Fish, dolphins, turtles, and manatees are fighting a deadly algae scourge along the Gulf Coast, which has caused nearly 800 tons of marine life to wash up on Florida beaches.
The toxic algal blooms, together called a red tide, have left ocean maintenance crews struggling to clean up more than a million pounds of decomposing sea creatures from Tampa Bay shorelines.
Here’s what to know:
What exactly is red tide?
Red tides are natural phenomena that stem from bacteria called Karenia brevis, which sprout algal blooms that discolor sea surfaces and produce harmful neurotoxins. The blooms, which collect in frothy, murky clumps called “fish kills,” are poisonous to wildlife and can cause respiratory irritation in humans. They can also turn waters different colors—from green to brown to red.
Red tides are naturally periodic—occurring once a year in Florida, lasting from fall to midwinter—but can vary unnaturally in timing and severity.
Why is it so bad this year?
It could be a combination of factors. This year’s bloom is unusually long, bubbling up in December 2020 and lasting well into the summer. It’s possible that it was exacerbated by recent tropical storms, which may have blown fish onto shores in much larger quantities, causing a greater pileup.
It’s also possible that a wastewater dump from the state’s Piney Point phosphate plant in April could have supercharged the bloom by supplying a buffet of fertilizer nutrients for the bacteria to feast on.
Regardless of the reason, scientists agree it’s not normal: In recent history, there have been just three red tides in the Tampa Bay area during summertime: in 1995, 2005, and 2018.
What happened in 2018?
A massive summer red tide along Florida’s southwestern coast killed 2,000 tons of marine life and cost the region $8 million in business losses, with its sandy beaches awash in claggy waters and rotting fish.
And although it’s still relatively early, experts are forecasting that this year could be even worse.
What’s being done to help?
The most immediate concern for officials is cleaning up the dead wildlife, as decaying fish release nitrogen into the water that feeds red tide bacteria. Environmental activists and local demonstrators have urged state governance to free up more funds for the cleaning effort.
Some activism has also been directed at Piney Point for its alleged role in the outbreak, as protestors have demanded the closing of its facilities, as well as long-term policies to stop phosphate mining in Florida and impose fines on polluting companies.