Piles of dead fish smothering sandy beaches. Distressed and dying sea turtles, manatees and whale sharks. Respiratory distress in children and the elderly. Tourists fleeing beaches and hotel rooms. Charter captains, restaurant servers and tourism operators laid off.
Who can forget the severity and magnitude of the massive red tide outbreak that started in 2017 and lasted well into 2018? At its peak, the bloom covered nearly 1,000 miles of Florida coastline, with an area the size of New Jersey affected in the Gulf. And, as of last month, red tide had returned, although it was less widespread and intense.
With the 2017-2018 event still so fresh in the minds of Floridians, Ocean Conservancy partnered with Florida Sea Grant to conduct a survey of state stakeholders to get a snapshot of how red tides and other harmful algal blooms are perceived. The results of our survey will be presented to the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force, reinstated by Gov. Ron DeSantis, when the task force meets in St. Petersburg this week.
And there should be little surprise that Floridians, who are deeply in tune with the beaches and waterways that are our backyards, feel that the water quality situation in the state is rapidly deteriorating, and that events such as red tide are becoming more severe and frequent.
But despite the bleak picture, our survey shows that Floridians believe that all levels of society can play a role in protecting water quality, and that state and local governments possess the right tools to alleviate the environmental and economic impacts of harmful algal blooms such as red tide.
We should permanently fund ocean observation and data collection to improve forecasting of red tide events. We should have real-time beach air quality monitoring to detect respiratory threats to people and pets and pinpoint red tide events as they are occurring. We should prioritize science, and seek to fill gaps in understanding the impact of climate change on red tide bloom frequency, intensity, and duration. We should ensure that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and local marine wildlife networks have the adequate capacity and support for response for stranded animals. And we should improve education and outreach to make sure that red tide event information is being widely and effectively broadcast.
Red tide is a naturally occurring organism, and we should never expect to be rid of it entirely. But we can lessen the impacts of severe events by responding adequately and appropriately, and by curbing potential man-made factors such as nutrient loads that contribute to the magnitude and frequency of events, especially in nearshore waters.
The task force has an opportunity this week to listen to the concerns of Floridians, and I am hopeful they will recommend actions that will improve what we know about red tides and how to mitigate their far-reaching effects.
J.P. Brooker is senior manager and policy counsel for Florida conservation for the Ocean Conservancy.