Testing expands in South Florida after rare red tide appears off Palm Beach County

Testing for a red tide that has ravaged Florida’s Gulf Coast has expanded into Miami-Dade and Broward counties after Florida environmental officials confirmed the presence of the toxic algae off Palm Beach County on Monday.

Miami-Dade sampled water at four beaches on Tuesday, said Natural Resources Division Chief Lisa Spadafina, after state officials recommended it. Results should be available Thursday, she said. Beaches and inlets in Broward County, as well as waters two miles offshore, are also being tested, Broward County officials said, after one person formally complained of symptoms in Deerfield Beach.

In Monroe County, researchers who regularly test water say they have so far not detected any Karenia brevis cells, the algae that cause red tide. Regular testing done by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found no elevated levels as of Friday.

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Palm Beach lifeguards Ryan Zabovnik, left, and George Klein wear masks at Midtown Beach in Palm Beach after red tide appeared on Palm Beach County last month. Melanie Bell Palm Beach Post

Red tides occur rarely along Florida’s east coast because the algae that cause the blooms incubate at the bottom of the Florida Shelf off the state’s Gulf Coast. But it’s now likely that the raging bloom in the Gulf — which has killed hundreds of manatees, sea turtles and other sea life, littering miles of beaches with dead fish since it appeared last fall — has been carried by currents around the coast.

So far, only moderate levels of algae have been detected off Palm Beach County — enough to trigger coughing and scratchy throats but not enough to cause any fish kills. On Tuesday, satellite imagery did not detect additional tide moving toward the coast, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer Rick Stumpf, who monitors blooms. A forecast called for conditions to remain moderate, county officials said in a statement Tuesday evening, prompting officials to keep beaches closed again on Wednesday.

“We’ll be checking whether we see any evidence suggesting red tide is staying around from Palm Beach to the north,” Stumpf said.

Whether conditions on the Gulf Coast are repeated depends on the amount of algae and winds.

“We have to look at all the satellite imagery and map it and try to predict OK, here’s where it’s going to be,” said Jim Sullivan, an algae expert and director of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, which found low amounts of algae at a beach near Stuart as well. “This is the one bloom we have forecast for and have satellite detection, so we’re pretty well positioned to understand this.”

FWC officials declined to answer questions Tuesday about where and how much additional sampling is being conducted. An FWC spokeswoman said information would be contained in a report issued Wednesday.

If the bloom spreads, it would be another crisis in the state’s deepening water woes that have triggered repeated coastal blooms in recent years. Over the summer, a freshwater blue-green algae bloom blanketed Lake Okeechobee and fouled rivers. The Caloosahatchee River took the brunt of the blooms when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began regularly releasing lake water down the river to protect the lake’s aging dike.

Just after the releases began, the red tide exploded along Pine Island Sound, peppering waters with dead fish, leaving canals clogged with stinky carcasses and crippling businesses that depend on tourists.

Scientists say pollution in the lake discharges, as well as the dying blue-green algae, feed the red tide, along with other coastal nutrients from stormwater, leaky septic tanks, phosphorus mining and possibly even African dust.

The dire conditions have also become a contentious matter in a heated election year. Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging longtime Sen. Bill Nelson, has forked over about $10 million to help clean up the mess and increase research, fending off criticism over his administration’s repeated cuts to environmental spending. On Tuesday, he issued a statement saying he was ready to send “more resources’ to the Atlantic coast.

The state’s two powerful environmental groups — the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida — also seized on the spreading tide to push for completion of an Everglades reservoir that could store lake water and reduce discharges and that has stalled in the U.S. Senate.

“Pick your color, whether it’s red, blue green or brown,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said after back-to-back press conferences in Broward and Palm Beach counties. “These are symptoms of the greater challenge, and the solution to all of this is to build these massive infrastructure projects in the Everglades.”

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Source: University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

Evidence the tide might be headed to the Atlantic coast was detected back in August and September west of the Marquesas Islands, said NOAA oceanographer Stumpf. But because the algae can live in deeper water in the region’s clearer water, satellites have a hard time following it, he said.

“I’ve not been able to pick up from satellite data anything that could tell me one way or the other about whether it actually got into the [Gulf’s] Loop Current. I can just say some did go that far south,” he said.

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Palm Beach County lifeguard Lou Kanitsch tells Justyna Konarzewska on Sept. 29 that Jupiter Beach is closed near Carlin Park. After several people became sick and needed medical attention, police closed beaches from Jupiter Inlet to Carlin Park. James Wooldridge Palm Beach Post

Moderate amounts of the algae, but high enough to trigger symptoms, were confirmed by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute at several Palm Beach County beaches Monday after people began complaining of coughing and itchy throats over the weekend.

It’s also likely more will be detected farther north, said Sullivan, w ho will be looking closely at NOAA’s satellite maps to try to plot where the tide might occur.

While red tide has appeared at least eight times on the Atlantic coast since 1953, it has never been able to establish itself like it has on the Gulf, said Larry Brand, algae expert at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“You only get recurring populations in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “When you hear someone say red tide on the east coast, you say whoa, is it really red tide.”

If confirmed, Deerfield Beach officials say they plan to post “no swimming” signs and close the city’s fishing pier. Martin County has reopened beaches and is awaiting test results.

Sullivan said Harbor Branch will be keeping a close eye on the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie estuary for signs of ongoing blooms.

“It does occasionally happen and I hate to say it, and I doubt this very much because we’re headed for winter and lower temperatures and our Atlantic waters are different from the Gulf, but if it gets into our bays, we could see local blooms. But I doubt it very much,” he said. “When winds change and currents change, it will probably be a short-term event, let’s hope. Let’s hope it doesn’t get a foothold.”

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