ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The head of one of the U.S.'s largest environmental nonprofits says he was stunned Wednesday to see thousands of dead fish and devastation to other marine life from a red tide off hugging southwest Florida's Gulf Coast.
Collin O'Mara, the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, went on Wednesday with a charter boat captain in waters off Southwest Florida coast in the Sanibel Island area. He reported thousands and thousands of dead fish, eels and horseshoe crabs in the Gulf of Mexico. He also saw the carcasses of six-foot-long Goliath grouper fish.
"I was astounded by the level of carnage that we saw," said O'Mara. "Of all the disasters I've seen in the past decade, this is probably the most visual."
The toxic algae bloom has overrun Florida's southern Gulf Coast this summer. It's hugging much of Florida's peninsula, from Naples in the south to Bradenton some 150 miles north.
Red tide is a natural occurrence that happens due to the presence of nutrients in salt water and an organism called a dinoflagellate. This bloom started in November.
The last toxic bloom in the Gulf happened between 2004-2006. The algae bloom can cause breathing problems in some people, and because of the smell left behind by the dead fish, has cleared vacationers from some tourist areas.
But the main impact has been on the wildlife, and experts are concerned.
"It was actually pretty overwhelming being there," said O'Mara, who also toured another part of the state on Wednesday to look at a different algae crisis. He visited areas affected by blue-green algae, which is in freshwater.
Heavy May rains caused Lake Okeechobee to discharge water containing blue-green algae into rivers and canals. The bright green sludge oozed onto docks, dams and rivers.
People often get the two algae confused, because they're occurring simultaneously, and in some cases, in the same county.
The red tide algae in the Gulf has killed at least 452 sea turtles, nearly 100 manatees, 11 dolphins and tons of fish. County maintenance crews have had to use backhoes to scoop up all the dead marine life on the beaches.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in seven counties along Florida's Gulf that have been overrun by the pungent bloom. He also ordered $1.5 million to be spent on various clean-up efforts and to help business impacted by dwindling tourists.