Hurricane Ian’s impact on Florida’s coast lingers, even weeks after the storm’s passing, leaving questions about derelict vessels, water quality and more. Florida Sea Grant UF/IFAS Extension agents and other experts answer commonly asked questions about coastal safety after the hurricane.
Panelists include the following Extension faculty and specialists:
- Scott Jackson, Bay County agent
- David Outerbridge, Lee County Extension director
- Andrew Ropicki, marine resource economics specialist
- Kate Rose, Charlotte County agent
- Michael Sipos, Collier County agent
Q: Is it safe to go in the water in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties?
The Florida Department of Health (DOH) is sampling beaches and testing the water for enterococcus, a group of bacteria that normally reside in the intestinal tract of animals and may indicate fecal matter pollution. Updates are posted in several places including county websites. Visit the Florida Health website to check the status of each beach.
Conditions might change over time as tides change or as runoff continues. Use caution before attending. Another bacterium to be aware of when working with open wounds near salt or brackish water is Vibrio vulnificus. More information can be found on the state and Lee County Department of Health websites.
It might be safest to refrain or limit interactions with impacted coastal waters, if possible, especially in areas that may have marine debris or a compromised sewage system or if you have cuts and scrapes. Additionally, weather such as rain or wind can flush still-developing upland pollutants towards the sea but efforts to remove environmental hazards are a priority. — Sipos
Looks like bacteria levels are starting to be pushed out but stay up to date and check with local DOH and emergency management for the latest updates. There is also some displaced wildlife in the water bodies right now, be careful of that too. (Rose)
There is a lot of debris, including metal and other items, that have been washed out into the ocean, so use extreme caution. — Outerbridge
There is a coordinated effort among agencies to identify and remove storm debris from state-owned waters, but it is not exhaustive. If boaters see significant hazards in the water, they need to report it to their county public works department. Conversations surrounding a platform to log marine debris online are still ongoing. — Rose
Q: Where can I report a displaced vessel at sea?
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is working with partners to identify and remove vessels impacted by Hurricane Ian.
If an owner is removing their vessel, they should notify the Hurricane Ian Vessel Hotline of their plans by calling 850-488-5600 M-F, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
You are also encouraged to call the Hurricane Ian Vessel Hotline if your vessel is missing, if you have located a vessel or if you have questions about displaced vessels or vessels in state waters that have been rendered derelict by Hurricane Ian.
Reported vessels are currently being investigated and FWC is trying to remove them as quickly as possible. This could take a really long time. To put it in perspective, more than 6,000 vessels have been reported in the water and on land. These vessels may have fuel on board and there is a lot to address.
Continue to work with your insurance company, especially if your vessel is outside the waters of the state. If there is a vessel on your property that may be causing a problem, work with local law enforcement to identify the vessel owner and manage that issue.
For any non-vessel marine debris reporting, the info can be submitted by dropping a pin and info on the GIS map located here. — Jackson
Q: What can boaters do to help?
Right now, boaters should try to stay out of the water. There is a lot of debris that could damage vessels or cause injuries. Channel markers are down as well so it is not safe to be out. Missing waterway markers can be reported to FWC and coastal zone management teams within your local county. — Sipos
Missing federal channel markers or pilings should be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard. Citizen lines for your individual counties can help you find information or to report other concerns as well. — Jackson
Once it is safe to be on the water, there will be a collective effort to understand what is happening in the natural environment out there. Keep your eye out for opportunities to help us understand the effects of the storm down the line for citizen science programs. –Rose
Q: With the commercial fishing industry hurt, what needs to be done to keep it thriving?
The San Carlos Island shrimp fleet was severely impacted. This fleet includes 50 vessels, and only three are intact after the storm. Pine Island fish houses are severely damaged as well. These are substantial fisheries – the Lee County shrimp fishery brings in $13 million a year in dockside revenue and accounts for a quarter of the state’s entire shrimping landings. The state of Florida as a whole does a total of about $52 million in shrimp dockside revenue.
The general public can help the fishery by seeking out and asking for Florida caught seafood. A lot of the industry is still sidelined but as they get back out there working, having demand for Florida seafood will help them. — Ropicki
In Collier County, stone crabbers deployed traps shortly after the storm and are now harvesting fresh crab claws. A great way to support southwest Florida commercial fishermen is to purchase locally sourced seafood like stone crab from area fish houses that are currently operational. — Sipos
Retailers of Lee County fisheries are also still down so we will keep you posted where these fisheries are selling their product once they are up and going again. (Ropicki)
Many of the disaster funds can take a long time to get to business owners. The fastest way to get them going is by getting them fishing again. Buying their products is an easy way to help with the situation. — Jackson
Q: Ian flooded our waterways with debris, silt and nutrients. How concerned should we be with red tide?
When red tide blooms form, they do so offshore. Right now we do not have any reason to anticipate that Hurricane Ian has triggered a red tide bloom. However, the runoff of organic material from the land will likely increase nutrient levels in some coastal areas. This may trigger other types of algal blooms present in the water, which could have similar impacts as red tide, including fish kills. Red tide, however, is still an algae and if present in the environment, it can utilize nutrients like any other algae or plant, to check for any bloom update visit the FWC Red Tide Current Status webpage. Typical water quality parameter levels may be impacted for some time.
There are various tools to report anything you observe that is concerning or that looks like a bloom. Suspected algal blooms can be reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on their website. You can report fish kills to FWC online or by calling. Low oxygen levels in the water following the storm may cause fish kills that have nothing to do with a red tide or harmful algal blooms. There are a lot of new technologies that can predict red tide that you can monitor as well. –Rose
Many mangroves along the shoreline have been defoliated. Those leaves that were blown off went somewhere and will eventually break down, introducing more nutrients and bacteria into the water. It will be a while before water quality gets back to what everyone is used to. –Outerbridge and Rose
As a reminder, mangroves are protected species, so it is best to check with the DEP before removing or trimming mangroves.
Q: With the underwater topography changed after Ian, what will it take to make it safe for marine activities?
We did not have the opportunity to survey the bottom officially post storm. Hazards were documented locally so right now we do not have a clear answer. In the past, Florida Sea Grant had a team that could map bathymetry, providing precision dredging recommendations based on an inventory of vessels and their draft in given areas. We do not currently have funding to operate this group, so our data is limited. –Jackson
There is not a quick answer to this question. Scientists themselves are still trying to record changes and explain them. The storm caused changes that people likely aren’t anticipating, whether it be related to water levels, navigational hazards like downed trees and debris, or changes in bathymetry. — Rose
Q: Where can small business owners go to find disaster relief assistance?
If you have insurance on your aquaculture operation, you should reach out to your local Farm Service Agency. If your local FSA office is closed, there is a hotline to call and an email address for this purpose, 1-877-508-8364 (The line is staffed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET) or SM.FPAC.FSA.FLFSA.Disaster@USDA.GOV. Note, the Lee County FSA office has relocated to Hendry County due to storm damage. (Ropicki)
Disaster recovery centers helped us out a lot after Hurricane Matthew. The Small Business Administration can also help individuals as well. It also will not hurt to call your creditors or other loan companies to adjust your payment deadlines. Many of them are being flexible and will all you to make alternate arrangements to help get you through the immediate hard time. (Jackson)
Q: Any other information to share?
Continue checking in with members of your community and helping when you safely can do so. It will take time, but this is bringing the community together and we’ll get through this. — all