University of Florida economists detail tourism revenue losses following 2018 red tide blooms

Researchers at UF released a report on the devastating 2018 red tide event in Southwest Florida. Charter boat captains and Airbnb operators took a substantial financial hit.

Karl Schneider
Fort Myers News-Press

A new University of Florida report outlines the economic fallout to the marine industry and tourism in Southwest Florida during the 2018 red tide event that shut down beaches and shuttered some businesses.

Researchers at the UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences put a fine point on decreased revenues that charter boat fishing, marine recreation and Airbnb operations saw due to the harmful bloom. The study looked at Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Monroe, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

“We did focus on the Southwest Florida region because that’s where this particular bloom was largest and lasted the longest,” Christa Court, director of the Economic Impact Analysis program at UF/IFAS said. “It’s also the region in Florida that is typically impacted more often by harmful algal blooms, specifically red tide.”

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The Port-O-Call Marina in Naples is pictured on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

Charter boats and marine recreation businesses

Charter boat businesses averaged a 61% decrease when red tide was present, the report says, while marine recreation businesses, such as outlets that sell boating and fishing supplies, averaged a 36% decrease in revenue.

“People tend to think about commercial fishing and how it’s impacted by red tide,” Andrew Ropicki, Florida Sea Grant marine economic specialist, said. “Those charter and for-hire operations are a key segment for coastal communities, and they were hit pretty hard.”

Team Lobo deepwater fishing captains, from left, Brandon Lawson, owner Eric Alexander and Eric Root prepare the Solo Lobo for a fishing excursion on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, at Port-O-Call Marina in Naples.

Eric Alexander, who operates Team Lobo charter boats at Port O Call Marina near Tin City in Naples, said revenue loss during the 2018 red tide event was significant and he was worried if the company was going to continue operating.

“The sheer number of dead fish was breathtaking to say the least,” he said. “I don’t recall how many trips we lost, but probably at least 25 -30% for that year and that carried over into 2019.”

To escape the blooms, Alexander said he had to travel farther offshore and for the most part start offering half-day trips.

“Half-day has really been the bread and butter of charter trips. A 4-hour trip only 10 miles offshore,” he said. “But you couldn’t catch anything in five of that 10 miles. That means all the fisheries were impacted.”

At the beginning of the UF/IFAS project on the economic impact, Court said they went out to speak with people in the area about the red tide bloom and the report’s findings were consistent with what they heard.

The captains of the Solo Lobo prepare their vessel for clients, Thursday morning, Aug. 5, 2021, at Port-O-Call Marina in Naples.

The effects on Airbnb operators

Aside from charter boats and marine recreation businesses, the report analyzed the effects Airbnb operators saw.

The researchers estimated that, based on a review of Airbnb reservations, the tourism sector lost about $184 million.

“The study considered Airbnb property reservations as a gauge for visitor spending throughout the region,” a news release says.

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The report says for every water quality test that showed high concentrations of red tide, the “average daily rate of Airbnb properties in a county was reduced by $0.446" or 44.6 cents. So, if a county happened to have multiple tests showing high concentrations that figure would increase.

That figure is specific to the 2018 bloom in Southwest Florida. If agencies produced more water quality tests during a bloom, Court said the results of studies like this would be more accurate.

The survey showed there are significant economic impacts when red tide is present, Court said, and more detailed data can help economists answer more specific questions.

“Because (the red tide bloom) is so localized and the time period so short, the impact can get covered up in data when it’s only reported annually or at a county level,” she said.

Harmful algal blooms only impact a portion of the county for a portion of the year, she said, and those localized impacts might not show through in annual data.

“Tourists still came and did something inland, so the overall number looks like it didn’t change,” she said. “It’s a cautionary tale to not just look at trends in the data and blame any change to a particular event. We need to look at it in more detail.”

During the survey, one of the biggest things researchers heard was that even when the red tide bloom had left the area, people were still not spending money with these businesses, Ropicki said.

“People were still not coming, and we saw that in results,” he said.

Alexander saw that lag effect and said it took a long time to dissipate.

“It didn’t go away instantly, it took a long time, months and months,” he said. We were still fighting it in 2019.”

Solo Lobo owner, Captain Eric Alexander works on a fishing rod, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, at Port-O-Call Marina in Naples.

One of the first questions from his customers would be whether red tide was present.

“People cancelled or decided not to come because of it. The lag effect was great,” he said.

The report says that even after red tide had left the area, reported revenue was 28% lower than average for charter boats and 15% lower than average for marine recreation businesses.

Since then, Team Lobo increased its full-day and 6-hour trips. It cost the company to outfit the boats with the equipment needed to make those longer runs, but Alexander said people are willing to spend extra money and the catch is much better.

With a new bloom looming up north by Tampa Bay, Alexander is again worried about it.

“I pray we don’t have another one like ’18, cause that one was wicked bad,” he said.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. You can reach him at kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk