By LIZ HARDAWAY
Hundreds of thousands of fish turned up dead on the shores of southwest Florida last year due to red tide, affecting area businesses, tourism and more.
This year tells a different story though, with the red tide organism, Karenia brevis, not being observed much beyond background concentrations in either Sarasota or Charlotte counties early August, according to the FWC.
Recovery efforts are now in action.
Ten thousand juvenile redfish were released in Charlotte County’s waters Tuesday morning. The Coastal Conservation Association, Duke Energy and FWC worked together to release the fish as a part of their red tide recovery efforts. The redfish were raised in a hatchery and donated from the Duke Mariculture Center in Crystal River.
“Charlotte Harbor is a sportsman’s paradise,” said CCA chapter president Mike Brimer. “This is an effort to bounce back from the red tide we suffered.”
More than 24,000 juvenile and adult redfish have already been released on the west coast for the initiative.
A group of volunteers and officials with the organizations first met up at a park in Port Charlotte Tuesday morning. Duke Energy employees Eric Latimer, Bridget Fagan and Justin Branch placed a dozen or so redfish into large transparent release bags to be dumped in the water leading to Peace River.
Volunteers, some aged 15, carried the sloshing bags to the water, redfish tails flicking water on their shirts and pushing the bag in every direction.
The bags were then dipped halfway into the water, and the redfish went straight to the bottom.
That’s when Brian Gorski, an executive director for CCA, knew something was off.
He tested the salinity, or the amount of salt in the water, which came out to a mere 4 percent. Meanwhile, the juvenile redfish were coming from tanks with a 24 percent salinity.
Though redfish can survive in both fresh and salt water, just like a goldfish, they need to get acclimated to their new environment.
“They need a transition,” Gorski said, with maybe 100 fish being released in the original location. He doesn’t anticipate the fish released at the park being harmed from the difference in salinity but wanted to make the transition simple to help improve the their rate of survival.
Gorski and officials with CCA, Duke Energy and FWC decided to switch locations to an area near Coral Creek fishing pier in Placida, south of Englewood, where the salinity measured at 26 percent.
An hour later, all 10,000 fish were released.
“It’s not going to make an immediate impact,” Gorski said, adding the juvenile fish need to grow for a year and a half before they reach legal harvesting size at 18 inches.
However, if even one female survives out of the 10,000 fish released Tuesday, Gorski considers that a win. “Females can spawn 1 million to 2 million eggs.”
The 10,000 fish released Tuesday will probably hide in the mangroves, Gorski said. “They love cover ... they’re looking for protection.”
The group released 2,000 juvenile redfish and 30 adult redfish earlier this year.
Local fishermen are relieved red tide has yet to come back this year, as it gives the released fish a better chance to thrive.
“Fish stocks were decimated by red tide last year,” Gorski said, with the groups focusing on snook, redfish and sea trout as they are the three main species for recreational anglers. As a result, local fishing charters’ businesses suffered as well.
“The fishery has been on a steady decline for a while now,” said Capt. Jay Withers, who’s led a fishing charter for 17 years now. Withers has been campaigning for 12 years to get these types of release programs to come to Charlotte Harbor. “It took red tide to stimulate action.”
CCA is planning to work with Duke Energy’s Mariculture Center for future sea trout releases. Brimer hopes the groups release trout within the next year.