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Toxic Algae Plaguing SW Florida; NW Florida Watches


Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for parts of southwest Florida, which are dealing with a toxic algae bloom. Meanwhile, officials in the Panhandle are watching the situation.

The pungent algae bloom began in October and at this point, stretches about 150 miles from Naples in the south to Anna Maria Island in the north and appears to be moving northward. The algae has killed tons of marine life, including dolphins, manatees and sea turtles.

“Red tide is a common term, and it refers to some of the algae that are red in color,” says Robert Turpin, Escambia County’s Marine Resources Division Director. “If you talk to scientists, they’re more likely to call it a harmful algal bloom.”

Depending on the specific type of algae, they have different kinds of toxins.

“The most common we have here in Florida is called Karenia brevis,” Turpin says. It has a toxin that can kill fish; the toxin can concentrate in shellfish and can make shellfish beds unsuitable for human consumption.”

Gov. Scott is ordering $100,000 for additional scientists to help with clean-up and animal rescue. Another $500,000 is going to communities and businesses in seven counties that are losing visitors and income due to the bloom.

Currently, says Turpin, there is no red tide threat in Panhandle waters.

“We don’t want any negative impressions that our beaches are anything but the beautiful, pristine and wonderful beaches that they are.”

Credit myescambia.com
Robert Turpin, Escambia County Marine Resources Director.

Some of the toxins produced by the algae are also harmful to people. While some can be deadly, most of the toxins cause some sort of respiratory discomfort. And Turpin says you don’t have to be in or near the water.

“If you’re on the beaches and there’s an offshore wind, you can feel it in your throat,” said Turpin. “People with respiratory sensibilities can get into a pretty serious condition. If you eat shellfish that have had those toxins concentrated in their tissues, then that can cause problems as well.”

Cooking the infected shellfish, says Turpin, will not neutralize the toxins. Meanwhile, there are red tide monitors throughout the state of Florida. Escambia County’s device is in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier.

‘Our monitoring will probably give us a heads-up, but these things can occur very rapidly,” Turpin says. “The generation time of these algae is measured in minutes, so they are able to proliferate very, very rapidly. But, the main thing we can do is just warn people."

There’s a growing body of evidence, says Escambia County’s Robert Turpin, that these red tide events are related to nutrient pollution in the state’s waterways.

“If it is true that excess nutrients cause red tide, then we have the ability to control the amount of fertilizers that we use; the way that we use fertilizers, and the places that we use fertilizers to reduce our risk of red tide,” said Turpin.

Since 2017, higher-than-normal concentrations of the algae blooms have plagued southwest Florida. Part of the reason why red tide is so prominent now, according to some scientists, is because there are some blooms leftover from last year.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.