‘Red scare’: Marco dodges much of red tide effects, but not concerns fueled by news reports

But not concerns fueled by news reports

Lance Shearer

A recent afternoon and the mullet were jumping in the lagoon at Tigertail Beach.

This is a strong positive indicator for the waters of Marco Island, as bottom-feeding fish such as mullet and catfish are typically the first species to be affected by a red tide outbreak, said Rhonda Watkins principal environmental specialist for Collier County. Red tide in Southwest Florida has been much in the news, and much on the mind of visitors, potential visitors, and those whose businesses depend on them.

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Broden Colegrove, 12, pauses for a drink after kayaking with his parents at Tigertail Beach Sunday. Marco Island has been spared so far from the red tide scourge that has impacted waters to the north.

Many of those enjoying Tigertail Beach were from Lee County or vacationing there and knew they could come south to Marco to get away from the water quality issues further north. Unfortunately, many who do not look closely into the situation will tend to lump all waters along the west coast of Florida together, and not realize that different areas and beaches might have vastly different conditions.

Those who do realize that have been coming to Marco Island.

Boaters at the launch ramp on State Rd. 951 just north of Marco Island. The area has been spared so far from the red tide scourge that has impacted waters to the north.

“We’re seeing a lot of guests coming to the hotel who might have been on Sanibel or somewhere to the north, but shifted their reservations south,” said Amanda Cox, sales and marketing director for the JW Marriott hotel on Marco. “We have been very, very fortunate, but it’s difficult to tell the net net impact – there are individuals who might have cancelled” due to red tide concerns. At the hotel’s call center, she said, “it seems like every other call is about red tide.”

At the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, the hotel remains closed for renovation, but if offering a day pass program allowing guests to use the beach, pool and open-air café. Steve Falciani, general manager, said they have also seen an influx of customers coming down from destinations to the north to enjoy Marco’s more pristine waters.

The Boathouse Motel on Marco’s northern tip caters to boaters and water-minded tourists, and offers boat slips for guests’ boats. Owner Desiree Buhelos said she had seen a definite impact from the red tide scare.

Beachgoers wade back across Tigertail Lagoon on Sunday, Aug. 19. Marco Island has been spared so far from the red tide scourge that has impacted waters to the north.

“It’s absolutely affecting our business,” she said. “Newscasters are scaring heck out of people.” They see images of dead fish in Lee County waters, and assume it is the same on Marco, not realizing that those scenes are 50 or 60 miles to the north. “We’re an hour away.”

Of course, said Buhelos, she cannot guarantee what conditions will be when any particular guest arrives. “I walk the beach three times a week, and it hasn’t been any different. But I don’t know if someone has asthma. This has affected my business tremendously.”

Diaana Dohm, executive director of the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, also regularly walks the beach to monitor conditions, as well as noting where visits and inquiries at the Chamber are originating.

“We walk the beach every day – morning and afternoon,” she said. “A month ago, we had a few dead fish, but it’s really dissipated.” Now, she said, they find “no dead fish and no red tide symptoms.” They have seen a number of visitors coming down from places such as Bonita Springs and Ft. Myers Beach, she said. “We had quite an increase in traffic at the visitor center last week.”

Beachgoers Roy Dial and Ashley Boardman at Tigertail Lagoon on Sunday, Aug. 19. Marco Island has been spared so far from the red tide scourge that has impacted waters to the north.

Like Cox, Dohm compared the current red tide situation to the BP oil spill, where people from outside the area didn’t differentiate among areas.

“We were very much affected by the oil spill,” she said, emphasizing the need to educate potential visitors on Marco’s specific conditions. These can change from day to day, of course, dependent on offshore conditions, particularly the wind, with westerly winds blowing the microscopic Karenia brevis organisms onshore, and easterly winds keeping the contamination away from the land.

Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the red tide outbreak has primarily been to the north.

“I would say booking on Marco Island is a safe bet you won’t have these issues,” he said. He also mentioned Collier County had been spared the blue-green algae that had fouled waters in Lee County to the north and expressed hope their situation would improve soon.

Chris West and Amber Thomas paddleboard in Tigertail Lagoon on Sunday, Aug. 19. Marco Island has been spared so far from the red tide scourge that has impacted waters to the north.

Locally, said Wert, charter captains who book fishing trips offshore had been some of the businesses most affected by public concerns about the issue. On social and digital media, he said, the Paradise Coast staff had been pushing inland activities rather than beach activities. They also have a prominent link on the home page of the Collier tourism website, www.paradisecoast.com, highlighting current beach conditions.

For more information, you can call Collier County’s Red Tide Hotline at 239-252-2591 24 hours a day. Signs are posted on public beaches when red tide blooms occur.