People are spotting red tide algal blooms along the coasts of northwest and southwest Florida, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“Very often we will be notified of blooms because somebody said, ‘I smell red tide.'” said Alina Corcoran, an FWC research scientist.
“This year, we detected some of these blooms earlier in September when a citizen reported that she and her family experienced respiratory irritation in Panama City.”
According to a press release from the FWC, red tide is a high concentration of a microscopic algae species. The tide is regularly found in the Gulf of Mexico, but can make its way to other parts of Florida, Corcoran said.
“It is normally present at background concentration at low levels,” she said. “It blooms during the late summer, early fall, and we know that blooms start offshore and are brought in shore by winds and currents.”
The organism produces toxins that can pose health concerns for marine life and humans. The toxins can affect the central nervous systems of fish and aquatic mammals and can lead to respiratory irritation in people, she said.
Corcoran said the toxins can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, but the symptoms usually go away when the person leaves an area with a red tide. The FWC advises that people with severe or chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic lung disease avoid active red tide areas.
She said blooms can last anywhere between a few weeks to a year. There is no way to know how long each specific bloom will last.
The FWC warns people against swimming in red tide areas where dead fish have washed ashore, as well as eating fish or shellfish from a red tide. Pet owners are advised to keep pets away from the tides.
Corcoran said the toxins can also accumulate in fish and shellfish’s guts, and though it is safe to eat fish that has been gutted and filleted, consuming contaminated shellfish can be extremely dangerous.
Blooms are currently affecting Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay and Gulf counties in the northwest near the Panhandle as well as Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties in southwest Florida.
Visitors to those areas have expressed their concern through social media, via Twitter and Facebook.
Blooms are not necessarily always red and have nothing to do with the tides, Corcoran said. She said she prefers to call them harmful algal blooms.
“They often appear green or brown. Sometimes they are purplish or they can be no color at all,” she said.
The FWC has a comprehensive monitoring program in Florida, which monitors over 100 locations per week. During blooms like the ongoing ones, Corcoran said monitoring increases to extend coverage.
Blooms happen almost annually and can be dated back to Spanish explorer sightings. However, Corcoran said that several factors might increase the duration and intensity of blooms, including climate change.
Mike Sturdivant, a surfer from Destin, Florida, said other surfers in the area have had to move farther west to avoid breathing issues. He is the Emerald Coast chapter chair of the Surfrider foundation, a non-profit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and preserve the world’s oceans and beaches through activism.
“Eventually it took over the whole area and it was unavoidable,” he said.
Sturdivant said he noticed this particular red tide blooms had more dead fish than he had seen previously. Another difference he noticed with this algal bloom, he said, is that it also started to affect the coastal dune lakes in the area.
Sturdivant, who teaches surf lessons, said he has not let his son or his students surf since the blooms began. He said he has surfed a few times at his own discretion.
“There were a couple of days when I stayed out when it was just too much. But surf is a variable thing, so when there’s surf its really hard to just say no and not go out,” he said.
But he has faced some problems.
“There is so much of that toxin in the air that it gets really hard to breathe,” he said. “When its really bad you also get a tingling sensation on your tongue and the water tastes different.”
Sturdivant said he believes the blooms can be attributed in part to agricultural runoff, and he might be right. A 2004 Stanford University study presented the first direct evidence that linked coastal farming to massive algal blooms in the sea.
“Some folks are quick to write it off because its not the sole cause of the algae blooms,” he said. “There are multiple things that are in play with it, but it’s been part of what’s going on that we could have some control over.”
Corcoran said the FWC will continue to release updated red tide status reports Wednesdays and Fridays on its website, and encourages volunteers to alert the FWC of blooms.
“We really do rely on citizens for a lot of information,” she said. “We have a volunteer monitoring program, and for regions like the Panhandle, volunteers provide really a majority of samples for us.”