County funding shellfish to fight red tide

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BRADENTON – As red tide hit high levels last week in Anna Maria Island waters, Manatee County announced it is expanding a program that creates shellfish beds in local waters.

“Oysters and clams eat red tide for lunch and come back for a midnight snack,” said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Parks and Recreation Department.

Red tide is an abnormally high concentration of algae, called a bloom, that emits a neurotoxin that kills fish, marine mammals and birds and causes respiratory problems in people, especially those with asthma and COPD. Red tide is thought to be made worse by fertilizer runoff from land.

It arrived in the Gulf of Mexico off Anna Maria Island on Friday, Aug. 3, the northern edge of a bloom that has lasted 10 months in southwest Florida, and has closed restaurants and caused fish kills and cancellations at local accommodations.

Shellfish like clams and oysters filter the water they live in, Gulf Coast Oyster Recycling and Renewal Program Executive Manager and START CEO Sandy Gilbert said.

“One oyster can filter nine to 50 gallons of water every single day,” Gilbert said, adding that local clams “do eat red tide.”

START (Solutions To Avoid Red Tide) is working with Sarasota Bay Watch on its clam seeding program in both the Manatee and Sarasota County portions of Sarasota Bay, and with the Chiles Group of restaurants, whose employees collect oyster shells in bins and take them to Perico Preserve, where they are cured, then made into oyster habitat at Robinson Preserve.

“In one year, we have accumulated 26 tons of oyster shells that are not in the landfill,” Gilbert said.

START was formed after a massive red tide bloom in 1995 devastated the local economy, and is a partnership among the Chiles Group, University of Florida IFAS Program, Gulf Coast Shellfish Institute, Manatee County Parks and Recreation Department and Waste Pro, the newest partner that will enable more restaurants to participate in the program, Gilbert said.

The program is supported by funding from the RESTORE Act, created to mitigate the devastation from the 2010 BP oil spill.

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