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Red Tide

Tourism, fishing and public health are being threatened by contaminants discoloring stretches of beaches at the southern end of the Florida peninsula.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

A red tide algae bloom is persisting along Sarasota County beaches. Background concentrations of the toxic organism Karenia brevis are typical in Gulf waters, but very low to medium concentrations have been recorded across parts of Florida's west coast. 

Courtesy of Jacob Campoamor

In a rare sighting last weekend, boaters spotted multiple whale sharks off the coast of Anna Maria Island.

That has grabbed the attention of scientists at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, who are now asking the public to report other sightings.

An outbreak of red tide is killing fish off the southwest Florida coast.

Conor Goulding / Mote Marine Laboratory

Florida beachgoers often imagine a day on the water. Colorful umbrellas peppered across the sand, the sound of waves foaming as they crash onto the shore and the inescapable smell of saltwater nipping at your senses.

Sometimes, instead of this picturesque scene, a sickening odor of dead fish wafts across empty beaches, local restaurants are closed because they can’t prepare seafood, and residents even experience trouble breathing. The culprit is red tide.

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Right now, if a researcher wants to confirm there’s a red tide outbreak – you know, that algae bloom known as Karenia brevis that turns water red or brown, kills marine life and makes a horrible stench – they have to take a water sample, bring it back to the lab, put it on a microscope, and literally count the number of algae cells.

Red tied may have contributed to the deaths of 70 pelicans in St. Petersburg early this year, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Veronica ML (Wikimedia Commons)

Fishermen in southwest Florida say lingering red tide and the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew may cut into their early stone crab harvests.

Amy Green / WMFE

  The Indian River Lagoon stretches about 156 miles along the Florida's east coast. And it's where Laurilee Thompson has her earliest memories.

“I had a little tiny rowboat when I was 6-years-old . . . There were barnacles and oysters and sea squirts,” the Titusville resident recalled. “You know even just the pilings in  the sea walls were alive. . . the cone Jellies used to come in the spring . . . and you get this big green explosion. There were entire ecosystems just along the sea wall.”

Researchers may have a better understanding of red tide blooms. These harmful algal blooms are becoming more persistent. That’s why the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission—along with a group of research partners—recently published a five year red tide study.

In Florida, where three-quarters of the state’s 20 million residents live in coastal counties, a sudden change in the water is more than a colorful curiosity. Algae blooms, with their potential for damaging local economies, are the subject of particularly intense research here, as scientists and environmental officials seek to pinpoint their cause while improving early detection systems that can predict when and where they will occur. While recent discoveries have helped unravel some of the mysteries behind the appearance of algae blooms, they also underscore for local officials and business owners the extreme difficulty of resolving a problem that stems from decades of overdevelopment and lax controls. In Florida, officials are debating solutions including improved wastewater treatment and vacuuming up several feet of organic sludge that lies at the bottom of some coastal waterways.

That stinging feeling that sometimes accompanies trips to the beach during outbreaks of red tide can be especially harmful to people with asthma. Now, researchers are trying to find out why some asthmatics are affected by red tide.

Anyone who ventures to the Gulf shore during red tide season knows the symptoms: irritated eyes and noses, a dry cough - even wheezing. For people with asthma, it's even worse.