AMI fish kill spawns debate: red tide or not

Manatee County worker George Donahue explains to Jeanne and Dean Enrooth, visiting Anna Maria Island from Minnesota, how the dead fish appeared on the beach Jan. 16. Donahue suspects overfishing as the cause. The Enrooths agreed, telling Donahue the water was covered with fishing boats the previous day. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

Dead fish, mostly mullet, line the Holmes Beach-Anna Maria shoreline the morning of Jan. 16. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

Red tide is being blamed for a Jan. 16 fish kill on parts of the Anna Maria shoreline, but there is no official confirmation of the cause.

According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Kevin Baxter, FWC believes the kill is red tide-related.

“Basically we have a lot of new reports of fish kills associated with red tide and we believe the one on Anna Maria Island also is related to the other kills,” said Baxter. “We’ve had fish kills throughout this bloom, which started around the end of September.”

Baxter said the heaviest concentration of red tide is in Sarasota County and moderate levels of the bacteria that causes the appearance of red tide have been reported in Manatee County.

While the Anna Maria fish kill did contain a variety of species, the majority of the dead fish found north of the Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach were mullet. The kill coincides with the annual mullet run and boats swarmed the waters near shore of where the dead fish were found the following morning.

Some locals believe the fish kill is related to the mullet run — a concerted effort by commercial fishers to catch roe-filled mullet — saying the consistency in size of the dead mullet may relate to the net size. There also is some suspicion a fisher may have used an illegal gill net to catch large quantities of mullet.

Karen Bell of A.P. Bell Fish House, Cortez, said Mote Marine Laboratory is telling her there is no red tide in the area where the dead fish were found, but she is siding with FWC in its findings.

“I rode down the beach with my windows down and started coughing and I don’t have a cold,” she said. “Also, fishers who are pulling up mullet are reporting the fish are gasping for air as they come up, which is indicative of what happens during red tide.”

The prize of the mullet run is females. The female’s roe is more valuable than the fish itself, so male mullet are often discarded.

Bell said that’s another reason why the fish kill on Anna Maria is likely caused by red tide.

“The county called me and asked if fishers were throwing fish overboard, and I told them absolutely not,” she said. “I saw those fish and there were both male and female involved in the kill. There is no way fishers would throw females away.”

Baxter said it’s not the first report of a mullet kill.

“We’ve had calls on mullet,” he said. “It appears that the mullet are spawning in areas that have been impacted by the red tide. Fish kills are being reported all along the Southwest coast.”

When asked if FWC would test the fish to confirm the cause of the kill, Baxter said it can be difficult to assign blame to a single cause.

“A lot of the fish have been dead for a while before they wash ashore, so they are already decomposing,” he said. “We have had reports of multiple species in the Anna Maria kill, but it is difficult to determine the exact number of species for that same reason.”


FWC confirms red tide in Manatee County

According to the Jan. 16 FWC red tide update, a bloom of the organism Karenia brevis, which makes up the red tide algae, ranges from low to high along the shore of Manatee County.

Baxter said testing is ongoing as scientists try to keep up with the outbreak.

“It’s really hard to predict the length of an outbreak or even where it’s going,” said Baxter. “We can do pretty good estimating within a three-day period with our satellite imagery, but long-term forecasting is difficult.”

Concentrations of red tide exist in Manatee County southward through Lee County, and low concentrations have been found offshore in Collier County.

The algae bloom, which has been growing in mass, extends from southern Manatee County through Lee County, with patches now present off the Florida Keys.

Baxter said fish kills have increased throughout the red tide areas in recent weeks and respiratory issues in humans are increasing.

To report a fish kill, call 800-636-0511.

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