Florida Tourists Laid Next to Lifeless Fish During Red Tide Event

MANATEE COUNTY, FL - Spring break tourists from all over the world are flocking to Florida's west coast beaches. However, upon arrival, they may notice a foul smell they could mistake for something rotting in a dumpster nearby. They may not realize that red tide is present and the wind carries harmful toxins through the air. While settling into their hotels and anticipating the sunny weather and salty ocean water, many are unaware of the potential health risks associated with exposure to the toxins caused by red tide. Tragically, they will be met with beaches filled with dead aquatic animals and painful side effects.

As we strolled through Manatee County Beach to converse with visitors, we observed an unsettling twilight-type zone as the tourism industry persisted in serving food outdoors, encouraging visitors to sunbathe, and charging for beach parking without mentioning the looming ecological disaster. We ventured towards the beach and heard the recurring sound of coughing. Upon reaching the shoreline, we saw tourists lying amidst the thousands of dead fish that littered the beach, wheezing as they applied sunscreen and were exposed to the aerosolized red tide toxins.

Dead fish lined the beach as red tide impacted the coastlines. We saw no signage to inform tourists of red tide or health impacts. Workers explained that they were not allowed to post or say anything in reference to red tide. We asked visitors if they knew why there were dead fish all across the beach, and they shook their heads "no" as they wheezed. 

Florida provides online maps and information regarding red tide, but many visitors are unaware of the current water crisis and don't actively search for information about it before booking their vacations. It is common for individuals to plan beach getaways without considering the possibility of an environmental catastrophe, especially if the booking agency, call center, or tourism industry fails to disclose the situation. These industries prioritize financial gain and often neglect to inform their visitors of the reality they may face. Despite efforts to clean up the beaches before sunrise, the red tide persists. Dead fish are collected by county workers and taken to the landfill, but this does not eliminate side effects. 

According to a 2022 report from the Environmental Integrity Project, Florida's lakes are among the most polluted in the United States. This pollution is causing harmful blooms to grow at an alarming rate. The waterways struggled to recover from a massive 215 million-gallon discharge of nutrient-rich wastewater into Tamp Bay estuary by Piney Point in 2021. To make matters worse, Hurricane Ian, a category four storm, hit the west coast in late 2022, further damaging the struggling ecosystem. Adding to the problem, Lake Okeechobee also discharges nutrient-rich water into the west coast, intensifying the red tide.

Red tides have existed for a long time, predating human existence. Nowadays, these events are more widespread due to pollution caused by industrial runoff, sewage spills, and excessive use of chemicals. The toxins from red tides can be carried by the wind up to a mile inland, depending on the wind's speed and direction.

These events negatively impact the tourism industry and Florida's economy. However, implementing significant water quality projects to stop the sources of pollution can aid in healing waterways and reduce red tide. Citizen-led initiatives, like the Right to Clean Water, require approximately 900,000 signatures to be included on the 2024 ballot in states. By doing so, Floridians can alter the law to ensure they have a constitutional right to clean water and hold polluters accountable for their actions. This would also result in a change in how protection agencies handle corporations like Piney Point.

If you're heading to the sunshine state, remember that pollution might hinder your experience. The red tide could expose you to dead aquatic creatures and lead to coughing, headaches, breathing problems, and even sickness. A few visitors have contracted flesh-eating bacteria and had to be hospitalized. Ensuring that you come back from your vacation in good health is crucial.

People and animals are exposed to marine algal toxins through:
  • Eating shellfish or fish containing toxins
  • Swimming or other activities in the water
  • Breathing in tiny droplets in the air that contain toxins
People can get sick and have symptoms
  • ​Brevetoxins from red tides are airborne and may cause respiratory irritation, difficulty breathing, and increased asthma risk
  • Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, sneezing, and sore throat
  • Inflammation in the lungs and possible bronchitis outcome
  • Headache and eye irritation
  • Skin irritation
  • Digestive illness
  • Risk of infections and rashes
  • Neurotoxic shellfish poisoning
  • Immunocompromised people should be especially careful.
​Exposure to blooms and long-term health effects

The long-term health effects of harmful algal blooms are still being studied, but research is showing DNA damage that can lead to mutations in genes that normally prevent the formation of cancers.

How to protect yourself from harmful exposure
  • ​Check environmental or state websites for the local beach or lake closures before visiting. Red Tide Current Status
  • Get away from the aerosolized brevetoxins from the red tide.
  • Do not swim in the water if dead fish are on the shore.
  • Do not fish, swim, boat, or participate in water sports in areas experiencing a red tide. This includes swimming and jet-skiing.
  • Children should not play along the shoreline where they might e exposed to algae or red tide water clumps.
  • Red tide poses the same risk to animals. Pets should not drink affected water and should avoid beach areas with red tide.
  • Wash immediately and thoroughly with clean water and soap if you come in contact with contaminated water.
  • Do not go into the water and you have open sores or cuts on your body; you risk flesh-eating bacteria, which can be associated with bloodstream infections
  • Do not eat shellfish such as clams and oysters that are harvested from areas with an active red tide. Follow local guidance when consuming harvested fish or shellfish.
  • Wear a particle filter mask or stay indoors to help with the symptoms of red tide.
  • People with chronic respiratory problems such as asthma should avoid areas with active red tides or severe algae blooms.
  • Do not drink directly from lakes, rivers, or ponds.
  • Boiling water does not remove or destroy algal toxins.
  • Over-the-counter antihistamines may decrease your symptoms.
  • See a doctor if you think you may have eaten contaminated seafood or are sick from exposure to red tide.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider if you have questions about your health and exposure to a harmful algal bloom.
  1. Learn more about red tide: www.fight4zero.org/redtide
  2. Sign the petition: floridarighttocleanwater.org 
  3. Clean Water Act 50: https://environmentalintegrity.org/reports/the-clean-water-act-at-50/
  4. Aerosol Toxins From Red Tides May Cause Long-term Health Threat https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080709110049.htm
  5. Diaz, R. E., Friedman, M. A., Jin, D., Beet, A., Kirkpatrick, B., Reich, A., Kirkpatrick, G., Ullmann, S. G., Fleming, L. E., Hoagland, P. (2019) Neurological illnesses associated with Florida red tide (Karenia brevis) blooms. Harmful Algae. 82, 73-81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2018.07.002
  6. Effects of Inhaled Brevetoxins in Allergic Airways: Toxin–Allergen Interactions and Pharmacologic Intervention https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.7498
  7. Florida Fish and Wildlife: Red Tide Current Status
  8. Illness and Symptoms: Marine (Saltwater) Algal Blooms https://www.cdc.gov/habs/illness-symptoms-marine.html
  9. Krimsky, L., Staugler, B., Hall-Scharf, B., Stump, K., & Burton, R. (2018, December 4) Understanding the 2017-2018 Florida Red Tide. University of Florida website. http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/2018/12/04/understanding-the-florida-red-tide/
  10. Potential effects of brevetoxins and toxic elements on sea turtles after a red tide bloom event https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28693110/
  11. Occupational Exposure to Aerosolized Brevetoxins during Florida Red Tide Events: Effects on a Healthy Worker Population https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1257562/
  12. Reddy, R., Verma, N., & Mohammed, T.-L. (2019). A Rare Case of Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis due to Florida Red Tide. Case Reports in Pulmonology. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A602004852/HRCA?u=tamp44898&sid=bookmark-HRCA&xid=b1fad141
  13. Review of Florida Red Tide and Human Health Effects: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3014608/

Stel Bailey

Stel Bailey is a nationally recognized environmental health advocate working to protect natural resources, the health of communities, service members from toxic exposures, and children from the impacts of harmful pollution. She is a cancer cluster survivor, globally published photographer, mom of two, water enthusiast, and adventurer. Find her on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram @StelBailey and on www.stelbailey.com

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