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‘Red tide’ invades Florida, kills marine life, threatens humans. Is SC next?

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Florida’s usual blue oceans are turning red thanks to harmful algae blooms, commonly known as “red tide.”

Reports by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission show the state’s southwest coastline — from Sarasota to Naples — is infested.

Red tide is dangerous both to marine life and humans due to the harsh toxins that can kill fish instantly and can cause people to be sick if they ingest those toxins.

The term “red tide” comes from the usual discoloration of ocean water due to colonies of algae growing out of control, said Steve Morton, research oceanographer and head of NOAA’s National Phytoplankton Monitoring Network.

However, with more research they found that “red tide” can often have other discoloration effects — for example, green algae that often happens in Lake Erie.

The referred term now is harmful algae blooms.

The real question, though, is could HABs happen along South Carolina’s coast in places like Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach?

The short answer: No, at least as it concerns saltwater.

There was only one instance where a bloom came close to touching South Carolina’s coast. In the late 1980s, it strayed from its usual route along the Atlantic Gulfstream and it definitely “happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Morton said.

“In South Carolina, we’re lucky we have an ecosystem that flushes out a lot,” Morton said. “What we do have though is a number of retention ponds that act as an incubator for different (harmful algae) species to bloom.”

Jay Pinckney, director of the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Science at the University of South Carolina, said South Carolina’s freshwater system is a bigger concern than its saltwater system.

“For us on a local scale, we’re lucky,” he said. “The water has a short residence time — it doesn’t have enough time for this algae to build up in high concentrations.”

In contrast, Florida battles both red algae and blue-green algae. The Sunshine State’s proximity to the warm Gulfstream and large bodies of standing-still water like Lake Okeechobee create the perfect environment for harmful algae to grow, Pinckney said.

Because retention ponds and standstill water are a bigger issue in South Carolina, it’s important to make sure stormwater management is maintained.

In Myrtle Beach, the city invested about $75 million over the past 20 to 25 years to have the right tools to make sure rainwater goes where it should go, said Mark Kruea, public information officer for the city.

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Ordinarily, when rain falls, it makes its way through multiple bodies of water until it reaches the ocean. But in areas like Myrtle Beach that doesn’t happen, Kruea said.

“Here we’re highly sensitive to make sure our rainfall goes where we want it to and that it doesn’t pick up any contaminants along the way,” he said.

Even though Mother Nature is on South Carolina’s side, it’s up to residents and visitors to make sure the ecosystem maintains a healthy balance.

It’s important to control the amount of waste you put into the environment and even something as simple as the fertilizer on your lawn could harm freshwater ecosystems. Pinckney said people who are close to the water should “think twice” before using lawn fertilizer.

“The more people you have the more you put into the system,” Pinckney said. “Everybody likes a nice, lush green lawn. But when you fertilize it, that fertilizer doesn’t stay there; it ends up in water bodies and is a major contributor to the algae bloom problems in the estuaries.”

Picking up after yourself is also key to keeping South Carolina’s fresh water blue.

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“Don’t litter,” Kruea said. “I’ve been disappointed lately to see people littering again. “ Even leaving behind your pooch’s poop could lead to some contaminating effects in your stormwater, he said.

The No. 1 way to help, though, is to volunteer. The NOAA Phytoplankton Monitoring Network takes samples in bodies of water to make sure no HABs are in the area. If there are,the network will alert the public of where HABs have been found.

If you see any HABs or want to volunteer, be sure to contact these organizations: