In a Dec. 19 aerial photo, the Sanibel Lighthouse is decorated for the holidays and the coast is expected to remain clear of red tide impacts through Christmas.
In a Dec. 19 aerial photo, the Sanibel Lighthouse is decorated for the holidays and the coast is expected to remain clear of red tide impacts through Christmas.

Santa should be able to make his visits to Sanibel and Captiva without coughing or even feeling the red tide tickle.

After noticeable respiratory difficulties and some dead fish on beaches the first week of December had residents and officials fearing a toxic return of red tide to the shores of the Sanibel and Captiva, the coast seems to have cleared up.

The red tide forecast for the islands is looking good now through Christmas Eve based on the 4-day predictions issued on Dec. 20 by the West FloridaCoastal Ocean Model’s tracking maps. Red tide, which has lingered off the coast of Southwest Florida for more than 14 months, was measured as “present” off Lighthouse Beach. At that level, fish kills or respiratory impacts are not expected.

The chances are low that anyone would feel respiratory irritation when the concentrations are low to background,” said Dana Dettmar, environmental specialist with the city of Sanibel. “The last NOAA bulletin predicted no levels of respiratory irritation, but everyone is different and some people are affected differently.”

At Sanibel’s city council meeting on Dec. 4, council members discussed the need for testing air quality due to some serious concerns about a mist at the north end of the island that seemed to carry concentrated amounts of brevetoxins.

The city is currently in talks with the Florida Department of Health (DOH) to test the air, but it can’t be done until high concentrations of karenia brevis, the naturally-occurring dinoflagellate that multiplies and causes red tide, are present. When wave action breaks open the cells, the brevetoxins are released into the air.

Red tide is not currently present in high concentrations in Lee County. Testing for aerosolized red tide cannot occur until it is detected,” stated the public information officer at the Lee County office for the DOH. “Sites for sampling are being selected and FDOH Lee is in discussion with the city of Sanibel to identify appropriate locations in Sanibel.”

Dettmar confirmed that air quality testing is on its way.

We haven’t yet installed anything but everything is in the works,” she said.

The last high concentration of red tide was reported Nov. 30 at Blind Pass, according to samples collected by the Florida Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). In August when more than a half a million tons of dead fish had to be removed from Sanibel’s beaches, high concentrations were reported on the island 19 days.

That dropped to high concentrations on 11 days in September, one day in October and four days in November.

Correlating fairly closely with those numbers is the tracking of related illnesses. Since Lee Health started keeping tabs of algae-related illnesses in August, the county-wide health provider has seen the number of people seeking medical attention steadily decrease each month.

From a total of 60 visits to emergency rooms, primary care physicians and urgent care facilities in August, the number went down to 25 in the month of September, to 19 in October and only six in November.

A variety of digital tools are available to track red tide and avoid beaches when medium to high concentrations are present that may cause fish kills and respiratory irritation.

FWRI provides daily sample maps here: https://myfwc.com/research/red-tide/statewide/.

The 4-day predictive model maps are available on a daily basis here: http://ocgweb.marine.usf.edu/hab_tracking/.

Mote Marine Laboratory offers an FAQ about red tide as well as email notification for customized beach selections here: https://mote.org/research/program/environmental-health/beach-conditions-report-red-tide-information.