Red Tide Is Devastating Florida’s Sea Life. Are Humans to Blame? (Source National Geographic)
THE FIRST THING you notice is the smell. It’s not a scent, exactly, but a tingling in the nose that quickly spreads to the throat and burns the lungs. But then you see the carcasses.
Thousands of sea creatures now litter many of southern Florida’s typically picturesque beaches. Most are fish—mullet fish, catfish, pufferfish, snook, trout, grunt, and even the massive goliath grouper. But other creatures are also washing ashore—crabs, eels, manatees, dolphins, turtles, and more. It’s a wildlife massacre of massive proportions. And the cause of both the deaths and toxic, stinging fumes is a bloom of harmful algae that scientists say is the region’s worst in over a decade. “It’s just like a ghost town,” says Heather Barron, head veterinarian at Florida’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW). “Anything that can leave has, and anything that couldn’t leave has died.”
Many organisms around the world can cause these harmful algal booms, which are also known as red tides for their common rust-red color. In Florida, the culprit is usually the tiny, plant-like alga known as Karenia brevis, which produces toxins, dubbed brevetoxins, that cause both gastrointestinal and neurological problems when eaten. The latest bloom now stretches around 100 miles along the coast and miles offshore, often pushed into concentrated patches by winds and currents. The algae began coloring southwest Florida’s waters in October 2017, picking up intensity in recent months. Now residents are entering the tenth month of the bloom with no end in sight.