The county and islands have collected millions of pounds of fish and sea creatures after a large Red Tide outbreak. Where does it go in the end?
Fort Myers News-Press

The sheer volume of dead sea life on beaches in Southwest Florida seems to have slowed in recent days, but experts say red tide and the toxins it produces are still in waterways.

Millions of pounds of fish have been collected and burned in Lee County this month, and the bloom now stretches from the south end of Tampa Bay to the Marco Island area.

Some beaches have been cleaner in recent days, and water clarity may have improved in some areas.

But that doesn’t mean the toxic red tide bloom is gone or even subsiding.

“The water at the (Sanibel) causeway looked way better than it has recently,” said Rick Bartleson, a water quality scientist for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “It’s the first time in a while it looked good, but even though the water is clear we’re still seeing counts well above 1 million cells per liter.”

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Fish kills and breathing issues in humans can start when counts reach 10,000 cells per liter, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Sea turtles are still washing up on beaches and shorelines.

The National Weather Service extended a hazardous beach conditions advisory for Lee County through Thursday.

Heather Barron, director of the animal hospital at the Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or CROW, on Sanibel said in addition to multiple turtles each day, they’re seeing migratory birds impacted by a lack of food.

“We’re also are seeing this very interesting syndrome where a lot of the shorebirds are migrating and they just look like they’re starving,” Barron said. “They’re coming in very thin and very weak. Usually with red tide their body weight is normal.”

An FWC report released Friday says red tide counts are 25 percent or more lower than they were a week ago in Lee County.

But measurements Bartleson took late last week and over the weekend show counts of 1 million cells per liter and more at many locations.

Bartleson said red tides are often ended by an infection from some type of bacteria or a virus, or they run out of food.

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“It is possible that we’re having some die-off or crashing of the blooms, which this sample at the causeway looks like it might be crashing,” Bartleson said. “The cells are shrinking down. A lot of samples like that would be a good thing because it would mean there’s an infection or they don’t have a viable amount of nutrients.”

Even when the algal bloom clears, toxins will still be in the water for six months or more, experts say.


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“It’s not unusual that long after the algal counts have gone back to normal we still see animals being sick because the toxins remains in the tissue of all of these animals all the way up the food chain,” Barron said. “So you still have crabs with high levels of brevatoxins and it takes a while for those things to go down.”

Brevatoxin is the toxin produced by red tide.

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The good news?

Lee and Charlotte county numbers are down a little overall, but it’s relative since counts here have been well over 1 million cells per liter in several locations.

“In general the bloom more or less stayed where it’s at for the vast majority of Southwest Florida,” said Jonathan Veach, an FWC spokesman. “(Recent counts) looked like maybe it weakened a slight bit in Lee and Charlotte counties but it’s been really bad there with fish kills the past few weeks.”


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Veach said red tide counts can change quickly at any particular spot, depending on weather, winds and currents.

“The very nature of a red tide bloom is patchy,” Veach said. “So often times you’ll see a bunch of beaches that are very close to each other and all the levels of the red tide will be different. So what you’re seeing it the patchiness, but once it starts to dissappate we’ll know.”

The University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science predicts that the bloom will move mostly to the north over the next three days.

Barron said the food chain itself has largely died.

“The fish just aren’t out there,” Barron said. “There’s nothing for these animals to eat. I usually see 30 ospreys on my way to work, and there’s been weeks where I didn’t see one. All of the fish-eating animals are just gone.”

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter. 


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