Hundreds of dead fish washed ashore Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, as South Florida wrestled with toxic red tide and whether it will scare away tourists.
All Broward County beaches remained open, but beaches were closed in parts of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, as water samples were tested and public officials grappled for the right response to a problem that’s generally been confined to the state’s Gulf coast.
“We can only hope that these conditions do not remain for very long,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said at a news conference at City Hall, noting that beaches remained open on the Gulf coast with higher concentrations of the algae. “Red tide has seldom occurred on the east coast of the state and has generally dissipated quickly.”
Palm Beach County closed three beaches Thursday, after reports of people suffering from eye, nose and throat irritation, but later announced that all county-managed beaches would be open Friday. In Miami-Dade County, beaches have been closed north of Haulover Inlet.
Although the red tide scare may well turn out to be temporary and mild, the tourist industry is trying to minimize the economic damage. Discover The Palm Beaches, Palm Beach County’s tourist development organization, has started a campaign called Beyond the Beaches to publicize the things visitors can do away from the ocean, such as spas and golf.
“The Palm Beaches are famous for the beaches, but the destination offers a wide variety of activities,” said Rich Basen, the group’s senior vice president of marketing, in a news release. “Even visitors who come primarily for the beaches are still looking for more to do. This is an opportunity to show them the diversity of our world-class destination.”
Red tide test results will be at least two days late in Broward County due to an unexplained error in water testing, as counties to the north and south close beaches to protect swimmers from the toxic algae, which can cause burning eyes, sneezing and coughing, with worse symptoms for those with respiratory problems.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took water samples Monday in South Florida and promised results by Wednesday. But when they were posted late that afternoon, results for Broward were absent, said Jennifer Jurado, Broward County’s director of environmental planning and community resilience.
“I can’t confirm that water samples were taken in Broward County,” she said. “We had understood that to be the case, but at this point it is unconfirmed. There was a misunderstanding or miscommunication.”
Susan Neel, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, would not answer a question on what went wrong. Instead, she sent an emailed statement that said, “A network of partners collect samples. The county natural resources office is collecting samples today, and we anticipate receiving samples Friday. We’ll expedite testing and keep you informed.”
Red tide likely is present in Broward County in similar concentrations to that being found in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, based on reports of respiratory irritation from people at the beach, the county said in a news release.
The county took its own samples Thursday and is sending them by overnight mail to the state’s laboratory in St. Petersburg, with results expected Friday or Saturday.
Testing this week detected low to medium levels of red tide off Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, according to the state wildlife commission. On the Gulf coast, where red tide concentrations are higher and extend over a larger area, the level is classified as “high” off several beaches.
Gov. Rick Scott, whose environmental policies have been criticized during the twin crises of red tide and toxic blue-green algae, announced Thursday that the state would spend $3 million to fight red tide’s appearance in South Florida.
The money, which can be used to clear debris such as dead fish, will go to St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
“In Florida, when presented with problems, we work together and face them head on — red tide is no different,” said Scott, a Republican who is in a tight race to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. “So far, the state has provided more than $16 million to help minimize the impacts of harmful algal blooms and expand our research and understanding of red tide, including funding to help scientists test innovative solutions for this phenomenon.”
Red tide is caused by high concentrations of a microscopic algae called Karenia brevis that emits toxins that can kill fish, dolphins and other marine life. When waves break the algae’s cells, the toxins can become airborne and cause burning eyes, sneezing and respiratory problem for people near the beach. This can cause severe illness to people with respiratory conditions. But a red tide does not necessarily mean you shouldn’t go in the water, and many people swim during red tides and experience only mild symptoms.
Although the governor and state agencies constantly refer to red tide as “naturally occurring,” scientists say the large Gulf coast bloom that spawned South Florida’s red tide may have been made significantly bigger from fertilizers washing Florida farms and cities.
Hoping to seize an advantage from the problem, the Florida Democratic Party announced a call with reporters Friday on the governor’s “horrible” environmental record. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor, issued a statement Thursday promising to do a better job.
“Following nearly eight years of prioritizing corporate polluters and decimating the protections that were created to keep our waterways clean,” the statement read, “the recent beach closings are symptomatic of Florida’s devastating environmental crisis that Mayor Gillum has pledged to confront.”
In response, Scott’s office noted that the state had sharply increased the budget for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, engages in more water-quality monitoring than any other state and achieved a near-record compliance rate by businesses of 96 percent.
In Deerfield Beach, where the city has warned about a possible red tide, charity race called the Dunn’s Run, which takes place partially along the ocean in Deerfield Beach and benefits The Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County, has been postponed because of concerns over red tide.
Although a catastrophic red tide bloom has persisted on the Gulf coast for a year, the algae doesn’t last that long on the rare occasions it has made the trip around the peninsula to southeast Florida.
“Red tide can last for a few weeks to longer than a year, but is not known to persist on the east coast,” according to Broward’s news release.
Shortly before 7 a.m. Thursday, officials announced that Boynton Beach Oceanfront Park was closed due to red tide. The park is at 6415 N. Ocean Blvd. and stretches for several blocks along the ocean.
Visitors to the beach were met at the parking lot entrance by stop signs and a hand-written posting that the beach was closed because of red tide.
On the sand of the deserted beach where small waves were breaking, dead fish could be seen every few feet — rotting in piles of seaside seaweed.
“We are basically acting in an abundance of caution,” said Wally Majors, director of the Boynton Beach Recreation and Parks Department. “We need time to gather as much data as possible to ensure we can make a good educated decision in term of whether it’s appropriate to have the beach open or not.”