Florida Tourists Laid Next to Lifeless Fish During Red Tide Event

Photo by International Environmental Justice Advocate Stel Bailey

MANATEE COUNTY, FL - During spring break, travelers from around the world are coming to the west coast beaches of Florida. But when they arrive, they might smell something unpleasant resembling rotting food in a nearby dumpster. They might not realize that there is a phenomenon called red tide occurring, which releases harmful toxins into the air through the wind. 

While they get comfortable in their hotels and look forward to enjoying the sunny weather and the ocean water, many are unaware of the potential health dangers caused by exposure to the toxins from red tide. Unfortunately, they will encounter beaches filled with dead marine animals and experience painful side effects.

Walking along Manatee County Beach and talking to people, we noticed a strange and unsettling situation. The tourism industry was still serving food outside, telling people to enjoy the sun, and charging for parking at the beach. There is no mention of the ecological catastrophe occurring beyond the dunes. We went closer to the beach and heard coughing over and over again. When we got to the shore, we saw tourists lying among thousands of dead fish that covered the beach. They struggled to breathe as they put on sunscreen and breathed in the toxins from the red tide.

The beach was filled with dead fish because of the red tide affecting the coast. There were no signs or information to warn tourists about the red tide or its health effects. Workers were not permitted to communicate or display anything related to the red tide. We asked the visitors if they knew why there were dead fish on the beach, but they shook their heads "no" as they wheezed. 

Florida offers online maps and information about red tide, but many tourists must be aware of the current water crisis and actively search for information before booking their vacations. It is common for people to plan beach trips without considering the possibility of an environmental disaster, especially if the booking agency, call center, or tourism industry doesn't disclose the situation. These industries prioritize making money and often need to inform visitors about the reality they may encounter. Even though efforts are made to clean up the beaches early in the morning, red tide persists. County workers collect dead fish and dispose of them at the landfill, but this does not eliminate the adverse effects.

A report released in 2022 by the Environmental Integrity Project reveals that Florida has some of the most polluted lakes in the United States. This pollution has led to the rapid growth of harmful blooms. A major contributor to the water pollution was the release of 215 million gallons of wastewater into the Tampa Bay estuary by Piney Point in 2021, devastatingly impacting the waterways. The situation worsened when Hurricane Ian, a powerful category-four storm, struck the West Coast in late 2022, causing further damage to the already struggling ecosystem. Lake Okeechobee also contributes to the problem by releasing nutrient-rich water onto the West Coast, exacerbating the red tide situation.

Red tides have existed for a long time, but these occurrences are happening more often because of pollution from industrial waste, sewage spills, and the excessive use of chemicals. The harmful substances from red tides can be carried by the wind up to a mile inland, depending on how fast the wind blows and which way it's going.

These events harm Florida's economy and the tourism industry. But if we take important steps to improve water quality and end pollution, we can help heal the waterways and decrease the occurrence of red tide. Ordinary people are taking charge through initiatives like the Right to Clean Water, which aims to gather around 900,000 signatures to include it in the 2024 ballot across different states. If successful, this initiative would change the law and grant Floridians the constitutional right to have clean water, and it would also make polluters responsible for their actions. Additionally, protection agencies would have to change their approach when dealing with companies like Piney Point.

If you plan on going to Florida, remember that pollution could affect your trip. The red tide situation can result in encountering dead marine animals, which may cause coughing, headaches, difficulty breathing, and potentially getting sick. Some tourists have even gotten infected with flesh-eating bacteria and required hospitalization. It is important to prioritize your well-being and ensure you return home in good health after your vacation.

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, a cancer cluster survivor and environmental health advocate, is a researcher and journalist with more than two decades of multimedia experience, having been published globally.

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