Red tide threatens coastal Southwest Florida

March 6, 2023

Red tide has been moving along Southwest Florida since October and is currently intensifying resulting in injured birds and fish kills. Our actions on land have a direct impact on water quality, making land use and water quality inextricably linked. Bad land use decisions can result in polluted waters, sick birds, and dead fish.

Southwest Florida is experiencing continued growth and development and the population has increased a staggering 10-fold during the past 50 years. Similarly, instances of harmful algae blooms have also increased in size and frequency, poisoning not just the native wildlife, but threatening the health of residents and visitors, as well. Red tide blooms, fueled by nutrients, including nutrients from human activities, put our tourism-based economy and quality of life at risk.

See the current in-depth red tide status for your county here.

This image is the Statewide Red Tide Status Map (March 3, 2023) provided by FWC. See here for more on current status.

What is Red Tide?

Red tide (Karenia brevis) is a type of algae that occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, and occasionally the Atlantic. Though each organism is very small, they can number in the billions to form a “bloom.” They also produce toxins that are released into the air and water. See here for more information.

Red tide and its effect on coastal Southwest Florida has been evident in the past week/month as we are seeing poisoned fish and sick shorebirds in the area – including three cormorants who were recently brought to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital.

Cormorants Suffer from Red Tide

All three double-crested cormorants admitted this past week exhibited signs of toxicosis associated with red tide. The cormorants were found disoriented and stumbling at various beach locations in Naples, Florida. 

Cormorant in an enclosure recovering

Treatment protocols for toxicosis patients include supplemental oxygen, electrolytes, Chinese herbs, supplements to support liver function and vitamin supplements.

One cormorant’s condition quickly deteriorated, despite immediate medical care. Sadly, the cormorant did not survive.

The remaining two cormorants have shown daily improvements in their health and eagerly ate when offered a fish diet after several days of treatment. Both continue to receive supportive care and recover in the bird room.

Tips on How to Rescue

Red tide has devastating effects on our native shore birds. If you frequent the beach, anticipate the chance that you may encounter a bird in distress.

Carry a towel and keep a ventilated box or pet crate in your car. Our wildlife hospital does not have an official rescue service and we rely heavily on help from the public. 

Rescuing a debilitated bird is not as difficult as most people expect.

Be safe; always wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from any bird with a long neck and sharp beak. Lightly cover the bird’s head and body with a towel. Keep the bird’s head covered so the bird can’t see what is going on; the darkness will help calm the bird. Gently pick up the bird and place it in the box. Remember, the bird is either injured or debilitated (weak) giving you the “upper hand” during a rescue. 

If you have questions about how to safely rescue and contain an animal, please call the wildlife hospital at 239.262.2273. We can offer tips that will keep you safe while ensuring you can offer life-saving assistance to an animal in need.

What Causes Red Tide? 

Red tides are a nearly annual occurrence along Florida’s Gulf coast. K. brevis blooms originate offshore, proliferating from both organic and inorganic nutrients. Once the bloom is carried inshore, however, anthropogenically introduced nutrients from stormwater and fertilizer runoff may contribute to the severity and duration of red tide events. 

These photos were taken on March 5th, 2023 near Venetian Bay in Naples, FL. This is a devastating look into the reality of poisoned fish due to red tide.

Nutrient pollution – excess nitrogen and phosphorous – comes from a number of sources, including fertilizer runoff, inadequately treated sewage and leaking septic tanks, as well as animal waste. Many of Florida’s waterways do not meet state water quality standards due to high levels of nutrient pollution. See here for more information.

What Can Be Done?

We are dedicated to protecting our waterways and the aquatic life that relies on clean water. Protective fertilizer ordinances and regulations regarding septic tanks, wastewater, and agricultural best management practices will help keep nutrient-laden runoff from entering our waterways in the first place.

Likewise, new developments need to have adequate measures to treat their stormwater runoff to protect adjacent waters.


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