I knew red tide had arrived, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. When I stepped onto the beach, it was covered with dead fish and sea life of all sizes. Catfish, snapper, bait fish, eels, and even octopuses had washed up on the sand, killed by toxins that affected their central nervous system. As far as the eye could see their carcasses dotted the shore, and I could only imagine what the landscape would smell like as the sun and temperatures continued to rise throughout the day.
The toxins were in the air, and as I walked my eyes burned, my nose ran, and I coughed and coughed. Though I could, and did, leave the beach, the birds have to stay. Gulls had already descended on the fish, and as I scanned the coast I saw dozens of shorebirds, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, and terns. This red tide is only a few days old in certain areas on the Panhandle, but as the birds consume the fish (and the toxins in the fish), their die-offs could begin. Other fish eaters, including the dolphins that live in the local waters, could also be affected.
Caused by Karenia brevis, a naturally occurring algae in the Gulf, these red tides form when the algae blooms. Because the concentrations of the algae are so high, fish and other marine life are exposed to the toxins, killing them outright or causing a gradual accumulation in their tissues. Recreational shellfish gathering of certain species is banned during the algal blooms, as they can be dangerous to eat for humans.
It is true that the algae is found in the Gulf all year round. In fact, healthy individuals can swim in the tide with no ill effects, other than the uncomfortable respiratory symptoms. However, humans have certainly exacerbated the blooms. Though red tide forms 10-40 miles offshore, once it is off the coast it can be fed by nutrient runoff. Warmer ocean surface temperatures also make red tide formation more likely, and thus climate change could result in more frequent algal blooms.
We will continue to follow the red tide along the Panhandle. Though models can predict movement, it is difficult to know if it will last for days, weeks, or even months. For the sake of the local wildlife, we hope this tide is of short duration.