Hallelujah, the Red Tide is gone!

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It’s good news for both east and west coast Florida dealers – the red tide that menaced boaters and dealers for months last year is finally gone!

For an agonizing 15 months, the red tide that spread along the Florida coasts cut into the state’s boating, fishing, sales, and tourism economies. It was particularly bad on Florida’s west coast, where it killed hundreds of thousands of fish and made the waters and beaches unusable. The bloom was the fifth-longest outbreak, according to state wildlife officials. (The worst was 30 months long from 1994 to 1997.)

It seems like no one escaped. This latest red tide was first detected along Florida’s Southwest coast in November, 2017. It intensified over the next summer, reaching the beaches of the Florida Panhandle by September. A month later, currents swept it down the west coast, through the Florida Keys and up the state’s Atlantic coast.

Red tide is not the same as the more common summer algae blooms that plague so many inland lakes throughout the country. Red tide is a plankton that lives in the Gulf of Mexico year-round. But normally the numbers are so small that no one notices. However, with the right weather conditions, including onshore winds and warm-water temperatures, red tide can explode into a large bloom anywhere from 10 to 40 miles in length.

Multiplying rapidly, it stains the water’s surface a visibly rusty color. So far, science doesn’t know when or why it explodes. While no direct connection has been proven, excess farm fertilizer runoff, leaking pollution from sewer plants, pollutants in the Mississippi River’s flow into the Gulf and even dust blown across the ocean from Africa are believed by some scientists to extend a bout of red tide.

My personal experience with the latest red tide was sheer frustration. Whenever we used our boat and ran into unavoidable areas red tide, we knew it instantly by the reddish surface color and a distinct odor that sometimes was so strong it made us gag. Respiratory problems are a chief complaint of red tide.

Equally disappointing, even when we could find areas of clean water out in the Gulf of Mexico, the fishing was the poorest we’ve ever experienced in the decade we’ve lived in St. Petersburg. No wonder: there were countless mornings that cities had front-end loaders scraping up millions of pounds of dead fish off the beaches that tourists had long abandoned. Hotels and restaurants were empty. Marinas weren’t pumping much gas and campgrounds were vacant.

The bigger game fish had all but left the areas. Sadly, many that didn’t get out soon enough ended up dead on the beaches, too. They included sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, groupers, snappers and literally hundreds of tons of other fish.

While the real economic impact on Florida’s boating industry isn’t known, it certainly caused a big reduction in boat usage. For example, we used our boat 60 percent less last summer. A good friend, Chip Hart, owners of the Cincinnati Sports & Boat Show, came to St. Pete with his RV for a few days of fishing but left the second day for the east side of Florida that was not, at least yet, impacted by the red tide.

Experts agree that not enough is really known about red tide. If nothing else, this most recent outbreak makes it clear that serious research is necessary. To that end, Florida dealers and marine trade associations should become engaged in supporting Governor Ron DeSantis’ request for $4.2 million to establish a Center for Red Tide Research. It’s part of a broader, aggressive environmental program that he unveiled recently. 

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