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Red tide algae strikes Coast, poses health concerns, officials say

By WESLEY MULLER

wmuller@sunherald.com

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WESLEY MULLER/SUN HERALD 
 Dead marine life covers nearly every yard of sand along Biloxi's shoreline Saturday as a rare toxic algae bloom, which scientists believe could be the worst in history for the area, shut down all beaches and oyster reefs in Mississippi.
WESLEY MULLER/SUN HERALD Dead marine life covers nearly every yard of sand along Biloxi's shoreline Saturday as a rare toxic algae bloom, which scientists believe could be the worst in history for the area, shut down all beaches and oyster reefs in Mississippi.

BILOXI -- The algae blooms that shut down all beaches and oyster reefs in Mississippi on Friday could be the worst in history, scientists are saying.

LaDon Swann, a marine scientist with the Gulf Coast Research Lab and director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, is closely monitoring the toxic algae blooms from Mobile, where beaches and oyster reefs have been closed for about a month.

"This is the worst one we've had in awhile," Swann said of the algae blooms in the Mississippi Sound. "I think for Alabama, it's the worst they've ever had."

Officials with Mississippi's departments of Marine Resources and Environmental Quality said all beaches and oyster reefs along the Coast would remain closed until further notice as the rare algae blooms moved into Mississippi and Louisiana waters.

Algal concentrations, measured in cells per liter of water, must reach 5,000 cells per liter to cause oyster reef closures. Water samples taken Saturday in some areas in Mississippi held concentrations of more than 1 million cells per liter, DMR Chief Scientific Officer Kelly Lucas said.

"This is very uncommon," she said. "We have had a bloom before, in the 1990s, but I don't think we've ever had cell counts that high.".

Graham said he's never seen readings at that level in the more than 20 years he's worked in the northern Gulf.

"There is certainly cause for concern," he said. "You start getting worried when you get into the 10,000s and 100,000s (of cells per liter). At the million mark, people even onshore, especially people with asthma, may start feeling the negative effects of it."

Anglers should refrain from harvesting dead or distressed fish. People with allergies or respiratory problems should avoid the beaches and immediate coastal areas, Lucas said.

Alabama began struggling with the problem about a month ago. The algae blooms, which scientists call red tide, have been moving west for several months, Swann said.

Marine scientists at DMR and the University of South Mississippi agreed the blooms are quickly becoming the worst red tide ever recorded in the Mississippi Sound and possibly the northern waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Monty Graham, director of USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab and chairman of the Marine Science Department at NASA's Stennis Space Center, said red tide blooms consist of high concentrations of single-celled phytoplankton that normally live in the warm, salty waters of South Florida. South Mississippi's recent warm weather and low rainfall amounts are some of the factors allowing the algae to maintain a foothold in the more-brackish waters along the Coast.

Graham said the waters of South Mississippi and south Alabama could remain under siege for a month or longer if climatic conditions do not improve.

Oceanographers at Stennis Space Center have deployed "cutting-edge" equipment to monitor Gulf currents, and predict the algae will remain in the area at least until Tuesday -- the maximum forecast available, Graham said.

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