By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
The instincts of local fishermen and surfers have proven correct as waters all along South Padre Island have tested positive for the presence of red tide.
Looking at the surf from the roof of the UTRGV Coastal Studies Laboratory Monday afternoon, dark rust-tinted shadows colored the water along the horizon, while lines of the toxic algae could be seen in vast streaks between the sandbars off of Beach Access #6 on Tuesday.
As of Wednesday, Sept. 23, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) was reporting an increase in concentration from low levels on Monday to moderate levels by Tuesday along Beach Access #6. Concentration levels have also increased from background to low levels in the Laguna Madre and Brazos Santiago Pass. A fish kill was also reported near Beach Access #5 this week.
Speaking from the UTRGV Coastal Studies Laboratory while analyzing water samples Monday, County Extension Agent Tony Reisinger explained that red tide is a naturally occurring algae called Karenia brevis.”It’s a natural occurrence … when conditions are right,” he said of the blooms which occasionally appear along the Texas coastline. He added that recent research seems to suggest the change in season could have an effect on when a bloom occurs. “The downwind effects in the fall seem to have some influence on the blooms,” he said.
“It’s hard to predict,” he said. Indeed, the results from water samples taken just two hours apart varied widely. At one site, water sampled at 9 a.m. Monday contained 69 cells per milliliter while samples collected at 11:20 a.m. contained only one cell per milliliter.
When the cell walls of the algae are broken they release a neurotoxin that is lethal to fish and can have negative effects on people as well, Reisinger said. “When they break open, they release a neurotoxin,” he said. That process can be triggered by rough waves churned up by the wind, or as water passes over the gills of a fish.
Once aerosolized, the toxin can have an abrasive effect on people, causing a burning and itching sensation in the eyes, nose and throat, as well as coughing and sneezing. People with respiratory conditions, such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), are especially susceptible, as are pets, said Brigette M. Goza, senior program coordinator at the Lab Monday. Even very low concentration levels may be enough to trigger symptoms in especially sensitive individuals.
Very low levels are divided into two categories that range from 1 – 5 cells per milliliter of water and 5 – 10, respectively. Extremely sensitive people may notice adverse effects during very low level contamination.
Contamination levels are further divided into low, medium, and high levels. Levels between 100 – 1,000 cells per milliliter are considered medium and can cause respiratory irritation in the general public, as well as fish kills.
“We need to warn the public when conditions warrant,” Goza said.
To that end, the Lab is seeking volunteers to join a group called the Red Tide Rangers, she said. Volunteers who join the Rangers are trained in proper water sample collection techniques and help the Lab keep tabs on where blooms occur and in what concentrations.
Upon hearing of a red tide bloom near Corpus Christi, the Lab mobilized to train nine new Rangers, who have helped gather and analyze samples from Isla Blanca Park to the south jetty at Port Mansfield.
“Red Tide Rangers are trained first responders” of coastal natural emergencies, she said. Not only do they help monitor algae blooms, but they also help out in the event of stranded or distressed sea turtles, as well as rescuing wildlife that has been contaminated by oil, she said.
TPWD has created a pamphlet that offers the public basic information about red tide and how to avoid exposure to the toxin. It includes advice to remain indoors or use a dust mask when outdoors. Those with sensitive skin should also avoid water where red tide is present.
People should avoid handling or eating dead or distressed fish, however live-caught fish is considered safe after being gutted. Shrimp and crabs caught in red tide infected waters are also safe, the pamphlet states. As for oysters, clams, whelks and muscles, TPWD has established a 24-hour phone line where anglers may find information on the status of their harvest. That recording can be reached by dialing (512)834-6757.
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