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Science & Environment

Tons Of Dead Fish Washing Ashore On Florida Beaches


Many of Florida's beaches are not going to be pretty this Labor Day weekend. Florida's west coast is being plagued by a toxic algae bloom called red tide. Earlier this month, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in several Florida counties because of this. Hundreds of tons of dead fish are washing up on the beaches. It's also killing endangered sea turtles, dolphins and manatees. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.


GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On Coquina Beach in Bradenton, a tractor towing a motorized beach rake is out early many mornings picking up dead fish deposited by the tide. Ray Cook, who lives nearby, was out for a run on the beach recently with his wife, Nora.

RAY COOK: Today, I think we've seen more today than what we've seen in the last week.

ALLEN: It's a grim sight. And if the winds are right, Cook says the red tide brings a pungent odor that causes respiratory irritation. As for going in the water...

COOK: Well, I would hold off right now myself, personally, 'cause, I mean, I know even sometimes - when we've run, you can actually - it'll affect your breathing a little bit, you know?

ALLEN: The red tide bloom started last November and shows no signs of dissipating. At the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Gretchen Lovewell says her strandings investigation team has stayed busy responding to reports of distressed dolphins, manatees and other wildlife.

GRETCHEN LOVEWELL: So we've had, you know, 145 in just over a month. For our sea turtles, just a handful of those have come in alive. Most of those are unfortunately dead.

ALLEN: That includes threatened and endangered species like green and Kemp's ridley sea turtles. Red tide is also believed responsible for the deaths of dozens of dolphins and more than a hundred manatees. This week, Mote Marine responded to the stranding of two animals rarely seen close to shore - pygmy killer whales. Lovewell says because they mostly eat squid and stay far out in the Gulf, they usually aren't affected by red tide. But both killer whales, nicknamed Thunder and Lightning, are very sick. Lovewell says so far, Thunder has responded better to treatment.

LOVEWELL: Lightning's still receiving quite a bit of supportive care, still needs to be - you know, have some help in the water, so, you know, we're very, very guarded.

ALLEN: Lovewell is skeptical red tide is to blame, but can't say for sure. Although red tide is naturally occurring, the intensity of this outbreak has many in Florida questioning whether decades of pollution from agriculture and coastal runoff is a contributing factor. Along with red tide, Florida's also grappling with another toxic algae bloom. Blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee has flowed down rivers and canals to the state's east and west coasts. And that bloom is clearly related to nutrient pollution. Concerned about the impact red tide is having on fish stocks, yesterday, Florida said only catch-and-release fishing is being allowed for snook and redfish on the state's west coast. Lovewell says she's worried how this prolonged red tide event may affect already stressed populations of manatees and sea turtles.

LOVEWELL: Anytime you're picking up, you know, multiple threatened and endangered species a day, you worry about what that means for the rest of them that are out there.

ALLEN: Red tide is also taking an economic toll in southwest Florida, discouraging beachgoers and fishing as communities dependent on tourism head into the busy Labor Day weekend. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.