Here are some images of some pretty right red tide patches. But what on earth is it that makes the water go red like this and is it dangerous?
Red tide is the collective name for phytoplankton blooms that tend to colour the water. Phytoplankton is made up of microscopic plants that drift through the sea. When conditions are right (mostly when there is nutrient-rich water and a stable water column) some species of these micro-algae form red tides. Depending on the pigments, the massive growth of algal cells may turn the water into pink, red, brown, reddish-brown, deep green or other colours.
Red tides are a relatively common sight in Hong Kong with 20-30 reports a year. The immediate reaction from most people is to think that they are the result of some terrible pollution. In fact the phytoplankton species are perfectly natural and normally occur in Hong Kong waters, but under certain conditions they can grow faster and form patches on the sea surface which we call ‘blooms’. Phytoplankton blooms by different species occur all over the world and are often seen by satellites with colour sensors.
Some red tides produce natural toxins, and can cause depletion of dissolved oxygen or other harmful effects, and are generally described as harmful algal blooms (HAB). The most conspicuous effects of these kinds of red tides are the deaths of marine and coastal species of fish, birds, marine mammals, and other organisms. This happens either as a direct effect of the toxins produced or because of oxygen depletion (known as hypoxia) which happens when the algae die and bacteria consume all the oxygen in decomposing the dead algae.
Only some species involved in red tides however are toxin-producing and cause fish kills. The bioluminescing species Noctiluca scintillans which I wrote about in an earlier post, is not toxic but still can cause red tides.
For Hong Kong this is an economic concern because of the many fish farms and aquaculture areas. When a toxic red tide drifts into a fish farming zone only early warning will help the farmers avoid large economic losses from fish kills by temporarily evacuating their fish cages or transferring their fish to tanks.
The Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD) of Hong Kong runs a red tide monitoring network which relies partly on fish farmers and members of the public. The AFCD follows up reports by taking samples from the red tides and identifying the contributing species under the microscope to determine the risk to aquaculturists and the public. The majority of the reports are caused by non-toxic species. If you would like to know more about the network, the AFCD now has a fantatsitc app for iPhone and Android (pictured below) with weekly updates and the functionality to report red tide sightings (which I proudly did today) with this new app, including submitting pictures. (I would also recommend some of the other Hong Kong apps for marine enthusiasts out there: HK Geopark, Wetland Park, Reef Check, Red Tide Information Network and the WWF Seafood Guide).
The AFCD started to record the occurrences of red tide since 1975. From 1975 to 2013, a total of 875 red tide incidents were recorded in Hong Kong waters. Amongst these incidents, only 27 were associated with fish kills.
77 algal species have formed red tides in Hong Kong, but majority of them are harmless. 19 of these species are considered harmful or toxic. Amongst these harmful/toxic algal species, only 5 of them caused fish kills and the other two caused contamination of shellfish by toxin in Hong Kong. The red tide associated fish kill events were mostly recorded in the 80’s and early 90’s.
So are there dangers to human health? If a red tide is identified as a harmful algal bloom (HAB) – then, yes, there is a risk:
The consumption of shellfish (e.g. mussels, clams) is one of the most common ways for algal toxins to impact human health. Each species has it’s own toxin so the health effects they cause are also varied. One example is Ciguatera fish poisoning. This type of fish poisoning is caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by a the marine microalgae Gambierdiscus toxicus, which has been recorded in Hong Kong waters. Barracuda, black grouper,blackfin snapper, king mackerel, groupers and any large predatory fish can carryciguatoxins. People who haveciguatera may experience nausea, vomiting, and neurologic symptoms such as tingling fingers or toes. They also may find that cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold.Ciguatera has no cure. Symptoms usually go away in days or weeks but can last for years. People who haveciguateracan be treated for their symptoms. In Hong Kong with its rapacious appetite for seafood, ciguatera fish poisoning occurs quite frequently. For example, in 2004 it made up 7.9% of all food poisoning cases recorded that year. In June 2013, fourteen men and five women, aged 23 to 71, fell ill with ciguatera poisoning after eating coral reef fish at a restaurant in Sok Kwu Wan (Lamma Island). The fish in this case actually came from the Pratas/Dongsha Islands out in the South China Sea. Ciguatoxin’s is very stable, so cooking, drying or refrigerating fish will not destroy the poison. There is also no effective way to test fish for ciguatoxin, yet. If you want to play it safe avoid large predatory fish like tuna, grouper and others alltogether (they are mostly overfished already, especially blue-fin tuna, so you would be doing the planet a big favor).
So eating shellfish or fish which has been exposed to HABs is the main danger to humans. There are instances of skin irritations and breathing difficulties after direct human exposure to HABs but these are rarer and not as well understood. So to be absolutely safe, I would advise you to avoid contact with red tides – no swimming in, diving under or touching them!