18 June 2014

Red Tide

As summer is finally upon us, I can't help but think about an issue I encountered in a big way while shooting along the Jersey Shore last fall.

Red tide is a (usually) toxic to humans and animals algal bloom caused by a combination of warm water, sunlight, and nutrient overloading (from fertilizer and sewerage). It can cause rashes and other manifestations in people coming in contact with it, the most severe being death for those who eat infected seafood.
Since bivalves and crustaceans continuously strain water, they accumulate large amounts of the algae, which, being toxic, is a real problem for shellfish consumption, both those who consume it, and the economy that provides it.

Red tide is also catastrophic to marine fauna because, when it dies, the bacteria that consume it absorb all the oxygen in the water, thus suffocating the other marine organisms. There have been red tides throughout history, the difference being that now we know the causes and how to decrease the occurrences.

So it was with some astonishment that, while doing a photo flight to look at Post-Sandy construction on the Jersey Shore, I saw a giant red tide in New York Harbor.
Given the health and environmental hazards, I would assume that such a thing would have been newsworthy. Did I miss something, or is it just not "news"?

Algal blooms are one more sign of a natural system in distress, and those come so many and so often these days that such a seemingly insignificant one is hardly noticeable. In fact, we seem intent, as a society, on ignoring them. Facebook posts about nice breakfasts, cute animals, or smiling children garner tremendous response, while those warning about clear and present danger, either to our life support systems or the transparency of our government attract the attention of only the like-minded concerned audience. And certainly many of these issues are complex, seemingly intractable, and come with the erroneous impression that the individual can do nothing about them.

The runoff from excess fertilization causes a surfeit of nutrients in the water, which is the starting factor in the chain of events leading to an algal bloom. The New York Harbor bloom actually posed a serious local hazard to anyone consuming shellfish. But New York Harbor is the least of the problem. The Great Lakes are dying and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico covered nearly 7,000 sq miles in 2011, and grows larger every year.

Reducing that nutrient loading is a vital but complex issue involving regulation and education. Farmers and homeowners must decrease their fertilizer use, an outcome that will only evolve with a mixture of persuasion and coercion. Success in that goal will require that all the stakeholders realize their contribution to the problem and their gain from the solution.