Heading to the beach this weekend? Weather Service issues beach hazard for red tide

Chad Gillis
The News-Press

Ready for a great weekend at the beach? 

Maybe you should change those plans. 

Dead animals are washing up in droves on local beaches, and weather forecasters are warning the public about red tide conditions between Sarasota and the Bonita Springs area. 

A large number of sea turtles are washing up on Southwest Florida beaches. It is believed they are succumbing to red tide poisoning. Red tide has been lingering of of Southwest Florida beaches for months. Scientists for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation are documenting and taking samples for testing from sea turtles found on Sanibel and Captiva.

Unprecedented numbers of sea turtles have been collected in Lee and Collier counties over the past week, and hundreds are thought to have died from this particularly strong red tide event. 

Humans are at risk of developing breathing issues, especially those with existing respiratory conditions. 

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The National Weather Service issued a beach hazard advisory Friday for red tide for Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties through Monday. 

"It's definitely an advisory for people who have respiratory issues when exposed to the algal blooms," said Tony Hurt, an NWS meteorologist in Ruskin.

Hurt said the issues can extend beyond exposure at the beach. 

"It's not only from being in the water at the beach but people get back home and then start to experience some of the symptoms," Hurt said. 

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Symptoms from exposure to red tide include coughing, an itchy throat, watery eyes and difficulty breathing. 

As far as sea life, the death tolls are rising.

"We took in four new sea turtles yesterday," said Heather Barron, director of the veterinarian hospital at the Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or CROW on Sanibel. "Two very large adult male loggerheads and each were over 200 pounds and both were very consistent with red tide poisoning. We also took in a Kemp's ridley juvenile and it was showing signs of red tide poisoning, and we also took in a juvenile loggerhead."

A whale shark that washed up on Sanibel this past weekend tested positive for Karenia brevis (the organism that causes red tides here). 

Pelicans and double-crested cormorants are dying, and experts say we're only seeing a fraction of the dead wildlife. 

The majority of animals impacted by the red tide, they say, are floating at the surface or have sunk to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. 

Strong winds out of the west and southwest have pushed the bloom and sick and dead animals to the beaches. 

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This red tide outbreak started in October and is the longest on record since 2006, the year after several hurricanes impacted Florida. 

Hurricane Irma hit the region this past September, stirring up nutrients in the Everglades drainage system, which includes Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River. 

Nutrients feed all types of algae, and with summer conditions expected for the next three months, this bloom might not go away until 2019.

Check out The News-Press Save Our Water solutions group.

Counts locally have been high in recent days. 

"The only sample I’ve looked at recently was 5 million cells per liter at the southwest side of Sanibel," said Rick Bartleson, a chemist with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation on Sanibel. "That’s where one of the strandings were. It was pretty strong aerosol there." 

An FWC report released Friday shows 1 million cells per liter and higher counts from Sarasota south to northern Collier County. 

Bartleson and others at SCCF have been at times wearing gas masks to filter the red tide from the air, even though their facility is not close to the beach. 

Fish kills and respiratory issues in humans can start when levels reach 10,000 cells per liter, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Bartleson said the dead fish and marine creatures add to the algal bloom because they release nutrients as they decompose. 

Rick Bartleson and Andrew Glinsky from the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation perform a necropsy on a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle that was found a couple days earlier on Sanibel Island. It is believed to succumbed to red tide poisoning.

SCCF has picked up more than 50 sea turtles in June and July. 

Weather forecasters are calling for the onshore winds to stop over the next week. 

"It’s in a transition now," Hurt said. "It’s been a pretty stout southwest flow for the past week or so. It will get a little bit weaker and it will allow the sea breeze in the afternoon and the thunderstorms to come up. It will take a couple of days to transition, hopefully by mid week next week we’ll be in a more normal summertime pattern." 

Bartleson said a wind shift would be welcome. 

"Wherever the wind is blowing away from shore, that’s better," Bartleson said. "The onshore wind has increased the number of strandings. And otherwise they’ll go the other way and we’ll never see them."

The red tide is expected to stay close to shore, moving slightly to the south, according to the University of South Florida College of Marine Science. 

Barron said her facility is also getting animals that have become sick from the blue-green algae that's currently plaguing the Caloosahatchee River. 

She said the treatment for exposure to either red tide or blue-green algae is the same because they both attack the neurological system. 

"We’re getting a lot of pelicans now and we’re seeing a lot of mallard and mottled ducks with the blue-green algae," Barron said. 

"It's a double-whammy for the animals," she said. 

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter.