Thousands of fish, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins and even a whale shark have been found deceased on Florida beaches, according to USA Today. On Aug. 13, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency because of the serious impacts on the environment, local businesses and human health.
According to USA Today, there are two major organisms that are responsible for all of the death in the water. The first is the blooming of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which has been blooming since last October and is still causing issues. The second is the Karenia brevis, the single-celled organisms that cause red tide, which has been blooming since early spring.
Both of these organisms are natural in the Florida ecosystems, but increased nutrients from human development on the Florida peninsula causes excess blooms. When there are too many of them, they can cause serious issues for other organisms in the ecosystem, including humans.
Karenia brevis occurs naturally in high salinity waters, but it can drift into estuaries and blooms excessively from input of nutrients. The blue green algae however are more suited to freshwater ecosystems like lakes and rivers, and they will die once they reach the high salinity water of the gulf or ocean.
There are some health risks associated with red tide, particularly for people with severe or chronic respiratory illnesses. According to the Mote Marine Lab, the toxins expelled by Karenia brevis can provoke respiratory irritation, including coughing, sneezing, tearing and an itchy throat. The Mote Marine Lab and the Florida Department of Health advise people with asthma, emphysema or other respiratory illnesses to stay clear of areas with red tide.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” Waterfront Director Renee Register said.
For Eckerd, all of the water-associated officials on campus are keeping a close eye on the developments of red tide to keep students safe, according to Register.
The marine science faculty is also keeping a close eye on the algae in the water for lab and research purposes. After the Tampa Bay Watch’s Great Bay Scallop search was cancelled, Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Simard decided it was best to postpone a dive survey he was planning with his research students.
“The Marine Science faculty are definitely monitoring this to see if it is going to have an impact on our upcoming labs and classes to make sure that we keep students safe,” Assistant Professor of Marine Science and Biology Shannon Gowans said.
Over the past few weeks, there has been an increasing presence of the toxic algae in Pinellas County. The northward currents and movement of surface waters are the most likely cause for the spread of the algae into Pinellas and Hillsborough County, according to ABC Action News.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) takes samples weekly. On Aug. 31, testing showed an increase in the red tide algae in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Throughout Pinellas County, the amount of algae present varies from background to high both inshore and offshore, according to the FWC. The FWC report shows medium to high concentrations of red tide offshore of Pass-a-Grille Beach, but low concentrations inshore of the Skyway Fishing Pier. Low concentrations can still cause some respiratory issues and fish kills, with increasing chances of these as high concentrations are approached. There have been reports of both fish kills and respiratory issues in Pinellas County.
In terms of marine mammal health, the red tide usually has a greater impact on manatees compared to dolphins. However, this red tide is unique in the amount of dolphin strandings, according to Gowans. With such a high fish mortality rate, the starving dolphins are more likely to accept fish from fishermen.
“The best thing you can do if you are out fishing and you see dolphins is to move somewhere else, especially if they start hanging around because it can lead to issues with dolphin survival, and it causes issues with the fishing community,” Gowans said.
Although there is not much to be done by humans to get rid of a red tide once it is in the water, there are still steps that can be taken to help the situation. People can volunteer with local beach cleanups and reduce their use of fertilizers and plastics.
The only thing that will stop or at least slow down the red tide is the heavy rainfalls of the wet season as the algae is flushed off the shore and the rain helps dilute the water.
“We just need a shake up of the atmospheric oceanographic environment right now to get rid of this thing,” Simard said.
Also, the impacts of this red tide are far from over because of the potential ecological issues that occur afterward. As the levels of the red tide algae go down, the algae die and sink to the bottom. There, bacteria decompose them, using up large amounts of oxygen in the process. This creates low oxygen areas, also known as dead zones or hypoxic zones.
“That [hypoxia] can be thought to contribute to as many fish kills in some cases as the actual toxins themselves, and it is just an ecological nightmare when this thing happens,” Simard said.
It will be a long road to recovery for both the ecosystems and local Florida businesses, and is a problem that coastal residents continuously cope with every year.