Are you heading to the coast for a beach getaway during the warmer months? Then be aware that there may be something lurking in the water that may totally ruin your vacation! The water may be affected by a red tide, a type of harmful algal bloom. Not only does red algae stink to high heaven, but it’s dangerous to swim, fish and even eat the seafood that came from it! Red tide poisoning is something you seriously don’t want to experience and here’s why!
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Rollllllll Tide! All you Alabama fans, take a seat. This article isn’t about your collegiate football team. It’s actually about a different crimson tide. But, since a lot of you love to visit the coastal areas, you still should read this.
In this article, we’re actually talking about an aquatic environmental phenomenon known as the RED TIDE.
If you live along the Atlantic coast or the Gulf of Mexico, you probably already know what a Red Tide is. However, if you’re a flatlander or live on the Great Lakes or in the mountain regions, you’re probably not savvy of this coastal churn of nature.
A red tide could affect your travel plans and any outdoor activities on the water. These harmful algal blooms not only discolor the water along the shore, but also may adversely affect your health as well as your pets.
If you’re headed to the beach or going on a fishing trip, this is important information and advice to help prevent serious health implications for you, your family and your pets!
So, let’s dive right in and learn everything about what a red tide is, when it happens, and how often the aquatic algae forces people out of the water. But most importantly, realize the health risks of this sickening toxic phenomenon.
RED TIDE Dangers Health Risks to Humans & Pets
What is a Red Tide?
As we all are well aware, trillions of microorganisms grow in water. Almost all bodies of water in warmer climates will have algae of some sort. Algae is formed by a rapid gathering or conglomeration of those microorganisms.
Algae can even grow quickly in your dog’s water bowl, in your bird bath or undisturbed longstanding puddle in your backyard. It is most pronounced during hot days in the sun.
Similarly, periodic algae blooms occurs in the ocean when during expeditious environmental changes but on a much grander scale. One of which is, you guessed it, a red tide.
What causes a red tide?
A red tide is a global environmental phenomenon that occurs in the ocean. A harmful algal bloom (HAB) occurs when microscopic planktons multiply to higher-than-normal concentrations, often discoloring the water. In fact, there are over 300 species of red tide within the United States.
One of the most notorious species is the red tide microscopic organism called Karenia brevis.
According to ocean research and scientific studies, the photosynthetic, single-cell organism is typically found in the Gulf of Mexico. It rapidly multiplies to unsurmountable concentrations causing the reddish discoloration in the water; hence being called the red tide.
However, several environmental factors come together though to cause these oceanic Phytoplankton blooms or red tide events.
First, as the temperatures of the ocean and air heats up, it’s sets the stage for an out-of-the-ordinary, higher nutrient content in the water.
Especially water that’s closer to the shoreline that contains less salinity presents the perfect breeding ground for algae to bloom.
Then the biological event exasperates on days where the water is calm or with very tiny waves. This is how a red tide begins to make face.
Similar to a super bloom of wildflowers, the coastal phenomenon grows and spreads rapidly causing visibly obvious concentrations of algae. Hence, you have what scientists and biologist refer to as a Red Tide.
While algal blooms are typically natural, there’s scientific evidence that humans are partly to blame for harmful algal blooms causing environmental and health concerns.
Harmful Algal Bloom patterns and cycles are more predominant in waters where there’s agricultural farming which upsets a nearby aquatic environment. Water runoff or discharge containing fertilizers enters nearby watersheds, rivers, lakes and oceans either through runoff (Salton Sea).
When do red tides occur?
In the United States, red algae blooms typically occur in the Spring, late Summer into the early Fall. Those are when water temperatures exceed 50 degrees (Fahrenheit).
But, as mentioned earlier, all of the factors must be perfectly aligned for a red tide event to occur.
Where do algal blooms occur?
Red tides don’t occur just in the coastal waters of the United States. There’s red tide monitoring and detection methods happening all over the world.
Even our neighbors to the north in Canada experience periodic Karenia brevis aquatic environtmental outbreaks.
Forecasting and prediction models are proving that global warming is a huge key player in upsetting the balance in the marine environment. Since the 1980s, marine biologists are finding that the red algal outbreaks are becoming more frequent and less regionalized.
But, global scientists are learning more about these red tide plankton blooms and heightening awareness because they affect human, wildlife and ocean health.
Back to the U.S., they mostly happen in coastal areas of central and southwestern Florida. Inlets and canals between Clearwater and Sanibel Island experience Gulf Coast red tide blooms. And, beaches near Tampa Bay, Sarasota, Anna Maria Island, Sanibel and Captiva Island are also affected.
But really, they can occur anywhere in the Gulf. Red algae blooms can happen any coastal areas where the previously discussed factors can collaborate.
They can infect the Atlantic Coast from the east coast of Florida up to southern New England. Especially places where inlets are prevalent can become the perfect breeding ground for Karenia brevis outbreaks.
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Does New England have red tides?
According to New Hampshire Fish and Game, a red tide also can occur in the Gulf of Maine. Depending on the weather, starting offshore, it can move to inshore areas where commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting takes place.
That said, the Massachusetts state government says, “in Massachusetts, the blooms are typically not dense enough to change the color of the sea water. Blooms over a large geographical area are unusual.”
The Center of Coastal Studies in Provincetown also sites “Spring is the season of the diatoms in Cape Cod Bay. Red tide dinoflagellates including Alexandrium come along a bit later, blooming after the nutrient-rich bottom water has mixed with the warmer top layer.”
So as you see, these outbreaks can occur really anywhere the environment presents the right conditions for the algae to grow rapidly. Which means coastal New England becomes a breeding ground for harmful algal blooms.
Does red tide algae smell bad?
Oh yes, red algal blooms are quite smelly. The pungent smell resembles something rotting or decaying matter. They stink so bad to even cause people to gag, retch and even nausea.
My simple advice is to try to stay upwind of the affected coastal area.
Or, just stay away from the affected shore all together to avoid that queasy feeling. Because take it from me, no amount of Dramamine will work! Because red tides are not about the motion of the ocean but the smell of the stench.
How long does a red tide last?
A red tide may last anywhere from just a few days upwards to even a few months. Harmful algal blooms depend on different factors; weather, sunlight, water temperature, wind conditions, salinity levels in addition to sea life and zooplankton feeds on them.
What precautions should fisherman take during red tides
Recreational shellfish gatherers and fishing anglers should pay close attention to posted red tide warnings and local media announcements.
If you’re going out to fish inshore or offshore, you need to contact appropriate state agencies and local shellfish constables for current updates on closures.
Under no circumstance should individuals harvest shellfish from any area closed to shellfishing.
Toxic shellfish will taste and appear no different than nontoxic shellfish, and cooking does not destroy the red tide toxin. Testing is the only way to determine if shellfish contain unsafe levels of algae toxins.
What effects do red tide harmful algal blooms have on marine life?
These massive toxic environments cause aquatic wildlife and fish to get sick and die. In fact, some beaches in red tide areas experience massive fish kills.
Should there be any toxic planktonic organisms in the algae, that presents the potential of red tide shellfish poisoning.
Few marine animals accumulate these toxin microorganisms. Shellfish however, hard and soft-shell clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops are particularly prone to contamination. They feed by filtering microscopic food out of the water.
We’ve also learned that sharks do not like red algae. Red tide is an irritant that can lead to decreased oxygen levels in the water; forcing them to algae-free water. They will migrate and seek refuge in canals and waters not affected by the algae infection.
On that note, if you’re going to be recreating in those type of waters, avoid paddle boarding, swimming or dangling your feet from the dock in the canals for obvious reasons.
Is it safe to swim during a red tide algal bloom?
While you can swim or partake in water activities, however, I personally don’t recommend even taking the chance. Especially, if you’re prone to skin conditions, have open wounds or sores or suffer respiratory conditions, simply stay out of the water.
Can you eat seafood during and after a red tide?
In addition to shellfish victims listed above (hard and soft-shell clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops), whelks and moon snails harvested from areas affected can also accumulate dangerous levels of the toxins as they feed on contaminated shellfish. They are not safe to eat.
Now oddly, crab, lobster, shrimp, and most finfish do not normally accumulate toxin and are generally safe to consume from affected waters.
Lobster tomalley (the green part or liver) is not safe to eat in general. However, during these significant aquatic toxic outbreaks, lobster tomalley can build up excessively high levels of toxins along with other pollutants. This usually results in making you more than a tummy ache. So, it’s best to stay clear.
Shellfish harvesters are subject to strictly enforced health regulations. Still, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration public officials may occasionally visit state labs to observe routine testing procedures. They also monitor shellfish markets, it’s not a fail-safe measure for shellfish consumers.
Per mention earlier, the best way to avoid Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning is to simply avoid consuming any local fish and shellfish during harmful algal blooms period.
Is a red plankton harmful to health?
Red plankton (algae) produces toxins that can sicken people, pets and wildlife. However, toxic poisoning depends on a few factors; how a person or animal is exposed, duration of red tide toxin exposure and which type of red tide toxin exposure they were exposed to.
Most people escape HAB exposure without experiencing serious health consequences while those with certain health concerns may be affected differently.
Interestingly, there are four major red tide causing algae found on the coast of Maine: Alexandrium, Dinophysis, Prorocentrum and Pseudonitzschia. Unfortunately these particular red algae species can cause serious health problems in humans, pets and marine animals.
So my suggestion is before trekking off to the beach or coastal areas where red tides are common, tune into area Fish and Wildlife sources for postings. And educate your children to understand the importance of not entering the water during any harmful algal blooms.
What are Red tide symptoms in humans?
There are health dangers you should be aware of should get physically exposed to harmful algal blooms.
Exposures of Harmful Algal Blooms
- Consuming fish or shellfish containing red algae.
- Ingesting red tide algae through swallowing water.
- Breathing in dried red algae; much like pollen.
- Inhaling tiny droplets or snorting in red tide toxins while swimming or other aquatic activities.
- Pets licking paws that were exposed to red algae.
Symptoms of Red Algae Poisoning
- You may experience skin or eye irritations; burning or itchiness.
- Dried algae dust can trigger upper and lower respiratory conditions such as sneezing, throat irritations, coughing, shortness of breath and asthmatic attacks.
- Exposure to brevetoxins has been shown to induce more severe respiratory effects such as rhinorrhea, and bronchoconstriction in individuals with asthma.
- Susceptible populations may even experience chronic pulmonary symptoms, even after leaving the area.
- The worse case is anaphylactic seizure. But, the cause is an allergic reaction from eating shellfish and not from ingesting the red tide toxins.
And speaking of shellfish, the state of Massachusetts claims lobster, crab, shrimp, and most finfish do not normally accumulate toxin and are safe to eat from affected waters.
Personally, having lived through red tides on the New England coast for 25 years, I personally wouldn’t consume any seafood caught during these environmental outbreaks. There’s always potential of them containing toxins that can affect our health.
“Cooking will NOT rid shellfish of red algae toxins.”
So really, it’s best to avoid eating any fish or shellfish collected during a red tide event. Because gastrointestinal issues like nausea, cramps, diarrhea can surely turn your dream vacation into a living nightmare.
Should you come into contact with and feel any symptoms or effects of red tide poisoning, it’s best to alert your health provider. While there’s no test to determine toxicity in your system, your medical provider can treat the symptoms that may be caused by harmful algal bloom poisoning.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms from red tide intoxication, you may want to contact the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222. They may have helpful information about health conditions or concerns caused by the red tide algae blooms.
Finally, you should report serious symptoms to the local or state health department of the location where you came into contact with red tide algae.
As stated on the CDC website, some state health departments have forms on their websites or hotlines for reporting suspected bloom-associated illnesses directly to the health department.
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What are the impacts of red tide on the local economy?
The economy in coastal areas are very much affected by a red tide outbreak, not only the community, but also regional tourism.
Many red tide and cyanobacteria blooms result in some type of economic impact. Health care costs from hospital and doctor visits, beach clean-up activities following fish kills, and losses in tourism revenues are some of the costs associated with these blooms.
The food industry suffers huge economic impacts. From restaurants to local seafood markets, Quite literally, if there’s no fish to fry, there’s no money coming in. Trickling down to even restaurant employees being affected by the loss of product. Therefore, there’s less tax revenue brought in to support the community.
What measures are being made towards prevention and control of red tide?
According to the marine biologists, red tide mitigation strategies are in full force. That said, scientists are met with challenging efforts to find an environmentally safe way to kill or even control these toxic algal blooms.
However, technological advances and satellite imagery is allowing scientists and biologists to better track and monitor harmful algal overgrowth.
In the meantime, researchers are monitoring and tracking the red algae blooms. Thus, alerting officials to post warnings and alert the public against dangerous red tide exposure.
Final thoughts on the Dangers of Red Tides
A Red tide can surely put a damper on activities on the water or that amazing shellfish dinner you’re looking forward to. But, they don’t have to totally ruin your dream beach vacation or quest for adventure on the water. Just readjust your compass to find different adventures that don’t involve playing in the water or eating from it.
✰✰ TRAVELER PRO TIP ✰✰ Planning a beach vacation to Florida? Check out the FWC’s current algae status of shore areas you may want to visit.
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