red tide algae lining the shoreline of clearwater beach

Yesterday, I counted 2,273 dead fish on North Clearwater Beach. Three days ago, I counted 1,854. And two days before that I counted 4,112. Red tide is taking quite the toll on marine life in the area.

And for the record I did, indeed, count every one of those fish. The numbers noted above were collected between GPS coordinates 27.998034, -82.828620 and 28.006372, -82.828407 on 9/19, 9/17, and 9/15, respectively, and if anything these numbers are on the shy side. It was impossible to count the fish that were entangled within and below the algae. I only point this out because someone suggested in one of my public posts that I wasn’t telling the truth. To be clear, counting dead fish does not require a lot of skill.

I wish I could say this was my first experience with red tide, but it isn’t. I spent eleven years of my childhood near the Gulf Coast of Florida. It’s where I learned how to drive, where I learned to quilt, and where I snagged my first job as a library aid. One episode of red tide in the early 90’s lasted roughly two years, and I remember how foul it was then.

Karenia brevis (more commonly known as red tide) is the primary species of harmful algal bloom responsible for the hot mess we’re currently seeing on the shoreline. While red tides can be characterized as natural occurrences (in that they’ve been reported as far back as the 1700s), blooms in recent years have been more intense, which some have suggested may be due to rising water temperatures, the heavy use of pesticides, and nutrient-rich storm runoff from fertilizers.

This week’s numbers are fairly significant, too, considering that the beachcombers, front loaders, and cleanup crews have been out in droves from sunup to sundown most days, working to clear the carnage. (Honestly, I can’t say enough about the folks who are working to keep the beaches cleaned up. Can you imagine having to working around dead fish all day, every day? Thank you, City of Clearwater — I’m grateful for you!)

So, why exactly am I counting dead fish, you ask? Well, for several reasons:

First, I have asthma, and quantifying conditions seemed like a good way to gauge the impact red tide might have on my symptoms. On some days I’ve only experienced minor throat irritation and coughing, and on others I’ve had to wear a mask. But there have been some days when I’ve chosen to stay inside altogether. Thankfully I haven’t had to use my rescue inhaler, but being aware of what’s happening around me is an important part of my self-care practice.

The second reason for counting fish is that after watching a video about red tide, and hearing a marine scientist’s plea for more quantitative data, I figured it couldn’t hurt to tally up the numbers and tweet them out. I mean, I walk on the beach most mornings anyway, so counting a few fish seemed pretty doable. (And it certainly seemed better than doing nothing.)

And finally, as odd as it may sound, it also gave me the opportunity to mourn the loss of each life I encountered. Counting gave me than chance to acknowledge them, even if just for a moment. Now, I realize that might not make sense to everyone, but it makes sense to me.

As you might imagine, the data collection process has been highly emotional, and I don’t think I was fully prepared to experience so much sadness. Seeing these lifeless creatures piled up along the shoreline literally felt like walking in a funeral processional. Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it.

Even so, I’ve decided to stop counting.

It’s just as easy to evaluate the air quality by simply opening the door and inhaling, and I’ve found that my respiratory symptoms have correlated pretty well with how much algae washes up onto shore overnight. Another reason I’ve decided to stop counting is that focusing on negative things is harmful – both physically and emotionally. Dwelling on what isn’t going well serves no one, and I’ve definitely felt the impact on my health. And most certainly my mood.

But this experience has also reminded me that everything real happens on the edge — the edge of the forest, the edge of the ocean, the edge of despair. It’s where all the action is, and where opportunity lives. On the edge, there’s an endless cycle of beginnings and endings, as with so many of life’s big transitions.

The edge is where we find ourselves when we face important decisions: stay or go, accept or decline, take a chance or play it safe. It’s a precipice, a place where creative solutions are discovered.

And I do hope we arrive at some solutions soon.

What has been your experience with red tide? Please share in the comments below.

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