ANNA MARIA ISLAND – Manatee County equipment operator Mark Taylor has played a crucial role in the red tide cleanup efforts taking place on the Island’s Gulfside beaches.
Using a tractor to pull a piece of equipment known as a Barber beach rake, Taylor’s recently been working seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day, removing dead fish and other marine life from the beaches.
Taylor has worked for the county for 18 years. His beach raking duties are usually limited to the public beaches, but those county-funded efforts were recently expanded to include the entire Gulfside shoreline after dead fish killed by red tide began washing ashore in early August.
“I’m typically the only beach rake operating. I have got a backup rig and we’ve got an operator in Coquina Beach and Cortez Beach (in Bradenton Beach) that’s been working down there,” Taylor said after his workday ended on Friday.
Pulled behind a tractor, the beach raker gathers up dead fish and seagrass and drops it into a hopper that’s later emptied into a dumpster or the front-end loader recently put into service.
“Basically, I’ve been taking care of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria. It’s a lot of beach to cover and sometimes you have to make multiple passes because the fish are too thick to make a single line. If they’re spread out you’ve got to make two or three or four passes to get them all. When you’ve got this many fish it’s more like damage control. Instead of trying to get the last one up and make it perfect, you’re trying to get 85-90 percent of them off the beach because it’s coming back with the next tide,” Taylor explained.
He said the heaviest concentration of dead fish has typically been between Longboat Pass in Bradenton Beach and the Martinique condominiums in Holmes Beach.
Taylor works in an enclosed cab, and he’s been wearing a facemask and a scarf over his face, but he still feels the burn of the red tide-tainted air.
“It burns my eyes through the day. When you’re out there 12 hours a day breathing that stuff it’s hard on you,” he said.
Taylor was asked if he’s seen red tide this bad before.
“I have. I’ve been here all my life,” the 68-year-old Cortez native and former commercial fisherman said.
As for what he’s seeing on the beaches, Taylor said, “We’ve gotten a turtle or two, some tarpon, a tremendous amount of snook, a few grouper and a few jewfish. Most of the volume is grunts, pinfish, catfish, horseshoe crabs and eels – the most eels I’ve ever seen.”
Taylor said he saw less dead fish on Saturday, but the air felt more toxic. He said he saw beached redfish for the first time and also a good-sized dead turtle.
Taylor said the dead fish were light on Sunday as he worked his way from Manatee Public Beach to Bean Point and back.
“Everything looks much better today,” he said that day.
Taylor said conditions were a little better overall Monday morning, but heavier in some places.
“Seems to be worse on the south end of the Island, back to the pass. Lots of horseshoe crabs today,” he said via text, noting that he hadn’t yet headed north.
Taylor said the beach cleanup continues to be a group effort.
“I’m just one of many out here. There are a lot of people in various departments working on this,” he said.
County Commissioner and Holmes Beach resident Carol Whitmore shared her praise for Taylor and others.
“Mark has led the efforts to clean our beach parks. We can’t thank Mark and the county staff enough for working very long hours to keep up with the red tide fish kill. Carmine DeMilio (Parks Operation Manager) has stepped up and let Mark do what he does best,” Whitmore said.
Anna Maria Public Works Manager Dean Jones also praised Taylor.
“Mark has been working 12-13-hour days on the beaches. His family is one of the original families that settled Cortez. His roots run deep in this community, and he is one of the many stewards of the local environment. He is one of the nicest and kindest guys you will ever meet, and I am proud to know him,” Jones said.