Red tide hits some Florida beaches, just in time for spring break

Posted at 5:59 PM, Mar 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-08 18:59:33-05

THE WEATHER CHANNEL — Red tide is hitting some Florida Gulf Coast beaches, just in time for spring break.

Testing over the past eight days found high levels of the red tide algae Karenia brevis in water samples from about a dozen locations, stretching from Clearwater in the Tampa Bay area south to Naples, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Low to medium concentrations were found in several other areas along that same line, which includes beaches in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties. All are home to popular tourist destinations.

A neurotoxin in red tide algae kills fish and other animals. It can also cause respiratory irritation in humans, and severe illness for those with conditions such as asthma and emphysema. The FWC said fish kills and respiratory issues have been reported along some beaches in the affected areas.

People who consume infected shellfish can also be sickened.

A moderate to high risk of respiratory irritation is forecast through at least Wednesday for some beaches in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Collier counties. You can check the forecast for specific beaches here.

The reports of red tide come just as Florida enters the busy spring break season, a time of year when people from all over the world flock to the state's beaches and theme parks.

More than 137 million tourists visited Florida in 2022, the highest number in history, according to the state tourism agency Visit Florida. Tourism pumped more than $101 billion into the state's economy last year.

The peak of red tide season usually coincides with the peak of hurricane season – later in the summer and early fall, when waters are most conducive to algae growth.

A massive and persistent red tide outbreak that started after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and lasted for more than a year resulted in widespread die-offs of fish, manatees, dolphins and other marine life, especially in Southwest Florida.

Toxins in the air sent people to emergency rooms and heavily impacted the region's tourism industry.

That was an extreme case, and current conditions are nowhere near that severe.

The amount of red tide in the Gulf in 2018 went up when Hurricane Michael moved through. A similar increase happened when Elsa moved up the Gulf in 2021.

Researchers are studying how hurricanes affect red tide, but say that the movement of water by wind or currents during storms could play a role in fueling outbreaks. Runoff from stormwater could also have an impact.

Wind speed and direction affect where dead fish might end up, and where respiratory irritation might occur.