The truth behind Florida’s “red tide”

With summer vacations coming up, you may be concerned about potential hazards lurking in the ocean waters. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty about shark attacks on the national news. But down in Florida, in my neck of the woods, everyone is talking about a possible resurgence of “red tide.”

Red tide is a natural phenomenon caused by a higher-than-normal concentration of small, one-celled algae called Karenia brewis (K. brevis).

The blooms typically originate about 10 to 40 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

But as the blooms get closer to shore, the water can turn a rust color. (Or sometimes dark green, or black and murky.) The blooms can even make their way around the Florida panhandle, frightening tourists on the Atlantic coast as well.

While the rusty water is troubling to see, especially to tourists, the carnage it causes can be worse…

Red tide suffocates fish

K. brevis produces toxins that affect the central nervous systems of fish, which can lead to death. It also depletes the oxygen content of the water, causing the fish to suffocate. Then, the dead, decomposing fish release nutrients into the water—which feed the K. brevis and continue the red tide cycle.

Plus, as you might expect, the sight of these dead and dying fish on Gulf beaches can rattle the tourists. But those of us who’ve lived in Florida for a while know that red tide is actually somewhat of a regular occurrence.

In fact, it dates back at least to the 1800s and perhaps even earlier, according to reports by Spanish explorers. In either case, red tide first appeared long before humans started influencing the local environment—which suggests that humans aren’t to blame for its occurrence. (Although, when the blooms creep closer to shore, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus—which come from man-made sources—can cause it to expand.)

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) has been documenting red tide blooms since 1953. And there has been a significant occurrence every 10 to 15 years.

I personally remember several occurrences of red tide since the 1980s, when I first lived in Florida. Most of them lasted longer than the 2018 bloom. In fact, one of the longest lasted from 1953 to 1955.

Experts with the local Mote Marine Lab also note that red tide is actually more common during late summer and early fall—when the water in Florida hits its warmest temperatures, creating ideal conditions for the algae to proliferate. (The 2017-2018 bloom was rare in that it continued from winter into summer and into the following winter.)

Some people think the recent bloom originated from Lake Okeechobee in southeast Florida. But that theory is wrong…

Red tide blooms always originate in salt water in the Gulf of Mexico. And Lake Okeechobee is fresh water. Plus, the release of water from Lake Okeechobee (for necessary flood control and water management) happened after the red tide had already started.

Know the potential effects on health

Rest assured, healthy people and pets can go outdoors during red tide. You can even safely swim in it. (I know this first-hand because I took daily swims in it last fall.)

Of course, some people do experience eye, nose, and throat irritation. And for people with chronic respiratory conditions—such as allergies, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, or COPD—exposure to red tide can make symptoms worse. So, you may want to temporarily avoid the coast and remain in air-conditioned rooms and automobiles.

(In fact, I’m putting the finishing touches on my Breathe Better Lung Protocol. In this innovative learning tool, you’ll learn all about the natural ways to strengthen your lungs and protect yourself from lung disease—America’s third most lethal killer. You’ll be the first to hear about this protocol as soon as it’s released, so check your email for updates, or tune in to my Daily Dispatch for more details.)

But the real hazard for most people isn’t the algae itself. Rather, it’s contact with the decomposing fish that poses the real danger. These fish may accumulate in the water or on the shore. So, make sure to wash off thoroughly with fresh water after you exit the ocean.

In terms of eating at seafood restaurants in the area, there’s not much to worry about either. The shellfish industry is well-regulated and policed. Plus, seafood won’t be collected from a red tide area.

Although, if you collect your own shellfish recreationally, use extreme caution. Shellfish are filter feeders, which means they process and filter many gallons of seawater to obtain abundant small nutrient organisms, such as algae. Plus, neither freezing nor cooking shellfish destroys any red tide toxin that may be present. And such toxins can persist in affected shellfish for weeks or months.

In the end, even if we get another red tide this year, you now know it’s not some sort of man-made, “end-of-times” disaster. Instead, it’s part of a regular, natural cycle that’s been occurring for centuries.

And most importantly, you don’t need to run screaming from the water…or from the state.


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