The respiratory irritation you might have been experiencing roughly two weeks ago had nothing to do with some new super flu that you read about.
It involved the effects from red tide, a type of algal bloom that occurs naturally and has a dense concentration of the microscopic, plant-like algae called "Karenia brevis."
According to Town of Fort Myers Beach Environmental Science Coordinator Keith Laakkonen, the red tide bloom is well offshore at this point, but could return. He has been monitoring red tide cell counts for the Town for five years overall and this particular bloom since it first came into the Southwest Florida area in November 2012.
Town officials paid extra help to pick up the large amount of dead fish that had washed ashore.
"Things have improved a lot since two weeks ago. Right now, we are getting less than 1,000 cells per liter of water as compared to the count in the 100,000s we were getting then," he said. "Unlike a forest fire, they can pop up and go down really quickly."
Laakkonen stated that although "medium" counts -between 100,000 and one million cells per liter of water- in the Gulf and Estero Bay doesn't sound that bad, there was enough toxins to cause fish kills and respiratory irritation among humans. The particular fish that were killed during the recent blooms were of a specific type.,
"We saw a lot of sand trout, bat fish, toad fish and catfish. They all tend to be bottom dwellers," he said.
Town officials "reacted quickly and aggressively" in cleaning up dead fish on the beachfront of Estero Island, says Laakkonen.
"The Town takes that very, very seriously," he said.
During any red tide bloom, people who walk the beachfront or work on it suffer irritable symptoms in their nasal passages and throats. Basically, in the same way it kills fish, red tide toxins can affect a person's respiratory process.
"Everyone has different sensitivities to it," said Laakkonen. "It affects everyone differently."
Red tide is controlled by wind and wave action. Laakkonen stated this particular bloom was brought onshore by steady south, southwest winds for a good two days straight.
"The bloom has been very responsive to the wind," he said. "Whenever we get a change in wind, it really moves the bloom. That was a pretty significant impact. It was certainly the biggest red tide bloom impact I have seen in five years."
Waves also contributed to the bloom impact.
"When the waves break, it actually fractures these red tide cells apart, kills the organism and release the toxins into the air," said Laakkonen.
Just like that, the bloom floated away with a change of wind.
"In the past week and a half to two weeks, we started getting north winds that pushed it to the south and offshore," he said. "North, northeast and, to an extent, northwest are good directions for us. We start to get concerned on south, southwest and west winds. We think this bloom has been pushed offshore quite a bit, though."
Fish Kill affect
The Town's Environmental Science Coordinator stated that there are two possible mechanisms involving fish kill through red tide bloom.
The most obvious cause is through neurotoxins released into the water. The other deals with oxygen depletion, which can happen with any algae bloom.
"Any animal that is feeding in the bloom -manatees feeding on sea grass for example- can be affected," said Laakkonen. "When red tide is aerosolized, it is right close to the surface, which is also where all of these animals are breathing. So, they cannot get away from it, unless they physically get out of the area."
The Florida Department of Health in Lee County has sent out reminders to people to use caution when on any beach or in waters with high concentrations of red tide.
Staffs from the health department, Lee County Parks and Recreation, Mote Marine Laboratories and coastal towns continue to monitor beaches for signs of red tide.
Facts associated with red tide:
- Most people can swim in red tide, but it can cause skin irritation and burning eyes. If one's skin is easily irritated, avoid red tide water. If one experiences irritation, get out and thoroughly wash off with fresh water. Swimming near dead fish is not recommended.
- Wear shoes when walking on the sand to avoid the possibility of a puncture wound from fish bones, especially catfish spines.
- Symptoms from breathing red tide toxins usually include coughing, sneezing and teary eyes. For most people, symptoms are temporary when red tide toxins are in the air. Wearing a particle filter mask may lessen the effects, and research shows that using over-the-counter antihistamines may decrease symptoms. Check the marine forecast. Fewer toxins are in the air when the wind is blowing offshore.
- People with chronic respiratory problems like asthma and COPD should avoid red tide areas. People with symptoms that persist should seek medical attention.
- Pet owners are advised that red tide poses a risk to animals brought to the beach. Red tide can affect dogs after they come out of the water, lick their paws or fur and ingest the algae, which can be harmful to their health.
- Residents living in beach areas affected by Florida Red Tide are advised to close windows and run the air conditioner (making sure that the AC filter is maintained according to manufacturer's specifications).
- Commercial seafood found in restaurants and grocery stores is safe to eat because it comes from red tide-free water and is monitored by the government.
- Do not eat mollusks (clams or oysters) taken from red tide waters, as they contain toxins that cause a food poisoning called NSP (Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning). Shell fishing remains closed in Pine Island Sound.
- Finfish caught live can be eaten if filleted.
- Shrimp and crabs are safe to eat.
- Use common sense: harvesting distressed or dead animals is not advised under any circumstances. Edible parts of other animals (crustaceans such as crabs, shrimp, and lobsters) are not affected by red tide and can be eaten.
- Beachgoers are encouraged to check the Mote Beach Conditions Report before they go to the beach as conditions can change daily. For the latest conditions at all Lee County beaches, visit www.mote.org/beaches or call 941-BEACHES.
--SOURCE: Florida Department of Health in Lee County