When Rachel and I were deciding about our move to Sarasota, Florida, one of our anxieties had to do with “hurricane season”. The season runs from June through November, covering half of the year. Climate change is reported to be causing increased water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico, a rise in sea level, and increased frequency of damaging storms. In 2017, Hurricane Irma just missed making landfall in Sarasota, and the area is still recovering. Ultimately, Rachel and I decided that the rewards were worth the risks. We would prepare the best we could for anything Mother Nature would send our way. We’d also get lots of insurance!
The house that we purchased was equipped with hurricane shutters. They were to be put up, covering every window and patio door, to protect the house from flying debris. Rachel and I laughed when we read a recommendation in the paper to put outdoor items like lawn furniture underwater in the swimming pool so that they would not fly around. We purchased a battery-powered lantern and phone charger that has a hand crank to generate its own power. We bought a portable camping stove, a variety of freeze dried meals guaranteed to not expire for 300 years, and lots of bottled water. We usually have a small stockpile of wine in the cupboard. We’d be ready for a few days without power. We designed an evacuation plan and placed important papers in a portable lock box, ready to be tossed in the car.
It turned out that during the first half of the 2018 hurricane season there was an environmental disaster of a different type that devastated parts of Sarasota and surrounding counties. As I write this story, there is no end in sight to the toxic “red tide” that is poisoning the waters and beaches up and down the southwest coast of Florida.
Red tide refers to a higher than normal concentration of microscopic algae called “Karenia brevis”. Large blooms of this toxic algae form and grow miles off shore in the Gulf of Mexico in the Fall and Winter months. Winds blow the algae towards shore and sometimes it reaches the coastal beaches. The Gulf water turns a color often referred to as “soft-drink brown”. The algae is toxic to marine life and kills fish in huge numbers. It also kills dolphins, sharks, manatees, and sea turtles. Particles of red tide become airborne and winds can carry them up to two-and-a-half miles inland. People exposed to red tide experience eye irritation and respiratory problems.
A week ago Rachel and I drove to Lido Beach, one of Sarasota’s natural treasures. We wanted to get a first-hand view of red tide and its impact. I covered my nose and mouth with a bandana. We arrived at 8:00 on a sunny Saturday morning. There was one car in the expansive parking lot. The beach was deserted. We were glad to see that the beach was not covered with dead fish. But we had to walk carefully to dodge the rotting fish scattered around the sandy beach. We observed a wide variety of fish of various sizes and several large horseshoe crabs. All were dead. Flies were buzzing around everywhere, and the smell was strong. We left after a few minutes.
Most years, red tide is gone by the end of March. The current exposure began in October, 2017, and there is no projected timeframe for an ending. In 2004 a red tide bloom lasted for 18 months, continuing through 2005 and part of 2006. The current bloom is over 150 miles long and between 10 and 20 miles deep. It extends from Collier County on the south through Manatee County on the north. Sarasota is located somewhere in the middle. The Sarasota papers update the fish kill every week. A recent report stated that over 200 tons of dead fish have been removed from beaches in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. That is a lot of fish!
Red tide has been recorded in Florida since the 1800’s. There has never been a successful intervention to eliminate it. Many scientists believe that worsening red tide in recent years is being caused by climate change, rising water temperature, and man-made pollution flowing into the Gulf. It happens that tomorrow is a state-wide, primary election in Florida. Political candidates for national and state offices have struggled to identify policies and strategies to address the red tide crisis. In a recent debate, a candidate for Governor expressed frustration, telling the audience if they would just tell him what to do to eliminate red tide, he would happily do it.
Scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota have been studying red tide for decades. One of the lead scientists is Dr. Rich Pierce. Rich was our next-door neighbor when we lived in Sarasota in the 1980’s. Articles in the Sarasota paper have described two different strategies outlined by Mote scientists. The first idea is to bombard the toxic algae with ozone. The ozone kills the algae and its toxins and restores oxygen that is depleted by the red tide. The problem is that the technology can only treat small bodies of water, and is not practical to be used in the Gulf or in larger bays or estuaries. Ozone treatment is being tested in one small canal in Sarasota.
A second idea proposed by scientists at Mote was that we just wait for a major weather event like a hurricane to blow the toxic algae bloom out of the area. That sounds simple enough. It doesn’t require extensive technology. Both algae and hurricanes are part of the natural cycle of nature. Let them run their course. I bet some of the confused politicians will jump on that bandwagon. It sounds kind of like debates about climate change.
Wait a minute! A hurricane? Are you kidding me? That’s the best they can do?
Here’s hoping that our elected officials will find ways to curb the pollutants flowing into our waters and into the air to mitigate man-made contributors to Red Tide outbreaks. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that more and better technologies will be developed to combat red tide when it approaches our shores. Until then, Rachel and I have the emergency supplies handy and the evacuation bag packed.