A Red Tide on Florida’s Gulf Coast Has Been a Huge Hit to Tourism


A Red Tide on Florida’s Gulf Coast Has Been a Huge Hit to Tourism

Though an algae bloom on the coast is improving, locals and business owners say it may be too little, too late.

Cristobal Herrera/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Saturday of Labor Day weekend in Siesta Key, just off Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, was a scorcher, with bright blue skies offering the perfect send-off for summer. John Fabian, a charter boat captain, was ready for it, offering two-hour, $400 sightseeing tours of the Intracoastal Waterway, the aquatic freeway that runs parallel to the coast.

Mr. Fabian said he typically brings in $15,000 during Labor Day weekend with his tours, which books up with tourists and snowbirds weeks in advance. But this holiday weekend was different. He’s had no calls, no bookings. This weekend, he had only one client: me.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Mr. Fabian said. “We normally get 15 to 20 calls a day, and we normally send our clients out on water excursions with the stand-up paddle boards and inner tubes. But I’ve been canceling the trip. I don’t want to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. I don’t want them jumping in the water and then leaving me a negative review.”

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Although Labor Day weekend usually marks the last summer spike in tourism along this coast, an unusually persistent red tide — the longest in the area since 2006 — has driven away would-be visitors, turning a survey of the Intracoastal Waterway, which would normally be buzzing with boats, into a quiet nature tour, despite bright blue skies and a cool breeze. Even the police boats seemed at loose ends, patrolling for B.U.I. (boating under the influence) violations during this would-be party weekend, and finally idling under a bridge, where the officers checked their cellphones in the shade.

This year’s red tide, a harmful algae bloom, technically began last October, and has been unlike anything the locals here have ever seen. It’s left tons of dead fish floating at the surface of the waters, both along the shore in the Gulf of Mexico and also in the Intracoastal Waterway. Mammals — dolphins, sea turtles and manatees, some feeding on the sickened fish — have also fallen victim to the tide. From July 1 to Aug. 30, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported 48 bottlenose dolphin deaths in southwest Florida; the average for that time frame is eight.

Although no humans have been killed by the tide, local residents have felt its effects: red tide can cause respiratory inflammation and unpleasant itchy or burning skin reactions. A lifeguard at Siesta Key beach said he had used up all of his sick days and vacation days because of bronchitis that he is convinced was caused by the tide.

And then there’s the smell. “It was so bad, I can’t even tell you,” said Ali Fabian, Mr. Fabian’s wife and first mate. “Imagine Tuna Helper gone bad. That’s exactly what it smelled like.”

As a result, although Siesta Key is regularly voted as one of the top beaches in the country, thanks to its wide white sands and clear waters, this Labor Day weekend, the crowd was patchy at best, and populated mostly by international tourists. Though there weren’t any dead fish floating in it and it didn’t smell, the water looked like steeped black tea. Locals stayed home.

In July, Sarasota County, where Siesta Key and Longboat Key are, actually registered a small increase on the year in visitor numbers, even during the red tide, from 115,800 visitors in July 2017 to 118,000 visitors this July, according to Lynn Hobeck Bates, communications manager for Visit Sarasota County — though she attributed those numbers to an increase in hotel inventory.

Business owners in the tourism sector here, however, say they have seen a hit worse than they’ve had in years — and that’s coming from folks who routinely suffer through hurricane seasons.

“This is paradise ground zero right here,” said James Sullivan, a bartender at Casey Key Fish House, a divey tiki bar on a spit of sand in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway, as he dug a beer out of a cooler and opened it with the sleeve of his Hawaiian shirt. Labor Day weekend at the bar usually includes live bands throughout the afternoon, and rowdy calls for shots. This holiday weekend, though, it looked downright civilized, with just as many guests as empty barstools.

“I’d say business is down 70 percent here,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We just show up to work and see how it smells to see if we’re closed or not.”

About a half-hour north by boat is Longboat Key and the ultra-popular Dry Dock Waterfront Bar and Grill. On a Friday afternoon, on the tail-end of the lunch hour, two waiters, Brittney Dolman and Heidi Frederick, found themselves with empty sections and not much more to do than stare forlornly out the window at the water below. “The water’s usually not this dark,” Ms. Dolman said — a promise she said she’s been making to the few customers who venture into the restaurant these days.

“Normally I’ve got 200 customers in a shift,” Ms. Dolman added. “But some shifts I’ve been leaving work with zero customers and zero dollars,” adding “we’ve never seen it like this.” Kurt Disney, the Dry Dock’s manager, estimated business is down 50 to 75 percent. “We’re normally one of the busiest places in town, so I can’t imagine how the smaller places are coping,” he said.

The season that started with Labor Day will be particularly affected, since many of the area’s visitors are actually wealthy snowbirds, like the author Stephen King, who keep a home here. But a number of them are delaying their trips until the red tide subsides.

“This place normally has a line out the door,” said Marina Evans, a snowbird and Dry Dock regular who comes down every year from New Jersey. “It’s like a ghost town now. I guess the plus side of the red tide is I don’t have to wait in line.” She gestured around the empty Dry Dock bar and hollered to the bartender in a Jersey-tweaked accent, “Hey! How’s about a red tide discount?”

Ask any of the locals, and they’ll quickly tell you that red tides are perfectly normal around here. They have been occurring almost every year for generations, typically worsening in the springtime and then dissipating. But no one knows what exactly has caused this red tide to last so long and hit so hard. Ironically, many of the Floridians around here say they are hoping for a tropical storm or a hurricane to break up the tide and fully clear up the waters.

There are positive signs for visitors. Dr. Vince Lovko, the plankton expert at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, in Sarasota, pointed out that there are good resources available for visitors, including a website and smartphone app from Mote, where you can find out which beaches have been impacted and which are clear. “Even though one beach can be affected, a few beaches away you can find a better one,” he said. “And the ecosystem is pretty resilient. There is still a lot of life out there.”

There is more good news: the tide appears to be subsiding. Although the waterways were clogged with dead fish during the first two weeks of August, by the end of the month, thanks in part to weather and in part to cleanup efforts, there weren’t many dead fish to be seen.

During the boat tour, Ms. Fabian excitedly pointed out birds congregating on Sand Dollar Island. “That’s a great sign. They weren’t here just last week,” she said. And toward the end of the two-hour tour, an even better sign surfaced from the water: two bottlenose dolphins appeared alongside the boat.

“It almost makes me want to cry,” Ms. Fabian said with a gasp. “I can’t even tell you how happy that makes me,” said Mr. Fabian, as he recorded the dolphins’ splashes on his cellphone. “It means we’re on the comeback.”