.

"There's dead fish," Helfrich said. "You can smell it. But it's not like it was in 2005."

That breakout was one of the worst in state history and plagued the gulf for more than a year, from the Alabama border to the Florida Keys.

The most recent Red Tide report issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Friday said the bloom was still active in Southwest Florida and extended from Pinellas south to northern Collier County, about 120 miles of coastline.

Read more:Why is Red Tide so bad this year? Could dust from the Sahara be to blame?

Keith Overton, the president of the TradeWinds Grand Island Resort on St. Pete Beach, said his workers were fielding calls all weekend from customers asking if they should cancel trips.

"I think the media making a lot of announcements scared a lot of visitors," he said.

His stretch of St. Pete Beach was cleaned up Monday morning in about 30 minutes. He isn't in one of areas hit hardest by Red Tide.

"So far," he said, "we've been fortunate."

Staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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