Beware of the Red Tide

The Gulf of Mexico provides a dazzling coastline for many southern states including Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. When compared to California and Florida, the Lone Star State of Texas may not be first choice of coastline beaches. However, Texas claims to grasp tourism and attention due to the vast majority of nature and mouthwatering food. Along with outstanding food selection, recreational activities typically take place along the Texas coast, causing large masses of people to gather and enjoy the beautiful scenery. The not so fortunate side of nature occurs when harmful organisms place the coast in a state of danger, affecting tourism and food selections. Not only can the food become contaminated, but also the water itself becomes toxic to drink, swim in, or house marine life effectively. Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are the names of such organisms, and they pose a great danger to humans, marine life, tourism, and the gulf coast safety in general. Many tourists and citizens are unaware of the threat that HABs can have, therefore, awareness about these potentially harmful organisms should be raised to the public.

Large bodies of water are typically described as oligotrophic or eutrophic, and sometimes even as mesotrophic (RMB, 2016). In a perfect world, oligotrophic bodies of water would mask eutrophic water. An oligotrophic body of water contains higher oxygen than nutrient levels (RMB, 2016). The higher oxygen concentration levels maintain healthy, clear water, and keep the plants and fish alive with many resources, such as oxygen. The water found there is usually safe to drink with low toxicity. In contrast, a eutrophic body of water describes higher nutrient than oxygen concentration (RMB, 2016). When the nutrient level rises above the oxygen level, much of the marine life die off due to suffocation with no oxygen resources. Harmful Algal Blooms thrive in these eutrophic bodies of water, due to an over-abundance of contamination caused by high nutrient levels (RMB, 2016). A happy medium between the two trophic levels is known as mesotrophic levels. Mesotrophic areas are usually ideal for fishing with a stable nutrient level. Algae can grow in mesotrophic water. However, too much nutrient production is restricted, ensuring no HABs (RMB, 2016).

HABs are a huge problem internationally, but they cause a threat to the local state of Texas as well. As described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), HABs are generally referred to as an overgrowth of algae in the water (EPA, 2016). Some of the algae produce dangerous toxins in both fresh and marine water, which is where problems arise (EPA, 2016). Millions of different microorganisms can be involved in one large mass, creating these HABs. In general terms, many people refer to this over-contamination of the water as red tide. In a red tide event, Karenia brevis (a planktonic marine dinoflagellate) organisms undergo tremendous growth in a large mass, producing a reddish-brown discoloration of the water (Texas Department of State Health Services 2016). This particular HA produces brevetoxins, which can pose a major threat to humans and marine life, alike.

With the brevetoxins and their chemical makeup, HABs can be dangerous. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS), brevetoxins produced by red tide are lethal to fish and can cause respiratory problems for people in the area of the bloom (TDSHS, 2016). The threat doesn’t end there, as people can also contract Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP) if consumed, and a variety of other illnesses mentioned later (TDSHS, 2016). Since K. brevis produces at least two heat-stable toxins that affect sodium transport in the autonomic nervous system, cooking will not eliminate the toxin (TDSHS, 2016). Therefore, red tide not only causes paralysis of fish gills, suffocation, and death for the marine animals, but it also maintains the risk of poisoning in humans.

How exactly can the organisms affect human kind, and how dangerous is the threat? Humans can contract an acute or long-term illness when exposed to HABs by drinking infected water, eating infected seafood, or even by residing in the infected area (Walker, 2015). The short-term acute effects from HABs include rashes, liver inflammation, dermatitis, numbness, and many other irritant effects (Walker, 2015). Unfortunately, there have been documented long-term effects such as poisoning, tumor formation, cardiac arrhythmia, and liver failure (Walker, 2015). It is a scary thought that such harmful organisms reside in the very water that used for tourism, recreational activity, and daily needs. Humans can prevent most cases, but marine life has no choice on if they come into contact with HABs or not.

The potential long-term effects from the consumption of diseased fish pose an extreme hazard to humans, the poisoning section in particular. According to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (UNESCO), diseases and syndromes from the consumption of contaminated seafood often attack people around the coast (UNESCO). Contaminated seafood can potentially cause any of the five human syndromes: Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP), Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP), Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP), Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP), and Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) (UNESCO). If any of the above illnesses are in question, the consumer should seek medical attention immediately, due to potential deadly consequences. Both PSP and ASP are life-threatening diseases, with no known 100% treatment at the time (UNESCO). They viciously attack the neurological components in the human brain, potentially feeding lethal consequences. Although CFP, DSP, and NSP are typically not life threatening, they cause severe gastrointestinal and small neurological disturbances (UNESCO). The five known syndromes that can be caused from consumption of infected seafood are much dreaded and not very well known.

Gary Heideman, member of the Seafood and Aquatic Life Group for TDSHS provided helpful insight as to how these awful HABs are currently affecting the Texas Gulf. He answered the primary question of how HABs affect everyday life for citizens involved.

“Some types of HABs such as the red tide organism Karenia brevis causes respiratory irritation when these cells are in high enough concentrations. The cells will be broken apart by the wave action along a beach and the toxins will become airborne (aerosol) that can cause respiratory distress. When fish get exposed to high concentrations of the red tide organisms they suffocate and die. Therefore, it can be unpleasant to enjoy the beaches not to mention the stench of dead and dying fish” (Heideman, 2016).

His experience and knowledge supported the scientific facts, and enforced the idea that certain classes of HABs can be dangerous, but K. brevis typically provides more of a threat than other HABs.

How exactly can these scary toxins be transferred? According to the Gulf Base, algal toxins can be transferred through the food web where they can kill higher forms of life. These forms include shellfish, fish, birds, marine animals, and even humans through filtration from the water by shellfish such as clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops (GulfBase, 2004). The scariest part about these organisms is that they can be transferred in a variety of ways besides through the food web of death. During a typical algae bloom, HAB toxins often must be transported in the water column to connect with humans and animals (Walker 2015). Transport can occur through wind, currents, diffusion, or degrade into the natural environment through biological interactions (Walker 2015). The largest risk area for exposure is via the recreational waters (Walker 2015). Since the Texas coast is primarily home to recreational activity weather permitting, when red tide occurs, people must maintain awareness and clear the area.

In a study focused on Corpus Christi Bay, Turner and associates researched the baseline nutrient dynamics in this shallow well-mixed coastal lagoon with seasonal HABs (Turner et. al, 2015). This study contained two testing stations along the southern shoreline, which were sampled weekly for a whole year. The data was compared to that of a dry year, and they found that the seasonal occurrences of HABs were found to begin in November, and low oxygen starting in June (Turner et. al, 2015). Not straying far from the hypothesis, the chlorophyll-a values were seasonally trending, just as expected, not being harmed by any environmental effects (Turner et. al, 2015). Corpus Christi remains clean throughout the majority of the year, but when November hits, the seasonal HAB attack typically begins. In a dry year, the effect of HAB is near the same, which means that the environmental weather doesn’t determine growth of HABs (Turner et. al, 2015).

Charity Ward, an Undergrad Marine Biologist at the University of Texas A&M Corpus Christi endures the typical red tide event yearly. Since Ms. Ward has first hand experience with the coastal area in Texas, her responses were taken very seriously. When asked to discuss if and how red tide affects her life she responded:

“Yes, red tide does affect the Texas coast. Between August and December alone there were two instances where the waters in Corpus were affected. When there are red tide events, it affects me because it almost feels like you’re sick, making you cough and get itchy, watery eyes. The precautions I take are to stay away from both consuming seafood and vacationing to the beach during red tide. The sad part is that many people around this area aren’t as concerned or as aware as they should be.” (Ward, 2016)

Finally, the less dangerous aspect of HABs affecting life is the economic view. The tourism aspect is one that impacts the economy greatly, and decides how much activity is drawn to the gulf. In 2000, a red tide event on the Texas coast (Galveston) cost a maximum total impact approximately at $18.45 million in sales, 426 jobs, and $12.4 million in total added value (Evans and Jones, 2001). The deficit included losses to the tourism industry, harvesting, commercial fisheries, cleanup fees, and other appropriate expenses (Evans and Jones, 2001). Such alarming statistics cause extreme questioning as to whether or not the economy can handle such deficits. In an attempt to justify why such economic rules are followed, Hoagland and Scatasta suggested that the economy and scientific concerns are very different. While scientists focus on the changes in the ecosystem, economists focus on the changing patterns of human activities or resource uses resulting from a natural hazard (Hoagland and Scatasta, 2006). For example, if concentrations are too high or in the red tide state, commercial and recreational fishermen cannot harvest or sell shellfish (Hoagland and Scatasta, 2006). The fishermen and harvesters experience economic loss during the HAB, while consumers experience an economic gain by avoiding poisoning (Hoagland and Scatasta, 2006). The different views by economists and scientists are very interesting, and revolve around the main priorities of each group. While the economist strives to compete, the scientist strives to maintain safety for all levels of organisms. The scientific concern is obviously of greater importance to the general public, and the economic view has to shrink beneath it.

The red tide events strongly affect the tourism there, as well as the satisfaction from the guests. Roxy Vaughan, Norman resident, recalled memories from 2012. During break, she traveled to Galveston Beach on the Texas coast with her family. Without warning or notice, they arrived to an infected shore. Quickly her vacation turned sour. The coast warned visitors of the unfortunate contamination with HABs, however, they gave no indication as to whether or not it would clear out before break was over. Roxy recalls the horrible break:

“I will never go back to Galveston. I was unaware of what was going on down there before traveling, and I wish they would have some type of warning. We went to shore regardless of the warnings, and came across a coast of dead, foul-smelling, fish washed to shore. I will never go back, and I think that those who aren’t aware of HABs should be informed in land-locked states (Vaughan, 2016).

Based on Roxy’s experience at Galveston, the awareness to those who aren’t directly involved in HAB areas need to be strengthened. I’m sure many encounter similar events as her family did, and there’s really no way around this deterring tourists from the area, except to raise awareness.

Now that the basics of HABs are covered, how will this problem affect future generations any differently? The answer to that question lies deep beneath the surface, which is avoided in general discussion with many scientists. In a scientific study, members of Centers for Oceans and Human Health researched the impact of the climate and future climate change on harmful algal blooms and human health. For marine and freshwater, increasing concentrations of CO2 gases are expected to increase surface temperatures, lowering the pH, and causing mixing, upwelling, precipitation, and evaporation patterns (Moore et. al, 7). Although the ecological study is very strong, the potential consequences of the HABs have received little attention and are not well understood (Moore et. al, 7). They believe that given the increase in HABs as time moves forward, greater problems may result from climate change and acidification (Moore et. al, 7). Accurate predictions will require much more time and understanding of HAB physiology and ecology in order to determine the impact it may have on human health (Moore et. al, 7). Due to the continuing climate change, continued research on HABs is definitely necessary, and will be able to help to future residents along the coast to better prepare for “outbreaks.”

Heideman also added in that “Our state has had multiple affects from HABs around the state. Since I’ve been working here our group has experienced 24 HAB events. We have had 10 major HAB events and the rest have been somewhat localized atypical bloom events (Heideman, 2016).”

Therefore, the HABs that occur along the Texas Gulf are monitored throughout the year, and each event that occurs is documented and researched accordingly. The future is unknown, but backed by science. If nothing is done differently, the HAB trend will continue to cause problems worldwide.

In conclusion, Harmful Algal Blooms remain a threat to both marine and human life. This problem exists whether the common society knows about it or not, and it can cause many different illnesses. Due to the lack of complete knowledge on red tides, some of the science involved and the effects are left as a guessing game. Not only do the HABs affect ecology, but they also corrupt the economy. These organisms can be transferred in a variety of ways that make it hard to avoid contamination if left uninformed. Water is a main resource, and something needs to be done to limit the HABs. Due to the great risk of irritation, poisoning, and illness, people must remain aware, updated, and safe from contamination.




Works Cited

Evans, Garen, and Lonnie Jones. “Economic Impact of the 2000 Red Tide on Galveston County, Texas. A Case Study.” Department of Agricultural Economics. Texas A&M University, (2001) Texas Gov. Web. 5 March 2016.

GulfBase. Resource Database for Gulf of Mexico Research. Harmful Algal Blooms, 2004. Web. 5 March 2016.

Heideman, Gary. Personal Interview. 6 March 2016

Hoagland, P, and S. Scatasta. “The Economic Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms.” SpringerLinkBooks. Biomedical and Life Sciences vol. 189 (2006): 392-393. Web. 5 March 2016.

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. Harmful Algal Bloom Programme. “What are Harmful Algae?” (n.d.) Web. 5 March 2016.

Moore, Stephanie, Vera Trainer, Nathan Mantua, Micaela Parker, Edward Laws, Lorraine Backer, and Lora Fleming. “Impacts of Climate Variability and Future Climate Change on Harmful Algal Blooms and Human Health. BioMed Central. Environmental Health (2008): 7. Web. 5 March 2016.

RMB Environmental Laboratories, INC. “Lake Trophic States,” 2016. Web. 5 March 2016.

Texas Department of State Health Services. Harmful Algal Blooms – Seafood and Aquatic Life, 2016. Web. 5 March 2016.

Turner, Evan, Bhanu Paudel, and Paul Montagna. “Baseline Nutrient Dynamics in Shallow Well Mixed Coastal Lagoon with Seasonal Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Formation.” Marine Pollution Bulletin vol. 96,1-2 (2015): 456-462. Web. 5 March 2016.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Harmful Algal Blooms, 2016. Web. 5 March 2016.

Vaughan, Roxy. Personal Interview. 6 March 2016.

Walker, Harold W. “Toxin Properties, Toxicity, and Health Effects.” Harmful Algae Blooms in Drinking Water: Removal of Cyanobacterial Cells and Toxins. Boca Raton: CRC Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. 27-29. Web. 5 March 2016.

Ward, Charity. Personal Interview. 5 March 2016.

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