Red tide is a systematic killer, working its way up the food chain from little snails on sea grasses eaten by manatees to fish eaten by turtles, birds or bigger fish. Along the Gulf Coast, tons of fish, manatees and sea turtles have been claimed.
SANIBEL ISLAND — On the fine, shell-dappled beaches of Sanibel Island, the putrid corpses of all manner of sea life are scraped into piles by a rag-tag crew with metal-tined rakes.
Matilda Meritt, a cigarette between her lips, rhinestone sunglasses, and a shirt that reads “wake me when the boring is over,” is on the early shift, dropped off in one of two Greyhound buses every morning for a week since tons of death washed up on these shores.
World renowned for the shells left on its curved beaches by gentle currents, Sanibel this summer is under attack by a menacing red tide — an algae confounding scientists with its longevity and overwhelming Florida's southwest coastline with mountains of dead fish, turtles and manatees.
Meritt, dressed in capris jeans and sneakers on a Monday morning, is a People Ready worker. The company provides temporary jobs for day laborers and skilled tradesman. Earlier this month, Meritt was driving cars for the auction department at CarMax.
Today it's $12.50 an hour on Sanibel where white-bellied fish bob like marshmallows in San Carlos Bay and a shift in the east breeze sends red tide scratching down the back of your throat.
“We're making progress,” she says smiling, cigarette bobbing, raking as she talks.
Meritt is one of an unknown number of people tasked with the gag-worthy chore of cleaning up the red tide slaughter. From the hard-working rabble disgorged every morning by the Greyhounds, to scientists at one of the country's top marine labs and the city worker normally in charge of road repair, the job this summer is cadaver collection.
It is an immediate, matter-of-fact chore with little time for the outside world's hot-headed blame-gaming, politicking and endless scroll of social media angst.
Even the heartbreak is on hold.
“The moment we stop having feelings is when we should quit, but we really try to put on the science hat and focus on the research,” says Rebeccah Hazelkorn, a senior biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota. “It's all for the betterment of the species so we can learn more about them.”
Hazelkorn had just wrenched her third dead manatee in a week into her work truck with the help of Gretchen Lovewell, Mote's program manager for the team that investigates dead and stranded animals. Lovewell waded chest deep in Shakett's Creek south of Sarasota to pull the floating manatee away from a tangle of mangroves where someone had found it — smelled it — earlier in the morning.
The 31-year-old Hazelkorn sits on the edge of her truck bed as a cloud of raisin-sized flies grows. She patiently answers questions from curious neighbors about red tide, how to tell a manatee's gender, and why the manatee's intestines have exploded outside its body in a yarn-like tangle as gasses in its abdomen expanded after death.
She looks down at a slop of feces that has leaked onto a cooler in her truck.
“This sucks,” she says. “It's not fun. It's not fun for anything right now.”
Red tide is natural, but this year is different
This year, 515 manatees have died statewide from various causes, including boat propellers, cold stress and red tide. The rolling death tally is 30 percent higher than the five-year average, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Red tide is a harmful bloom of the single-cell algae Karenia brevis. It occurs naturally, growing 20 to 40 miles offshore in the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
It can be pushed into southwest Florida's porous trim of inlets and estuaries by a shift in fall weather patterns and cold fronts, but it typically dissipates during winter and is gone by March.
Scientists statewide and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are trying to understand the lengthy lifespan of this year's bloom, which began in October 2017.
While not unprecedented — an 18-month bloom harassed the coast between 2004 and 2006 — Mote Marine staff scientist Tracy Fanara said the red tide has lasted longer into the spring and summer the past three years.
This summer, that means the devastating red tide is happening at the same time as a toxic blue-green algae bloom spreads in the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Estuary. They are two separate organisms. Red tide lives in higher salinity ocean conditions while blue-green algae, which is actually a cyanobacteria, lives in freshwater.
But red tide and the cyanobacteria both thrive in nutrient-heavy conditions. Record May rainfall flooded Lake Okeechobee, the northern estuaries and near-shore waters with an algae smorgasbord of nutrient-rich runoff.
Water releases from Lake Okeechobee that are necessary to keep the Herbert Hoover Dike from breaching added blue-green algae and freshwater to the brackish estuaries that were already bombed by normal watershed runoff.
Although “back pumping” of water off farmland and sugarcane fields from south of Lake Okeechobee is often blamed for the algae blooms, the practice largely ended in the 1980s and occurs now only in emergency situations when communities around the lake are threatened with flooding.
There has been no measurable back pumping this year, according to the South Florida Water Management District. In 2016 and 2017, a total of 32 days of back pumping occurred after record rain events and during Hurricane Irma.
In the 12 years previous to 2016, a total of 70 days of back pumping occurred.
The lake does maintain legacy nutrients that can be stirred during heavy winds, such as with Hurricane Irma.
Runoff from communities, cattle ranches and farms north of the lake also add nutrients, although projects are underway to better clean and store that water before it reaches Lake O.
There's little question lake releases into the estuaries contribute to the blue-green algae by weakening salinity levels, but Richard Stumpf, a scientist with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, said there is no link between the red tide and Lake Okeechobee.
“There is not enough water coming out of the lake to explain a bloom that goes all the way to Naples,” Stumpf said.
Brian LaPointe, a Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute research professor, notes that several rivers carry nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico that could be feeding the red tide, including the Myakka River and Peace River.
“Lake O may have contributed some of the water, but not the majority,” LaPointe said.
A quiet, orderly killer
Red tide is a systematic killer, working its way up the food chain from little snails on sea grasses eaten by manatees to fish eaten by turtles, birds or bigger fish.
The toxin it produces affects the nervous system. Brown pelicans stumble about and lose their waterproofing because they can no longer preen. Turtles swim in circles. Manatees drown, unable to lift their snouts above water.
Some of the animals that come into the care of veterinarian Robin Bast at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife on Sanibel are so weak they can't blink their eyes. The staff gives them fluids, feeds them through tubes, puts them in oxygen tanks and walks on tiptoes so as not to traumatize them further.
“We don't name them,” Bast emphasizes. “I've been here eight years. This is the worst in eight years.”
But at least Bast's animals have a fighting chance.
At Sanibel Island's public dock, just off the $6-a-car causeway that spans San Carlos Bay, barges heavy with black trash bags of dead fish pull in one after another.
These are the crews cleaning the canals. They scoop up the fish in nets, put them in bags and carry them to the dock where it can take two people to swing the bag into the dumpster.
Catfish spines tear holes in the bags, leaking a wretched broth of fish guts and canal water all over the workers. It's a stink that lingers until laundry day. The trick is to wrap the clothes in plastic bags, but roommates still complain.
Lynyrd Byer walked off the bus the first day and promptly vomited.
“It's one thing seeing it on the news,” says Byer, 50, who wears her hair in a tight silver crew cut and has multiple eyebrow piercings. “The water was just white from dead fish.”
Before this job, Byer was weighing and bagging wheat grass. Despite the smell, she prefers the fish pickup.
“I feel good about helping. I feel like I'm giving back,” Dyer says.
Tina McCall, 31, a recovering drug addict who was unemployed previous to the red tide kill, feels similarly. When a co-worker stumbles by with a catfish spine stuck through the bottom of his worn boot, she springs into action with a bucket of bleach water and pump bottle of hand sanitizer.
“My wife has four kids,” McCall says in explanation of her Florence Nightengale-like reflexes.
Another worker is in the bathroom, pulling out a spine that has stuck in his belly.
“You wouldn't think this would bother you because it's just fish,” says Sal Abbracciamento, who is waiting for a lunch that will be served just feet from where scores of dead fish still float. “But it's horrible.”
Still, today is a good day. Dyer and McCall saved a rabbit, scooping the brown blur from a canal where it was struggling to swim. It bit McCall.
“But it was really nice to see something living when everything else is dead,” McCall said.
Seventy protected Goliath grouper, some weighing as much as 250 pounds, were recovered on Sanibel between Aug. 1-4. The large fish are buried on city land at the Public Works Department. Smaller fish are taken in roll-off dumpsters to a landfill.
The fish kill has been so devastating, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported Friday that 66 tons of red tide fish had been removed from Sarasota area beaches in just a 10-day period.
A moving target
By Aug. 7, a northeast wind had driven the red tide as far as Manatee County where Mark Richardson ran a fish-sweep crew through canals on Longboat Key. Richardson, who is in charge of the town's streets, facilities and parks, had a crew of five in a special boat that was purchased in 2015 during a previous red tide event.
The outgoing tide helps clear the fish, but his crew picked up four tons of them in five hours on Tuesday. He expects it to get worse.
“It's disheartening because we pull out a whole ton of fish and it still looks like this,” he says, pointing to a canal polka-dotted with scales glinting in the sun.
Richardson's crew had seen nothing but dead fish as of early last week, but since November 2017, about 385 dead sea turtles had been recovered in Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties through Aug. 6, according to FWC. Of those, 65 percent of the deaths are attributed to red tide.
At Mote's necropsy lab, a walk-in cooler of turtles, including two hulking loggerheads, leaks puddles of blackening blood. Biologists slip on shin-high rain boots and suggest visitors change into scrubs to spare their clothes from the stench.
When the strandings investigation team isn't on a call, they pry apart the turtles, looking for clues to their demise and testing for red tide. The turtles “turn into little pressure cookers” in the heat, making it difficult to get information when organs go mushy or pop like balloons.
An endangered Kemp's ridley turtle — a small flying saucer shaped species — is chosen for necropsy. It's turtle number 137 for the Mote team this year. A tally is kept on a dry erase board.
Number 139 will come in by the end of the day.
As Lovewell saws apart the turtle, Hazelkorn answers her phone. It's about the manatee at Shakett's Creek.
“Things can change at a moment's notice in our lives,” she says.
Kimberly Miller is a staff writer for the Palm Beach Post.