Palm Beach County’s coastal waters are tainted with a rare toxic red tide bloom likely carried on natural currents from Florida’s west coast, authorities confirmed Monday.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said water samples taken after beachgoers complained of scratchy throats, coughing and skin irritations this past weekend tested positive for low-to-medium concentrations of red tide and the single-cell algae Karenia brevis that causes it.
It’s an unusual stain on the state’s east coast that hasn’t happened in more than a decade, and one that is hitting a region previously unscathed by the poisonous algae blooms plaguing other parts of the state.
“The bloom on the west coast was so big this year and has been there for so long, I was surprised it hadn’t made it over here sooner,” said J. William Louda, a research professor for Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “That it could be here in enough amount to cause irritations is distressing to say the least.”
Widespread beach closures followed Saturday’s reports of health concerns. Palm Beach County’s beaches will reopen Wednesday. Cities make their own decisions on beach closures.
In Lantana, where lifeguards told Police Chief Sean Scheller they felt the first scratches of red tide Friday, the beach was open but swimming was restricted.
“If you lock it down completely, you’ll just be chasing people all day,” Scheller said.
Palm Beach Public, an elementary school blocks from Palm Beach’s Midtown beach, held recess and physical education indoors Monday as a precaution. Lifeguards on Palm Beach explained to beachgoers why the beach was closed, but stayed out of towers where they were more vulnerable to winds carrying the toxin.
“It’s not something that the east coast has had to deal with,” said Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay, who is concerned about how it will affect tourism.
‘As soon as I got out of the car, I could feel it’
McKinlay’s family still lives on the west coast and has seen the results of its intense red tide.
“I’ll just pray that it doesn’t turn that way here,” she said. “I don’t think it will.”
The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg does the statewide testing for red tide. According to the county, 11 sites from the Palm Beach Inlet to the Jupiter Inlet were tested for Karenia brevis, with the highest concentrations found at the Jupiter Inlet.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which tested for blue-green algae in Jupiter and Lake Worth last week, said results would be available this week.
In Florida, the DEP handles the testing for blue-green algae, while the FWC takes the lead on red tide monitoring.
Although Louda was surprised a positive test for red tide wasn’t found earlier on the east coast, no official sources were predicting the bloom to spread and at least one recent test in Juno Beach was negative.
According to the FWC’s website, a water sample from the Juno Beach Fishing Pier taken Wednesday by the Loggerhead Marine Life Center tested negative for the presence of Karenia brevis. That result was released in a Friday report.
Forecasts from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said no “respiratory irritation associated with Karenia brevis is expected” on the east coast of Florida.
“As soon as I got out of the car, I could feel it,” said North District Ocean Rescue Supervisor Julia Leo, North District Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue. “People are experiencing it, so it’s not a shock to them. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s why I was coughing.’”
Gulf Stream, winds are the red tide carriers
Red tides are naturally occurring and have been observed in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1800s.
The bloom can reach the east coast if it gets caught in the Gulf of Mexico’s loop current and travels through the Florida Straits into the Gulf Stream — a north-moving river of warm water that skims the Palm Beach County coastline. Once in the Gulf Stream, waves can force the toxin produced by the Karenia brevis to be dispersed in the air, which is then carried by east winds to the beaches.
A press release Monday said red tide has occurred 8 previous times since 1957 off the Atlantic Coast, but did not include details of when or where.
An FWC website says that since 1972 when the transport of red tide from the west coast to the east was first identified, seven previous instances have been documented. Those include 1990, 1997, 1999 and 2006. In 2007, a red tide bloom near Jacksonville traveled south with a nearshore current.
“It’s unusual, but it’s not unheard of for it to end up on the east coast,” said Richard Stumpf, a NOAA oceanographer who studies harmful algae blooms and their movement. “The reason it’s rare is you have to have the bloom and an east wind. It’s a combination of things that have to happen.”
Stumpf said he’s monitoring satellite images of the state and doesn’t see any clear evidence of red tide on the east coast. High concentrations of red tide can appear brown in the water.
“There’s nothing I can pin down and say, ‘Oh, there it is,’” Stumpf said. “Our best guess is it’s piled along the edge of the Gulf Stream and it’s really hard to see that.”
Respiratory problems are common
For most people the affects of red tide are temporary. They can include a scratchy throat, itchy eyes and respiratory problems.
Jupiter Medical Center physician Joseph A. Giaimo, who is board certified in pulmonary medicine, recommended people leave the beach and get into an air-conditioned car or building. He said there are bigger concerns for people with asthma, or who have a compromised immune system.
“If symptoms are persistent, in rare cases they may have to take anti-inflammatory medications,” Giaimo said.
A red tide bloom on the west coast that began a year ago led to massive fish kills from Sarasota to Collier counties this summer. It also killed multiple manatees, turtles and dolphins on the west coast.
Susan Neel, director of FWC’s community relations office, said the concentrations found in the Palm Beach County tests are lower than what was found on the west coast. She said red tides are typically shorter and less intense on the east coast.
“Once it’s there, it’s there,” said Stumpf. “The waves will not break up the bloom, but the cells get broken and create an aerosol out of the toxin.”