Four months later, red tide is still in our waters. Experts can’t say when it will end

A Spanish explorer in the 16th century recorded stories from Florida Indians about toxic red water and how it killed fish and birds.

The first scientifically documented red tide event occurred in 1844 and in 1878, Florida suffered its first prolonged red tide event, with yearly outbreaks occurring over the next 10 years.

A bloom in 1947 lasted nearly a year, decimating the commercial fishing industry in the Florida Panhandle. Tourists left, schools were closed and beaches were evacuated. In 1953, an 18-month long bloom was reported and in 1994, a two-year red tide event broke the 40-year-old record of the longest lasting red tide outbreak.

This year’s red tide outbreak began simple enough in October 2017, with a small bloom lingering to the south. It survived the winter and warmer weather — coupled with warmer water — saw it intensify and spread. By August, it spread into Manatee County waters and fish died by the thousands, washing up on Anna Maria Island beaches and clogging canals.

It has seen ebbs and flows, survived two tropical systems and continues to take a toll. Until recently, the sight of piles of dead fish had gladly gone away. But there was an ominous reason, as declared by Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker: “They’re all dead.”

Yes, Florida red tide has been around for centuries. Yes, red tide is naturally occurring and there may or may not be some man-made influences making the current 14-month long event more severe than it needed to be, depending on whom you ask.

So what does 2019 and beyond look like for the beaches of Anna Maria Island? The short answer is nobody knows for sure and scientists are still struggling to find out.

“While the bloom is very long lasting, we have had other long-lasting red tide blooms before,” said Stephannie Kettle, public relations manager at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. “Prediction models do not exist for trying to determine how long a bloom will last long-term.”

Mote has been studying red tide events for decades. They were around for the 1994 outbreak and the bloom that arrived two years later that extended from Pinellas County to Key West, killing off 10 percent of the manatee population. And again in 2005 when a bloom created a dead zone the size of Rhode Island on the Gulf of Mexico’s floor.

The list of events go on and on throughout the years. So what’s different now? Technology and the advancement of science are showing some hope for the long-term future, but how to get short-term relief from red tide remains unknown and unlikely in the coming years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can predict the movement of red tide three days out. Mote’s website gives daily information on which beaches are safe and they are developing hand-held sensors for local shellfish growers to detect red tide. They are improving their own red tide instrumentation and have a cellphone application where the general public can get involved in reporting signs of red tide.

Technology is helpful for informing, but it’s the science that will determine the future battle against Karenia brevis, the organism responsible for red tide. Mote is working on countermeasures.

Scientists have developed a patented Ozonation system that protects the water entering into the aquarium and marine mammal and sea turtle hospital. The system safely removes the toxins from the water and it was recently successfully tested in a dead-end canal in Boca Grande.

Mote is using “living dock” structures covered with filter-feeding animals that remove red tide but like the Ozonation system, is only effective in “limited areas of water.”

Scientists also are advancing the use of seaweed compounds known to kill red tide in the lab, and are discovering how to use other types of algae as a natural parasite for red tide. How to apply all of that to large, open areas of the Gulf remains to be seen, if it is possible at all.

The argument over whether fertilizers and pollutants from Lake Okeechobee are exacerbating Florida red tide remains mixed. It is known that red tide feeds off of nutrients and history records some of the more severe outbreaks occurring after heavy rainy seasons and the subsequent runoff.

However, history also records many events prior to Florida’s agricultural growth. That didn’t stop this year’s red tide event from becoming a hot political topic for several candidates vying for state offices on both sides of the aisle. Some candidates talked about educating the public on personal responsibility in helping to reduce fertilizer use and ensuring septic tanks are well maintained.

It was a similar discussion in 1996 so this year’s political talk is nothing new. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, according to Kathleen Rein, a chemistry and biochemistry professor at Florida International University.

“I would say that all of us have to take responsibility for our environment and become better stewards of our planet in general and we have to somehow find the resolve and the determination to step up and do this,“ Rein said.

Scientists and researchers more often than not agree that Lake Okeechobee’s issues with blue-green algae is not a contributing factor to red tide, as they are two distinctly different blooms and the freshwater bloom dies quickly when it makes contact with saltwater.

“Some people want to blame big sugar, but don’t we all consume sugar? Do we want to pay more for it if we force agriculture out of South Florida or change our agricultural practices? This could happen,” Rein said.

But again, doing nothing is not an option.

“Yes, we need to stop using so much fertilizer, yes, we need to clean up Lake Okeechobee, yes we need to take better care of our septic tanks,” Rein said. “These things arguably may or may not be directly related to Florida red tide, but these actions can only help our environment. Why wait for a crisis? Everybody wants to point fingers, but all of us need to recognize our part.”

And politicians who used red tide as a political talking point need to act, she said.

“We also need to elect officials who will promote strong conservation efforts,” Rein said.

In the meantime, this year’s red tide event has been menacing, deadly to fish and marine wildlife, and economically devastating to the tourism industry. A recent penetration of red tide into Robinson Preserve — and subsequent mass killing of mullet — during a time when hopes were running high that the bloom was showing signs of dissipating somewhat was a stark reminder of its lingering presence.

Mote scientists say there is still no way to know when it will end and whether this winter will be cold enough to do the job.

“It has been shown in lab settings that Florida red tide cells have an optimal temperature change in which they thrive best: 60-85 degrees,” Kettle said. “Air temperatures can change much faster than water temperatures can, so while air temperatures may drop during a cold snap, there may not be much of a difference in water temperature. Additionally, Florida red tide cells can be found throughout the water column, which can also range in temperature.”

So in the end, businesses, tourists and residents are left with uncertainty as critical questions go unanswered and a means to fight back appears to be as futile as trying to stop any other natural disaster, as well as the open-ended question of how much unnatural factors may be playing a part.