Florida

‘Mystery’ illness is striking laughing gulls in Sarasota. Could it be red tide?

Theories are starting to fly faster and farther than the dozens of laughing gulls who have fallen ill in the past few days on beaches on Lido and Siesta keys.

“It’s a very strange event,” said Dana Leworthy, avian hospital administrator for Save Our Seabirds. “We’re not really sure what’s going on. We got some sick laughing gulls last Wednesday and we’ve been getting a few more each day. We have almost 30 now.”

Leworthy said the gulls are showing symptoms similar those exhibited by birds exposed to red tide last year. Those symptoms include listlessness, a hard time standing up and/or just a hard time holding their heads up. Some of the birds that arrived later last week have already died, but Leworthy said the ones coming in recently seem to be in better shape.

Levels of Karenia brevis — the organism responsible for red tide — are virtually nonexistent off the coast of Sarasota as of last Friday, but red tide levels are high in some areas of Collier County to the south, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Since the illness is targeting only laughing gulls, Save Our Seabirds staff can only theorize at this point whether the birds may have “feasted on stuff in those southern areas and flew back up here,” Leworthy said. “Usually with red tide if it was here, we’d see the smaller species come in first so that is a possibility, but we just don’t know right now.”

FWC’s next red tide report isn’t until Friday.

Ed Straight, founder of Wildlife Inc. on Anna Maria Island, is anxiously awaiting that report.

“Laughing gulls were the first birds we saw impacted by red tide last year,” Straight said. “We had about 200 of them come in.”

Straight said there have been no reports of laughing gulls being sick on Anna Maria Island but he is currently investigating reports from Passage Key.

“But I wouldn’t want to speculate too much without any facts,” Straight said. “I heard there was a fish kill near Siesta Key so whether that’s red tide or some other kind of pollution is kind of a mystery right now. I also know they had that sewage spill around there recently but that would typically affect more than one species so we just can’t say right now.”

Leworthy said Save Our Seabirds has notified FWC and asked for help, but she has not heard back from the agency.

“This is very strange and it kind of randomly popped up,” Leworthy said. “This has started with the laughing gulls exclusively. We are kind of theorizing as well that it could be runoff.”

FWC’s red tide update on Friday might explain the mystery, but it wouldn’t be a good sign for the area still reeling from the red tide outbreak in 2017-18.

For now, “It could be a number of things,” Straight said.

Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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