terized as one of the worst red tide episodes on record,that scientists ﬁrst identiﬁed
as the toxicorganism responsible for Florida red tides.
How Red Tides Affect Marine Life
toxins, called “brevetoxins,” primarilyaffect the nervous system of ﬁshes, causing death byparalyzing the nerves and effectively suffocating the ﬁsh.
can become lethal to ﬁsh at concentrationsgreater than 100,000 cells per liter. This organism hasbeen implicated in the mortality of marine mammals,birds, and invertebrates during red tides such as the onethat occurred in 1996.Although
red tides can kill thousands oreven millions of ﬁsh, there is no evidence that they causepermanent damage to marine ﬁsh and invertebratepopulations. The impact of a red tide often appears tobe short-lived, and ﬁshermen have reported bettercatches of some species, such as crabs, in the monthsfollowing an outbreak. This may occur because the redtide organism has killed speciﬁc predators, allowingcertain prey species to survive in greater numbers, orbecause red tides introduce more food into the system.Thus, although large numbers of ﬁsh may be killed bya bloom, other species may benefit. Indeed, theecosystem currently in the Gulf of Mexico is composedof populations that are the product of an environmentthat has included red tides, storms, and otherdisturbances for probably thousands of years.Slow-moving ﬁsh, unable to ﬂee from the path ofred tides, are usually the ﬁrst to die, along with territorialor bottom-dwelling ﬁsh. Nearly all ﬁsh are susceptible,especially if the bloom is dense or prolonged. Inverte-brates are usually not killed by red tide toxins, althougha greater variety of animals, including snails and crabs,may be killed if the bloom is severe enough.Bivalve shellﬁsh such as clams and oysters, whichfeed by ﬁltering plant matter from the water, may ingest
and, consequently, become toxic to consumers.Even when
concentrations are only slightlyabove normal, these ﬁlter-feeders may become toxic ifthey are exposed to low levels of toxin long enough.In southwest Florida in 1996, an unprecedentedevent of 149 manatee deaths was ﬁnally linked to a redtide bloom that had extended into winter. As a result,both the bloom and the manatees were present at thesame time in one of the manatee wintering areas. Redtide toxin was found in the organs and stomach contentsof manatee carcasses. Given the results of detailedexamination of the carcasses, scientists hypothesizedthat these animals died quickly after being exposed tolarge quantities of toxin. Additional manatees died inthe winter of 1982 and in recent years during red tideevents; these animals also showed signs of exposureto red tide toxin.
How Red Tides Affect People
The greatest threat to humans posed by
redtides is through consumption of bivalve shellﬁsh thathave been contaminated with the red tide toxin. Atpresent, no humans have died from eating taintedclams, mussels, oysters, or coquinas, but some peoplehave become seriously ill with an ailment calledNeurotoxic Shellﬁsh Poisoning (NSP). Symptoms includenausea, diarrhea, tingling of ﬁngers and toes, andsometimes a reversal of sensations—hot seems cold andcold seems hot. Illness occurs within a few minutes toseveral hours after consumption of the shellﬁsh. NSPis often confused with a more dangerous and commonlyknown shellﬁsh poisoning called Paralytic ShellﬁshPoisoning (PSP). PSP is caused by other dinoﬂagel-lates that produce an entirely different set of symptomsin humans.As part of a routine shellﬁsh management plan, theFlorida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Servicescloses harvesting areas when shellﬁsh beds arethreatened by a bloom. The harvesting ban is lifted onlyafter meat from shellﬁsh passes a laboratory test for thetoxin. Generally, most bivalves can purge the toxin fromtheir systems within two to six weeks after the red tidedissipates. The shellﬁsh harvesting bans do not applyto shrimp, crabs, or lobsters because the edible parts ofthese and other crustacean shellﬁsh do not becometoxic when the animals are exposed to Florida red tides.Fish caught during
red tides are safe to eatif they are ﬁlleted. However, at any time, experts adviseagainst eating a ﬁsh that appears sick or lethargic.People can also be affected by airborne toxins.Wave action breaks apart the red tide cells, and thetoxins, associated with particles in the sea spray, causesneezing, coughing, and general respiratory irritation.
The red tide bloom of 1946–47 is estimated to have killed 500 million ﬁsh.