Every summer growing up, my family traveled to Florida for a week-long beach vacation. Usually we went to Destin, but one year we drove six more hours south along the panhandle to Siesta Key, a small barrier island off the coast of Sarasota. Its world-renowned beaches are known for their cool, white sand and warm, turquoise Gulf of Mexico water.
I haven’t thought about that beach in years until I saw a video this week showing thousands of dead fish and eels washed up on Siesta Key’s shores, the water a murky brownish-red color and the sand covered in globs of seaweed. There were almost no tourists in sight; many who visited coughed and choked as soon as they hit the beach and left immediately.
This tragic scene occurred because of a toxic red tide, a massive floating sheet of microorganisms, or algal bloom, that dyes the sea a rusty color and emits brevetoxins, compounds toxic to animals and humans. Brevetoxins can paralyze fish gills and permeate seagrass, which can marine life like manatees and dolphins. Humans can get sick from breathing near it, as it causes coughing and shortness of breath.
This particular tide, which stretched 100 miles along the Gulf Coast, is the worst in more than a decade. It has killed several massive grouper that can live more than 40 years, at least 400 turtles, three manatees, seabirds, and even a 21-foot whale shark.
Officials have been monitoring the situation since November 2017. Red tides aren’t anything new to Florida, which has seen several lengthy ones over the years, the most recent lasting from late 2004 to 2006.
Algae has quite literally taken over the state’s water bodies this year. Many scientists saydevelopment, climate change, and nutrient runoff from agricultural operations are worsening algal blooms. As it usually does in the summer, a huge green film spread over Lake Okeechobee in central Florida, but the algae spilled into rivers and streams, traveling across the state to the Atlantic Ocean and to the Gulf. Last month, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency because of it. Now that he’s running for the Senate, Scott has made the algal bloom a campaign topic despite the fact he has not prioritized the environment in the past (for example, he still won’t say climate change is scientific fact).
As the Miami Herald reports, over the last 10 years the state has “fought federal efforts to protect water, shrunk its own environmental and water-management agencies, and cut funding to an algae task force.” At the same time, water quality monitoring efforts have dwindled. Better monitoring wouldn’t have stopped the massive algal blooms, but they could have helped provide more warning so the state could prevent some of the spread.
As summer winds down, I’ve been thinking about how many of us travel to the beach, and what the sea means to people. It symbolizes community for so many families and friend groups, offers a sense of nostalgia for childhood memories, provides tranquility and respite from the stressors of society. My social media feed is overflowing with photos and videos of waves lapping up on shorelines along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. It’s clear that people care deeply about the sea and marine life, which is why they become outraged about plastic straws and dead zones and bleached coral reefs.
The ocean has been trying to tell us it’s in poor health for years. With the red tide and algal blooms, it feels like its screaming at us that it is in pain, that we have to do something about it. It’s unclear if the events in Florida will shock us into preventing the same thing from happening again. But in the meantime, it’s a stark reminder to treat environmental crises with more urgency than we typically do.
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