ENGLEWOOD -- A bizarre freeway of fish swimming by the thousands along the shore of Englewood Beach Thursday morning left crowds of beach-goers agog and marine biologists bewildered.
"I've lived her for 10 years, and I've never seen anything like this. It's incredible," said Bob Ricci of Englewood.

Beach-goers reported that a wide variety of sea creatures came swimming south in a narrow band close to the beach at mid-morning.

Included in the swarm were clouds of shrimp, crab, grouper, snapper, red fish and flounder. They were joined by more usual species, including sea robins, needlefish and eels.

Ten-year Manasota Key resident Nick Neidlinger spotted the commotion from his condominium shortly before 9 a.m.

The fish were moving in a narrow band in about 18 inches of water, he said. They were headed south, and, so far as he could tell, the moving mass of sea life stretched a good mile long.

"We're talking thousands and thousands of them," Neidlinger said. "It was so thick we couldn't walk out."

Some fish washed ashore on the Gulf's small waves, he said. The stranded fish flipped and struggled until they flopped back into the water to rejoin the piscatorial parade south.

"There were blue crabs the size of a dinner plate," Neidlinger said. "You name the species of fish and they were there."

Neidlinger said more than 100 pelicans bombarded the fish, but he saw no sharks or other predators, nor did he detect any signs of red tide.

He said all the species "were swimming amongst each other. They weren't attacking each other."

Neidlinger added, "I have never seen anything like that in my life. This was not a fish kill."

Beach-goers were grabbing crabs and fish as they swam by, Thursday. One observer thought the fish might have been weakened by some sort of toxin -- perhaps red tide -- because they could be scooped up easily by people. The event lasted until late morning, although the parade had thinned out by 11 a.m.

A few scientists contacted Thursday were surprised to hear of the unusual fish behavior in Englewood that morning. It was not typical schooling, they said, because many varied species were involved.

Scientists -- usually by nature and always by training -- are reluctant to speculate about the causes of natural phenomena without the benefit of observation and concrete data. However, they did offer some broad possibilities for what they agreed was a highly unusual event, one they had never encountered before.

It might have been predator avoidance, said one, but that was unlikely since there were no signs of predators and the species were varied.

The Gulf waters have currents that might have swept many fish along in an unusual pattern, one speculated.

Or it could have been caused by red tide that could not be detected by beach-goers.

Dr. Richard Pierce, director of ectotoxicology at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, said he had discussed the occurrence with Dr. Cindy Heil, the director of biotoxin research at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in St. Petersburg, after a reporter's phone call Thursday.

"We agree this could be that they were trying to get away from red tide, maybe offshore or in the deeper parts offshore," Pierce said.

He said red tide flows in higher or lower concentrations at various levels of the Gulf. It also follows currents, which move at varying levels and speeds.

"Sometimes, we have found it in higher concentration along the bottom. This could be what you're looking at," Pierce said.

Red tide has been lingering in the Gulf for the past couple of months, but it has been detected primarily in an area stretching from northern Sarasota County north to Hernando County.

It's possible, Pierce said, that a stealth red tide could be moving south, flowing with an offshore current along the bottom, "and they're moving ahead of it."

Key to that theory is that the fish reported Thursday included many bottom feeders. "Sea robins, flounder, grouper are indications that something is moving along the bottom," Pierce said.

"Unfortunately, this might be a phenomenon of red tide creeping in, but we'll have to wait until we get some samples," he said.

Mote recently installed two red tide detectors in Boca Grande, and Pierce said there was some indication Thursday that red tide might have been moving in that direction.

But, he added, it was all simply speculation until tests could be conducted.

"We just don't know what's happening," he said. "That's a lot of maybes and what-ifs. I know the state is working on that and some other reports, so maybe by next week we'll have some answers."

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