Red Tide is back, chasing people from restaurants along Intracoastal Waterway

Workers contracted by Pinellas  County clean late last month on Madeira Beach as a southwest wind brought dead fish and the smell of Red Tide to the beach. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Workers contracted by Pinellas County clean late last month on Madeira Beach as a southwest wind brought dead fish and the smell of Red Tide to the beach. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published November 2 2018
Updated November 2 2018

Frank Thiesen runs a St. Pete Beach restaurant called the Blue Parrot that faces the Intracoastal Waterway. On Monday night he had an 18-piece band playing.

As the night wore on 15 people left the restaurant because they could no longer stomach the smell wafting in from the water and from a nearby Dumpster that’s used to collect dead fish.

His main waitress usually makes $100 a night in tips. Not that night.

"She went home with $5," he said.

Red Tide is back in Pinellas’ waterways and the toxic algae is as bad for the economy as ever.

READ MORE: Your questions about Red Tide’s attack on Pinellas County answered (w/video).

The Red Tide bloom that’s been characterized as the worst to hit Florida in a decade has now been lingering along the gulf coast for a full year. It began offshore, moved in close to Collier and Lee Counties and slowly crept up the coast to Pinellas, reaching the local beaches in September. Meanwhile it also hit beaches in the Panhandle and even along the state’s Atlantic coast.

"Bloom concentrations of the Red Tide organism, Karenia brevis, persist on Florida’s Southwest, Northwest, and East coasts," a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission update released Friday says. In Pinellas, people reported respiratory irritation from the algae bloom this week on Caladesi Island, Indian Shores and Pass-a-Grille.

The two places in Pinellas County that are now being walloped by Red Tide are Fort De Soto Park and the Intracoastal Waterway, said Kelli Hammer Levy, the county’s environmental management director. The Intracoastal has suffered the most.

In just the past two days, she said, boats and cleanup crews hired by the county have hauled in 89 tons of dead fish in the Intracoastal, mostly from open waters.

READ MORE: Leaky septic tanks fuel algae blooms. Rick Scott OK’d repeal of law aimed to prevent that.

Every day, as the hour approaches noon, she said, the county begins getting calls from restaurants and other waterside businesses along the Intracoastal saying, in effect, please come help us as soon as possible, before the lunch rush gets here.

On Thursday, by mid-afternoon, cleanup crews hired by the county had hauled 120 boatloads of dead fish, she said.

"It’s a lot," Levy said.

These conditions are likely to last awhile, too, she said.

A large, oddly shaped swarm of Red Tide algae has been floating off Pinellas for weeks now, being shifted back and forth by the winds. Before Hurricane Michael swirled by last month, the bloom had been sitting far enough offshore that it couldn’t be detected from the beaches, but after the hurricane passed, winds pushed it back toward shore.

READ MORE: Red Tide is back on Pinellas beaches. Hurricane Michael’s winds bring dead fish, odors back to shore.

At that point the bloom was hanging around from Honeymoon Island south to Fort De Soto. Now it has been carried southward, she said, so that the effects are worst in south Pinellas and across the mouth of Tampa Bay down in Manatee County.

"It hasn’t dissipated. The concentrations are still high," Levy said. As for the future, she said, the latest forecasts don’t show much change any time soon, "We’re at the mercy of winds and currents," she said.

Keith Overton, the president of Tradewinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, said Red Tide hit his portion of the beach hard for only a few days. Still, he’s dealing with people’s perception that the entire coastline is rancid. He estimates he’s lost a half-million dollars in room revenue to Red Tide and more than $1 million total.

Tony Satterfield, vice president of another St. Pete Beach hotel, Alden Beach Resort and Suites, estimated he’s lost about 15 percent of his sales.

"Initial reports of Red Tide even in the south really hurt us," Overton said. "You can still come enjoy vacation and have a nice time, but the problem is no one really knows that."

The state’s tourism promotion agency, Visit Florida, got nearly $3.8 million from Gov. Rick Scott to assist the areas hit by Red Tide by running advertisements that play down the algae disaster and play up other Florida amenities that are doing alright.

At the Blue Parrot, the nasty odor had disappeared by Friday, but Thiesen expects it to come back. He hopes some of his most loyal customers, snowbirds who move south for the winter, will still bring him some business in spite of the choking toxins and the dead fish stink.

"It was a rough summer," Thiesen said. "This is supposed to be our time."

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.