Florida's toxic algae: where has all the wildlife gone?
They're the largest fish in the world, and one recently washed up on a Sanibel beach. Chad Gillis/The News-Press
Bob Wasno dives, fishes and works in and around the Estero Bay area and the Gulf of Mexico.
But a nasty red tide that's lingered along the coast for more than a year seems to have wiped out a lot of the coastal wildlife in Southwest Florida.
"There just isn’t much around like there used to be," said the researcher with Florida Gulf Coast University, based out of the Vester Marine and Environmental Sciences Research Field Station in Bonita Springs. "I’ve never seen the amount of juvenile dolphin, 3 feet or less, just swimming around solo. You hope that they’ll get adopted or taken in by others, but you just look out and all you see are the little ones swimming around."
Adult and calf-aged dolphins have been found dead on local beaches in recent weeks, but a lone calf has an extra meaning. There's no way to know if a lone adult is or was a mother, but a single juvenile dolphin means the mom has likely died, researchers say.
This year has been deadly for all sorts of wildlife. What that means for the future remains to be seen.
Hundreds of sea turtles, dolphins, manatees and even a whale shark washed up dead on Southwest Florida beaches since July.
Although red tide appears to have cleared up from virtually all of Lee and Collier counties, the wildlife seemingly hasn't recovered.
Heather Barron, director of the Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or CROW, veterinarian clinic on Sanibel, said she still sees animals on the island but that the number is lower than it's been in past years.
"Overall, I feel like I see less birds in the area along the shoreline and in the bays than before all of this started, but there are definitely birds out there," Barron said. "I saw (Tuesday) night a good 20 birds, so it’s not like there’s none."
Lee County has been at the epicenter of the red tide outbreak first reported in October 2017, with counts often reaching 1 million cells per liter and higher.
Fish kills can start when levels reach 10,000 cells per liter, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports.
The bloom had spread, at times, from the St. Petersburg area to Marco Island, a stretch of coast that's more than 100 miles long.
As a result, Lee County workers and contractors collected and disposed of millions of pounds of dead wildlife and marine debris.
Gail Reid Campbell, with the nonprofit Caloosa Bird Club, said she's not seeing as much wildlife this winter, either.
"I’m not seeing as many black skimmers and we’re not seeing a lot of numbers of royal terns," Reid Campbell said. "There used to be just hundreds of them. Every now and then we see them but they’re not consistent."
FGCU professor Jerry Jackson said he's not surprised.
"While in winter some birds such as brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants move to inland freshwater areas, this year there seem to be more of these species at open freshwater places like Eagle Lakes Park in Naples," said Jackson, host of WGCU's With the Wild Things. "At first it was mostly young birds, but now we're seeing adults. Certainly we have lost a lot of birds to red tide and I'm afraid it will also be negatively impacting migrant marine or coastal birds such as ducks, gannets, shorebirds, and peregrines."
This year could also end up being the deadliest on record for manatees, with 790 reported dead as of Dec. 14, and 200 of those tied to red tide. The record is 806, set in 2013.
The number of deaths could also be up because the number of manatees has also grown as high as 10,000, a recent FWC estimate shows. That's several thousand more than have been counted during aerial surveys.
FWC's latest report shows no red tide except for one low reading in the Boca Grande area and a few low readings in the Florida Keys.
While the levels haven't been strong enough to cause fish or marine mammal kills or breathing irritation in humans and other mammals, coastal birds are still coming into CROW and other facilities with red tide symptoms.
"We’re swamped with brown pelicans, and we certainly are getting other animals," Barron said. "We had a fish crow. And I know they’re eating dead fish from the beach, but they seem to be fairly resistant to a lot of toxins, just like vultures. They eat all the fish that are dead from red tide too but they seem to be able to tolerate the toxins."
Toxins from the outbreak can remain in the water for weeks or months after an outbreak, with the marine food chain still vulnerable.
"The red tide seems to be gone," Barron said. "The cell counts are normal, yet we’re getting in more cases now than when it was really high. And we see that a lot. Just because the cell counts are high doesn't mean that’s the day we get the animals in. It could be a day or two weeks later."
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A paddle through the Northern Everglades with News-Press reporters Chad Gillis and Andrew West Andrew West, News-Press