Red Tide: A turning point for Florida's beaches

Photo by Saint Petersblog

Photo by Saint Petersblog

When you think of Florida, what comes to your mind?

Do you imagine white sandy beaches and clear green-blue water with dolphins and manatees glittering the coastline? Most of the time this is what locals and tourists can expect, but unfortunately a rare but recurring phenomenon called “Red Tide” has been leaving beaches and surrounding sea life devastated.

If you’ve been following Sea Going Green’s social media lately, you’ve probably seen some coverage from the beach cleanup we planned on New Years Eve at Clearwater Beach. While most of our focus on the cleanup had to do with raising awareness on the effects of plastic pollution, we couldn’t help but notice that the abundance of “Red Tide” was just as much of a concern for locals and attendees as pollution. Therefore, I’d like to shed some light on this issue as well as what can be done in the future to limit its effects on marine life and the tourism industry.


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While you might have already heard of Red Tide or Karenia brevis, you are probably wondering what has led to its spread in Florida. The phenomenon is caused by a perfect storm of salinity, changing currents, water temperature and a mix of other variables such as dumping pollution into water sources and fertilizer runoff. Essentially, this type of algae bloom occurs in marine areas that have become too nutrient-rich, creating the perfect breeding ground for these thick layers of toxic red algae to form and make their way into the food chains of mammals such as the manatee, while also being siphoned up by mollusks such as oysters.


Once ingested, Karenia brevis acts as a tranquilizer, paralyzing muscles of sea turtles, sea birds and many other species, who have ingested the algae. This causes them to wash up on shore with little to no chance of survival. The vast amount of sea life that tragically washed up on shore (2,000 tons) prompted Florida Governor, Rick Scott, to call for a state of emergency to streamline cleanup efforts, which continued late into the year.


Another deeply problematic aspect of this prevalence of algae is that it can block out sunlight that is needed for deep sea plants to survive, which further disturbs the entire food chain and creates an imbalance of oxygen production causing further blooms continuing an endless cycle.


This is not only massively destructive to the health of the ocean and its sea life, but also to the humans that come into contact with it. Florida heavily relies on tourism as their biggest contributor of state-generated GDP, so when beaches are forced to shut down and turn away tourists for environmental disasters such as this, their economy suffers as well. It is estimated that red tide cost Florida over $8 million in business losses alone.


Leading up to the days before our NYE cleanup, locals expressed that they were still feeling the effects from red tide: a phenomenon which has only been documented 9 times in 70 years on the North Atlantic coast, but with the potential to become much more frequent. One local admitted that tourism numbers had dropped off when the outbreak was at its worst (beginning in October of 2017 following the destruction of Hurricane Irma, peaking in August while leading into December 2018) and many others claimed to have developed physical symptoms and even chronic cough following visits to the beach.


Luckily, now in January, most of these harmful blooms have cleared up in the Gulf Coast region, but one can’t help but wonder when it will return and if factors such as climate change will only increase its destruction to the local environment and economy along the coastlines. Scientists are still split on the influence of human behavior on contributing to these type of blooms, but most agree that it is most likely a mix of human and natural contributions to take into consideration for the future blooms.


The good news is that Florida’s own Mote scientists at the brand new “Red Tide Institute” are in the process of developing a patented system to rid the algae of toxicity by destroying all organic compounds and adding oxygen to the water. This will be put to the test in an upcoming pilot project to take place in a local Florida canal with the ultimate goal in mind to predict and lessen the effect of widespread and long-duration blooms.


In the meantime, on land there are some ways that you can help. From reporting signs of distressed marine life to contacting your local government to volunteering, there are multiple ways to get involved. If you are active at sea or own a boat, then it is suggested that you can do your part in combating red tide by limiting the amount of nitrates and phosphates released into the water through: using “green” boat cleaning products and bottom paints, reducing grey water, refraining from overboard discharges and implementing a storm water management system.


Together we (locals, tourists, scientists, politicians and boaters) can help keep our oceans blue.