A red tide that has sloshed up and down the Gulf Coast for nearly a year, leaving a wake of dead sea life, murky water and stinky beaches, has now landed on the state’s most crowded shores in Miami-Dade County.
Following confirmation late Wednesday night that the algae that causes red tide had been detected at moderate levels, county officials closed beaches north of Haulover Park before dawn Thursday. Later Thursday, following a meeting with state environmental and health officials, the county said the beaches would reopen Friday, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a statement.
People with severe or chronic respiratory conditions should continue to keep away, he said. Signs will be placed at beaches warning visitors about potential risks.
On Thursday, tests found red tide on four beaches. While far milder than what’s appeared on the west coast — algae levels that cause the saltwater blooms have climbed only to moderate so far along one beach — the spread raises concerns about a deepening crisis in a state already battling a summer-long freshwater blue-green algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee and coastal rivers.
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“Whenever news goes out around the country that there’s a red tide in Miami-Dade County, yeah, it’s gonna have a some impact,” Gimenez said. “There was a moderate level north of Haulover, so we took the decision, look, let’s close the beach down and take all the precautions and let’s actually talk to the folks on the west coast.”
Before dawn, the county closed beaches north of the Haulover inlet , where medium amounts of algae — enough to trigger coughing and a scratchy throat and potentially cause fish kills — were detected. Farther south, off Miami Beach and Key Biscayne, concentrations were in the low range, so beaches remained open.
County officials also expanded sampling Thursday to get a better scope of the blooms, with more water collected just north of Haulover and inside the inlet, farther south off Miami Beach, in Government Cut and near Bayside. The county expects results from the state’s lab by Friday, said Division of Environmental Resources Management Director Lee Hefty.
Gimenez said he based his decision to reopen beaches on the expertise of state officials and will continue to monitor water.
“Swimming is safe for most people,” he said. “In fact, beaches on the west coast of Florida, which have been plagued by red tide in recent months, remain open.”
The city of Miami is also collecting and testing samples independently near Little River, the mouth of the Miami River and City Hall, and warned residents to steer clear of flooding from a king tide expected to arrive Saturday.
Red tide rarely appears on Florida’s east coast but was confirmed in Palm Beach County on Monday and in Martin and St. Lucie counties on Wednesday. Palm Beach County closed its beaches for much of the week but planned to reopen them Friday after posting signs warning of possible health effects.
Scientists believe the toxic algae got swept up in the Gulf’s Loop Current and then carried into the Florida Current, which flows north up the Atlantic coast before connecting with the Gulf Stream.
“If things get in the Loop Current, it’s the express route out of the Gulf,” said University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science oceanographer Nick Shay, who tracks and forecasts the current. “What happens in the gulf doesn’t necessarily stay in the Gulf.”
The unexpected findings prompted Florida wildlife officials to expand testing along the Atlantic coast, from Miami-Dade to the Treasure Coast. Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging longtime Sen. Bill Nelson and has come under fire for his cuts to environmental protections around the state, also announced he was giving $3 million to the four east coast counties with confirmed red tide. He’s already given $10 million to Gulf counties for clean-up and to boost tourism and research.
Broward County collected water Monday but decided to resample on Thursday in more locations, Environmental Planning Director Jennifer Jurado said. Regular testing in the Keys has also not turned up levels above normal amounts, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
As Miami awoke to the news Thursday, the county’s beach patrol had already begun asking people to leave Haulover.
“We just came here to go to the beach, and the beach patrol person came and said it was supposed to be bad for breathing,” said Britta Toennies, a tourist from Denmark staying in Bay Harbor Islands. “So he’s telling people not to be on the beach.”
Toennies and her fellow traveler, Jenny Henson, said they were going to take his advice to head for sand not covered by the county advisory as a news chopper hovered overhead.
“We were just talking about South Beach,“ Henson said.
Thursday’s finding marks a significant escalation of a crisis that so far had been confined to the West Coast. The tide was first detected nearly a year ago off Sarasota, Mote Marine Lab officials have said, but exploded near Pine Island Sound following heavy May rain that likely washed polluted stormwater off the coast. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also began releasing polluted lake water down the Caloosahatchee River to protect the lake’s aging dike, which it finally began easing Thursday as Florida’s rainy season winds down.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this year’s tide has lasted so long, or grew so big.
The tide appeared just after Hurricane Irma sucked water off the coast, so bottom water from the Florida Shelf where the algae live could have washed ashore in a process called upwelling, Shay said. University of South Florida oceanographer Bob Weisberg, who forecasts red tides for the state, also said blooms usually appear after the Loop Current crosses the western side of the Florida Shelf, pushing up deepwater nutrients that can feed the algae.
Once the blooms get blown inshore, they can feast on coastal nutrients, including polluted discharges from the lake.
The Loop Current and Florida Current also contain eddies that spin counterclockwise and can trap toxins, like oil and algae, and transport them, Shay said.
“Once they get trapped into the eddies and the current moves back to the coast, they can get deposited on the beach,” he said.
Until Irma, Shay had been tracking the current and looking for eddies with a network of high-frequency radar stations. But the storm knocked out two, leaving just one incapable for collecting the data needed to track the loop. The stations were supposed to be replaced with federal hurricane recovery grants, but so far no money has been provided, Shay said.
If the tide worsens, it could be devastating for businesses.
“As if we needed another reason for people not to go fishing,” said Capt. Bob Branham, who could not recall a red tide in Miami-Dade in his 40 years of guiding around Biscayne Bay. “We’ve had periodic algae blooms, but not red tide.”
Lifeguards were already complaining of itchy throats and at least one police officer was riding the Haulover Park grounds on a motor scooter wearing a gas mask, said park managers Sherri Fisher. What worries business owners, however, are the kind of headlines and images of dead sea turtles and manatees, and dumpsters piled with rotting fish, that drew national coverage to the Gulf coast’s tide. In Miami-Dade, there were only isolated reports of dead fish, typically just one or two.
“It’s been good fishing. Lots of bites. Lots of fish,” Capt. Stan Saffan said as he sat in the shade by the Haulover marina docks on Biscayne Bay. “Now there’s bad news. It’s going to be Miami, Miami, Miami. And dead fish.”
Winds could have blown the blooms ashore in Miami-Dade, although the current travels farther offshore than in Palm Beach county. 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. But it’s also possible coastal currents that hug the shore and run south carried it back down the coast after the Florida Current swerved closer to shore near Palm Beach County.
“You can have coastal currents that go in the opposite direction carrying it south,” said Larry Brand, an algae expert at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “That’s how you can form islands like Miami Beach.”
Blooms have only fouled the east coast about eight times since the 1950s, state officials said.
How long the blooms last depends on the amount of algae, winds and currents. If it’s being moved by coastal currents, there’s a possibility conditions worsen along beaches to the south including Crandon Park, Brand said.
Another concern is Biscayne Bay. If red tide gets into the bay where pollution that feeds the algae is high, it could stay longer.
“It can establish a population for a while,” he said. “The bottom line is there’s so many uncertainties still about the red tide. We can’t predict it very well and after things happen we try to explain it.”
This story was updated to correct the time of a meeting county officials conducted with environmental and health experts.