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What is Red Tide and How does it Affect Oceans?

Red Tide is one of those peripheral issues that has likely affected all beach lovers at some point in their beach-going career. From family vacations when I was a child to spring break trips in high school and college, the infamous Florida Red Tide conversation has sprouted up at least once on nearly all trips to Florida. It wasn’t until my latest experience with it, where I accidentally stepped on a dead fish on the beach, that I took the time to figure out what Red Tide is and what it comes from.

Karenia Brevis (K. Brevis), named after Dr. Karen A. Steidinger, is the organism that is believed to cause Red Tide and large-scale fish die-offs since the early 15th century. (Here we go again blaming our problems on Karen.) Sometimes referred to as a harmful algae bloom, Red Tide thrives in high-salt content water and can spread at a rate of one meter per hour. The blooms release brevetoxins that can kill all sorts of marine animals and birds.

Brevetoxins can also affect respiratory systems in humans when they become airborne. If a person consumes shellfish that are contaminated with brevetoxins, it can cause illness as well. It should be noted that the illness is minor and will affect people with pre-existing conditions more, nor is there any record of humans dying from Red Tide brevetoxins. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation and Commission, a study in the 1970s and 80s found that during three red tide blooms, coastal towns lost an estimated $15-25 million per bloom, from a reduction in tourism. That number has obviously increased dramatically over the years.

Red Tide is an overgrown algae that reduces oxygen levels in water, which in turn causes the fish to die. But what’s interesting is that the algae has always been there. It wasn’t until runoff water that contained high levels of nitrogen and other chemicals found in fertilizer made the algae become overgrown. Nitrogen in fertilizer is essentially a steroid for plants. From grass in your yard to orange tree groves to marijuana plants in greenhouses, nitrogen is used to help things grow all over the country. In this case, instead of a pot plant, the algae in the ocean is getting the steroid.

The good news is that we know what causes Red Tide and where it comes from. It comes from every person that lives in or visits Florida. Now, are there larger polluters than others? Do large-scale coastal farms and golf courses contribute more than the average citizen trying to dye his lawn green? Sure. But there are a lot of folks out there that want green grass and it adds up. There are also a lot of people who won’t want to play a golf course if it’s brown. It’s a never-ending cycle that needs to be addressed at the top of government, where there is the capability of addressing all industries involved in water pollution.

It seems that the science is conclusive on Red Tide in Florida. It’s now up to the government to implement legislation that fixes the problems causing Red Tide. I also think there is an entrepreneurial opportunity to mitigate runoff water and even maybe an automated device that can disrupt large clusters of Red Tide before they become harmful. Regardless of who is at fault Red Tide or who is working to fix it, we need leadership to address that there is a Red Tide problem and decide the most appropriate way to go forward.

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