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Life in the wake of red tide

As videos and images of whale, shark and turtle carcasses are spread across the internet like a paella of rotting flesh, Sarasota County looks to slash funds to market the region for Tourism.

 

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

The noxious odor of red tide that infused the Sarasota region with its vomitous cloak of death has temporarily lifted its hold on the region. The spate of afternoon storms and easterly winds have driven the high concentrations of k. brevis, the algae responsible for decimating marine life and causing respiratory and eye distress, at least temporarily offshore. But the fortunate winds could easily shift and the respite vanish.

And although the millions of pounds of dead fish and sea life may seem like a localized issue, the deleterious effects are being exponentially magnified by national and international news as well as social media.

 

On the Waterfront

Nobody tries to quantify the economic impact of the red tide more than Virginia Haley, President of Visit Sarasota. Visit Sarasota is responsible for implementing a portion of county bed tax allocations to market the ever-expanding tourism base of the region.

“This red tide has had a ripple effect far beyond anything we’ve seen before,” says Haley.

Haley told Longboat Key News Friday that there have been 4 billion negative media impressions about the red tide in local, national and international news. That measurement is an analytic metric and represents a chilling effect on everything from hotel reservations, home buying decisions to how visitors perceive what is historically marketed as a pristine and culture-filled community to enjoy.

In fact, it is the advent and ubiquity of social media and in particular, video sharing on Facebook and other platforms that in many ways has had the most deleterious effect. Videos and images of whale, shark and turtle carcasses have been spread across the internet like paella of rotting flesh.

Haley says that the last spate of red tide that was even close to this level was in 2005-06 but that the evolution of technology has made the problem so pronounced and visible that it will take a matching effort once the red tide subsides to counter the damage to the image of the region.

Unfortunately for Haley and the area tourism industry, the Sarasota County Commission has indicated it intends to slash the budget for promoting the region and shift funds to pay for repairs to Ed Smith Stadium.

 

Budget to market in balance

Last week, the Sarasota County Commissioners agreed with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that more than $3 million should come out of Tourist Development Tax revenue to pay for Ed Smith Stadium repairs. The Tourist Development Tax revenue is generated by a 5 percent tax on hotel rooms in the county and is intended to be used on organizations and amenities that attract visitors as well as beach maintenance.

Historically, 30 percent of the Tourist Development Tax revenue has been allocated to Visit Sarasota County. The County Commission and Lewis have tentatively agreed to lower that contribution to 25 percent, which would strip about $1.2 million from Visit Sarasota’s marketing budget.

And while the repairs to the stadium are mandated by the terms of the lease between the County and the Baltimore Orioles, the timing of cutting the budget in the face of red tide makes no sense to Haley and many in the business community. Haley and many hoteliers also had to combat the after effects of the media attention and negative impact of Hurricane Irma last year.

The Tourist Development Council will meet before the County Commission makes a final decision in the coming weeks. There will be a public hearing and Haley hopes that the funding level will stay intact if not enhanced.

 

Bringing tourists back

If anyone has any question of the impact of red tide, a drive along Lido Beach or Longboat Key and a visit to the area beaches reveal a grim story. Hotel parking lots are mostly vacant, endless trip cancelations are the rule, and beaches, inlets and estuaries are littered with fish carcasses, bones and the after effects of the red tide. Already, businesses have closed including a paddleboard and kayak operation in Anna Maria, not to mention the effect on the charter boat business, the recreational boat business and the real estate industry.

Red tide made the headlines and the front page of the Washington Post and several New York City newspapers over the last week alone and news outlets across Europe, Canada and through a world interconnected through media have all witnessed our shorelines.

Haley says that when the red tide seems to truly have dissipated, the media messaging and marketing messaging is not to simply say, “We’re back in business,” or “Red tide is gone.”

“You produce a tremendous volume of video and photography to show the region intact, enjoying itself and flourishing,” says Haley.

In essence, it will take video and imagery to combat video and imagery.

 

Science, politics and Mote Marine

Yet another aspect emanating from the red tide is the emotionally charged rhetoric that has also infused the newswaves.

The relationship between the red tide and the green algae that has flowed into the Gulf from Florida rivers and estuaries is both debated and being researched. Extremes have grown with some leaning severely toward the “it’s a naturally recurring phenomenon and goes back to Biblical times,” explanation and the other extreme positing human activity, pollution and nutrient runoff as the primary factor exacerbating the situation.

Then there is Mote Marine Laboratory, which is situated in many ways at the epicenter of both research and the red tide discussion.

Some have accused Mote of avoiding political or advocacy positions in its findings and its mission. For Mote Marine President Dr. Michael Crosby, Mote is completely dedicated to the kind of real science that is arriving at conclusions and associations about not only red tide and its behavior, but also interrelated issues such as sea temperature rise, ocean acidification, the relationship to the green algae bloom and numerous other factors.

But Crosby is clear that Mote Marine is all about science and it is for others including government and the private sector to implement or advocate based on scientific research. Simply said, Mote is not in the lobbying business, but as Crosby said, “What we do is objective science.”

Crosby told Longboat Key News that once the Mote aquarium is relocated and rebuilt in Benderson Park, the research and science facility at the City Island site will be greatly enhanced and allow additional Ph.D.s to bring their research to the laboratory.

“The science is driving everything. The eye candy is the new aquarium and education, but the science is what drives it all,” said Crosby.

In a histogram provided by Mote Marine, there is a clear demonstration that Federal and State red tide funding increases dramatically during a bloom and then dwindles. Mote maintains that science benefits from a more consistent funding approach between blooms.

In many ways, Visit Sarasota County and Mote Marine’s needs run in slightly opposite paths. The infusion of marketing dollars following the red tide is paramount to creating a successful busy season in 2018-19.

But for Mote, the need is for sustained research and funding long after the fish carcasses have been trucked away and the air and sea return to the watery wonderland that visitors come to enjoy and residents call their home.

Both agencies also share4 a common mission: a sustained financial commitment to help deal with the mess. It is this very mess that brings a great irony to the region: a situation where the beaches and Gulf — the main attraction for both tourism and research — is driving people away.

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