Florida Tourists Lay Among Thousands of Lifeless Fish Coughing from Red Tide Conditions

MANATEE COUNTY, FL - Visitors worldwide are coming to Florida's west coast beaches for spring break vacation but must be made aware of red tide and the health effects of exposure to airborne toxins. As they arrive at their destinations, they are met with the stench of rot and pass it off as being too close to a dumpster or some other explanation, oblivious that the wind is carrying a toxin in the air. Checking into their hotels, excited to soak in sun rays and salt water from the pristine blue ocean, they begin unpacking, anxious to put on their swimsuits and hit the beach waves. 

As we walked through Manatee County to talk with visitors, we witnessed a disturbing twilight-type zone as the tourism industry continued to serve food outdoors, encourage visitors to sunbath, and charge for beach parking without saying a word about what people were about to witness once over the dune and at the shoreline. We walked along the road toward the beach, and we heard the repeated sound of coughing. When the ocean became visible, we witnessed tourists lying among thousands of dead fish that line the shore, hacking as they applied sunscreen and endured the symptoms of 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 posts maps and information online about red tide, but most visitors are clueless about the state's water crisis and wouldn't know to search for "red tide" prior to booking their vacations. It's not unusual for people to book a vacation to a beach escape and not consider there's an environmental catastrophe unfolding, especially if the booking agency, call center, or tourism industry are all staying silent on the truth of what their visitors are about to bear. The industry doesn't want to lose money. In fact, most counties sweep the beaches in the early mornings around 4:00 am, picking up the dead fish in their big trucks to haul to the landfill. Even though the fish aren't present at sunrise, the red tide still is. 

In 2022, a study by the Environmental Integrity Project found that Florida had some of the most polluted lakes in the United States. It doesn't appear to be getting better as pollution supercharges harmful blooms. The waterways were still recovering from a 215 million gallon nutrient-rich wastewater discharge into Tamp Bay estuary by Piney Point in 2021. Then, Hurrian Ian, a category 4 storm, devastated the west coast in late 2022, adding pollution to an already damaged ecosystem. As if the west coast hasn't had enough, they also receive nutrient-rich discharges from Lake Okeechobee, which intensified red tide. 

Red tides have been around since long before humans. However, red tide events have become more frequent and widespread. This is a result of pollution from industrial runoff, sewage spills, and the overuse of chemicals. Airborne red tide toxins can travel inland by up to a mile from the coast, depending on the speed and direction of the wind.

These red tide events are detrimental to the tourism industry and Florida's economy. Stopping the sources of pollution with significant water quality projects can allow waterways to heal and lessen red tide. There are citizen initiatives such as the Right to Clean Water which needs nearly 900,000 signatures to get on the states' 2024 ballot. Floridians could change the law so that they have a constitutional right to clean water and hold polluters accountable to stop the sources of pollution. The laws would change the way the protection agencies have to handle corporations such as Piney Point. 

Visitors to the sunshine state will continue to feel the symptoms of pollution. Their experiences with the red tide will be seen worldwide as people go home from vacation and explain how their week was full of dead aquatic animals, coughing, headaches, difficulty breathing, and illness. 

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 damage to DNA 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 clumps of algae or red tide water.
  • 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:
  2. Sign the petition: 
  3. Clean Water Act 50:
  4. Aerosol Toxins From Red Tides May Cause Long-term Health Threat
  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.
  6. Effects of Inhaled Brevetoxins in Allergic Airways: Toxin–Allergen Interactions and Pharmacologic Intervention
  7. Florida Fish and Wildlife: Red Tide Current Status
  8. Illness and Symptoms: Marine (Saltwater) Algal Blooms
  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.
  10. Potential effects of brevetoxins and toxic elements on sea turtles after a red tide bloom event
  11. Occupational Exposure to Aerosolized Brevetoxins during Florida Red Tide Events: Effects on a Healthy Worker Population
  12. Reddy, R., Verma, N., & Mohammed, T.-L. (2019). A Rare Case of Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis due to Florida Red Tide. Case Reports in Pulmonology.
  13. Review of Florida Red Tide and Human Health Effects:

No comments