The Red Tide in Florida: What Have We Done?

I felt the deepest dismay on my recent trip to Sanibel Island, in South Florida on the Gulf Coast. We stayed near the water and I was so looking forward to walking down to the beach. That first morning, it was great to see the water and hear the surf.

Yet the beaches were deserted. Odd, I thought. Is it because the beaches here are so stark? Not a leaf of shade, a flatness to the terrain. In late August the brick wall of humidity is fierce. I grew up in St. Louis so I know humidity, but the humidity in South Florida is…dystopian.

Then the smell hit me. The harsh foul odor of death – literally. I knew what caused it, but I found myself wanting to deny it. I looked across the beach and didn’t see it, and thought, No, what I’ve heard is an exaggeration. I’m relieved the reports were overblown.

Even as the stench assaulted us, I still thought I wouldn’t see actual proof. I guess I just didn’t want it to be true.

Then I walked down to the water’s edge. There it was. A long, wide row of dead fish. Marine life of every kind, eels, fish big and small, strange-looking creatures I didn’t recognize. One silvery fish had a strangely open mouth like death had shocked it. The decaying creatures lay in gross tangled piles on top of one another, as if some plague had swept the Gulf.

It’s called the Red Tide. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what’s going on, but it appears that algae in the water produces neurotoxins. This happens every year, with some years having longer Red Tides. It’s exacerbated by unnaturally warm weather (global warming) and fertilizer runoff with high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen.

In the late morning I saw teams of workers in small vehicles going down the beach, wearing masks like in a sci-fi movie. They slowly gathered the devastated creatures into huge buckets.

Once I saw how bad it was I could hardly believe it. The row of dead fish swept up and down the entire length of beach as far as I could see.

Naturally, tourism has collapsed. Who wants to go to the Gulf coast of Florida when the beaches are toxic? I later read that lifeguards in populated areas are wearing face masks. (Humans are swimming in this?)

We hear so much about environmental degradation and global warming, we know it’s all around us. Still, it can seem distant. As we rush about our daily lives we don’t always smell it, see it, feel it.

But standing over that vast swath of devastation and smelling the putrid funk…this was degradation on a mass scale. Something has finally broken. A once balanced system has been so overwhelmed that it’s collapsing.

The fish cannot live in the sea. Looking at that small open-mouthed dead fish that stared out in mute horror, I wondered: God, what have we done?

Echoing that moment, as I flew back to California and the plane approached the Bay Area, I saw the haze from the now annual forest fires. A noxious gray screen seemed to cover everything. I’ve smelled it in the air in the last few years, sometimes very noticeably. This will only get worse, experts say, due to climate change.

Again, I have to ask, What have we done?