Toxic algae blooms along Florida’s southwestern coast have persisted for months and are taking a deadly toll on marine wildlife

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The waters on the southwest coast of Florida haven’t been clear for 10 months.

A red tide that rolled in last fall is still plaguing the waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, turning the formerly pristine coastline a cloudy mud-red and killing off many kinds of wildlife.

The dangerous algae blooms are called karenia brevis, and they thrive in briny sea water that is warm but not too hot.

Ocean observers at Florida’s Mote Marine lab say this year’s red tide is not a record-breaker yet, but it is the most persistent algae bloom they’ve seen in roughly a decade.

Take a look at why it’s happening and which creatures are dying because of the algae.

The sea algae that creates red tides, Karenia brevis, floats around in the Gulf of Mexico all the time. But with some additional nutrients, a sprinkle of wind, and ocean currents that flow just the right way, the algae can develop into larger toxic, oxygen-suffocating blooms.

The sea algae that creates red tides, Karenia brevis, floats around in the Gulf of Mexico all the time. But with some additional nutrients, a sprinkle of wind, and ocean currents that flow just the right way, the algae can develop into larger toxic, oxygen-suffocating blooms.
Dead fish dot the shoreline along the Sanibel causeway in Florida.
 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The phenomenon is called red tide because it turns the normally crystal-clear waters near the shore into murky dark red cesspools that kill aquatic life.

Red tides kill fish by producing a powerful brevetoxin that harms their central nervous system.

“Ultimately, fish die because their gills stop functioning,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission explains on its website.

Red tides kill fish by producing a powerful brevetoxin that harms their central nervous system.
Dead fish piled up near the Gulf of Mexico in Bradenton Beach, Florida on August 6, 2018.
 AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

“Signs of intoxication in fish include violent twisting and corkscrew swimming, defecation and regurgitation, pectoral fin paralysis, caudal fin curvature, loss of equilibrium and convulsions,” the FWC reports.

 In response, Gov. Rick Scott recently declared a state of emergency in seven coastal counties affected by the algae, which creates a condition known as “red tide.”

On Monday (Aug. 13), Scott issued an executive order providing emergency funding and resources that would help communities rescue and protect wildlife and clean up the pervasive algae.

Scott also allocated additional funds for researching red tide, to better understand its causes and to help researchers develop strategies for preventing future lethal blooms, the governor’s representatives said in a statement.

Red tides (which, despite the name, are not necessarily red) appear in ocean waters when conditions allow naturally occurring single-celled algae — in this case, the toxic Karenia brevis — to multiply and cluster.

These blooms occur seasonally in the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, with the red tide typically emerging in the late summer or early fall and lasting three to five months, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

K. brevis produces a neurotoxin that animals (including humans) can ingest or inhale, and its extended presence is turning Florida beaches into gruesome scenes, with scores of dead animals littering the sandy shores.

The toxic tide has killed or sickened hundreds of sea turtles, shorebirds and manatees, and the amount of dead fish poisoned by the algae can be measured in millions of pounds, the Naples Daily News reported.

In one county alone, residents collected around 535,000 lbs. (nearly 243,000 kilograms) of dead fish, according to the Naples Daily News.

Previously, on June 20, Gov. Scott issued an executive order addressing another toxic algae problem: choking layers of blue-green algae in the St. Lucie River and other Florida waterways, caused by polluted, algae-rich water dispersed from Lake Okeechobee.

Red tides and other harmful algae blooms can persist for as long as 18 months, affecting thousands of square miles, the FWC reported.

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