Some of Florida’s most popular beaches can get a one-two punch of trouble as thousands of spring breakers flock to the Sunshine State.
a Flowering of poisonous algae known as red tide It’s already killing and stinking fish along the Gulf Coast. now, clumps of seaweed It’s drifting across the Atlantic at twice the width of the United States and could wash ashore in the coming weeks, causing even more havoc.
“Two problems can escalate into a bigger problem,” said Mike Parsons, professor of marine sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Algae blooms essentially suffocate some sea life and give off a foul odor when dead marine animals wash up on shore.
The effect doesn’t stop there. Sea breezes can land toxins released by red tide algae, which can cause health problems such as coughing, sore throats, itchy eyes, difficulty breathing, and asthma attacks.
Algae occur naturally. But Professor Parsons and his team at Florida Gulf Coast University’s School of Water are investigating whether pollution is exacerbating flowering.
Parsons says there have been severe red tides in the past, including in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
“The big concern is, now that Florida’s coastline is more developed and more populated than it used to be, how are we affecting water quality and how is that affecting red tide? I mean,” he said.
“There is evidence that we are influencing red tide through electrical discharges,” he said. “Any nutrients that enter bodies of water, such as Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchie, and other rivers, can find their way into the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, potentially causing red tide.”
In other words, according to Parsons, pollution “definitely” isn’t the cause of the problem, but “it may be exacerbating it.”
Red tides occur dozens of miles offshore where algae known as Kalenia brevis are abundant. Based on data collected by his team, Parsons believes that red tides stay in the deep waters, migrate to the coast and then rise to the surface, where they concentrate and cause traffic congestion along the coastline.
Red tide could affect tourism as businesses along the Gulf Coast are still recovering from last year’s Hurricane Ian. But the lingering stench hasn’t stopped some tourists recently, like Melanie Coulter in Wisconsin.
“As we were walking out of the car, I thought, ‘What the hell is this stink?’ But when we got to the beach, the wind wasn’t so bad,” Coulter said.
Parsons advises bathers to stay away from shores with dead fish or to avoid itchy noses and watery eyes.
“But the good news is that red tide is really patchy, so just a few miles down the beach you’ll likely find a spot that’s perfectly clean and safe,” he said.
Yet another problem looms large: a patchwork of 5,000-mile-wide seaweed masses across the Atlantic toward the beaches of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Florida.
The clumps are known as sargassum, and are brown seaweed that floats in large clumps, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Sargassum is really big right now,” Parsons said. “They’ve washed up on a beach in Miami in the Caribbean, and it looks like it’s our turn now. And that’s not a good thing.”
As the biomass degrades, he said, it releases a poisonous hydrogen sulfide-like gas that smells like rotten eggs.
Li Cohen and Caitlin O’Kane contributed to this article.