Drought conditions in Texas have sparked more than a large number of wildfires in the state this year.
As of late October, the drought has also had a role in killing more than 3 million fish along the Texas coast by making conditions ripe for red tide, a harmful algal bloom (Karenia brevis) to reproduce rapidly. This species of algae produces a toxin that affects the central nervous system of fish so that they are paralyzed and cannot breathe.
The University of Texas-Pan American's Coastal Studies Lab located on South Padre Island has been helping the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department monitor the situation daily since September, said Brigette Goza, CSL research assistant and coordinator of education outreach programs.
"When we receive reports from the public about discolored water, fish kills, or aerosol, we investigate by visiting the site to collect water samples which are then brought to the lab for observation under a microscope. We count the number of Karenia brevis cells per milliliter of water," Goza said.
Several factors are involved in causing red tides, including an increase in nutrients in the water or changes in environmental conditions.
"It seems that red tides often occur during years of drought, such as we have been experiencing in south Texas. This is probably due to warm water temperatures and higher than normal salinities in the Gulf and Laguna Madre," Goza said.
The CSL also works closely with Cameron County Marine Extension Agent Tony Reisinger, who leads a volunteer group called the Red Tide Rangers. Members of this group have been trained in red tide water sampling and analysis procedures. The CSL hosted a red tide monitoring training session in July for students and others interested in being prepared responders to a red tide situation.
"By monitoring Red Tide conditions, the CSL provides a public service. The information we obtain regarding the daily status in the area is available to the public on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's website," Goza said.
Goza said since a red tide is a naturally occurring event, there's not much that can be done to prevent it. It is not generally threatening to human life, she said, but the public should be aware of its impact before making a decision to come to the beach during red tide occurrences.
"The aerosol produced by red tide may cause burning and irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. Symptoms are usually worse when the wind is blowing onshore. It's most important for people with respiratory problems to avoid affected areas," she said."As as we go into winter, cooler temperatures and rainfall will hopefully bring an end to this year's red tide."
The Coastal Studies Laboratory (CSL) was established as a marine biology laboratory in 1973 in Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island. Its mission is to enhance understanding of, and provide educational opportunities in, both basic and applied research of the biological, chemical, and physical processes of the South Texas Coastal Zone.
For more information, go to the CSL website.