Breathing problems and eye irritation shut down South Florida beaches. Is it red tide?

A red tide is destroying wildlife across Florida’s southwest coast

An ongoing red tide is killing wildlife throughout Florida’s southwest coast and has left beaches littered with dead fish, sea turtles, manatees and a whale shark. Additional footage courtesy of Southwest Florida TV via Facebook.
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An ongoing red tide is killing wildlife throughout Florida’s southwest coast and has left beaches littered with dead fish, sea turtles, manatees and a whale shark. Additional footage courtesy of Southwest Florida TV via Facebook.

A stretch of South Florida beaches has been shut down until at least Monday after cities along the coast indicated a “possible red tide.”

The problems began Saturday when swimmers in the Jupiter area complained of breathing problems and eye irritation. The health concern expanded into Martin County. The town of Palm Beach closed its beaches, and on Sunday, so did Lantana to the south.

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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

The water in northern and central Palm Beach County is being tested for red tide, but there has not been confirmation of the presence of the toxic algae proliferation on Sunday. But cities along the stretch were taking no chances as state and local environmental agencies were conducting tests Sunday and into Monday.

While “red tide” wasn’t mentioned in Palm Beach County’s announcement of the problem Saturday night, the town of Palm Beach sent alerts stating that “Midtown and Phipps Ocean Park beaches will be closed until further notice reference possible red tide.”

“It’s not confirmed yet, but we’ll see,” Palm Beach lifeguard George Klein told the Palm Beach Post on Sunday. Swimmers, he said, have a lot of questions about what’s going on.

Testing to determine the cause of the swimming problems is expected to last through Monday.

Breathing problems and eye irritation suffered by beachgoers on Saturday caused the closing of Jupiter beaches in Palm Beach County and, in Martin County, Hobe Sound Beach and Bathtub Beach. Martin County beaches reopened on Sunday. Broward and Miami-Dade beaches are not affected.

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The sign at the Town of Palm Beach’s Midtown Beach shows it’s closed, due to possible red tide. Kimberly Miller Palm Beach Post

The focus now is on Jupiter south to Lantana, including the town of Palm Beach and the Lake Worth pier.

The Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife, Palm Beach County Environmental Resource Management and other state and local agencies are investigating the potential causes of the irritation.

“The Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County has issued a health advisory for the next 48 hours,” Palm Beach County announced Saturday night. “Persons with respiratory allergies should avoid contact with the beaches from Kreusler Park north to the Martin County line. The Health Department received reports Saturday that a number of people on the county beaches were experiencing respiratory issues and eye irritation.”

That’s consistent with what Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says people might find swimming through water affected by red tide.

“Swimming is safe for most people. However, the Florida red tide can cause some people to suffer skin irritation and burning eyes.,” FWC’s Red Tide FAQ page says. “People with respiratory illness may also experience respiratory irritation in the water. Use common sense. If you are particularly susceptible to irritation from plant products, avoid an area with a red tide bloom. If you experience irritation, get out of the water and thoroughly wash off.”

Results from testing done by various agencies wouldn’t be ready until Monday. Palm Beach County decided to close its beaches until the experts determine the cause of the problems.

Red tide hits Florida’s Gulf coast much harder, but the Atlantic coast can still be vulnerable.

“The organism that causes Florida’s red tide, K. brevis, is found almost exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico to Florida,” the FWC says. “Florida red tides can be transported around the Gulf of Mexico as coastal waters move with winds and currents. Some red tides have even been carried by the Gulf Stream current into the Atlantic Ocean as far north as Delaware.”

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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

But still it doesn’t seem likely, said Florida International University coastal environmental scientist Stephen Leatherman. He said the likely cause of the symptoms: Blue-green algae, which can also cause flu-like symptoms, but much milder.

“I think the coast is still clear for us for now,” Leatherman said, adding that there have been no reports of potential red tide in the Keys, Miami-Dade or Broward.

Red tide exploded this summer along beaches in Southwest Florida, including Sanibel Island and in Manatee County. It has killed thousands of fish, along with turtles, manatees and whale sharks. Hundreds of birds also have been sickened or died in the red tide outbreak.

The marine algae produces toxins lethal to marine life. While some of the tides never reach shore, this year’s edition has been called the worst since 2006.

Miami Herald writers Jenny Staletovich and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.
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