A man driving a bulldozer and workers with pitchforks clean up dead fish on Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach, Florida.
A work crew cleans up dead fish on Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach, Florida, in August. Chris O'Meara/AP

The 2018 red tide deposited many tons of dead fish and other marine debris on Florida’s beaches. Local officials had to figure out how to clean it up.

When the red tide started washing dead fish onto Lee County’s beaches in southwest Florida earlier this year, the parks department met the waste like it always has: by having employees scoop it into dumpsters.

But then the toxic algae bloom got worse. The department hired extra day laborers, and when they still couldn’t keep up with the rancid waste on the county’s 50 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline (including Fort Myers and Sanibel beaches), Lee hired a private contractor to help hoist the fish into dumpsters and the county incinerator.

Eventually, the parks department had brought so much of the beach in with the fish, the facility told them to stop—the incinerator could not take any more sand.

A cleanup worker holds a fish that washed up with the red tide. (Courtesy of Lee County)

All told, Lee County required 39,069 labor hours to scoop 4 million pounds of marine debris off its beaches, thanks to the algae bloom. In the 28 years Dave Harner, the Lee County assistant manager, has worked in the area, he’s never seen a red tide this lethal and long-lasting. Nor has he seen the red-tide fund depleted—but that changed this year, too. The county spent $2.55 million hoisting the reeking mess off its property. “We had a plan in place, but I don’t think anyone ever expected something of this magnitude,” he said.

Since the toxic algae has left the county’s shores, Harner and his colleagues have reflected on a waste-management problem beyond what they were prepared to handle. “It was an unusual and slow-motion emergency,” said Nick Azzara, an information outreach manager for Manatee County, up the coast from Lee and also one of the seven affected counties for which Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency back in August.

But in a state where the political will to study and prevent disasters of this kind has been lacking, who’s to say the counties are done scrambling to clean up? It’s possible that climate change is making these blooms more frequent while water pollution makes them worse, so counties could face even bigger rot piles in the future.

Already, Florida deals with this algae nearly every year. Certain water conditions trigger the responsible algae species to proliferate and release toxins that damage the nervous systems of aquatic life. The dead or dying animals wash up onto shores, and counties provide the tools, personnel, and state money to take decomposing refuse off shores if a town needs them to. Whereas most red tides last a few weeks or months, this outbreak has been ebbing and flowing around Florida for over a year. Lee County dealt with its casualties most of that time, which is why the county had to find a new way to disappear literal tons of dead fish.

The county decided to incorporate surf rakes, machines that sift through sand to pick up debris while trailing behind a tractor. After calling beach-care groups to soothe fears about heavy equipment on beaches—like Turtle Time, an organization that ensures sea turtles have safe nesting spots—two rakes rumbled onto the sand. The machines cost $61,000 each, and unlike most cleanup costs, were paid for by the county’s tourism-tax savings. They sped up the cleaning process. When an outbreak hit Boca Grande Beach, “what would have [previously] taken a couple of days took three hours,” said Harner.

Despite the machines’ efficiency, removal was still hard work. Manatee County ran its surf rakes every day from sun up to sun down during the outbreak, and still had a few brutal weeks where extra hires helped pick up debris. Long hours in the sun and extra protective layers to prevent irritation from the algae, combined with the stench, made for exhausting work, said Azzara.

The machines also couldn’t help with two other issues Lee faced: private property and huge carcasses. Lee County tried to stay off private residential land for liability reasons, and mostly provided affected neighborhoods with dumpsters and guides on how to scoop fish up themselves. County employees only ventured onto private land when carcasses requiring construction equipment, like dolphins and goliath groupers, sat on someone’s shore.

Normally, some larger animals are removed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Institute, a state agency that will go all over the state to take in dead and dying members of protected species. Andy Garrett, a marine biologist with the institute’s marine-mammal rescue team, says they typically take in dead wildlife to perform necropsies.

But towing in a single manatee—the most common mammalian victim of this outbreak—takes hours and heavy-duty trailers. So many were washing up and decomposing rapidly in the hot sun, the team had no choice but to leave dozens on the beach or floating in the water. “But if there’s a 10-foot dead manatee behind someone’s house and we can’t collect it, that person still wants that pile of dead mammal out of their backyard,” he said.

The funding for the marine-mammal division is limited to what they are granted at the start of the fiscal year, plus they had to devote some of their resources to other tasks, like saving manatees that were still alive. Counties, however, could get federal aid. That was why then-Governor Scott declared a state of emergency—those seven counties could get reimbursed for the cost of cleanup.

While the money was helpful for Lee and Manatee, Scott’s announcement was controversial, as state funding for red-tide research and preventative measures, such as water-quality monitoring and environmental regulation enforcement, was cut to one-third of previous levels while he was in office. The governor has also been accused of reducing monitoring efforts that, had they been enforced, might have kept the red tide from growing so large. Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on how municipalities should plan for any future red-tide cleanup costs of this magnitude.

As Florida elects Scott to the U.S. Senate and Ron DeSantis to the governorship, it remains to be seen if DeSantis will dedicate more money or new policies to red tides. Local officials are trying to prepare, regardless. Lee County now has the surf rakes and staff trained to use them, and is considering amending its contracts with the companies that clean up storm debris to more formally include red-tide assistance, said Harner. “We’re better prepared because we went through a number of events since [Hurricane] Irma, and that’s … helped us learn how to mobilize,” he said.

But ultimately, future plans involve a lot of hope. “Like the rest of Florida, there aren’t huge reserves built up to deal with a public-health issue like that,” Azzara said. Although the worst of this season seems to be behind them, “we’re hoping this doesn’t get worse.”

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