Florida confirms toxic red tide spreading along Atlantic coast

Dozens of dead fish littered a Palm Beach County beach Wednesday as a toxic red tide appeared to spread along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials confirmed Wednesday that low to moderate amounts of the algae that cause red tide have now turned up off three counties along the state’s more densely populated east coast. Blooms were confirmed in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, marking the first appearance of red tide along Atlantic shores in more than a decade.

Wildlife officials are also testing Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Results for Broward were expected on Wednesday. But no mention of the county was made in an update posted online. In an email to the Herald, FWC spokeswoman Susan Neel said more results would be provided Friday.

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Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue workers wear masks as they ride an all terrain vehicle along Lake Worth Beach on Tuesday. Wilfredo Lee AP

Since the weekend, beach goers have complained about coughing, itchy eyes and other symptoms linked to red tide. Gerare Rimesso, a neurology researcher at the University of Miami, said he and his wife fled Fort Lauderdale beach after about an hour of coughing and runny noses Saturday morning.

“She covered her face with a shirt. I tried to be a tough guy, but I was too irritated by the end,” he said.

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Dead fish began washing ashore in MacArthur State Park in Palm Beach County on Wednesday where amounts of Karenia brevis, the algae that cause red tide, have been detected at amounts high enough to cause fish kills and respiratory distress. State biologists were sent to investigate the kills. County beaches have been closed since the weekend.

Scientists believe the blooms, which first appeared in the Gulf of Mexico off Sarasota nearly a year ago, got swept into the Gulf’s Loop Current, which connects to the Florida Current and flows north along the Atlantic coast. In August and September, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration satellites detected some evidence of the algae west of the remote Marquesas Islands near the Dry Tortugas, suggesting the algae could have flowed south of the Keys.

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Scientists believe the algae that create red tides get swept into the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current, which connects to the Florida Current and flows north up the coast to the Gulf Stream. Source: Arthur Mariano, University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

The Atlantic coast rarely sees red tide because the algae that cause it live off the Gulf coast at the bottom of the Florida shelf.

Over the summer and fall, blooms ravaged Gulf shores, shutting down beaches and crippling businesses. Fish kills continue to be reported between Pinellas and Collier counties. The Gulf gets blooms seasonally between the spring and fall and has had one every year since 1994. A bloom also appeared off the Panhandle last month.

While the blooms form naturally offshore, scientists say coastal pollution feeds them and make them worse. That’s helped make this year’s bloom, along with a massive blue-green algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee, a contentious political issue and a referendum on Gov. Rick Scott’s environmental record.

Scott has so far spent about $10 million to help revive tourism, clean up beaches and bolster research on tides, after scaling back water monitoring during his two terms and slashing budgets for environmental regulators and water managers.

This year’s Gulf bloom exploded near Pine Island Sound after heavy May rain led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin releasing polluted water from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee River.

Since the early 1950s, only eight blooms have occurred on the state’s east coast, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The last was more than a decade ago.

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After lifeguards and beach goers in Palm Beach County complained of symptoms over the weekend, state officials expanded testing along the Atlantic coast, collecting water along beaches and about two miles offshore. Miami-Dade County officials had workers collect samples off four beaches that it sent to state labs for testing. Natural Resources Division Chief Lisa Spadafino said state officials said results were expected to take 24 to 48 hours to process.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich