Lingering red tide gaining strength, killing sea turtles and moving into local bays

A red tide bloom that's lingered off Southwest Florida for a few weeks has made its way into local bays and is killing larger marine life like sea turtles. 

"This is not a happy day," said Eve Haverfield, director of the non-profit Turtle Time. "I had four dead ones this morning and I had four dead yesterday. Eight in two days is pretty drastic." 

She said three of the eight were struck by boats, although it's unknown if the sea turtles were alive or dead when they were hit. 

"People are reporting them and there's awareness and they know how sad and urgent it is to get these animals and determine what's going on," she said. "It's so sad. The (Kemp's) ridleys are the most endangered of all the turtles."

Eve Haverfield, the founder of Turtle Time Inc., displays a large female loggerhead sea turtle at Bowditch Point Park on Fort Myers Beach that was picked up from mid-island on Fort Myers Beach on Thursday morning. She says this is the eighth dead sea turtle that has been recovered from Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach. One loggerhead and seven Kemp's ridley. Dead fish are starting to show up on Fort Myers Beach as well. There is a red tide outbreak off the coast of Southwest Florida.

More:NOAA: more funding needed to better understand red tide blooms in Southwest Florida

Water quality scientists from the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation say the bloom has moved into San Carlos Bay but that conditions are not nearly as bad as 2018, when millions of pounds of dead sea life was removed from local beaches. 

"A couple of weeks ago it was right off Sanibel, but now we're seeing Karenia (the organism that causes red tide) numbers inside San Carlos Bay," said Rick Bartleson, a chemist at SCCF. "So it's coming into the (Sanibel) causeway and into the bays." 

Red tide counts have ranged from normal background levels to 1 million or more cells per liter. Fish kills and breathing irritation can start when levels reach 10,000 cells per liter, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency in charge of tracking red tide. 

Numbers have been particularly high in Naples and on Marco Island in recent days. 

Red tide occurs naturally in the Gulf of Mexico but is thought by many water quality scientists to be fed from stormwater and agriculture runoff. 

Bartleson took measurements at Sanibel beaches and in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this week.

"It looks like there's a patch that seems to have gotten bigger," he said. "And if it's killing fish it's adding nutrients to the water, so it's not going to run out of nutrients soon."

Dead fish are seen on the north end of Fort Myers Beach on Thursday morning, Oct. 17, 2019.  Dead fish and other sea life including sea turtles are being recorded in Southwest Florida. There is a red tide outbreak off the coast of Southwest Florida.

Fish kills were observed by The News-Press Thursday in Hurricane Bay and on Fort Myers Beach, where several sea turtles have also been recovered. 

Last year's outbreak killed hundreds of sea turtles and dolphins and even a 27-foot whale shark. 

Bartleson said he and other scientists saw a dead Kemp's ridley sea turtle Tuesday off Bonita Beach. 

More:Red tide, fish kills return to Southwest Florida

However, conditions are not as bad as last year, Bartleson said. 

"Last year we had this giant patch of red tide that was 20 or 30 miles and there was high concentrations," Bartleson said. "This isn't, so far, anything like last year, so you don't need to worry about it being like last year. Last year we'd already seen that giant patch offshore, so last year was different. This is more like a normal year so far. Maybe a bad-normal year but not a terrible year."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration starts tracking red tide in Southwest Florida in August, when Gulf of Mexico temperatures rise and rains wash built-up nutrients off the landscape. 

NOAA says concentrations in south Lee and Collier counties are strong enough to cause symptoms in people who visit beaches or live along the coast. 

People along the coast in northern Lee who are sensitive to red tide will likely show symptoms of red tide exposure over the next three days, according to NOAA. 

The University of South Florida's College of Marine Science says the bloom will move generally to the north over the next three days. 

Fort Myers photographer Cat Chase was recently working on Fort Myers Beach and was dismayed at its condition: green and red discolored sand and “what looked like sea grass or seaweed or some type of matting that had washed ashore.”

“What I felt was coughing and my eyes watering and my throat itching — a lot of coughing,” she said, “and you could hear everyone around me coughing.”

She recently had a similar experience at Lovers Key with a client. “The sand didn’t look very healthy and there was that dead matting washing ashore.”

For Chase, the discomfort is fiscal as well as physical.

“Being a photographer, I utilize the beaches for my clients. As a local business (owner) and someone who just enjoys being in that atmosphere, it’s really sad to see that happen … I’m going to stay away for a while.”

Dead fish are seen on the north end of Fort Myers Beach on Thursday morning, Oct. 17, 2019.  Dead fish and other sea life including sea turtles are being recorded in Southwest Florida. There is a red tide outbreak off the coast of Southwest Florida.

Research scientists from SCCF’s Marine Lab took water samples on a short cruise Oct. 15 to the lower Caloosahatchee River, San Carlos Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico. They found Karenia brevis at all sites sampled.

The maximum concentration they found was 880,000 cells per liter two miles offshore of Tarpon Bay Road Beach on Sanibel. 

More:Water quality samples taken offshore show red tide concentrations creeping up

Since September 2018, the Marine Lab has been systematically sampling the Caloosahatchee and Gulf of Mexico for nutrients, phytoplankton, and water quality. A total of nine trips are “in the can” with one more to go under a National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID grant to study harmful algal blooms (HABs).

The NSF grant is intended to investigate how the intensity of red tide blooms is "related to nutrients in freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee, a large inland lake in south-central Florida that is managed for flood prevention." The research will contribute to the lack of "strong scientific evidence to support the connection between the red tide and Lake Okeechobee water releases."

The objective of the project is to provide water quality data prior to and throughout major freshwater releases. The information will provide insight into cause-and-effect relationships between freshwater releases and algal blooms.

NC State University's Dr. Natalie Nelson (NCSU) and University of Florida's Dr. Ed Phlips, are project collaborators with SCCF Marine Lab director Eric Milbrandt on the NSF grant.

Next week, Marine Lab researchers will do a more expansive cruise into the Gulf from North Captiva to Sanibel. For more information on the SCCF Marine Lab's research, contact Milbrandt at emilbran@sccf.org or at (239) 395-4617, ext. 102.

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.