Heather Barron sees patients every day. With each new admission, her staff determines which patients need the most urgent help, and which are beyond saving. It’s an important, if morbid, role for any emergency room doctor. Only Barron is no ordinary doctor. Her patients are sea turtles.
The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) in Sanibel, Florida, where Barron is the medical and research director, has admitted 3,688 patients so far this year. (Yes, they’re called patients.) The case load is up 10 percent from 2017, and there are currently four times the number of sea turtles in reha - bilitation as usual. Barron says that’s no accident.
This year’s red tide crisis on Florida’s coasts means normally packed tourist beaches are empty, marinas observe scads of dead fish floating between slips and local businesses report earnings down significantly compared to the same time last year.
Red tide is an algal bloom caused by the species Karenia -brevis, which exists in salt water and feeds on nutrients like -nitrogen and phosphorus. The algae is photosynthetic, lending it a range of reddish colors when found in high concentrations and earning it the name red tide. The “tide” part comes from the fact that blooms form offshore and get carried to shore by ocean currents.
This year, the “tide” could have just as easily referred to the mass quantities of dead sea life that washed up on Florida’s western, and to a lesser extent, eastern, shores. Fish, sea turtles, manatees and other creatures have been reported dead by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and local environmental groups. The cause of death is twofold: The algae sucks oxygen out of the water, creating an anoxic environment in which sea creatures have trouble breathing. It also releases brevetoxins when it dies, which affect the nervous systems of sea life. These are the same toxins that gives humans respiratory trouble. Barron, who lives a mile inland near Fort Myers, says she’s concerned about her kids’ health. “We haven’t been to the beach since May,” she says.
The red tide occurs annually, usually between October and April. But this year’s bloom, which started in November 2017, worsened as spring 2018 turned to summer and warm water prevailed. Although naturally occurring, this year’s bout has been exacerbated by inland human activity that releases nutrients into rivers and coastal waters and enables the algae’s growth, like agriculture and the use of fertilizer in home landscaping. “We all have a hand in this,” says Lucile Capo Miller, vice president of operations for Cannons Marina in Longboat Key, one of Florida’s first state-designated clean marinas.
Miller says she’s been seeing fewer customers lately, with out-of-town regulars calling to check on the health and safety status of the red tide. (Visitors can also use visitbeaches.org and myfwc.com/redtidestatus to stay up-to-date.) But unlike other marinas, they’re still selling boats, and Miller is cautiously optimistic that the business is going to be okay. “If we can survive [the BP oil spill], we can certainly survive red tide,” she says.
Michael Saunders, a luxury real estate broker in Sarasota, told the Herald-Tribune in August that while the rental market is down slightly, the sales market is not. “Buyers under contract are still feeling confident in their decision to purchase; we have not had any canceled contracts due to red tide,” he said.
Barron is a little less optimistic. 500 tons of dead sea creatures have been removed from Sanibel island alone this year. “Anything that could leave has left, and anything that couldn’t leave has died,” she says. “It’s really depressing out there right now.” According to Barron, red tide blooms are 20 times more frequent than they were in the 1950s, and 18 times more prevalent close to shore than at sea. In coastal areas where inland rivers drain, like the Caloosahatchee, it’s hard to deny human activities worsen the bloom. “People as a whole need to make more conscious environmental decisions,” she says. For Floridians, their health depends on it.
In a state that welcomes 1,000 new residents every day and where tourism is the number one industry, the pressure is on authorities and conservation groups to find a fix. According to NOAA, harmful algal blooms account for $82 million in losses to the seafood, restaurant and tourism industries every year. Outgoing governor Rick Scott allocated $100,000 to Mote Marine Laboratory, an organization studying solutions to the bloom, and $500,000 to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, when he declared a state of emergency in August.
Mote Marine Laboratory, in collaboration with FWC, is testing strategies to mitigate and respond to red tide. One such process is ozonation, where ozone is injected into the water to kill the algae. Another project is the construction of “living docks,” which are blanketed in filter-feeding creatures that eliminate red tide from the water. Both potential solutions are preliminary and designed for small water bodies like canals and bays.
The patients at the CROW clinic receive individualized care from veterinarians who assess organ health and create a complete biomedical profile for each individual. Barron says this personalized approach is the key to the group’s 88 percent success rate with green, loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.
Just as Miller emphasizes focusing on the positive rather than get bogged down in the negative, Barron says boaters should focus—literally—on the water. Sea turtle nesting season is usually April to October, which is opposite the annual red tide season. But this year the two overlap. Healthy sea turtles can usually dive deep when they hear boats approaching, but neurotoxins released by the bloom cause some turtles’ neurological function to slow, rendering them incapable of getting out of the way of boats. Boaters should go slow in areas affected by red tide and keep an eye out for turtles that are dead or exhibiting drunken behaviors. A call to FWC (888-404-3922) will determine whether marine patrol will come rescue the creature or if the boater has permission to bring the turtle to shore.
Humans, like sea turtles, are resilient. We’re all patients in the ward of environmental degradation. It remains to be seen how this year’s record red tide will influence winter boating, and whether the extreme event will become an annual trend. As sea temperatures rise due to climate change, red tide blooms could become more frequent and/or more intense, according to the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council. Amidst the uncertainty, one thing is clear: Mother Nature bats last.