Red tide is an issue that many Floridians are familiar with, but there are still plenty of people I’ve met who don’t know what red tide is or how dangerous it can be.
Even for those of us who are aware of red tide and its risks, we may not know what we can do to address the problem.
After years of living in Florida and complaining about red tide, I decided it was time to finally figure out what I can do to help protect our coastal habitat.
What is red tide?
Although red tide is the common term for this coastal phenomenon, the preferred scientific term is “harmful algal bloom.” So although algae can be part of a healthy ecosystem, red tide occurs when certain types of algae grow out of control.
The name red tide is due to the fact that these algae can change the color of the water, although this doesn’t always result in a red color.
Red tide has occurred in many places throughout the world; however, my personal experience is with Florida, so some of this guide will be Florida-centric. (But many of the action items at the end of this post can be used by anyone, regardless of location!)
Why is red tide a problem?
Ask anybody who has lived through a bad red tide, and we can tell you that the immediate effects are beaches littered with dead fish and other sea creatures, a stench that can emanate for miles from the beach, and potentially even health effects such as respiratory issues and/or cold-like or allergy symptoms that can last for days after exposure to red tide.
This summer, the Gulf coast of Florida has been experiencing severe red tide, with a mid-July figure of over 600 tons of sea creatures having been killed in the Tampa area alone due to the toxic algae bloom. (An August figure showed that Pinellas County, near Tampa, had 1800 tons of dead creatures and debris washed ashore because of red tide.)
There are many more problems caused by red tide.
- The Florida Health Department warns that red tide “can cause breathing problems, and can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. Reactions to red tide are worse for people with asthma, emphysema, bronchitis or any chronic lung disease. If you have health issues, stay away from areas with red tide.”
- The above issues are just from breathing in the air near an affected waterway. Swimming in the water can cause further symptoms of “skin irritation, rashes and burning and sore eyes.”
- Red tide can also cause pets to become sick.
- It can affect and kill a variety of marine life: fish, eels, sea birds, dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions, and manatees.
- It can make seafood unsafe for human consumption (and therefore harm fishermen’s businesses).
- It can decrease tourism and harm local businesses. (This is a big deal for those of us in Florida, where tourism dollars prevent us from having to pay state income tax.)
- It can negatively impact the real estate market for homes near the coast.
What causes red tide?
Although red tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon, most scientists and environmentalists are in agreement that human activity can exacerbate the situation.
Here are some of the factors that scientists have pinpointed as exacerbating the issue of red tide.
- Nutrient pollution: The algae that causes red tide feeds on nutrients such as nitrogen. When these nutrients reach the ocean in larger amounts than they should (due to human activity) it essentially fertilizes the algae and can lead to the neurotoxic damage of a red tide.
- Hurricanes and tropical storms: Heavy rain and wind cause nitrogen runoff in the water, which feeds the algae that causes red tide. Furthermore, areas of red tide that already exist could get pushed closer to shore by storms.
- Warming waters/climate change: The rising ocean temperatures contribute to more (and more severe) hurricanes, which already has an impact on red tide. Even more than that, though, warming waters prevent the red tide from dying back as it should in cooler temperatures.
- Piney Point: Earlier this year, the Piney Point disaster caused millions of gallons of wastewater to enter the Tampa Bay. Among other substances, 200 tons of nitrogen were discharged into the bay. Many scientists believe that this is what led to red tide being so bad in the Tampa Bay area this year.
- Unknown factors: Ultimately, scientists still don’t have a complete understanding of red tide, so there may be other factors that influence the phenomenon. This is why research is an important component of the possible solutions.
So in general, climate change and human misuse of the environment are the biggest known factors that need to be addressed. There are many ways to address these issues, most of which involve accountability at the corporate level and/or government legislation.
Alongside those efforts, we still need to learn more about red tide’s causes and patterns, which would mean more funding to monitor and research the issue.
How can we help?
Like a lot of big environmental issues, individual actions pale in comparison to comprehensive action on the part of governments and corporations.
Here is a breakdown of some of the change that needs to take place.
Government intervention (federal, state, and local)
The government has a lot of power to fix issues such as this. Indeed, Florida’s government is already addressing it in some ways, but we need to push for even more comprehensive solutions.
- Vote! This is arguably the most important thing you can do for sustainability. Elect officials who prioritize environmental issues or who will potentially be open to addressing these issues. We need sweeping climate action that comes from the top.
- Vote again! Make sure you’re participating in your state and local elections, too!
- Find out who your elected officials are (click here to find your Florida lawmakers), and contact them to let them know that you as a constituent believe they should be prioritizing this issue.
- Attend a peaceful protest. Fridays for Future is a worldwide movement of climate protests. Check their website to see if there are any events taking place near you soon.
- Get involved in local politics and see if your county offers any services to teach residents how to participate. The best place to start is probably your city or county’s website.
- Along that line, join a local advisory board to ensure that your local government is taking the health of its waterways seriously. As my own county’s website states, doing this will provide “the opportunity to help guide the County government’s decision-making process.”
Red tide is just one climate issue that is exacerbated by big businesses polluting the environment. Honestly, I believe that the best way to change this is for the government to enact tighter restrictions on corporations, so that makes all of the above action items even more necessary.
But here are a few other ways to fight the issue on the corporate level.
- Research what big companies are near you, and give them feedback to let them know that you expect them to dispose of waste properly without polluting your community. Depending on the company, you might be able to provide your opinion via social media, email, or an old-fashioned letter in the mail.
- The same goes for any other big business you support: let them know that you want to see them enacting policies that show accountability for their environmental footprint.
- Boycott companies that are not doing enough for the environment. (And once again, reach out to the company to let them know why they lost you as a customer.)
- Support businesses that are trying to do better for the environment. Choose EarthHero over Amazon for online purchases. Look for companies that are transparent about their supply chain and use sustainable packaging. Shop locally. When choosing products, prioritize ones that have “Certified B Corporation” or “1% for the planet” labels.
- Avoid making unnecessary purchases, shop secondhand if accessible to you, and repair or make items when possible rather than purchasing new.
Unfortunately, political action isn’t happening fast enough, but there are non-government entities that are taking action on this issue here and now!
- Mote Aquarium, based here in the Gulf Coast, has scientists that are researching red tide and looking for solutions. Since we are still learning about red tide, research is a really important component. Consider donating to it or visiting it if you are in the area.
- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is an organization that researches and protects the world’s oceans (and has worked with Mote Aquarium on the issue of red tide). Peek at their website to see what you can learn about the ocean from them, follow them on instagram, facebook, or twitter, and consider donating to them.
- Join a local volunteer group or cleanup day. One of the opportunities in my area is the Sarasota Bay Guardians. You can look for your local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful or search for an equivalent in your own country. If you are unable to volunteer but have the means to donate to organizations like this, that is another option!
Other individual actions
While all of the above actions are going to be the most impactful, it may help bring peace of mind to know that you are also going about your day-to-day life without contributing to the problem.
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Research the topic more! A Florida resource for waterway conservation information and volunteer opportunities is Protecting Florida Together. If you’re a Floridian, it’s worthwhile to take a look at their website to understand the big picture of what issues impact our waterways and what is being done to address them.
- Check with the local municipality to see if there is anything you should be doing when you come across red tide. For example, my home of Manatee County asks that “Florida residents and visitors should report fish kills to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish Kill Hotline using the FWC Report app, online, or via phone (800) 636-0511. In addition to fish kills, red tides can cause illness and death to aquatic wildlife including marine mammals, sea turtles and birds. If you see sick, injured or dead sea turtles or marine mammals call 1-888-404-3922.”
- Do your part to keep your local waterways clean. Learn about your watershed. Dispose of yard clippings as specified by your municipality. Try not to fertilize during rainy season if you live somewhere like Florida (or choose yard plants that don’t require fertilizer at all).
- Dispose of trash and pet waste responsibly (especially when near waterways).
- Here is a very comprehensive guide to individual actions we can take to preserve water quality.
- Learn about the environmental impact of your day-to-day actions and try to make positive changes.
- Make nature a bigger part of your life so that you can better understand and appreciate the challenges that are facing our natural world.
“Explore natural Florida: One of the best things you can do to support ecosystem conservation in Florida is to learn about the lesser-known habitats that protect and sustain our beaches, seafood, favorite fishing spots, and quality of life.”Sarasota Bay
The Bottom Line
Although a lot of the action items for addressing red tide are political, this is truly a bipartisan issue. This is a problem that has existed under Republican and Democrat administrations, and we need our politicians to do their job in keeping us safe.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum or how much you believe in being political or apolitical, red tide and climate change are affecting our planet, and we need to take political action in order to effect change before it’s too late.
Continuing the Conversation
Do you feel like you have an understanding of red tide? Are there other solutions to the problem that this article didn’t address? Share your thoughts in the comments below!