Marilu Flores has adored fish ever since she attended a marine science camp as an 8-year-old. It’s a curiously hairless creature for a child to love compared to, say, puppies or ponies, but Flores is drawn to their expressive eyes, beautiful scales and, ultimately, their vulnerability to mankind’s actions. “There’s something really magical about fish that is often overlooked,” she says. “I can’t help but feel that they don’t stand a chance and are being sucker-punched the way that we’re overfishing and polluting our oceans.”
It’s precisely that fondness that has not only kept Flores from consuming seafood for the last 26 years but has also fueled her efforts to protect our oceans and waterways with the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots environmental nonprofit, where Flores now works as regional coordinator.
So last October, when a toxic algae known as red tide washed up on South Florida’s shores for the first time in years, Flores’ phone pinged incessantly with emails, texts and calls: Hundreds of dead fish were washing ashore. Parrot fish and hogfish on Deerfield Beach. Red snapper and pipefish on Pompano Beach. Permit jacks and ballyhoo in Boca Raton. They were bloated, decomposing, mangled in sea grass. Residents were also reporting itchy eyes and trouble breathing.
“It was apocalyptic,” Flores says. Two weeks before, she had organized a beach clean-up at MacArthur Beach, 60 miles north of Fort Lauderdale and home to 22 threatened or endangered species, which was also now littered with fish corpses. “I totally broke down. It was very emotional for me.”
As ominous as hundreds of dead fish washing ashore sounds, the red tide is a natural phenomenon, one that has been recorded in the state of Florida for more than 500 years. It’s a toxic algal bloom called Karenia brevis that exists naturally in the Gulf of Mexico. Residents on the west coast of Florida are all too familiar with the doomsday-esque brownish-red waters and dead marine wildlife washing ashore. It’s been reported to have occurred 57 times since 1953, but only eight of those times did the toxin make its way to the Atlantic coast by hitching a ride around the southern tip of Florida on the loop current.
Like hurricanes, experts are reporting that even though the red tide occurs naturally, human actions have made it more frequent and catastrophic. They are pointing specifically to the fertilizer used in big agricultural fields seeping its way into our waterways and then acting like a catalyst, allowing the red tide algae to grow in record numbers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this past year’s red tide was one of the longest and worst in recent memory.
“In 15 or 20 minutes after walking from my car and then sitting outside a bar on [Fort Lauderdale] beach, my lungs became irritated and my eyes were itchy,” says musician Dyllan Thieme, the son of two boat captains, who lives near the Intracoastal Waterway. “I was freaked out by how much the red tide affected me — I could only imagine how bad an hour at the beach would’ve been.”
The most recent red tide flare-up wasn’t easy for Thieme, whose band the Copper Tones released a song about the issue in the run-up to the 2018 election. He spends as much time as he can on the water, kayaking, paddleboarding, spearfishing and even taking the occasional booze cruise. He knows a lot of boat captains and folks who run small businesses tied to the waterways, and he’s concerned that business was slower than usual.
“We’re a tourist-based economy,” Thieme says, “and the reality is that no one is going out on the water during the red tide.”
An Old Phenomenon with New Power
Algal blooms happen all over the world, as far away as China, Brazil and France. The largest recorded bloom took place in 1991 in Australia, contaminating more than 600 miles of the Darling-Barwon river. But the Karenia brevis algae, the one that causes our red tide, only exists in the Gulf of Mexico. (Don’t confuse it with cyanobacteria, our blue-green algae, that similarly causes fish kills in Florida but generally only thrives in fresh water.)
Floridians have been dealing with the red tide for centuries. When Spanish conquistadors first landed here more than 500 years ago, Native Americans warned them not to harvest and consume poisonous shellfish during the toxic algal blooms, according to letters from the time. They were preventing what’s known today as neurotoxic shellfish poisoning.
And despite red tide’s legacy across the state, a 50-year statistical analysis by University of Miami scientist Larry Brand found that the red tide we experience today is much worse than it was before.
“Now [the red tide] is 15 times more abundant than it was 50 years ago,” Brand says, “and I’ve concluded that human-based nutrients are what have made it worse.”
Basically, the Karenia brevis organism is a microscopic algae, and like other crops, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous found in fertilizers are a catalyst for growth. When it rains, the chemicals from these lawn fertilizers seep into our waterways. During the wet season, Lake Okeechobee fills to its brim and to prevent leaks or failures, some of the water must be released. It flows past the nutrient-rich agricultural fields into our waterways and oceans. “That’s exactly the moment you see the red tide get much, much worse,” Brand says, “and all the animals start dying.”
The red tide algae creates a neurotoxin that messes with nerves in vertebrates, and regularly kills fish, porpoises, manatees and sea turtles that are exposed to it. The algae breaks apart easily with the wind and crashing waves, so when the red tide veers closer to shore, humans can inhale the toxin from more than a mile away, a sensation similar to being exposed to tear gas, irritating the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
“If you look at hospital records during red tides you’ll see increases in people going in with respiratory distress and gastrointestinal disorders,” Brand says. “These red tides aren’t just an inconvenience. It’s making lots of people quite sick.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the red tide’s growth over the years because it’s not exactly linear. A season can last as much as 18 months, and levels can be wildly unpredictable, fluctuating in numbers but also location, popping up all around the state like a twisted game of whack-a-mole. Brand likens them to hurricanes. “We know hurricanes are getting stronger and more intense,” he explains. “But one year you might have four, and then next year nothing. It’s the same with the red tide.”
The red tide typically keeps to the west coast of Florida, but every 10 or so years a perfect storm of variables carries the toxic algae on a loop current around the southern tip of Florida, up the east coast and onto our shores. It’s hard to prove, but Brand and other experts also believe that especially prolific algal blooms are linked to hurricanes. For example, the red tide that took place between 2004 and 2006 was one of the worst ever recorded, a time when Hurricane Katrina and Wilma ravaged the state, causing record rainfall and sending lots of nutrient-rich waters flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Then Florida got on a lucky streak, dodging most hurricanes until the fall of 2017, when Hurricane Irma hit the state. Brand says that’s when nutrient-rich runoff seeped into the coastal waters and led to the red tide season we are currently experiencing now.
“The environment is our economy”
Across Alligator Alley, Naples is known for its white-sand beaches and more thinly developed charms. But increasingly, those draws are being overshadowed by news of dead eels, tarpon and sea turtles washing up on the shore. In December, more than 20 bottlenose dolphins were found dead, decomposing along the tideline. In one image that went viral on social media, a local resident had scribbled “This is not normal” in the sand below one dolphin’s corpse. They’re believed to be victims of the red tide.
“We’ve had red tide before but this is something different,” says Collier County commissioner Penny Taylor, who has lived in the area for almost 40 years. “I’ve never seen it this bad with dead bottlenose dolphins washing up on shore and birds dropping from the sky. It’s sad and perplexing and we’re all deeply disturbed.”
Typically, Taylor reports that the red tide appears after the rainy season around October and lasts until May. But after Hurricane Irma pummeled Florida’s west coast, bringing record rainfall (and land runoff) with it, the red tide appeared in September 2017 and has yet to go away. In fact, one of the worst blooms occurred last August, a time when they don’t typically experience any red tide.
The result? Bookings are down and many boat captains find themselves out of work for months at a time. Taylor says realtors are telling her that people are thinking twice before investing in the area. Now many residents find themselves refreshing the local red-tide forecast like they would the weather report every morning.
“What is happening is hurting our economy,” Taylor says. “Clearly the lesson has been that the environment is our economy.”
Christopher Westley, director of the Regional Economics Research Institute and a professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University, points out that things could take a much bigger turn for the worse if people decide the red tide isn’t just a temporary occurrence but a permanent one. He explains that since the red tide has been around for hundreds of years, its effects have already been priced into assets.
“A house in Cape Coral that experiences red tide might cost a little less than a comparable one in another part of the state that doesn’t experience red tide,” he says. “I hear of people in Sanibel complaining that they can’t sell their house now versus a year ago but maybe it is overpriced, but it does seem like that area got a lot of bad press from [red tide] this past summer.”
So far, Westley says, the red tide hasn’t drastically hurt the local economy: taxable sales haven’t been affected; airline passengers are arriving to the west coast of Florida in record numbers. But the occupancy tax on hotels did take a hit. “People are in a wait-and-see mode,” he says. “If things are changing, and the red tide becomes a more permanent occurrence, I would expect prices to reflect that, but so far they haven’t done that yet.”
Our Problem Too
In early October, some residents on Fort Lauderdale Beach began to experience difficulty breathing. Hundreds of dead fish washed ashore in Broward County. On October 5, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation confirmed the presence of red tide at seven sampling locations across the county in Dr. Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson State Park, Hallandale Beach, Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood.
However, their concentrations were low, and within a week, by October 12, conditions were starting to improve as water samples across the county came back with hardly any presence of the Karenia brevis toxin. No beaches closed within that time.
Roughly 580 sea turtles were found stranded across the state due to red tide in 2018, but none of the sea turtle deaths in Broward were linked to red tide, says Allen Fowley, an FWC wildlife biologist. It’s a relief because during a particularly bad red tide flair-up in August, 106 dead turtles were found in one week across seven counties on the west coast of Florida. In Sarasota County alone, 56 were found.
“Sea turtles with red tide poisoning are lethargic, uncoordinated with their movements, twitching,” Fowley says. “Dead turtles … are pretty gross and not very pleasant…their populations are still somewhat tenuous and anything that has a negative effect is worrisome.”
Red tide washing up on Fort Lauderdale’s shores was unexpected. But many local leaders are relieved that—because of sunlight, nutrients, salinity and speed of water currents—its reign didn’t last long in South Florida. Though it seems to have instigated a push for real change in Tallahassee and Washington.
“We were really appreciative that [the red tide] has had a minimal impact on our community,” says Fort Lauderdale mayor Dean Trantalis. “But, having said that, we realize that this was a significant threat to our ecology and I’m not sure that the state and federal government are taking it seriously.”
Since 2011, $700 million in funding has been slashed from water boards around the state. The South Florida Water Management District, the agency responsible for Everglades restoration that advises the Army Corps of Engineers on Lake Okeechobee discharges, had its budget slashed nearly in half. However, some are optimistic that new attitudes are beginning to prevail in Tallahassee. In January, shortly after being sworn in as governor, Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that includes $2.5 billion over the next four years as well as a new Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency, and a state Chief Science Officer.
“I’m very hopeful we can work together to find common solutions,” Trantalis says. Those solutions are needed now, experts say.
“The bottom line is that you need to reduce the amount of nutrient runoff into our public waterways and that has not been happening,” says scientist Larry Brand. “The conclusion is clear: either the nutrient regulations are not adequate or they’re not being enforced.”
At Surfrider Foundation, Marilu Flores helps coordinate a multi-pronged approach between the local, state and federal government. After the red tide flair-up, Flores reports more people are ready to get involved: long-time residents confused by the sudden marine die-offs, parents who were looking for answers for their children, folks who wanted to take action against the devastation.
“Since the peak of this happened in late September, people from all walks of life have started engaging with us,” Flores says.
The nonprofit is urging people to reach out to their congressperson or senator to fund an algal bloom research and prevention program on a national level, and to fund the Florida Healthy Beaches program, which is charged with testing water samples. After budgets were slashed, Surfrider set up “blue water task force labs,” which rely on volunteers to test water samples across the state and publish the results for the community. Though they don’t test for red tide, they test for other bacteria, like fecal matter.
Flores has also helped usher in changes on a local level, such as passing nutrient ordinances in Jupiter. Even if federal, state and local government can’t bring in much-needed reforms, Flores urges concerned residents to implement positive changes by using “ocean-friendly yards” comprised of native plants that don’t require the use of fertilizer.
Last October, the $6 billion America’s Water Infrastructure Act authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to start working on a $1.6 billion reservoir project to collect Lake Okeechobee discharges instead of releasing them into St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that eventually feed into the ocean and Everglades.
But that work might take more than a decade, and the effects of inaction in Tallahassee and Washington are already being felt.
“We have been suffering like this for decades,” says Houston Cypress, a member of the Miccosukee tribe, “and it’s only now being felt by the broader community.”
For Cypress, the red tide can’t simply be quarantined into the Gulf of Mexico because all water is connected. Living on the Miccosukee reservation, Cypress and his family have been experiencing the effects of a weakened marine environment first-hand for years. As a result, he must examine water quality closely. After all, “the River of Grass is my front and back yard; it’s all around the reservation,” he says.
Cypress can’t eat fish or deer or some of the other animals his ancestors typically ate because of mercury poisoning. Native fur-bearing species that once prowled through the sawgrass are being decimated by exotic species like pythons slithering in the brackish waters.
It’s only a matter of time until the rest of South Florida starts to similarly feel the effects of mankind’s overdevelopment, he says. “The Everglades is a skeleton of its former self, and humans are exacerbating the phenomenon.”