Dead fish on the beach in Saint Petersburg, FLA.

Red tide season brings health and economic issues to Southwest Florida. What are the causes?

The term red tide sounds creepy, right? Well It kind of is. Think of a massive population of teeny tiny algae banding together to turn the shores in southwest Florida, not only red(it gets greenish too) but toxic. Red tide is a colloquial term used to refer to one of a variety of natural phenomena of algal blooms but red tides are not necessarily red and many have no discoloration at all.

There’s no shame if that makes you want to run; you should. The Red Tide is a massive force of nature, and causes damage to marine life and humans alike in the Tampa, Saint Petersburg, Cape Coral and other cities in the Tampa Bay.

These algae – basically simple plant life – form colonies, grow out of control, and wreak havoc on shorelines. The algae responsible is called Karenia Brevis, and when the conditions are right, they will quickly get out of control and cause devastation to any shoreline it may visit. Including killing marine life, birds and causing health issues with humans.

Factors that set the stage for these devious algae to run amuck is sunlight (This is the sunshine state!),  nutrients in the water, speed and direction of the current. These algae can bloom anywhere from a week, months or even longer. The outbreak in 2004 lasted a year and a half. 

Dead fish from red tide accumulate at waterfront home properties in Southwest Florida.
Dead fish from red tide accumulate at waterfront home properties in Southwest Florida.

It’s safe to say the red tide is not a fun experience for anyone involved. Invisible to the naked eye, there is a whole world of algae found throughout the ocean. Generally, these algae are harmless and just go about their lives (🙂) and do not bother anyone. However, when the Karenia Brevis are supplied with excess nutrients, they can get wild and decimate anything that has the misfortune of being nearby. 

The massive growth of algae is referred to as harmful algae blooms (HABs) and has been around for centuries. It records back to 1700, and in Florida, reports of red tide go back to the 1840s. Let it be known that these algae have been causing a ruckus for a long time. 

An excess of nutrients from various places such as rivers flooding and causing nutrient-rich soils from the forest floor and grasslands to find their way to the ocean, fertilizer, and livestock excrement finding its way into the sea is a perfect mix of nutrients to cause the Karenia Brevis to bloom.

The red tide usually starts in the fall and clears up come Jan; however, summer blooms happen as well. Some remarkable summer blooms occurred in 1995, 2005, 2018 and currently in 2021, but this time around supposedly hyper fueled by a fertilizer plant malfunctioning and spilling phosphate-rich waste into the water, causing devastation for marine life and humans alike. 

The result of an abundance of algae growth. Algae can consume a significant amount of oxygen from the water where Fish extract oxygen from via their gills. If there is No oxygen, fish die. Fertilizers which promote plant growth end up washing away from farms and lawn when it rains and all rain water flow downstream to bays and oceans. The fertilizer helps the algae grow beyond what the waters can support. 

To prevent the abundance of nutrients on the water, most cities in Southwest Florida issue a fertilizer ban that will be in effect until Sept 30 but that hasn’t stopped it from being this bad this year.

Health concerns

When Karenia Brevis is in full bloom, it also sends out spores into the air, which can cause coughing, sneezing, teary eyes and skin irritations. For most people, the red tide won’t affect them, and they can even swim in the water affected by the red tide; I mean, it’s gross, but it won’t harm them. Then, the people who suffer from lung issues, be it asthma, emphysema, or any chronic lung disease, will feel the effects of the red tide and could potentially become very ill. 

The red tide has devastating effects on marine life, and it’s not uncommon to have schools of fish wash onshore; dolphins, sea turtles and manatees alike are all affected by the red tide, causing concern for our precious marine life. It is being blamed for a massive fish kill in Tampa Bay off the St. Petersburg shoreline including giant Goliath Groupers that were filmed being scooped up along with more than 600 tons of dead fish and other marine life.

The area is battling what physicians call “The Triple Threat”: COVID-19, bronchitis and red tide—and the illnesses are beginning to run rampant.

The red tide vs. the economy

The tourism industry feels the effects of the red tide immensely. Imagine planning a beach day or a vacation on the beach, and when you arrive to enjoy some fun in the sun, the shores are covered in dead fish, and the stench of decomposing marine life is too much to bear. 

Now northerner tourists that schedule a vacation a while ago and even bought tickets are considering rescheduling their trips to eastern Florida to avoid the dead fish mess leaving the hotels and holiday rental properties at a loss for the business. Not to forget the restaurants, clubs, stores, even the locals will steer clear of the shorelines leaving these businesses vacant. The red tide has a significant impact on the tourism sector in Florida.

Hundreds of dead fish border the seawall of a waterfront home.
Hundreds of dead fish border the seawall of a waterfront home.

“Dump the dead fish on the property of the humans making money off the pollution from the top down.”
Barbara Piard

Negative impact also on the fishing/crabbing industry 

The State of Florida was quick to close shellfish beds during a red tide bloom and will not reopen these shellfish beds until the shellfish are safe to eat. This obviously is devastating to the fisheries that depend on shellfish beds  to make a living. Shellfish that have been contaminated by Karenia brevis can cause Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP), also known as not a good time. With symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal distress, headaches, chills, fevers and muscle pains, it’s a good idea to leave those shellfish until the area has been cleared from the red tide. 

The situation in 2021

The Governor of Florida is not calling a state of emergency in Florida, pointing out that there is money and resources allocated to these very events. The red tide is expected every year, and calling a state of emergency would affect the entire state of Florida, not just south Florida. According to the government, as there are already funds allocated to this issue, a state of emergency is not being declared. 

By July 13th, more than 110 tons of dead sea life had been collected in St. Petersburg. Then that number jumped to 676 tons, or about 1.3 million pounds around the Bay area, according to Pinellas County.

Around 124 tons of sea life were collected between Sunday and Monday with another 62.5 tons collected on Tuesday from Tampa Bay, Boca Ciega Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway, county leaders said. 

According to The Guardian, In March, a dam at a reservoir at the defunct plant that stored phosphate wastewater began to fail, prompting temporary evacuations of nearby residents on 1 April. Two days later, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, issued a state of emergency. The plant released 215m gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay in an effort to prevent the reservoir’s collapse.

JoogSquad, notorious Florida Youtuber, and unofficial FloridaMan, called it “Capitalism Gone Wrong” and a lot of the people in the comments of his Youtube video below are triggered assuming that he meant that as an anti-capitalist statement. 

Another more sensate commenter says: “It’s not capitalism that is the problem, its the institutions that allow this bullshit to happen, and that’s an unfortunate aspect of what happens when you have capitalism and poor government at the same time. Capitalism and good government/ institutions can create a lot of innovation and be really good for the human condition overall but it NEEDS good government to prevent things like this from happening. This is 100% the fault of the notoriously bad Florida government and even Federal government for not stepping in as I’m sure the feds have some stake in the waterways.”

We at agree 100%. This is the result of a Florida state Government in the hands of the donating companies.

Is there a solution?

Scientists have been trying to develop a solution to keep the Karenia Brevis population to a minimum and prevent future red tides and all the carnage that comes with them. On the table right now, scientists from the University of Central Florida are experimenting with spraying a clay on top of the shoreline to sink the algae and prevent it from blooming. This is a new venture  and needs to be explored further but other countries such as China and South Korea have been using clay to keep red tides at bay and have not reported any adverse side effects. This may or may not work out in the USA, but it is something to if not stop a red tide, at least manage the devastation these algae can have. 

As the video from Fox 13 Tampa shows, the mixture of a specific clay being thrown on the water could help sink the Karena Brevis algae and other nutrients to the seafloor therefore removing the excess that is causing the fish kill.

If you are planning to visit SouthWest Florida, this map from the Florida Wildlife and Fishing Commission maps out the locations with current red tide occurrence and their intensity:

Frequently Asked Questions about the Red Tide

Is Red Tide red?

Red tide is a colloquial term used to refer to one of a variety of natural phenomena known as harmful algal blooms. The term specifically refers to blooms of a species of dinoflagellate. It is being phased out by some researchers because: Red tides are not necessarily red and many have no discoloration at all.

How can you see the red tide in Florida?

Latest Red Tide Status Report Available by Phone. Call 866-300-9399 at any time from anywhere in Florida to hear a recording about red tide conditions throughout the state. Callers outside of Florida can dial 727-502-4952.
In Southwest Florida, it’s easy to see it in Tampa, Saint Petersburg, Naples, etc… this maps shows the areas where it is prevalent.

Is Red Tide harmful?

SW Florida is currently experiencing a red tide bloom. People with chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma or emphysema should avoid going to the beach as these illnesses may be aggravated

How long does the Red Tide last?

Red tides in Florida can last as little as a few weeks or longer than a year. They may even subside and then reoccur.

Max Francisco