| TAMPA, Fla.
TAMPA, Fla. Aug 7 The largest red tide bloom
seen in Florida in nearly a decade has killed thousands of fish
in the Gulf of Mexico and may pose a greater health threat if it
washes ashore as expected in the next two weeks, researchers
said on Thursday.
The patchy bloom stretches from the curve of the Panhandle
to the central Tampa Bay region. It measures approximately 80
miles (130 km) long by 50 miles (80 km) wide.
Red tide occurs when naturally occurring algae bloom out of
control, producing toxins deadly to fish and other marine life.
The odorless chemicals can trigger respiratory distress in
people, such as coughing and wheezing.
"It could have large impacts if it were to move inshore,"
said Brandon Basino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). "It has been killing a
lot of marine species, especially fish, as it waits offshore."
The agency has received reports of thousands of dead fish,
including snapper, grouper, flounder, crabs, bull sharks, eel
and octopus. This is the largest bloom seen since 2006.
The phenomenon has existed for centuries, but such a large
bloom is being closely monitored in Florida because it could
impact beach tourism and commercial fishing.
A smaller red tide bloom, closer to shore, contributed last
year to a record number of deaths among Florida manatees, an
endangered sea mammal.
"I have seen analogies that equate red tide with a forest
fire," said Kellie Dixon, manager of the ocean technology
program at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.
"There is an ecosystem reset."
Researchers at that laboratory recently helped deploy two
underwater robots, nicknamed Waldo and Bass, to collect data on
the slow-moving red tide, which could linger for months or be
rapidly dispersed by a storm.
To map the bloom and try to predict its movement, state
wildlife officials also organized this week a three-day boating
expedition, sending researchers to test water samples across
2,000 square miles (5,180 sq km).
The team found evidence of red tide at the bottom of the
ocean, where it is expected to be swept by currents and carried
to land, potentially affecting beaches north and south of Tampa.
"It looks like it's coming in," said Alina Corcoran, an FWC
research scientist on the expedition, adding that the bloom
would not arrive at once. "All of southwest Florida is not
doomed. This is normal. It happens all the time."
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Scott Malone and Sandra