TAMPA (CBS Tampa) — A 60- to 90-mile-long “red tide” continues to spread along the coast of southwestern Florida, and researchers say that the fish-killing algae bloom is the largest seen in over a decade.

Red tide, sometimes called “Florida red tide,” is created when natural Karenia brevis (K. brevis) algae multiply beyond control to produce a toxin that is deadly to fish, birds and marine mammals and is not affected by human activity. The tide usually begins between 10 to 40 miles offshore as the microscopic algae multiply and is currently about 20 miles off the coast.

The force of the waves can break up the algae cells and release toxins into the air, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Although the toxins aren’t deadly to humans, people with allergies and asthma can develop skin rashes or upper-respiratory irritation.

“It could have large impacts if it were to move inshore,” Brandon Basino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), told Reuters. “It has been killing a lot of marine species, especially fish, as it waits offshore.”

The FWC has received reports of thousands of dead fish, including snapper, grouper, flounder, crabs, bull sharks and octopus, Reuters reports. A smaller red tide last year caused a record number of deaths among the endangered Florida manatees.

Hayley Rutger, spokeswoman with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, tells the Orlando Sentinel it is the largest algae bloom since in the region since 2005.

“They are part of the natural system of the gulf, so we do get used to seeing them,” she said. “This one is large, but not the largest we’ve ever seen.”

The red tide is expected to move southward if no weather systems break up the algae bloom. Scientists know of no safe way to control the tides, and it is not clear if they should alter the natural phenomenon.

“Because they are naturally occurring, if you try to alter them you could affect other marine life in ways you hadn’t bargained for,” said Rutger. “Trying to affect the bloom in some way is a lot more complicated than you’d want it to be.”


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