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Nearly 300 Sea Turtles Dead as Red Tide Plagues Southwest Florida

Nesting Kemp's ridley sea turtle. They are the rarest species of sea turtle and is critically endangered. NPS

Hundreds of sea turtles have washed up dead along the southwest Florida coast as an ongoing red tide event persists in the waters.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has logged 287 sea turtle deaths since the virulent algal bloom started in October, the Associated Press reported.


That figure is twice the average number of turtle deaths in those waters each year, Allen Foley of the commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute told the AP on Thursday.

Foley explained that the turtles get sick and die when their food gets contaminated by toxic bloom.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The most vulnerable species affected include loggerhead and Kemp's ridley sea turtles, both of which are federally protected, the AP reported.

Researchers told the Fort Myers News-Press that the mortality event could impact the recovery of the protected species. Kelly Sloan, a sea turtle researcher at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said her organization has picked up 91 sea turtles since the bloom started.

"Most of them have been mature adults, and only 1 in 1,000 make it to adulthood," Sloan told the paper. "It takes a loggerhead 25 to 30 years to mature, so that really does have a significant impact on their recovery."

The fate of the Kemp's ridley could be even worse. The species is considered the world's most endangered marine turtle.

The red tide, which is caused by the Karenia brevis organism, is a natural phenomenon but some have pointed fingers at climate change, as well as mining and agricultural practices that can cause excess nutrients to flush into the waters.

"Toxic algae blooms like this occur naturally, but they have grown in frequency and intensity in recent years. While the causes are subject to some debate, the likely culprits are a combination of elevated water temperatures from climate change, increased nutrient load from Big Sugar, phosphate mines and other sources, and some bad decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers," Greenpeace Oceans Campaign director John Hocevar said in a press release.

Besides sea turtles, Greenpeace said that the red tide has harmed other types of marine life as well as people in the region who have reported respiratory problems. Red tide blooms can cause human health concerns when they are ingested from eating contaminated seafood or inhaled when the toxins are aerosolized.

"Greenpeace supporters in Southwest Florida just contacted us about a devastating toxic algae bloom stretching across several counties. Fish, sea turtles, pelicans, sharks, and even manatees are washing up dead, and many people are reporting respiratory problems. Local businesses are struggling," Hocevar said.

Greenpeace is urging greater attention to this environmental and potential public health threat.

"More must be done for Southwest Florida, and with urgency. The health and well-being of people and the environment must be prioritized over corporate interests like Big Sugar in the region," Hocevar said.

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