Wildlife along the Florida Gulf Coast has taken a hit from something called the Red Tide.
I have been holidaying at Longboat Key for 35 years and periodically there is a surge in an algae called Karenia brevis that is in the gulf water for a few days or a couple of weeks then goes away. The alga affects fish by secreting a toxin that attacks their neurological system and gills and it kills a lot of them but the outbreaks are brief and the Gulf fauna recovers quickly.
This year, however, a bloom that started in July has continued unabated ravaging fish and wildlife along the coast from Fort Myers to north of Tampa. Fish have been washing up on the beach in large numbers and the dead sealife has also included sea turtles, dolphins and manatee. I am told that in August the problem was severe and that dead fish littered the beach and the water which turns orange with the bloom. For humans, the problem is mainly respiratory. Apparently swimming in the water contaminated by Red Tide is not a health risk other than causing skin and eye irritation for some.
This week we have noticed a lot of dead fish on the beach even the tide goes out, fewer schools of fish in the water, no seagulls or terns and only a couple of egrets. The birds must have moved away because there are no fish in the shallow water to hunt. An occasional pelican flies along the shore but they don’t dive to snare fish like usual. The seabirds have been replaced by flocks of turkey vultures that soar in the wind currents above the beach or pick away at the dead fish littering the shoreline.
There are even fewer tourists than usual and I have read that the tourist industry along the coast has been significantly affected.
Our holiday this week was not changed in any significant way by the persistent Red Tide bloom. On days when the water was stirred up by waves it took on the color of tea rather than its usual clear teal green. You could tell as you walked along the beach the places where the Red Tide was more active (areas of high concentration tend to move along the shoreline) because it would cause a runny nose and a dry tickle in the throat that turned to cough.
Why is it worse this year? Apparently there was a lot of rain earlier in the season and the heavier run off into the rivers that flow into the gulf brought with it pollution and eutrophication that acted to fertilize the algae. This, combined with an unusually warm season and warmer gulf water temperatures, added a bonus for abundant algal growth. Yes, effects of climate change and human pollution combined.
It will take a while for the wildlife along the gulf to recover but recover it will. One wonders, however, if – or, more appropriately, how and when – the conditions that disrupt the environment will increase as our weather patterns change in response to climate change.
I will be back to Longboat Key at the end of December and will be anxious to see if things are resolving.