Florida algae crisis: Restaurants react to 'pungent smell' affecting business, appetites

Grace Speas
The News-Press

The condition of the water is killing more than the fish — it's killing appetites and business for local restaurants.

More: National Weather Service extends beach hazard advisory through Thursday

Some businesses along Fort Myers Beach have closed temporarily, with employees citing health-related problems and lack of customers. Restaurants are taking numerous approaches to the crisis, including the creation of a "Fish Kill" cocktail with proceeds to benefit a clean water activist group.

Florida Gulf Coast University student Christian Rehm took this photo Monday morning while walking on Sanibel Island.

Closing doors

Junkanoo on the Beach recently closed its doors due to poor air quality, and The Cottage Bar has moved entertainment into the main dining room every night since Sunday.

"No one wants to eat food and smell this," Kameron Prater said, an employee of The Cottage Bar. She was experiencing coughing, sneezing, headache and burning nose and eyes while working near the beach.

Junkanoo was forced to close its doors at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday due to the "pungent smell" of dead fish and red tide, according to general manager Neal VanVliet.

"It was really bad," VanVliet said. "Everyone was coughing. It seemed unhealthy for myself, employees' health and the customers."

The restaurant had also closed early Monday but tried opening again the next two days.

"Today’s a different day," VanVliet said Wednesday. "Tractors came by and picked up all of the dead fish. The wind is blowing in a different direction."

Unfortunately, the smell was too much — Junkanoo closed early that same afternoon and was closed all day Thursday.

“It definitely has affected us," the general manager said. "People will come in and smell it, and it's not appetizing.”

The restaurant has the same owner as Fresh Catch Bistro, which was kept open because of its inside seating. Junkanoo has both indoor and outdoor seating.

Junkanoo has both indoor and outdoor seating.

Reassuring customers

The Lani Kai Island Resort came under fire Wednesday after posting a video of its clear shoreline with the hashtag #cleanbeach and #onestepatatime.

Melissa Schneider, marketing director for the resort, said the post was not meant to claim the beach was clean. She had meant to post #clearbeach instead, but the word was autocorrected. The post has since been edited.

"Some people were saying that we are trying to hide the conditions," Schneider said. "Absolutely not."

Marketing director for the Lani Kai posted #cleanbeach but meant to post #clearbeach to signify the dead fish had been towed away.

Schneider said the post was a positive effort to show that the resort is making the best of an "awful" situation and "dealing with it with everyone else.”

"If I wanted to hide it, I just wouldn’t post anything," Schneider said. "I was doing it as a positive, 'let’s stick together with this, we’re all still here' sort of thing. I wanted to give a look of what it looked like at that specific time."

The Lani Kai has outdoor bars and four restaurants on property, three of which are open in the summer. Schneider said the resort has not closed anything due to conditions.

Salty Papa's Shrimp House took to Facebook at the end of July to assure customers that its seafood does not come from local waters.

"We only use wild-caught Gulf and Atlantic seafood caught by licensed and inspected U.S. commercial fishing and shrimping boats," the restaurant said on its Facebook page.

The post clarified the restaurant's seafood is sourced from deeper offshore waters from Louisiana to Florida to Texas and "all points in between." Manager Kaitlin French said the owner posts this information annually for customers, particularly tourists who want to know where their dishes are coming from.

But this year the restaurant decided to post earlier.

The restaurant usually posts about where it gets its seafood to reassure customers, but this year, the owner decided to post earlier than usual, manager Kaitlin French said.

"This year it's just been so bad we posted it early," French said, citing the dead manatees and dolphins that are being pulled from waters.

The business told its customers that its seafood only comes from commercial, licensed and regulated sources and that Salty Papa's would never serve its guests anything the staff would not eat themselves. The post also added hogfish, scallops and big pink shrimp are a must try. 

The owner "just wanted to make sure that people knew everything we get is further out," French said.

Spreading awareness (with cocktails)

One Fort Myers Beach restaurant took an interesting approach to the environmental conditions by introducing a new "Fish Kill" cocktail for a good cause.

The "Fish Kill" cocktail from Parrot Key Caribbean Grill on Fort Myers Beach raises money for Captains for Clean Water.

The “Fish Kill” drink, crafted by Parrot Key Caribbean Grill on Fort Myers Beach, combines tequila, blue curaçao and sour mix. It's blended with ice and topped with melon liqueur giving the drink its distinct blue-green color. Swedish Fish complete its look.

More: Fort Myers Beach restaurant crafts 'Fish Kill' cocktail to fight algae, red tide

One hundred percent of all sales of the drink will go to the nonprofit organization Captains for Clean Water. The group has a goal to treat runoff from Lake Okeechobee and redirect it south.

Surveying the damage

The National Weather Service extended its beach hazard advisory from Sarasota through Lee County through Monday, noting that red tide could cause respiratory irritation in some coastal areas. "Symptoms may include coughing, sneezing and tearing eyes," the statement says.

Jeff Webb, president of the Lee County chapter of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said, "It's a really dangerous slope" for tourism and restaurants when news is spread about every beach being poor quality.

"It’s important to understand that Lee County is made up of a bunch of beaches," Webb said. "I think the problem is, when we make a blanket statement, and we say everything is shut down, it really impacts everyone negatively."

Webb, who represents 390 restaurants and hotels in the area, said this has been a really challenging year with the devastation from Hurricane Irma and now with water quality issues "which always seem to happen this time of the year."

Cape Coral residents and others concerned about the red tide and algae in local waterways gathered for a meeting with Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on Tuesday at the Cape Coral Yacht Club.

Webb was out of town when reached for comment but said he's been told certain portions of Bonita beaches, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel are "just fine."

Craig Mcmicken is a marketing manager for Danco Sports, a fishing supply manufacturing company. He said he is on the water more than 150 days a year for his job, gathering content for the company's social media. Mcmicken said doctors believe he caught pneumonia by being out on the water.

"I can tell you that before becoming ill from this red tide and algae bloom, it was bad from Captiva to Bonita, and that was two weeks ago — and it’s only gotten worse," Mcmicken said.

"They are using tractors on the beaches to pick up all the dead fish and haul it away to give the beach a better appearance, but I can assure you it is not good to go there or safe."

For up-to-date news on the algae and red tide problem in Southwest Florida, visit