Sanibel, Marco Island, Boca Grande, Naples, Captiva Island; Floridians brag that their beaches are paradise and the best in the country. The tourists that normally flock to those beaches would agree, but not so much this month. Florida’s red tide is back with a vengeance. Rick Scott, Florida’s governor has declared a red tide state of emergency.

Red Tide is a toxic algae bloom, harmful to both humans and marine life, that appears naturally almost every year. But this year a convergence of events in Florida has led to one of the most destructive blooms in recent memory, spreading for 150 miles along Florida’s southwest coast from Naples to St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The bloom began in October and was fed by heavy rains over Southern Florida in May. These rains carried nutrient rich agricultural runoff into Lake Okeechobee from surrounding sugar cane fields. Rising water level in the lake forced the Army Corps of Engineers to release water into surrounding rivers and canals. These waterways carried the runoff into the sea where the rich nutrients are a perfect recipe for red tide.

Another element in the puzzle is that red tides appear to be more aggressive following hurricanes, possibly because of the extreme rainfall associated with these massive storms. 2017 saw Irma sweep up the length of Florida from the Keys to Tampa and Jacksonville.

To contribute to this ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances, algae grows more in the warmer waters of the summer season. To make this red tide into a state of emergency, “all that was needed was a little sunshine,” which Florida weather provided.


What is Red Tide?

red tide florida red tide stae of emergency

Red tides are not necessarily red and are unrelated to ocean tides. They occur naturally around the world and are not always harmful. However, when neurotoxins are present they will cause paralysis and death in fish, shellfish and marine mammals.

Humans can be affected by eating contaminated shellfish, having skin contact with toxins or even toxins carried in the air can cause eye irritation and respiratory difficulties.

“Toxic algae blooms like this occur naturally, but they have grown in frequency and intensity in recent years. While the causes are subject to some debate, the likely culprits are a combination of elevated water temperatures from climate change, increased nutrient load from Big Sugar, phosphate mines and other sources, and some bad decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers,” said John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign director for Greenpeace.


What is the Difference Between Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide?

Why do we see green water and call it Red Tide? EcoWatch described the difference between blue-green algae and Red Tide this way: “Both are photosynthetic microscopic organisms that live in water. Blue-green algae are properly called cyanobacteria. Some species of cyanobacteria occur in the ocean, but blooms—extremely high levels that create green surface scums of algae—happen mainly in lakes and rivers, where salinity is low.

Red tides are caused by a type of algae called a dinoflagellate, which also is ubiquitous in lakes, rivers, estuaries and the oceans. But the particular species that causes red tide blooms, which can literally make water look blood red, occur only in saltwater. 


A Tremendous Toll on Marine Life

First to appear were the beaches covered in dead fish, great numbers of dead fish. 260 tons of dead sea life were collected on Sanibel Island alone over several weeks.

red-tide-andrew west the news press-usa today red tide state of emergency

Then dead marine mammals started to wash ashore. Hundreds of sea turtles have died said Allen Foley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, when their food source becomes contaminated with red tide’s neurotoxins. Both loggerheads and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles (considered the world’s most endangered marine turtle) have been affected and mortality from red tide could seriously impact their chances of recovery. (photo – Andrew West, USA Today)

manatees red tide red tide state of emergencyAnimals accidentally ingest the algae while feeding, which makes them “almost comatose,” says Gretchen Lovewell, program manager for Mote Marine Laboratory’s Stranding Investigations Program. “Their flippers will just be dangling there,” she says of rescuing the few live stranded turtles. But most, she says, are already dead.

Then dead bottlenose dolphins started to appear, even a 26-foot whale shark that washed ashore on Sanibel Island. Oyster beds are contaminated and seagrass killed causing lasting ecological damage. Possibly the hardest thing to observe are the dead Manatees, the marine mammal that more than any other has become a Florida icon. It is thought that over four hundred manatees have died.


Solutions Mired in Politics

dead fish red tide chris o'meara ap photo red tide state of emergencyFlorida is a state convulsed by political winds. And the debate over what causes red tide, entirely natural or human-caused is a hot issue. (photo – Chris O’Meara, AP Photo)

But what appears to be different with this red tide season is the collision between two of Florida’s biggest money makers. The State’s Beach Tourism Industry pitted against Big Agriculture aka the powerful sugar lobby. With coastal beaches abandoned, the owners of resorts, tour operators, restaurants, etc. are losing millions and they are not staying quiet.

“I lost thousands and thousands of dollars in 2016,” said Irene Gomes owner of the Driftwook Motel in Jensen Beach as she holds a cloth to her nose. Red tide “affects not just that season, that week, those months. It’s affecting future income.”


Tourism vs Sugar

tcmillslod__ sugar cane fields around Lake Okeechobee red tide state of emergencyMany in tourism have pointed the finger at the huge sugar companies with fields around Lake Okeechobee as the source of the agricultural runoff feeding red tides. They have a lot of scientific data to back up their claim. Of course U.S. Sugar fights back. (photo – TC Millslod_)

“We share in the frustration over the Lake Okeechobee discharges,” the company said. “We want to collaborate in finding solutions that improve water storage and reduce the risk of discharges occurring again. But reckless and mean-spirited attacks — which are part of their ongoing vendetta against sugarcane farmers — misdirect the focus away from any meaningful discussion of the facts that will lead us to real solutions. That these radicals are blaming a single company, U.S. Sugar, for systemic regional problems wrought by over 100 years of change is utterly ridiculous.” Blah, Blah, Blah..

The final conclusion is that yes, red tide is a natural occurrence but its frequency and intensity are increasing every year; that is almost assuredly a result of human activity. As Donald Anderson, director of the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms. “The answer is probably some of both”

Florida’s politicians and lobbyist have plenty of time to debate because this red tide state of emergency does not seem to be ending anytime soon. In fact that last big one in 2006 lasted eighteen months.


The White House gave its approval to the construction of a massive reservoir to capture overflow from Lake Okeechobee and hopefully spare the downstream waterways and coastline of Florida from future harmful “Red Tide” algae blooms like the one that we are witnessing now. The plan has now been sent to Congress for inclusion in its Water Resources Development Act, which is expected to be approved by year’s end.

“You couldn’t get any more compelling of an argument for the project than seeing this algae bloom,” said Daniel Andrews, executive director for the Fort Myers-based Captains for Clean Water. “We’ve been fighting hard for it.”

By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network


See these Related Blue Ocean Posts:

Wacky Weather: What in the World?
Can Seaweed Reduce Ocean Acidification?
Does Bermuda Hold the Key to Coral Reef Resilience?
A Smelly Solution to the Crown-of-Thorns!


How To Get More Ocean-Hearted Intel Delivered To Your Inbox!

We believe ocean lovers can change the world. If you care about the health of the ocean and want to do something about it, then connect with the Blue Ocean tribe: Our growing community of ocean change-makers is turning ocean lovers into ocean leaders. It starts with you. Join us!