Plumes of toxic oceanic bacteria known as red tide moved up the western Florida coast, strewing thousands of dead fish on beaches while state officials tried to reassure Floridians and potential tourists Thursday that the outbreak is being taken seriously but isn't as bad as it might seem.
As Florida's economy emerges from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, images of beaches littered with dead fish could keep visitors from flocking to seaside communities this summer.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said the bloom of red tide spreading around parts of Southwest Florida and Tampa Bay is not like the one that devastated the region in 2018.
“I think we see some localized (red tide) ... but this is a great place to be," DeSantis said Thursday. "There’s very few places in this country that are as nice as this Tampa Bay region.
"The hotels, the restaurants, the beaches are open,” he added.
The governor spoke during a roundtable with scientists and state environmental officials at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg to discuss efforts to better understand and combat red tide.
What is red tide?
Red tide, which scientists call a harmful algae bloom, is caused by naturally occurring algae called Karenia brevis or K. brevis. When K. brevis appears in large quantities – typically in the Gulf of Mexico – it can turn ocean water red, brown or green.
K. brevis contains harmful toxins that can affect the nervous systems of fish, birds and mammals.
How does red tide affect wildlife?
Red tide can have debilitating effects on marine life. If the microorganisms are concentrated at more than a 10,000-cell-per-liter rate, fish of all kinds can die.
Florida's last major issues with the microorganism lasted from October 2017 to February 2019. It killed fish, dolphins, turtles and manatees.
Is red tide harmful to humans?
Most people can safely swim in red tide, but it can cause skin irritation and burning eyes. Inhaling the red tide toxins can lead to coughing, sneezing and teary eyes, though those symptoms are typically temporary.
People with chronic respiratory issues such as asthma are advised to avoid red tide.
Where is there red tide?
Karenia brevis – the scientific name for red tide – has been detected around Port Manatee, where 215 million gallons of nitrogen-laden wastewater was dumped from the former Piney Point phosphate industrial site. Blooms also have been detected off several Manatee and Pinellas County beaches. Numerous fish kills were reported from Charlotte up to Pinellas.
Environmental officials reiterated during the roundtable discussion Thursday that the added nitrogen from Piney Point, which has shown to fuel algae, didn’t cause the blooms.
“I don’t think you can make a definitive cause-and-effect type of relationship at this point,” said Thomas Frazer, dean of the University of South Florida College of Marine Science. “But what I can say is that we all understand that an increase in nutrient delivery to our coastal waters can exacerbate these blooms for some time.”
Glenn Compton, chairman of the environmental advocacy group ManaSota-88, argued that it’s too early to say for sure that the bloom is not a direct result of red tide.
What is Florida doing to stem the tide?
Florida has worked to improve communication on red tide with different agencies and the public, including the addition of an interactive map that allows beachgoers to check conditions.
Since 2019, the state has dedicated millions of dollars toward research while reactivating the long-dormant red tide task force.
The state established the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative, a partnership between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. That effort works to develop technologies and approaches to control and mitigate blooms.
Over the next six years, both agencies will receive $18 million to develop technologies to detect red tide.
Contributing: Bobby Caina Calvan, Associated Press
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Florida red tide outbreak: State welcomes tourists amid algae bloom