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Manatee County's new skimmer boats will help clean up red tide fish kills

 The Weedoo TC 3000 can be used to pick up red tide fish kills or seaweed.
Carmine DeMilio
The Weedoo TC 3000 can be used to pick up red tide fish kills or seaweed.

It was announced at the Manatee County Tourist Development Council meeting last week, Thursday, that the county has purchased special boats to remove fish killed by red tide from the water.

During the 2018 red tide algae bloom that lasted more than a year, Manatee officials removed 450,000 pounds of dead fish from the shore.

They worked about 64 days straight, using a large mechanical rake pulled by a tractor to collect the rotting fish along 2.7 miles of beach. The fish were poured into roll-away garbage containers and sent to the landfill.

“It was just a tireless effort,” said Carmine DeMilio, Manatee’s Parks Operations Manager. “We didn't have many happy campers in 2018. It wasn't so much that we weren't prepared, it was just the abundance of red tide. It was much different.”

Beaches had to close, affecting local businesses and tourism, overall.

Then in 2020, during another occurrence of red tide, DeMilio said there were no closures because the bloom wasn’t as bad and he said his team was better prepared.

Carmine DeMilio

“Our deployment of not only equipment, but staff were in place, so we reacted a lot quicker,” he said. “It's all about tourism and these businesses that are out on the island… When you have to close down a beach and businesses, and people don't come to visit… it's terrible.”

According to the latest data from state wildlife officials, there are no signs of toxic red tide algae blooms in Florida waters right now.

Only background levels of the red tide organism Karenia brevis been detected in the Gulf of Mexico, which is normal.

That means no respiratory irritations or fish kills have been reported.

But when a bloom arrives again, Manatee is now better prepared, said DeMilio.

The county has added to its toxic algae response since the 2018 event by monitoring the water conditions from above using drones.

And most recently, it bought two skimmer boats, costing about $74,000 each, which can remove 1,200 pounds of dead fish from the water per outing.

"We're on the land right now with our tractors and our… mechanical beach rakes. We're in the air with our drones. And now we're in the water, as well,” said DeMilio.

"I think between the three of them, it's just one step closer to keeping people on our beaches, the restaurants opening and getting fish cleaned up.”

He said Manatee is now considering purchasing a conveyor belt to help get the fish into the garbage containers more efficiently.

During the last Manatee County Tourism Development Council meeting, member Ed Chiles, who owns restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, suggested the dead fish could be used to enrich farmland, and DeMilio confirmed that the county is considering composting options.

DeMilio's efforts helped him receive the first ever Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Award from the Tourist Development Council last year, which he shares with his colleagues.

“It's not just about me. It's about everybody that contributed,” he said. “And I pass around the award from time to time to everybody, so they can share it, almost like the Stanley Cup.”

Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.