Red Tide's an Enduring Phenomenon
The algal phenomenon known as red tide is back in the news, and each time that it returns reminds us of how mysterious this organism is. Once again, we call for consistent, long-range research to point the way toward responsible environmental action.
The current wave of red tide isn’t among the worst that the region has experienced. For that we are quite grateful, because lengthy and intense outbreaks are damaging to marine life, disruptive to the economy and difficult for humans with respiratory ailments.
For still-unknown reasons, the Karenia brevis alga multiplies into massive blooms, miles offshore. As the single-celled plankton die off, the collapse of their cell walls releases toxins.
These toxins can be powerful enough to kill fish that swim and breathe in red-tide affected waters. The toxins also can make shellfish unsafe to eat and can harm pets.
For people, red tide’s effects are felt if strong breezes blow concentrated toxins toward shore. When that happens, throats catch, eyes burn and lungs ache as though the air were infused with pepper. The discomfort is generally temporary. But for people with asthma, pulmonary disease and such, red tide can pose substantial medical risks. They are urged to avoid such exposure.
It has long been suspected that storm-water runoff and fertilizers contribute somehow to the algal misery. Yet researchers have found no direct causal link. They say the Karenia brevis organism interacts with its environment in complex ways, and point out that because the blooms begin dozens of miles offshore — and predate man-made fertilizers — runoff isn’t likely to be the immediate trigger.
So, what is the trigger? Research money has been aimed at that question, especially in years when red tide threatens tourism and politicians come under pressure to do something. But funding priorities have varied as the phenomenon comes and goes.
Coastal communities have toughened fertilizer restrictions and improved sewage treatment, steps that are paying off in healthier sea-grass beds and other signs of environmental progress. Monitoring programs in recent years track Karenia brevis, and it is among numerous harmful algae under scientific investigation. But the “why” of K. brevis remains unclear.
Our Gulf waters are vital to our quality of life. But there’s a nagging sense that we won’t truly understand this great asset until we understand red tide.
Bring on more microscopes; this mystery must be solved.
Reprinted from the Northwest Florida Daily News
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