Florida's central Gulf Coast is being ravaged by a noxious algal red tide that is lining beaches with vast quantities of fish carcasses.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that thousands of dead fish were washed up on St. Pete Beach, a stretch of sand lined with popular upscale tourist hotels, creating a sight that "was more akin to a weird Halloween horror show." Walking on the beach required stepping around dead marine animals, and the only swimmers were those who didn't mind paddling around amid rotting fish flesh.
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According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website, a high concentrations of the red tide organism, Karenia brevis, were detected in water samples from Manatee and Sarasota counties last week, with low or trace amounts in four other counties.
The Herald-Tribune, another local paper, reported that the sight of the kill and the putrid odor of death that it was driving many visitors away. One horrified tourist told the Herald-Tribune: "Everywhere we've been, there's a brownish hue in the water and dead fish everywhere."
Algal blooms kill fish by releasing toxins into the water, or by altering the water chemistry and preventing fish from getting enough oxygen to survive. In addition to killing fish, the toxins can also harm marine birds and mammals.
Kaitlyn Fusco, a spokesperson for the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, said in a press release that the red tide organism also poses a threat to the health of humans, though in most cases, the worst effect is eye, nose and throat irritation while at the shore or on the water.
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"People with asthma, COPD or other chronic respiratory conditions are cautioned to avoid areas with active red tides," she said.
Karenia brevis is continually present in Gulf Coast waters in extremely low "background" concentrations, but many suspect that the massive bloom was triggered by sewage runoff after rainstorms this summer.
Doug Rader, the chief oceans scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year that more needs to be done to improve the water quality in Florida's estuaries. He described red tide blooms as a "normal occurrence" that are "exacerbated by human impact."
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