Red tide has hit the Atlantic coast in South Florida, causing officials in Miami-Dade and elsewhere to immediately order that affected beaches be closed.
That’s in contrast to what happened in Manatee County in early August when red tide first slammed into Anna Maria Island and other Manatee County shorelines. The algae bloom persists in the Gulf, although conditions on Anna Maria Island on Thursday appeared significantly improved.
The difference, according to officials, is that here on the Gulf coast, we have more experience dealing with red tide and its nasty effects. The spread of the red tide to Florida’s east coast is a rare occurrence, and officials there have little experience dealing with the effects of the algae bloom.
The result: Officials along the Atlantic have been quicker to close their beaches.
“When you are dealing with a possible health crisis, and you don’t know exactly what to do, they err on the side of caution and close down first,” said Manatee County Chief of Marine Rescue Joe Westerman.
Beach closures first began in Palm Beach County on Sunday after swimmers began complaining of coughing, throat and eye irritation, symptoms commonly associated with a red tide outbreak. Beach closures followed in Miami-Dade County on Thursday when water samples showed medium concentration levels of the algae.
Red’s nasty smells, dirty water, respiratory irritations and massive fish kills never caused Manatee County to close beaches on Anna Maria Island and elsewhere.
“For red tide, the actual algae bloom itself, in my 30-year career, we have never closed unless the fish kill was so great that you couldn’t walk across it safely that we would close it then,” Westerman said. “But I cannot think of a time that we have.”
The severity of any fish kill is key because of the high levels of bacteria that might be present with decomposing fish and other marine life. Bird feces also exasperates this situation. Because beach crowds are lighter during an outbreak, there are more birds on the shore producing more feces and then the high tide or rain carries the feces and its bacteria to the already infected water.
This scenario is exactly what led to closures of other beaches south of Anna Maria Island.
While marine patrol is the first to make calls for beach closures, with a red tide bloom the health department, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the county’s emergency management and natural resource departments also get involved.
“It use to be where the beach patrol was the know all and catch all of any red tide questions, for many years,” Westerman explained. “But this past year, it really bloomed and we had a really bad outbreak but we never had the need or necessity to close the beach in this county.”
The Marine Patrol Chief posed the question others ask: Why.
“Because it’s an algae bloom. It’s not bacterial. So the beaches that closed on our coast, closed because the health department had higher levels of bacteria in the water so they made a notice to close the water at that time,” he said.
That was not the case on Thursday.
While the beach crowds were light on Coquina Beach, there were no detected smell or dead fish in sight and the water appeared clear. This has been the pattern for about five days thanks to a strong offshore breeze that has helped in pushed the bloom out.
Green flags were flying on Coquina Beach as well as on Manatee Public Beach with no reports of respiratory irritation.
But as local residents can attest, those conditions can change as quick as the winds.
But regardless off what potential health hazard may present itself, including lightning and shark sightings, lifeguards won’t hesitate to shut down beach waters, Westerman said.
“If someone has an upper respiratory issue or asthma, it is really the only real condition why they shouldn’t come to the beach,” Westerman said. “Other than eye irritant and a cough once it gets aerated in the air with a small ground swell, there’s not much more of an issue. If you get inside air-conditioning and get out of the environment, it generally goes away rather quickly.”