A red tide bigger than Rhode Island is drifting toward the Florida gulf Coast, and residents are already reporting thousands of dead fish and other marine animals.
The tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon, but the 90-mile-long, 60-mile-wide tide is the largest one seen since 2005, said Hayley Rutger, a spokesperson for the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, to the Los Angeles Times.
It’s composed of the microorganism Karenia brevis, a type of algae. When the organism goes rogue and reproduces uncontrollably—a centuries-old occurrence—it produces a colorless, odorless toxin that stains the water red and attacks the central nervous systems of fish, birds, and marine mammals, the Los Angeles Times explained.
Naturally occurring or not, such a tide can be devastating to already endangered animals.
“Last year, a red tide bloom that was smaller, but closer to shore than the current one is now, killed 276 endangered Florida manatees,” Discovery.com reported from NBC News, adding that the toxin gets absorbed by the sea grasses that the marine mammals eat, which poisons and ultimately drowns them.
“This bloom has caused an ongoing fish kill,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in an August 8 update on the situation. “FWC’s Fish Kill Hotline has received reports of thousands of dead and moribund benthic reef fish, including various snapper and grouper species, hogfish, grunts, crabs, flounder, bull sharks, lionfish, baitfish, eel, sea snakes, tomtates, lizardfish, filefish, octopus, and triggerfish.”
Land animals are not immune either. Humans, too, can suffer “minor respiratory distress,” Discovery.com said, including “coughing and wheezing.”
“Water discoloration and respiratory irritation have been reported offshore in the bloom patch,” the Florida fish and wildlife commission said.
Though moving slowly, the tide is moving.
“This bloom is still 20 miles offshore, but it is on the move,” the Los Angeles Times said. “The surface of the bloom region is expected to move south, while the water in the deep regions of the bloom is headed southeast. If no weather system breaks up its trajectory, the red tide could make its way to southwestern Florida's coast by the end of the month.”