ENGLEWOOD — Normally, with the start of tarpon season in April and throughout the summer months, Rob Stern of Sterns & Bruns Garage and Tires expects to restock his inventory two, three or more times with tires for boat trailers.

Not in 2018. He didn’t have to restock even once, even though trailer tires age faster than automobile tires since they aren’t used as often and can sit in the sun and deteriorate.

“When the tarpon season rolled in, that’s when it really got bad,” Sterns said, recalling how intense red tide algae blooms hugged the Gulf coast line, off Englewood and Boca Grande and eventually throughout Southwest Florida from Pinellas south to Collier County and beyond.

During the summer months, Sterns expects to see his annual vacationing customers from Polk and other inland Florida counties.

“They didn’t come,” he said.

Intense awareness

The Karenia brevis red tide algae — while natural to the Gulf — can kill fish and other marine life, respiratory irritations and ailments in humans when the counts reach 100,000 or more per liter of water. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records of red tide events date back to the late 1800s.

The FWC researchers first tracked the blooms growing out in the Gulf in November 2017. The 2018 blooms, especially during the spring and summer months, were so intense that the Gulf waters day after day were stained brown. The air bore a sour chowder stench of the algae and fish kills.

Along with grunts, mullet and other small marine life, large goliath grouper and tarpon washed up dead along Boca Grande and local barrier islands like Don Pedro Island and Manasota Key. The Coastal Wildlife Club volunteer sea turtle nesting patrols and others reported almost on a daily basis dead sea turtles, dolphins and manatees along Manasota Key and other local waters.

Some news reports estimated more than 2,000 tons of marine life statewide succumbed to the toxic algae by August. CNN ranked this year’s red tide bloom in Florida as the sixth worse natural disaster in the nation for 2018.

Public awareness also intensified and earned national media coverage. Facebook and other social media platforms sounded the alarm. The Facebook page, “Red Tide Watch Manasota Key,” now counts 6,942 members among its followers.

Along with the impacts of red tide, public awareness grew over the water discharges from Lake Okeechobee leading to freshwater blue-green algae blooms clogging the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County and the St. Lucie River estuary on the East Coast.

The grassroots group Captains for Clean Water sprung up with the mission of “advancing education, awareness and scientifically supported solutions to restore and protect marine ecosystems and our way of life for future generations.”

“(Social media) did raise awareness,” said Jennifer Huber, tourism public relations manager for the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Florida saw more interest — and investment — in the research of red tide and other toxic algae. In November, Mote Marine Laboratory saw a $1 million grant from the Andrew and Judith Economos Charitable Foundation to establish a red tide institute that will coordinate and promote red tide research.

Noting the cost to wildlife, as well as businesses, she said, “We all want clean water.”

In August, then Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron deSantis visited Englewood and met at the at the SandBar Tiki & Grille restaurant on Manasota Key with local residents, business owners, charter fishing captains and others upset with the toll red tide was taking on Englewood and coastal communities.

The Sun reported DeSantis telling to those attending the meeting, “This problem undermines our economic future. It affects people statewide. We also have the issue of health and safety.”

Economic toll

The good news — hopefully — is that the red tide has subsided.

Recent FWC maps, posted on myfwc.com, show no signs of red tide concentrations turning up in water samples throughout south Florida.

Mote Marine Laboratory’s daily beach reports at visitbeaches.org aren’t seeing red tide impacts to Sarasota, Venice and other local Gulf beaches lately.

“We’re keeping our fingers and toes crossed,” Huber said Thursday. She also hopes word will spread that the worst may be over.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Huber said.

The impacts took a heavy toll on businesses in the summer months. A survey of 42 responding businesses throughout Charlotte County determined the county sustained a loss of more than $500,000 by August.

The bureau conducted a follow-up, more expansive survey of 89 respondents in September that suggested the losses exceeded $2.1 million in Charlotte.

“Keep in mind: those who provided a figure provided an estimated amount,” Huber said. ”Some business said they couldn’t guess; others said they didn’t lose anything; a couple provided a range and the lower of the range was included.”

The numbers could be higher, Huber suggested, since the survey didn’t see many charter fishing captains participating. The fishing guides were hit hard by the persistent and widespread blooms.

“(Red tide) had a pretty dramatic impact across the board,” said Keith Farlow, outgoing president of the Englewood Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Most, if not all of Englewood businesses, even those not on Manasota Key fronting on the Gulf, saw impacts to a greater or lesser degree from red tide, Farlow suggested.

Even though his Farlow’s on the Water restaurant on Ainger Creek did not feel the direct impacts of red tide like restaurants on Manasota Key, he said his summer business was flat, less than he’d normally expect.

The Englewood chamber took action by distributing $10,000 in grants to help restaurant staff and other employees who found themselves losing work due to red tide and needed a helping hand to pay utility, rent and other bills.

“We’re still trying to crawl back,” said Mark Spurgeon, president-elect for the Englewood Area Board of Realtors. Vacation rentals, he said, took a hard hit starting just before the July 4th weekend. However, rentals are still being affected and will be into February.

Through social and other media outlets, and the fact researchers couldn’t provide specific answers about red tide, led to the perception that Englewood was “almost a toxic area,” Spurgeon suggested.

His hope is the word spreads just as quickly that the air and Gulf waters are clear again.

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