Red Tide is threatening Florida beaches with a devastating infestation that has not been seen in almost ten years. The incoming bloom has already killed tens of thousands of fish in the Gulf of Mexico, and is closing in on the coast. Red tide is scheduled to strike the mainland in around two weeks.
Algal blooms are a phenomenon caused by a few species of a type of algae called dinoflagellates. When these small creatures experience a massive population growth, they can discolor water red or brown, providing the occurrence its common name of red tide. Out-of-control populations of the tiny lifeforms produce toxins which kill off large numbers of fish and other marine life.
The Gulf of Mexico is currently experiencing an algal bloom 80 miles long by 50 miles wide, stretching from central Tampa Bay to the Florida Panhandle. This bloom could cause significant environmental damage when it reaches the shore, according to environmental experts.
"It could have large impacts if it were to move inshore. It has been killing a lot of marine species, especially fish, as it waits offshore," Brandon Basino, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), said.
Residents in areas surrounding the outbreak have reported dead flounder, grouper, snapper, eel, octopus and other marine life floating onshore, according to Basino. In 2013, a smaller outbreak of red tide which reached close to the coast caused a record high number of deaths of Florida Manatees. That species is already classified as endangered, making any additional stresses on populations challenging to the existence of the animals.
Health effects could also be felt by people who encounter the blooming algae. Exposure can result in coughing, wheezing and other respiratory challenges. The chemical that causes these reactions is odorless and tasteless, infecting people with no warning.
"I have seen analogies that equate red tide with a forest fire. There is an ecosystem reset," Kellie Dixon, of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, told the press.
Waldo and Bass, a pair of underwater robots, are monitoring the area, examining the bloom in an effort to know more about potential hazards. Waldo detected red tide 40 miles from shore, extending as far as 80 feet under the surface.
"At the outer edge of the bloom, elevated chlorophyll associated with the red tide was present in waters as deep as... 131 feet," operators utilizing Bass found.
Red tide has been noted by naturalists for hundreds of years, but this large bloom currently taking place in the Gulf is being closely monitored, due to its potential impact on tourism and the fishing industry.