USA Today: Angel Almaguer backed a waste truck into the middle of a trash storage building the size of a high school gymnasium.
The gate on the back of the truck swung open and everything from tiny baitfish to massive Goliath grouper, huge snook, untold numbers of eels and puffed up puffer fish fell to the concrete ground.
With horseshoe crabs flanking the main pile, the mass of dead fish and sea critters looked like a seafood Sundae from a horror film.
It smelled worse.
This was the 90th truckload of dead fish and sea debris that’s been processed in the last three weeks at the Lee County Solid Waste facility. From here the carcasses will be transported to the incinerator and burned.
“We make things go away,” said Molly Schweers, Lee County Solid Waste spokeswoman. “If you think about (trash from) a restaurant, it’s just the remains of food.”
Millions of pounds of dead fish have been processed at the facility this month since a strong red tide bloom came ashore and brought untold numbers of dead fish, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins.
“Here we have the opportunity to mix it with other material that will have a higher heat value,” Schweers said. “It’s the same after a hurricane.”
Experts say that only a fraction of the dead wildlife is washing up on local shorelines. Most of the carcasses are either floating at the surface offshore or are at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
About 2.8 million pounds of fish and sea debris has been collected by Lee County this month. Add Sanibel’s 600,000 pounds or so and the total jumps to more than 3 million pounds of aquatic wildlife that have been burned at the county facility this month.
Red tide counts along the Southwest Florida coast in recent weeks have been at 1 million cells per liter and higher. Fish kills and breathing irritation in humans can begin when levels reach 10,000 cells per liter, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Besides the droves of workers collecting dead critters, human activity at the beach has been sparse in recent weeks, and the National Weather Service has extended a red tide beach hazard advisory through Saturday evening for Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
“It’s the worst in recent history,” said Keith Williams, public works director for the City of Sanibel, of the bloom.
Sanibel has used between 30 and 100 contracted workers per day to help collect dead fish and debris, most of which was hauled off the island and taken to the Lee County waste facility, Williams said.
Some larger animals have been buried on location.
The bloom started in October but has been particularly strong since June.
“Some canals were holding about 2,000 pounds of fish right beside people’s homes,” said Jesse Lavender, with Lee County Parks and Recreation. “You had neighborhoods surrounded by rotting, smelly fish and we needed to do something about it.”
The county recently purchased two raking machines for about $118,000 to help clean local beaches.
Work with the mechanized rakes started Thursday on Boca Grande, and Lavender said the machines will be loaned out to municipalities like the Town of Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs soon.
Westerly winds pushed the bloom onshore at the beginning of August.
The National Weather Service is calling for light winds out of the east and southeast over the next week.
That type of weather pattern should push the bloom and the dead animals offshore, the thinking goes.
But just because fish and sea turtles are washing up at slower rates in recent days doesn’t mean the red tide has gone away.
A University of South Florida College of Marine Science forecasting model shows red tide moving out of local bay areas over the next three days.
Beyond that no one knows exactly what the toxic red tide bloom will do next.
“Conditions have improved over what we had last week but any shift in winds or current could push red tide toward our shore again,” Williams said.