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Dark Tides, Ill Winds

With sickening regularity, toxic algae blooms are invading coastal waters. They kill sea life and send poisons ashore on the breeze, forcing residents to flee.

August 01, 2006|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Little Gasparilla Island, Fla. — All Susan Leydon has to do is stick her head outside and take a deep breath of sea air. She can tell if her 10-year-old son is about to get sick. If she coughs or feels a tickle in the back of her throat, she lays down the law: No playing on the beach. No, not even in the yard. Come back inside. Now.

The Leydons thought they found paradise a decade ago when they moved from Massachusetts to this narrow barrier island, reachable only by boat, with gentle surf, no paved roads and balmy air that feels like velvet on the skin.

Now, they fear that the sea has turned on them. The dread takes hold whenever purplish-red algae stain the crystal waters of Florida's Gulf Coast. The blooms send waves of stinking dead fish ashore and insult every nostril on the island with something worse.

The algae produce an arsenal of toxins carried ashore by the sea breeze.

"I have to pull my shirt up and over my mouth or I'll be coughing and hacking," said Leydon, 42, a trim, energetic mother of three who walks the beach every morning.

Her husband, Richard, a 46-year-old building contractor, said the wind off the gulf can make him feel like he's spent too much time in an overchlorinated pool. His chest tightens and he grows short of breath. His throat feels scratchy, his eyes burn, and his head throbs.

Their symptoms are mild compared with those of their son, also named Richard. He suffers from asthma and recurring sinus infections. When the toxic breeze blows, he keeps himself -- and his parents -- up all night, coughing until he vomits.

If the airborne assault goes on for more than a few days, it becomes a community-wide affliction. At homeowners' meetings, many people wear face masks.

On weekends, the Leydons escape inland. They drive three hours to Orlando so their son can play outside without getting sick. They go to a Walt Disney World resort with water slides, machine-generated currents and an imported white sand beach.

"It's a shame to leave this beautiful place and go to a water park," Richard Leydon said. "But we don't have much choice. We have to get away from it."

Harmful algae blooms have occurred for ages. Some scientists theorize that a toxic bloom inspired the biblical passage in Exodus: " ... all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt."

What was once a freak of nature has become commonplace. These outbreaks, often called red tides, are occurring more often worldwide, showing up in new places, lasting longer and intensifying.

They are distress signals from an unhealthy ocean. Overfishing, destruction of wetlands, industrial pollution and climate change have made the seas inhospitable for fish and more advanced forms of life and freed the lowliest -- algae and bacteria -- to flourish.

A scientific consensus is emerging that commercial agriculture and coastal development, in particular, promote the spread of harmful algae. They generate runoff rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients that sustain these microscopic aquatic plants. In essence, researchers say, modern society is force-feeding the oceans with the basic ingredients of Miracle-Gro.

Yet there is debate among Florida scientists over the precise causes of local outbreaks. Red tides date back at least 150 years, before the state became one of the nation's most populous. Some scientists say their increased intensity is part of a natural cycle.

People who have spent many years on Little Gasparilla Island and in other Florida Gulf Coast communities say red tides used to show up once in a decade. Now, they occur almost every year and persist for months.

Red tide announced its arrival this summer by dumping dead tarpon and goliath grouper on the beaches. Soon after, coastal residents were coughing and sneezing.

The previous bloom, which ended in mid-February, peppered Florida's western coast with its fiery breath for 13 months, stubbornly refusing to dissipate despite three hurricanes.

The culprit is a microorganism known as Karenia brevis. Each Karenia cell is a poison factory pumping out toxins collectively known as brevetoxin.

During red tides, they can be absorbed into the food chain by scallops, oysters and other popular seafood and can cause neurotoxic shellfish poisoning. The effects range from gastrointestinal illness to seizures, loss of muscle control and unconsciousness.

Brevetoxin also gets into the air. It collects on the surface of bubbles and concentrates in sea foam and on dead fish.

When the bubbles burst, brevetoxin is flung into the air and carried by the wind. If inhaled, most particles lodge in the nose and throat, but some are drawn deep into the lungs. People don't have to set foot in the ocean or even on the beach to experience a red tide. It comes to them.

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