The reports of red tide and dying sea life hit local Facebook groups days before the discussion that took place at the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners’ regular session meeting Tuesday.
But though the presence of the infamous algal bloom had not yet been confirmed through testing in the area, the commissioners unanimously voted to take what they described as a “proactive” approach to preventing possible damages.
The board unanimously passed a local state of emergency that had been drafted by County Attorney Jeremy Novak. Under it, county staff members, including County Administrator Michael Hammond and Emergency Management Director Matt Herring, will be able to act in combating any effects of red tide without the commissioners needing to reconvene.
“We’ve put this proclamation for your local state of emergency under the Statutes 252 and 161 to give them the ability to respond to (the red tide) without bringing you back to this board hall,” Novak told the commissioners.
The move mirrored the county’s response to a large red tide event in the fall of 2021, where a local state of emergency was issued to allow county staff to take measures that included the loosening of statewide net bans.
Hammond indicated that should the red tide event persist, this was once again a possibility.
“We’ll monitor the situation and do what we need to do,” he said.
County, FWC do not see eye-to-eye on red tide clean-up
In October, 2021, in the midst of a significant red tide bloom, county staff took an experimental approach to combating the event’s negative health effects, including recruiting local commercial fishers to catch large numbers of infected sea life before it washed up on county beaches.
To do so, these fishers were permitted to use purse sein nets.
Purse seining has a controversial history in Florida because of its ability to bring in immense numbers of fish. There have been periods of time when the practice was banned altogether.
Today, the use of purse seine nets is dictated by a Florida constitutional amendment from the ‘90s, colloquially known as the “net ban,” which requires that all commercial nets be limited to a size of 500 square feet.
The law allows for exceptions to be made in instances of “governmental purpose,” and so, the permission was granted in 2021. Though the FWC, Hammond said, expressed discontent with the move afterwards.
“Now the heat’s on staff,” he said Tuesday after the commissioners approved the state of emergency. “You might have to bail us out of jail because the FWC did not like what we did last time.”
But the move, Hammond and other county officials argued, was effective in mitigating some of the red tide’s effects.
“I don’t remember the tonnage, but it was a tremendous amount of fish that they caught before they actually hit the beaches,” he told the commissioners. “And the FWC reimbursed us. So, they would rather pay, after it hits the beach and runs all your tourists off and makes everybody sick and cough and whatnot, to clean up the mess and haul it to a landfill than to catch them before they hit the beach.”
What do we know about this red tide event?
Though the county commissioners voted to allow preventative measures to be taken, the presence of red tide in Gulf County’s waters has not yet been confirmed.
It was not detected in any of four samples taken in the area on Aug. 16, according to a weekly report issued by the FWC. More recent samples have been taken and are being tested, but these results will not be made available until Aug. 25.
Should any of the samples contain evidence of red tide or a different harmful algal bloom, local health warnings are likely to be issued.
A red tide occurs when certain types of algae—plant-like organisms that live in the water—grow out of control. The name “red tide” comes from the fact that overgrowth of algae can cause the color of the water to turn red, as well as green or brown.
Though rare, red tide events can cause dangerous or fatal health effects in humans and pets, particularly if infected seafood is consumed.
However, milder symptoms, such as watering eyes or difficulty breathing, are commonly reported in areas where infected sea life washes ashore.
Some people may have mild and short-lived respiratory symptoms such as eye, nose, and throat irritation similar to cold symptoms. Some individuals with breathing problems such as asthma might experience more severe symptoms.
Usually symptoms go away when a person leaves the area or goes indoors. Health officials usually recommend that people experiencing these symptoms stay away from beach areas or go into an air-conditioned space.
In the midst of scallop and red snapper recreational fishing seasons, which are known to be a tourism draw to Gulf County, a red tide event could have a significant impact on local tourism numbers in the coming weeks.
The state of emergency passed by the county commissioners will last for seven days, with county staff having the option to extend the measure in seven day increments should this be deemed necessary.