Red tide off northwest Florida could hit economy

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Red tide off northwest Florida could hit economy
In this Sept. 4, 2014 photo, fisherman Brad Gorst drives his boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen like Gorst who make a living off the state’s northwest coast are reporting fish kills and reddish water due to a toxic algae, or "red tide. "It boils up in the propeller wash like boiled red Georgia clay. "It's spooky," said Gorst, as he steered in Gulf of Mexico waters near Honeymoon Island, where dead fish recently washed ashore. (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)
In this Sept. 4, 2014 photo, Heyward Mathews, an emeritus professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College, talks about the toxic "red tide" algae that is threatening the fishing and tourism industries while on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, near Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Dearen)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 27: (AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND OUT) A girl looks at the algal bloom at Clovelly Beach in Sydney, commonly known as sea sparkle, drifts in on the tide, on November 27, 2012 in Sydney, Australia. The algae has left Bondi Beach and has reopened, but Clovelly Beach remains closed with the red water remaining. (Photo by Edwina Pickles/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
A boarder floats on the red tide at the sea near Tokyo, Saturday, May 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
A boarder floats on the red tide at the sea near Tokyo, Saturday, May 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Hundreds of rotting fish lay upon the shores of the Anna Maria Island beaches in Florida, killed by blooming red tide. (Photo by Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/Bradenton Herald/MCT via Getty Images)
A few dead, rotting fish lie along the shore of Palma Sola Causeway, in Bradenton, Florida, the result of lingering red tide. (Photo by Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/Bradenton Herald/MCT via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - 2007: A researcher measuring a loggerhead turtle killed by red tide. (Photo by Tyrone Turner/National Geographic/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 27: (AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND OUT) Bondi Beach in Sydney is closed as a red algal bloom, commonly known as sea sparkle, drifts in on the tide, on November 27, 2012 in Sydney, Australia. The algae has left Bondi Beach and has reopened, but Clovelly Beach remains closed with the red water remaining. (Photo by Edwina Pickles/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 27: (AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND OUT) Bondi Beach in Sydney is closed as a red algal bloom, commonly known as sea sparkle, drifts in on the tide, on November 27, 2012 in Sydney, Australia. The algae has left Bondi Beach and has reopened, but Clovelly Beach remains closed with the red water remaining. (Photo by Edwina Pickles/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
Hong Kong, CHINA: The waters around Hong Kong's outer island of Lamma are swamped with a red tide, or huge blooms of non-toxic algae, 07 June 2007. The red tides have led to the closure of 11 beaches, government officials said this week, while local press reports claimed the blooms were the biggest since 1998. The algal bloom in 1998, one of the worst in the southern Chinese territory's history, killed 90 percent of its farmed fish, according to press reports. AFP PHOTO / Laurent FIEVET (Photo credit should read LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images)
Hong Kong, CHINA: The waters around Hong Kong's outer island of Lamma are swamped with a red tide, or huge blooms of non-toxic algae, 07 June 2007. The red tides have led to the closure of 11 beaches, government officials said this week, while local press reports claimed the blooms were the biggest since 1998. The algal bloom in 1998, one of the worst in the southern Chinese territory's history, killed 90 percent of its farmed fish, according to press reports. AFP PHOTO / Laurent FIEVET (Photo credit should read LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images)
KOBE, JAPAN - APRIL 27: (JAPANESE NEWSPAPERS OUT) In this aerial image, red tide is observed on April 27, 2001 in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan. (Photo by Sankei via Getty Images)
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By JASON DEAREN

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) -- It's like Florida's version of The Blob. Slow moving glops of toxic algae in the northeast Gulf of Mexico are killing sea turtles, sharks and fish, and threatening the waters and beaches that fuel the region's economy.

Known as "red tide," this particular strain called Karenia brevis is present nearly every year off Florida, but large blooms can be particularly devastating. Right now, the algae is collecting in an area about 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, about 5 to 15 miles off St. Petersburg in the south and stretching north to Florida's Big Bend, where the peninsula ends and the Panhandle begins.

Fishermen who make a living off the state's northwest coast are reporting fish kills and reddish water.

"It boils up in the propeller wash like boiled red Georgia clay. It's spooky," said Clearwater fisherman Brad Gorst as he steered the charter fishing boat Gulfstream 2 in waters near Honeymoon Island, where dead fish recently washed ashore.

Red tide kills fish, manatees and other marine life by releasing a toxin that paralyzes their central nervous system. The algae also foul beaches and can be harmful to people who inhale the algae's toxins when winds blow onshore or by crashing waves, particularly those with asthma and other respiratory ailments.

In 2005, a strong red tide killed reefs, made beaches stinky and caused millions in economic damage. A weaker red tide in 2013 killed 276 manatees, state records show, after infecting the grasses eaten by the endangered creatures.

"This red tide ... will likely cause considerable damage to our local fisheries and our tourist economy over the next few months," said Heyward Mathews, an emeritus professor of oceanography at St. Petersburg College who has studied the issue for decades.

Despite years of study, there is nothing anyone has been able to do about it. In the 1950s, wildlife officials tried killing the red tide algae by dumping copper sulfate on it, which made the problem worse in some ways. But some researchers are working to change that.

Predicting when red tides are going to be especially bad can help fishermen and beach businesses prepare.

Right now, much of the information comes from satellite images, which are often obscured by clouds.

"In this particular red tide, we got a good image on July 23 - then we went weeks without another image," said University of South Florida ocean scientist Robert Weisberg.

Weisberg is one among a team of researchers developing a prediction model based on ocean currents data, rather than satellite images.

The prediction model tracks the currents that bring natural nutrients like phytoplankton the red tide needs to gain a foothold. Unlike other red tide species, Karenia brevis is not believed to be caused by man-made pollution such as agricultural runoff, and historical accounts of what is believed to be the same red tide date back to the 1700s.

Using his method, Weisberg in March predicted the current late summer bloom that is now causing so much worry. It allowed state officials to issue a warning July 25.

While the project recently received "rapid response" money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to send a data-collecting robotic glider into the bloom, future funding for this work is in doubt.

Weisberg said the team is still trying to develop a model that can look further into the future.

But the tides often start far offshore, where gathering data and images can be a time-consuming, expensive undertaking. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has tried to stem this data gap by giving fishermen sampling jars to take out to sea with them.

While a good stopgap, Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who represents St. Petersburg, has called for more NOAA funding to help prepare for future events.

"Using fishermen to collect samples clearly shows we have a research gap," Jolly said. "The more we learn about it, the more we can prevent a spread and protect our shoreline."

NOAA spokesman Ben Sherman said the president's 2015 budget does ask for a $6 million increase for research related to red tide forecasting, including the Gulf of Mexico, but Congress still has to approve it.

Fishermen say a better warning system could help save time and money.

"If we had more of a head's up we could plan out where we would go fish," said Mike Colby, captain of the Double Hook fishing vessel in Clearwater.

Scientists Reluctant to Stop 'Red Tide' Algae Bloom


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