Dead fish littered Deerfield Beach today.EXPAND
Dead fish littered Deerfield Beach today.
Photo by Wendy Rhodes

Red Tide May Have Already Hit Broward County UPDATED

Update: Miami-Dade County confirmed early Thursday morning that red tide had been confirmed south of Broward, making it virtually certain the dead fish and smell in Deerfield and Fort Lauderdale was indeed the toxic algae.

Red tide was confirmed in Palm Beach County earlier this week, and all day Wednesday it seemed the deadly algae bloom had moved south to Broward County. Officials in Deerfield Beach, the county's northernmost outpost, say that test results were planned for release at 4 p.m., but by 6 p.m. they had still not been announced. City officials say they will post the results on Facebook, Twitter, and the city's website.

But some locals say official confirmation is just a formality. Along Deerfield and Fort Lauderdale Beach, seaweed was entangled with scores of dead fish. Beachgoers coughed and complained of scratchy throats. Even taking a deep breath felt like something heavy was sitting on one's chest.

Melissa Heinlein, age 36, was vacationing in Deerfield from Minnesota with her aunt, husband, and two children who are three-and-a-half years old and ten months old. The ten-month-old baby coughed as Heinlein cuddled him to her chest and shaded him with a baby blanket when a reporter approached.

Heinlein says she had heard of red tide, a toxic algae bloom that can either be naturally occurring or human-influenced, typically from fertilizer overflow, but thought it was limited to the Gulf Coast. Told it has been found in Palm Beach and that Deerfield Beach expecting the results from red tide testing today, she was startled. “Oh, no!” she says. “Come to think of it, I actually have been coughing.”

A beautiful afternoon at Deerfield Beach was tainted by the coughing and burning throats of beachgoers.EXPAND
A beautiful afternoon at Deerfield Beach was tainted by the coughing and burning throats of beachgoers.
Photo by Wendy Rhodes

If the report is positive for red tide, Heinlein says, “I’d probably be less enthusiastic about coming back.”

The initial confirmation of red tide just north of Deerfield Beach came after a sample taken on Sunday, September 30 in Palm Beach County was verified as red tide this past Monday, October 1, according to Deborah Drum, department director of Palm Beach County Environmental Resource Management.

“This all came about very suddenly,” Drum says, adding that the county had closed several beaches along its 47 miles of shoreline. “We’re trying to get organized to find out what the sampling protocol is going to look like.”

Vanda Wardell, age 46, of Fort Lauderdale, knew something was wrong last Friday when she went to visit friends at the beach on Galt Ocean Mile. “From the minute we got out of the car, we started coughing and noticed others were coughing, too,” Wardell says.

She didn’t think much about it after the coughing subsided when she returned home, but when she experienced the same symptoms at the same beach the following day, she became suspicious.

Wardell put a note on her local Nextdoor app and found that others in the vicinity of Galt Ocean Mile were experiencing similar symptoms. They also complained about a bad smell and seeing dead fish.

Red Tide May Have Already Hit Broward County UPDATED (3)EXPAND
Photo by Wendy Rhodes

Mayor William Ganz criticized the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is analyzing the city's water samples. “FWC has been completely uncooperative with the City of Deerfield Beach," he says. 

Ganz says city officials were stuck for hours in front of their computers pressing the refresh buttons over and over, trying to obtain the results. "They are not giving us any information other than telling us to check their website, and now they’ve informed us that results may not be back until Friday," he says around 6 p.m. "Probably one of the worst bureaucracies we’ve ever dealt with.”

Part of the delay may be due to the influx of cities requesting water testing. “This thing is just sort of exploding on the east coast [of Florida],” Drum says.

While Drum says that nothing can be done to stop the red tide, county officials will close beaches and issue advisories as needed to protect public health. “We’re going to keep our eye on the situation, especially with the symptoms people are experiencing along the beaches,” she says.

Red tide is fairly common in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which carries large amounts of agricultural runoff. But they are not as common on Florida’s east coast.

“Red tides are rare in this area, but they have happened,” says Nicole Sharp, Natural Resources Administrator at the Broward County Environmental Planning and Community Resilience Division.

Red Tide May Have Already Hit Broward County UPDATED (4)EXPAND
Photo by Wendy Rhodes

Sharp said that out of the 57 algae blooms that have originated in the Gulf of Mexico since they have been keeping records, nine have made their way to Florida’s east coast.

The toxic fumes caused by red tide can cause itchy, burning throats and coughing in humans. Red tide can emit an unpleasant odor and taint the water color a brownish-red, green or purple.

Sharp explained that the red tide we are seeing on the east coast began in the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s west coast. It made its way south through the loop current in the Straits of Florida, around the southern perimeter of the state, and then north into the Gulf Stream.

Dead and dying sea creatures are one of the first indicators of red tide and have caused concern about the potential effect of red tide on sea-turtle-hatching season.

“Red tide produces a neurotoxin that affects the nervous system of fish and sea turtles, and once they lose that function, these animals end up dying,” Sharp says.

Fortunately, Sharp says there have been no reports of the 2,601 sea turtle nests being affected so far. Sea turtle hatching season runs from July through the end of October, and fortunately, most of the eggs have already hatched. But now the turtles are in the water, where the toxic effects of red tide are even more dangerous. “It’s almost a stunning, and then they become weak and paralyzed and just die,” Sharp says.

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