Red tide redux

Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide blooms, has been observed in various concentrations in four counties of southwest Florida. Let’s hope it’s nowhere near as devastating as the last round.
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When red tide blooms, tourists cancel, boats stay docked and fish leave or die. Nowhere is this more evident than along Florida’s west coast. Again.

With memories still fresh from a 17-month red tide, it’s back again in four southwest counties — Collier, Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota — and it’s creeping north, killing fish and irritating the eyes, noses and lungs of beach-goers. Living in Pinellas County, not far north of the current Karenia brevis observations, I’ve joined area boaters and anglers in saying, “not again.”

The last red tide started in November 2017, lasted through 2018 and finally dissipated in early 2019. Prior to that, red tide hadn’t surfaced in more than a decade. Karenia brevis the organism that causes red tide, is always present in the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s usually dormant. History says the Spanish conquistadors made note of red tide while exploring what’s now Florida in the 15 century. Even today’s scientists can’t predict when or why a bloom will suddenly explode. When it happens, however, there’s no mistaking it.

We moved from the Great Lakes to Florida’s west coast more than 10 years ago. Until that 17-month red tide, we’d never experienced it. But when it hit and we tried to go out to do our usual fishing on the gulf, we were met with many miles of rusty-red water, a foul smell, raspy throats and masses of dead fish. We finally stopped using our boat, as did so many others in our marina.

Without question, red tide negatively impacted boat sales and boating during the last bout. Selling boats was difficult. Gas sales and service orders declined. When we did go out on the boat, we had to avoid the gulf and stay in upper Tampa Bay, which the red tide had spared.

There’s no official estimate of the economic damage that red tide caused for boating businesses on Florida’s west coast. However, the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association has commissioned a study that’s underway to quantify those damages. Regrettably, the study will likely begin dealing with current blooms, as well.

The red tide shouldn’t be confused with the toxic algae blooms that threaten so many of our nation’s lakes and rivers from coast to coast. These algae blooms emanate from human activity – primarily runoff containing phosphorus and nitrogen from farm fertilizers and animal manure spread on crops. But it’s been determined that red tide blooms are greatly heightened and fueled by concurrent algae blooms.

In southwest Florida, for example, phosphorus and nitrogen pour into the coastal waters from the massive sugar cane and farming operations in central Florida — from Lake Okeechobee and down the Caloosahatchee River to the gulf. There are growing calls for new farming regulations that would govern allowable amounts, timing and methods of crop fertilization. But overall, action on the regulatory front has been slow, staved off by a strong farm lobby in many states.

Meanwhile, in southwest Florida last week, fish kills were reported in Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties. In addition, respiratory irritation was reported during the past week in those counties plus Sarasota County. In Sarasota County alone, it was reported that 580,000 pounds of dead fish had to be scooped off beaches with front-end loaders during the last red tide.

And while the current red tide hasn’t reached the levels of 2017-18 — yet — all marine businesses and boaters clearly remember the effects: waterways and beaches littered with thousands of gamefish, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, seabirds, even a 27-foot whale shark.

We’re praying history won’t repeat itself.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission updates the status of red tide here.

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