CORTEZ – Local restaurateurs, food and beverage industry professionals and others gathered at the Swordfish Grill last week to discuss the economic impacts of red tide.
The hour-long informal discussion on Tuesday, Aug. 14, included Swordfish Grill general manager Bob Slicker, manager Adam Sears and owner John Banyas, Anna Maria Oyster Bar president John Horne, Chiles Group CEO Robert Baugh, Bunny and Pirates’ owners Elizabeth Shore and Jeffrey O’Connell, Waterfront Restaurant owner Jason Suzor, Cortez Kitchen owner Joe Oelker, Darwin Brewing Company owner/general manager Matt Cornelius, US Foods territory managers Robert DeMino and Nicholas Horne, Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker, Congressman Vern Buchanan field representative MarDee Buchman and Sen. Bill Galvano aides Macey Moon and Kathy Galea.
The discussion occurred one day after Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order that provides $500,000 in Visit Florida emergency grant funds to be divided among seven counties to help promote tourism in southwest Florida.
A main topic of conversation concerned using social media to inform the public that the local businesses remain open. There was also talk of discouraging employees from posting pictures of dead fish and beachgoers wearing breathing masks because those images encourage patrons to visit mainland establishments instead.
Baugh said the decline in business is making it hard for some Chiles Group employees’ ability to pay their bills and Slicker said he’s been forced to reduce the number of employees scheduled per shift.
Banyas, who also owns Killer Bait and Cortez Bait & Seafood, said he’s seeing the upcoming mullet season floating by dead in the water. He also questioned whether the state would issue special permits that would allow local fishermen to harvest fish before the red tide kills them.
DeMino questioned why the state doesn’t treat Florida’s fishing industry with the same sense of urgency it places on the agricultural industry. He also questioned what role Mosaic, as the area’s largest phosphate producer, plays in the red tide crisis.
Slicker said the state’s elected officials need to be constantly reminded about red tide’s economic impacts and be pushed to find long-term solutions.
Gatherings of support
Tuesday’s discussion prompted organized gatherings at the BeachHouse restaurant on Wednesday, the Swordfish Grill on Thursday, Bunny and Pirate on Friday, the Anna Maria Oyster Bar in Bradenton Beach on Sunday and Gecko’s Dry Dock in Longboat Key on Monday. A similar gathering was planned for The Waterfront Restaurant in Anna Maria on Tuesday, Aug. 21, from 4-8 p.m.
The purpose of the gatherings is to use social media to show folks that businesses remain open while the red tide appears to have subsided some since its arrival in early August.
The BeachHouse gathering included Visit Florida President Ken Lawson, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Elliot Falcione, county commissioners Carol Whitmore and Steve Jonsson and Solutions To Avoid Red Tide (START) Chairman Sandy Gilbert.
“I’m here to make sure we are marketing the area post-red tide and come up with a plan to use the $500,000 the governor allocated for post-red-tide marketing in the right way,” Lawson told The Sun. “We’re going to divvy up the money to the counties in the executive order. We have to communicate what’s open, what’s available and what we should do once we get rid of this red tide.”
Lawson and several others spoke while gathered on the BeachHouse patio.
“The most important area we need to focus on together is the public relations side of it,” Falcione said, stressing the need for accurate messaging by company spokespersons.
“This is an economic issue that’s impacting us, it’s not just some rotting fish in the bay,” Baugh said.
Horne suggested organizing a long table dining event on the beach and Slicker suggested it benefit START.
Jason Sato and Katie O’Connor, from Sato Real Estate, discussed the impact red tide is having on vacation rentals.
“Since Aug. 6, we’ve refunded almost $30,000 in reservation fees,” O’Connor said.
Gilbert said Sarasota Bay is much cleaner than it was 20 years ago, but that doesn’t make it immune to red tide.
He mentioned salinity, water temperatures and other water qualities that impact red tide.
“The only thing that varies is the nutrients. The scientists agree that the thing that really makes red tide come alive is the nutrients. What they don’t agree on is where they come from. We live between the two biggest dumps of nutrients in the world: The Mississippi River and the Caloosahatchee (River). Where do you think the water ends up? It ends up out there,” he said. pointing to the Gulf as he spoke.