Why Is Florida's Red Tide Outbreak So Bad Right Now?

Illustration for article titled Why Is Floridas Red Tide Outbreak So Bad Right Now?
Photo: AP

It’s been a summer of algae for the Sunshine State. Last month, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in counties whose waterways were befouled by blue-green algae blooms. On Monday, Scott found himself declaring another emergency for a separate red tide algae outbreak taking place across the state.

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The current red tide bloom developed last November off the coast of southwest Florida and is now in its tenth month. High concentrations of algae have been measured in coastal waters from Tampa Bay to Sanibel Island, where 267 tons of marine life have washed up dead since July, according to the Guardian.

So, why is this algae outbreak so bad?

Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida whose lab produces seasonal and short term forecasts of red tide, told Earther a confluence of ocean circulation and environmental factors are likely responsible for initiating the bloom. Others experts are pointing to the potential role of human-driven nutrient pollution in helping to maintain it.

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The neurotoxin-producing algae responsible for the carnage, Karenia brevis, is found naturally in marine and estuarine waters off Florida, and blooms occur on the regular in the late summer and early fall. Weisberg explained nutrient availability is the key factor behind whether K. brevis can get a foothold in an area of the ocean known as the West Florida continental shelf. His research has shown that deep upwelling of nutrient-rich waters onto the continental shelf—driven by the Gulf of Mexico loop current—encourages growth of the algae’s competitors, keeping red tide concentrations low. But when the loop current shifts, fewer nutrients rise to the surface, and red tide can gain a foothold.

That, Weisberg told Earther, is exactly the oceanographic setup that’s been in effect over the past year. Ocean currents then carried the toxic bloom to the coastal areas and beaches where it has been wreaking havoc since. His team started predicting a bad summer for red tide back in June.

Once a bloom gets to the shore, it can kill fish, which decay and help sustain it. Many experts think nutrient runoff from agriculture and other human activities can also play a role. But while the blue-green algae blooms that pop up regularly around Florida’s Lake Okeechobee are clearly initiated by runoff, that isn’t the case with red tide events that start offshore.

Still, it’s possible nutrient runoff is helping fuel these blooms once they reach the shoreline, one complication being that K. brevis is a saltwater organism, and too much freshwater discharge can negatively impact their growth.

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“The term ‘messy’ has been used when it comes to trying to understand the different nutrient sources that sustain these blooms,” Steve Davis, an ecologist at the Everglades Foundation, told Earther.

Florida Sea Grant director Karl Havens thinks that on balance, nutrients delivered to the Gulf Coast this year following heavy spring rains and water discharges from the lake did help fuel the red tide. Davis pointed out there could also be indirect effects. For instance, nutrients could help fuel the growth of other algae that K. brevis can actually graze on.

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Unfortunately, as the Miami Herald notes, water quality monitoring that could help elucidate connections between human-caused pollution and red tide events has been cut under Scott. The paper reports that a coastal network of 350 monitoring stations has shrunk to 115, with the cuts including a station at Pine Island Sound experiencing the brunt of the red tide fish kills.

Recent injections of emergency funds are unlikely to make up for this loss of long-term monitoring capacity. And Weisberg, for one, believes the money that is going toward red tide monitoring could be much better spent. He says the community needs resources to sample offshore where the blooms form, something Scott’s latest emergency funds won’t facilitate.

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“I’ve been contacted by absolutely no one that has resources to possibly contribute,” he said. “It’s been very frustrating.”

As if to underscore the need to understand red tide better, nobody can say when the current crisis will abate. Red tide “season” typically doesn’t begin until fall, and communities are going into that season with a bad bloom already underway.

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“We have no idea what it’s going to look like in the coming months at this time,” a spokesperson for Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission told Earther.

Weisberg was a bit more definitive. “This year is bad, and I think it will get worse,” he said.

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Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.

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DISCUSSION

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Dense non aqueous phase liquid

It could be hardworking Midwestern America’s Heartland farm families who work hard to feed you, you urban libtards ingrates - with field corn, soybean and cotton. Or it could be Chicago jagoff thugs and all the other municipalities within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB) sending nutrients down to the Gulf of Mexico. Or it could be runnoff from the evermore populated America southeast.

“Hey, MARB assholes, we’ve had just about enough of your shit.” - Gulf of Mexico animal life.

From the awesome dudes/dudettes at USGS water quality tracking:

The figure on the left is the average loading from 1980 to 1996. The figure on the right is 2016 loading. Last time a nutrient mass balance was performed the numbers were around 95 percent agriculture land runoff and 5 percent muni wastewater treatment plants. So Chicago got sued for its loading anyway. Fucking big green.

Or it could be something entirely different. Like nutrient loading in and around Florida.

Excessive nutrient loading spurs on ocean hypoxia, which in turn spurs on red tide, if I’m not mistaken.

Good thing Andrew Wheeler, acting US EPA head, cut his lobbying teeth as a lobbyist for Midwest industrial agriculture - farm inputs (nutrients and pesticides). This will help our hardworking American farm families and create jobs, for Red Tide Remediation Services, LLC.