Gulf under stress: Now it’s the return of the red tide


If this blog could be said to have a theme this summer, it would be this: The Gulf of Mexico, under stress. The tragedy, of course, is how much of that stress has been caused by BP’s recklessness — the millions of barrels of oil that gushed forth from its destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 that continues to pollute white sandy beaches with tar balls (many of them larded with flesh-eating bacteria) and has killed or damaged dolphins, sea turtles, oyster beds, lesion-wracked fish and countless other sea creatures. The aftermath of the BP spill is occurring at the same time that another manmade crisis — oxygen-free “dead zones,” linked largely to nutrients such as fertilizer that drain into the Gulf through the Mississippi River — shows no signs of letting up.

The thing is, as I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, the Gulf of Mexico, for all its natural splendor and biological riches, is extremely fragile. Not all of that stress is caused by humans. Indeed, since people arrived in the region centuries ago, they have noted the phenomenon known as “red tide” — massive blooms of algae that, unfortunately, release toxins that are harmful to fish and other marine life. In 2014, the “red tide” is back off the Gulf Coast of Florida, and it is bigger and more dangerous than ever:

A toxic red tide, the biggest in nearly a decade, is threatening tourism and endangered manatees as it moves down the Florida coast. The culprit is Karenia brevis, microscopic algae that explode in numbers when the conditions are right, usually in late summer or early fall.

“These kinds of blooms damage wildlife, people, tourism, everything,” Don Anderson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told NBC News. “It can kill fish by the millions.”

The current red tide bloom is around 20 miles off the southwestern coast of Florida, too far away to bother beachgoers, at least for now. But it’s big … really big, stretching 60 miles wide, 90 miles long and at least 100 feet down.

While the red tide appears almost every year, officials have not seen one this size since 2005. So far, the death count is modest: around 1,000 fish and some crabs and octopi, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). But that could change if it moves closer to shore.

Here’s more from Los Angeles Times:

The red tide can also pose a risk to humans. Waves  can break up the K. brevis cells, causing them to release their toxins into the air. The airborne toxins are not deadly, but they can be especially irritating to people with asthma or emphysema. And if the winds are right, they can travel as much as a mile onshore. The toxins in the water can also cause some people to develop a skin rash.

To me, the arrival of such a virulent strain of algae this year speaks to why BP still matters. If you look at a large map of the Gulf right now, you will see environmental and natural crises nearly everywhere you look — “dead zones” near the mouth of the Mississippi, toxic tar balls on the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, and now this large “red tide” just off the lower Gulf beaches in the Sunshine State.

At this point, where are the fish, the sea turtles, the dolphins supposed to go in order to swim, to feed, and to breathe freely? And what will happen to our fishing fleets and our tour boats when there are no long sport fish to catch, and no more oyster beds to harvest. The Gulf can be resilient — we know it has survived large algae blooms in the past. But will BP’s negligent contamination be the tipping point? I wish we did not have to find out…but we are about to find out.

Read more from NBC News about the massive “red tide”:

More on the “red tide” from the Los Angeles Times:

Here is Part 1 of my in-depth report: “The Gulf is still sick.”

Part 2 of my in-depth report, regarding the ongoing impact of the BP spill on marine life and human life:

A link to Part 3:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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