'I haven't seen it this bad. It's horrendous': Red tide brings dead fish, smell and health concerns to Destin

Savannah Vasquez
Chris White, Manager of the Destin Marina, found thousands of dead fish washed up near his business Wednesday morning.

Instead of the usual sweet salty breeze of the Gulf of Mexico, Destin residents were met with a strong fishy odor that stretched along Gulf and the Choctawhatchee Bay Wednesday morning.

Chris White, manager of the Destin Marina, was one of the first to witness the cause of the stench.

“This morning I came in at about six-thirty and we had a high tide last night, so with all the rain there were just thousands upon thousands of fish in the parking lot,” he said Wednesday. “There was one red fish, one trout, one flounder, then the rest were pin fish, catfish, croaker, mullet, and some eels mixed in. It’s definitely red tide, you can feel it in your throat it makes your eyes itch and makes you cough.”

The cause of the dead fish was indeed the phenomenon known as red tide. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) red tide is a harmful algal bloom that produces toxic chemicals that affect both marine organisms and humans.

“A red tide, or harmful algal bloom is a higher-than-normal concentration of a microscopic alga (plantlike organism),” the FWC website states. “The Florida red tide organism, K. brevis, produces brevetoxins that can affect the central nervous system of fish and other vertebrates, causing these animals to die. Wave action can break open K. brevis cells and release these toxins into the air, leading to respiratory irritation. For people with severe or chronic respiratory conditions, such as emphysema or asthma, red tide can cause serious illness.”

FWC Public Information Coordinator Rebekah Nelson said satellite images have confirmed a K. brevis bloom off-shore in Walton and Okaloosa Counties but the FWC is still awaiting water samples.

“We’ve detected background samples in background concentrations in Bay and Escambia County but not the counties in between,” she said adding, “We will have a full report out on Friday evening.”

When asked the health risk due to red tide, Nelson said the best advice is to be cautious.

“Swimming for most people is fine but if you are experiencing skin irritation make sure you wash thoroughly,” she said. “If you are prone to asthma you will need to be more cautious because there can be respiratory irritations from the red tide.” 

Due to the health threat red tide causes, the city of Destin and Okaloosa County staff are working quickly to address the red tide issues in the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay.

“We need to get it away, outside of the nuisance of the smell it could really lead to a public health issue,” said City of Destin Public Information Officer Doug Rainer. “Our staff is cleaning all the beach access points and water parks such as Joe’s Bayou and Clement Taylor Park in the city and the County is cleaning the beaches. We expect to see, over the next day or two, these fish to pile up along the shoreline and we will continue to clean them up.”

As for White, he spent half of the day Wednesday cleaning up the fish in wheelbarrows and said Waste Management was set to pick up the heaps of dead fish carcasses later in the day. He added that in his 32 years in Destin he has never seen red tide effect the sea-life this badly.

“As of right now I’m still picking up fish,” he said around noon Wednesday. “I’m on my 13th or 14th wheelbarrow of fish. It’s the worst I’ve seen it personally, and I was born and raised here but I haven’t seen it this bad. (The smell) it’s horrendous, it’s hard to do this if you have a weak stomach. It’s terrible I don’t know what to compare it to but it’s absolutely terrible.”