“How are the beaches?”
This is a question we’ve heard hundreds of times this fall and going into this winter, from tourists and other folks who migrate to Florida by the millions when things turn icy and cold up north. Winter travelers come to Florida to soak up the sun and spend time on warm and pristine beaches. So, naturally, people have been worried about the impacts of red tide with its damage to wildlife, fish kills and ability to bring on respiratory distress.
The 2018 red tide event was massive in scale and scope of destruction. While things may have tapered off near Thanksgiving, the situation persists into 2019. Here are some facts and figures to recap the 2018 event and to prepare you for what lies ahead this year.
- At its worst, the 2018 red tide event was bigger in area than the entire state of Connecticut
Red tide ranged from the Panhandle down along the Southwest coast of Florida and around to the Eastern Central Atlantic Coast. At its peak, there were blooms affecting nearly 1,000 miles of coastline from Pensacola to Port Canaveral. The red tide was most persistent off the coast of six counties in Southwest Florida and at its worst covered thousands of square miles of water offshore. Red tide events can grow as large as 10,000 square miles, which is bigger than the entire area of New Jersey.
- Just because the temperature dropped, doesn’t mean that red tide is gone
Warmer temperatures tend to facilitate blooms of the microorganism that causes red tide, and so cooler winter temperatures have somewhat tempered the blooms, but they have not dissipated entirely. Although Gulf of Mexico water temperatures are in the mid to upper 60s Fahrenheit, red tide has not gone dormant. In the second week of January, there were still high concentrations of the red tide microorganism being reported in Manatee and Sarasota counties south of Tampa Bay. And red tide presence in those counties could be on the rise. So, while the fish kills may have been cleaned up, the coast is not clear. And we need to remain vigilant about what may be causing this red tide event to persist and its effects on communities and wildlife.
- Florida has a new governor and the attitude may be changing for harmful algal blooms like red tide
During his first day in office, Governor Ron DeSantis unleashed a firehose of executive and regulatory changes aimed at putting Florida’s water quality issues in check. Ocean Conservancy welcomes these encouraging moves by the new governor—especially those focused on dealing with the harmful algal blooms plaguing the state. We are especially excited to see an emphasis on studying the causes and impacts of red tide and additional support to local governments to minimize the impacts of red tide to residents and visitors. Governor DeSantis also created a blue-green algae task force, and we’re curious to see how this task force works with and compliments the state’s existing harmful algal bloom task force, which is poorly funded. We remain optimistic that the administration will continue to be a strong voice for our coastal ecosystems and the coastal economies that depend on them.
- The 2018 red tide event could have long-term impacts on Gulf fish stocks and other wildlife
Certain Gulf of Mexico fish, like gag grouper, live offshore as adults but inshore on the grass flats as juveniles—this is why small gag grouper are often referred to as “grass grouper” by fishermen. Gag are an important recreational and commercial fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, and if you’ve ever had a famous Floridian blackened grouper sandwich, there’s a good chance that it was actually gag. Because the red tide event of 2018 encompassed so much of this species’ territory—from its spawning area to the nurseries on the grass flats where juveniles grow up—there is concern that entire generations of gag could have been wiped out, which will have long term repercussions on the overall health of the stock. And gag is just one example—numerous other fisheries are impacted by red tide, including red and black grouper, goliath grouper and inshore stocks such as red drum, snook and spotted seatrout. The red tide affected more than fish too. Manatees, sea turtles, dolphins and birds are all affected by red tides. For bottlenose dolphins, the number of strandings was so high in the fall and winter of 2018 that NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event. As of December 2018, 127 bottlenose dolphins had stranded along the Southwest Coast of Florida where the red tide was most persistent.
- The government shutdown has impacted the ability of state researchers to track red tide
Operating under the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is one of the agencies that has been shuttered by the ongoing federal government shutdown. Florida state agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rely upon NOAA satellites and technology to compile their analysis of the red tide event, and that technology is no longer accessible while the government is shut down. The result is a much less clear picture on the water of what is happening with red tide and slows our ability to respond to events as they are happening.
Given that red tide is already carrying over from 2018, there is a possibility that 2019 could also bring serious water quality threats. Even if red tide dissipates, there are lingering issues statewide with blue-green algae and brown tide.
Harmful algal blooms were an important issue in Florida’s 2018 elections, and we’re glad to see Governor DeSantis acting quickly on his campaign promises. We hope that this momentum will continue and we will see sustained long-term funding for the harmful algal bloom task force and the new decision-making groups, like the blue-green algae task force, so they can take meaningful actions on the state’s water quality issues.
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