Red tides return to Florida, leaving beaches covered in dead fish

Thousands of dead fish
Thousands of dead fish in Boca Ciega Bay in Madeira Beach, Fla., on July 21. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

An unwelcome visitor is once again killing fish and causing issues for beachgoers along Florida’s Gulf Coast. A red tide bloom has been spotted in several areas near the shore in recent days. Local officials say they’ve already found more than 3.4 million pounds of red tide debris since mid-July.

The organism known as Karenia brevis has caused thousands of dead fish to wash up on shores and has displaced sharks into local canals as they flee the toxins.

Red tides, which have been linked to the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee and which thrive in warm water, also present a threat to human health, causing respiratory issues like eye, nose and throat irritation that have landed some residents in hospital emergency rooms this year.

“The ecosystems over the millennia have figured out how to digest the natural inputs of nutrient pollution. Humans come along and they add all of these extra inputs of nutrient pollution into our receiving water bodies,” said Cris Costello, organizing manager in Florida for the environmental organization the Sierra Club, who has studied red tides for 14 years. “It gets there through fertilizer, both urban and agricultural fertilizer, undertreated or inadequately treated wastewater, whether from septic tanks or wastewater treatment plants that aren’t as high level as they need to be.”

A protest march
A protest in Tampa Bay, Fla., on July 17 to raise awareness about the red tide outbreak. (John Pendygraft/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Press Wire)

Most recently, 56 samples of bloom concentrations were detected in multiple counties, especially Pinellas (25 samples) and Sarasota (19), according to a weekly update from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission posted Wednesday.

“While K. brevis is a naturally-occurring organism, nutrient enrichment of our coastal waters can make blooms worse and longer-lived,” Pinellas County says on a webpage dedicated to red tide.

The Sierra Club believes pollution is a part of the problem and sent a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis calling for action.

“Yet another summer of slime has unfolded in Florida and we all have been horrified by the devastation to our environment, coastal economy, and quality of life,” it reads.

On Aug. 2, as complaints from residents and business leaders grew louder, DeSantis appointed a task force to further research the causes of red tide outbreaks.

“My administration will continue to press forward to find solutions and empower our brightest minds to help protect our environment,” DeSantis said in a statement. “The issues of Red Tide are complex, but with the appointments of these leading scientists and researchers, we hope to make a difference.”

Thousands of dead fish
Thousands of dead fish in Madeira Beach, Fla. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

This year’s outbreak is the most serious since 2018, when then-Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency as the bloom wreaked havoc on tourism.

This year’s high concentrations of red tide have again turned the Gulf waters red, dark green or brown in certain areas. While Karenia brevis has been recorded in Florida since the 1800s, it has historically been more prevalent in the Gulf of Mexico’s warmer water. In recent years, however, as more overflow from Lake Okeechobee has been released into the Atlantic, blooms that can last anywhere from days to months have erupted there too.

“At this point, our water bodies are at the tipping point,” Costello said. “We have more problems here in Florida all year round than they do up north because our water is warmer. Climate change, climate disruption, has warmed our water. So the warmer the water is and the more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution there is, the more these algae, whether they are toxic or just a nuisance, they grow. It’s a population explosion.”

A sign warns about Red Tide
A sign at Indian Rocks Beach, Fla. (Arielle Bader/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Press Wire)

The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County is warning residents and visitors to the state to avoid swimming in areas where red tides have killed fish, to refrain from eating seafood in affected locations and to keep pets away from water, sea foam and dead fish where Karenia brevis has been detected.

The guidelines underscore the impact to a state whose greatest natural attraction is its miles of coastline.

“If outdoors, residents may choose to wear paper filter masks, especially if onshore winds are blowing,” the Department of Health said on its website.


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