SIESTA KEY, Fla. – Even as she sat under the brilliant Florida sun, her toes covered in sugar-white sand, Alex McShane wasn’t exactly enjoying her summer vacation. Florida’s worst red tide in more than a decade had turned the aqua-blue surf to a rusty dull brown.
And then there were the lifeguards. They were wearing gas masks.
With no mask of her own, McShane, 24, wore a frown. Her eyes itched, she coughed, and the stench was giving her a headache – all telltale symptoms of the monster algal bloom spanning the southern Gulf Coast. It is killing untold numbers of marine animals from Bradenton to Naples, where rotting fish still lie scattered on a beach behind Gov. Rick Scott’s seaside mansion, even after a cleanup.
As the outbreak nears the year mark, with no sign of easing, it’s no longer a threat to just marine life. Business owners in the hardest-hit counties report they have lost nearly $90 million and have laid off about 300 workers because of the red tide and a separate freshwater algal bloom in the state’s largest lake. Together, the two blooms have caused a sharp drop in tourism.
A pair of toxic algal blooms striking the state at the same time is rare and, in this case, especially lethal. A red tide is a natural phenomenon that develops miles offshore before making its way to the coast, where it feeds on a variety of pollutants, including phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer, along with other runoff and wastewater.
What is not clear is whether climate change and pollution from humans near the shore has made this outbreak even worse. Scientists have found that the algae thrive in warmer waters and increased carbon dioxide levels.
August has been brutal for Sarasota County, where McShane sat on a folding chair on the top-rated beach at Siesta Key. In the second week of the month – one of the worst of the red-tide bloom – small-business revenue fell by as much as 50 percent, according to a survey conducted by the local convention and visitors bureau.
At the Hub restaurant, a short walk from the beach, manager Tim Wong tried to be positive. “If it’s going to hit, this is the best time, because it’s the slow season for us,” Wong said. “It could be gone tomorrow – you never know.”
But others worry that the painful slow season, which stretches from August to November, will be tough to endure. “I’m prepared for the slow season, but this is scary,” Tom Kouvatsos said last week after yet another breakfast and lunch with hardly any diners at his Village Cafe. “This is just two weeks. What if it stays for two months? How can I carry my kitchen staff for two months?”
The longest red tide on record is a 30-month marathon of misery that started in 1994. That was before social media and news reports broadcast the problem around the world.
State officials say the economic impact, compiled from surveys that have circulated for only a few weeks, is expected to worsen as the outbreak continues.
McShane, who traveled from Ellicott City, Maryland, with her parents for a week-long visit, scanned the nearly deserted beach, which reeked like a commode that hadn’t been flushed.
“Gosh, should we be out here?” she wondered. “I definitely wouldn’t go in the water. This is as close as I’m getting.”
Ten miles away at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Gretchen Lovewell and her two-woman crew responded to yet another emergency distress call.
They climbed into a pickup truck and rushed to Manasota Key Beach, an hour’s drive south, where a baby dolphin was spotted on the edge of the surf. The calf was dead, but its carcass could yield valuable tissue samples that would add to the understanding of how the toxin kills.
The red tide’s poisonous algae is a variety called Karenia brevis that is native to the Gulf of Mexico. It breaks out every year, and its neurotoxin disorients and paralyzes marine life. But in her nine-year tenure at Mote, Lovewell has never seen animals die on this scale.
As of Friday, the aquarium had recovered 19 dolphins and 239 sea turtles in Sarasota and Manatee counties alone. That did not include more than 100 manatees statewide and an untold number of fish, as well as large animals such as sharks and tarpons.
To keep up with the death toll, Lovewell has worked six-day weeks and up to 16 hours on some shifts.
More than 2,000 tons of dead marine animals have been removed from the coasts of the five hardest-hit counties, according to cleanup reports. The baby dolphin was the 13th recovered.
At the beach, an intern and part-time worker snapped on blue rubber gloves. A swarm of flies launched when they reached for the carcass. Its mouth was stuck open, tongue bloated and body stiff with rigor mortis. Blood oozed from its navel as they examined it.
“It definitely takes a toll on you, dealing with so much death,” Lovewell said. “When this is all said and done, I’m going to have to go into a room and scream and cry a little.”
By Friday night, a crowd numbering in the hundreds started pouring into the Cock and Bull Farmhouse east of Siesta Key, drawn by a Facebook post to discuss the red tide.
The organizers wanted to spread the word that the real culprit behind the tourism drop was not the algae but the pollution that feeds it.
Many residents were angry, and they pointed their fingers at Scott, the Republican governor who is campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat.
Scott has taken aggressive steps to address the outbreak, declaring a state of emergency, providing millions of dollars to help small businesses and directing his Department of Environmental Protection to partner with the Mote lab to track the algae bloom. But his detractors point to his record.
After he first took office, appointees Scott placed on boards that govern state water management districts cut $700 million from their budgets, including money for red-tide research.
“Rick Scott in my opinion has frustrated efforts to solve this problem from the beginning of his term and only got some religion on it late in the game because it finally dawned on him that this was a political issue,” said Eric Buermann, a former general counsel for the state Republican Party and former board chair of the South Florida Water Management District.
Buermann said the water district’s budget is about half of what it was under Scott’s predecessor. When Scott’s appointees cut the amount of taxes the district could collect from homeowners, he saved the average household $3 per month while slicing the authority’s revenue by $21 million.
Scott’s campaign responded Monday, saying, “Gov. Scott will never apologize for saving taxpayers money.” The campaign’s spokeswoman, Lauren Schenone, wrote in an email that Scott has proved that “you can lower taxes and grow the economy while increasing environmental protection.”
Under Scott, who cut hundreds of jobs at the department, the number of cases it opened for pollution violations plummeted from 1,600 to slightly more than 200. Schenone said the cases dropped because the environmental compliance rate reached a record 96 percent. The red tide, she emphasized, is a natural occurrence in Florida.
“I am so sick of hearing it’s a natural occurring phenomenon that I’m ready to puke,” said Andy Mele of Suncoast Waterkeeper, a nonprofit watchdog. “Yeah, it’s naturally occurring, but what happens to it is man-made. It responds to nutrients – period. Really the dynamite that lights the explosion is nutrient pollution.”
A hundred miles south on Sanibel Island, where a rare whale shark washed up dead in July, David Schuldenfrei said the red tide is killing his business.
Schuldenfrei said he was showing a very interested buyer two homes worth $7 million each, with spectacular views of the gulf. There were no dead fish or signs of algae near them.
“We got into the subject of the red tide,” he said. “It was enough to spook him.”
The buyer walked away.
“Everybody on this island has taken a hit and continues to take a hit,” Schuldenfrei said. “Hotels have had a tremendous amount of cancellations and more than a million in lost revenue.”
Over the years, scientists who study the gulf have come a long way toward perfecting the way red tides are tracked. But they are not close to figuring out how to stop or dissipate them, or redirect them from the shore, where they do the most harm. They have considered everything from dropping clay on the algae to infusing it with ozone or hydrated copper sulfate.
But those treatments could be costly – and might not work.
The solution, environmentalists say, is prevention.
“We don’t have an algae problem in Florida,” Suncoast’s Mele said. “We have a nutrient problem in the state.” The only way to stop giant algal blooms, he said, is to stop nutrients from polluting the water.