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GRAPHIC: Toxic red tide off FL Gulf coast kills marine life

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Posted at 1:18 PM, Aug 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-09 13:18:00-04

OFF SANIBEL ISLAND, FL (CNN/RNN) - Red tide, a toxic algal bloom that can devastate coastlines and kill thousands of fish, has been especially bad in southwestern Florida this year.

These days, a trip off of Florida's Gulf coast brings only boatfuls of dread. Toxic algae is blooming like mad, and you can see and smell the result everywhere, on shore and off.

A dolphin sighting that would normally inspire wonder now inspires worry.

Nine dolphins have found dead since Tuesday in the Venice and Casey Key area near Sarasota, WWSB reported. Officials said the red tide is more than likely to blame for the deaths.

Three dead manatees have been found in Sarasota County in the last week, as well as loads of dead fish, all attributed to the red tide, WWSB said.

A dead Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was found Monday on Siesta Key. Scientists suspect red tide might be to blame for that death as well.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium's Stranding Investigations Program in Sarasota has recovered 137 sea turtles so far this year, most of them dead.

A visit to the marine biologists at Florida Gulf Coast University is like a visit to the morgue because more than 400 sea turtles have been found in the surrounding area alone.

"This one (was) able to breed. This one here is the juvenile," said Bob Wasno of Florida Gulf Coast University, looking at two dead sea turtles.

The algae that causes red tides occurs naturally in salt water, but human activity on land can make the situation much worse.

"Well, they love nitrogen and phosphorus," which are used in fertilizers, said Dr. Mike Parsons, red tide expert at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Generations of sugar cane farming has altered the chemistry of Lake Okeechobee and the health of the Everglades.

In wet season, Florida dumps a massive amount of water into the most delicate ecosystems.

While in dry season, that water is diverted to farms and cities, which is great for the economy, horrible for the environment.

"You have a natural phenomenon called red tide, but you have the nitrogen coming in and giving it a booster shot," said Dr. William Mitsch, a freshwater expert at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Scientists from the university are testing water up to 20 miles off shore, looking for the definitive proof that America's sugar habit is also making red tides worse.

"I think, I think we also have to realize that you know collectively we got to this point. It took 70 years, 80 years to get to where we are now, and it's going to take a while to work our way out of it," Parsons said.

On a beach that should be full of tourists are only cleanup crews, many of them unpaid volunteers.

Eric Canada, a cleanup volunteer, came all the way from Sevierville, Tenn., just to help.

"I think we are all to blame, to be honest. I think we all play a role in this one way or the other. It goes all the way up the chain and all the way down," said Thomas Ford of Crowder Gulf Disaster Management. "I just think we need to come together, figure it out and let the scientists do what they can do you know, and just try to the bottom of it."

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