What we know about red tide in the Gulf of Mexico right now
Red tide may be intensifying in areas along the southwest coast of Florida, including Sarasota and Manatee counties, stirring up memories of the horrible fish kills in 2018.
Beach monitors along the southwest coast are seeing fish kills from the north end of Anna Maria Island to as far south as Caspersen Beach in Venice.
What is red tide? Why is it dangerous to fish? And is it dangerous to humans?
Here's what we know:
What is red tide?
Red tide, referred to as harmful algal bloom by scientists, is made up of single-celled organisms, dinoflagellates called Karenia brevis. Like most such organisms, these microscopic creatures are usually beneficial to sea life, but red tide occurs where there's an overabundance of nutrients and K. brevis appears in large quantities. This phenomenon can turn the water red — hence, "red tide" — or green or brown.
The dinoflagellates produce a toxin that can be fatal to fish, shellfish, birds and manatees. Most of the time with red tide, the most obvious evidence tends to be massive amounts of fish and other life washing up on shore dead. These are referred to as "fish kills."
Is red tide harmful to humans?
According to Mote Marine Laboratory, the same chemicals which kill fish and other vertebrates can be released into the air near shore, causing respiratory irritation in humans. In cases involving severe or chronic respiratory conditions, like emphysema or asthma, the irritation can become quite serious.
The toxins can also gather in shellfish like oysters and clams, which may lead to neurotoxic poisoning if a human eats a contaminated shellfish.
Most humans can safely swim in red tide, but it can cause skin irritation and burning eyes.
What's going on right now in Sarasota, Manatee counties?
Red tide is lingering along shores in Sarasota and Manatee Counties, with medium to high levels measured along the coast this week. In addition, beach monitors are reporting varying levels of dead fish along the beaches.
The situation doesn't appear currently to be as dire as that of Pinellas County, where crews have cleaned up more than 1,200 tons of dead sea life, according to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Is red tide happening in Lee, Collier?
Not to the extent it is further north. In both counties, officials are saying the beaches are clear and the water looks good. But the good news comes with a caveat.
“Sure, everything looks OK down here at the moment, but I think the best way to think about what’s going on right now with the red tide is to rewind to 2018,” said Daniel Andrews, a former boat captain and founder of the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water. “We learned a lot from that …What happens with red tide – and this is just coming from me, not a scientist – is these superblooms like we see right now in Tampa make their way to the loop currents and start going everywhere."
Dead fish and testy meetings:Red tide unfolds in different ways up and down Florida's southwest coast
What happened in 2018 in Southwest Florida?
In 2018, then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for seven counties in southwest Florida, due to an unusually severe outbreak of red tide.
Bloom conditions began in November 2017 and lingered throughout spring and summer 2018. Beaches were shut down throughout the region and businesses had to close temporarily as a result.
The emergency declaration helped the counties -- Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota -- with money and resources.
Looking back at 2018:Red tide has sparked a state of emergency in Florida. What is red tide?
Has Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency this time around?
He hasn't as yet. DeSantis argues the step is currently unnecessary and would do harm to local economies by scaring away tourism. He said red-tide monitoring has greatly improved since 2018 -- monitoring has increased 165% the past year, he said, while the state's red tide task force reactivated and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has deployed a robotic water sampler processing nearly 500 samples a week, There's also a dedicated state fund for harmful algal blooms, which include red tide.
DeSantis also rebuked claims that he was politicizing the issue, which he was accused of by Kriseman, St. Petersburg's mayor.
“They were the ones who were saying, ‘You gotta declare a state of emergency,’ and so we asked them why,” DeSantis said on July 21. “Well, they didn't know why. They just wanted to do it because it was for a political talking point. The fact is, we budgeted for this, we have money for this.”
What the governor said:Emergency declaration over red tide would hurt the economy, Gov. Ron DeSantis says
How is the red tide being cleaned up?
Officials in different jurisdictions are taking different approaches. In Sarasota County, officials are taking a more hands-off approach, mostly leaving the cleanup to nature, while Manatee County is taking steps to clean dead fish before they wash ashore.
The cleanup approach:Sarasota and Manatee counties take different approaches to red tide fish kills