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Red tide keeping CROW busy

By Staff | Dec 10, 2014

CROW Hospital Manager Gareth Johnson has seen an influx of red tide victims over the course of the last couple of weeks, but nothing more than past years. Johnson is pictured in the Pelican Outdoor Complex, what is the final stop for patients before being released back into the wild. BRIAN WIERIMA

Although it’s just a microscopic organism, a tiny algae’s toxin is causing big problems for many of the Florida’s west coast wildlife.

It’s called the “red tide” and it is currently affecting the Gulf coast of Florida, and when an unsuspecting animal such as birds or turtles gets in its path, bad things happen to them.

The red tide is created by a harmful algal bloom, which has high enough concentrations that it discolors water to a red or brown hue. The red tide produces toxic chemicals which affect marine animals, birds and even humans.

The brevetoxins produced by the red tide affect the central nervous systems of these animals and can ultimately lead to death if not treated.

That’s when CROW (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife) on Sanibel Island comes into play. After concerned citizens report sightings of birds or turtles acting strange on the beaches of the Fort Myers’ area, CROW officials are notified and they come and collect the animal for potential treatment of red tide.

CROW veterinarian intern Brittany Stevens, checks over an X-ray taken of a red tide stricken brown pelican, which was being scanned for pneumonia after gurgling sounds were heard when the bird was breathing. BRIAN WIERIMA

“It’s just a natural event,” said CROW veterinarian intern Brittany Stevens, who is from California. “It starts and lasts as long depending on the currents and the food the algae needs, the temperature and amount of sun it gets. It’s just a natural phenomena.”

Red tide usually starts in the winter months off the west coast of Florida and some on the east coast and this year’s infection of the waters has been no worse than the past several. But just like every other year the red tide is present, there is no end-all cure for the animals infected.

How serious each patient is, is dependent on how much toxin it has ingested, either through the water or eating of fish which eats the algae.

“It all depends on how much red tide they have in their system,” Stevens said. “There isn’t any antidote for the toxin, just therapy.”

In essence, CROW acts as a detoxification center for the infected, while feeding and hydrating them through the process.

A view behind the protective wall of a brown pelican being X-rayed at the CROW hospital facility, after being diagnosed with red tide toxin and potential pneumonia. BRIAN WIERIMA

The first patient which came into CROW infected with red tide was a sea turtle, which ended up staying about two weeks, before recovering and being released in the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge a couple of weeks ago.

Since the red tide started, CROW has released 15 patients (either birds or turtles) and is currently treating 21.

Again, depending on how much toxin is in the animal’s blood, that will determine how much therapy it will need, as well its mortality rate.

“In past years, there is usually a 65-percent release rate,” said CROW hospital manager Gareth Johnson. “Only a few hospitals deal with these type of patients. For us here at CROW, we are more experienced now, but we still can’t do a lot for them because there isn’t an antidote, it’s mostly supportive care.”

The most common patient is the double-crested cormorant, simply because they tend to be on the beach area, where people are more apt to see them acting strangely and more likely to call in help for them.

CROW “externs” Stephen Royka and Amanda Schaff, inject fluids under the skin of a brown pelican, which was brought in after suffering a trauma injury. BRIAN WIERIMA

A tell-tale sign if an animal is stricken with red tide poisoning is the bird is acting “drunk” or disoriented. Sea turtles sometimes just float or swim in circles, since the red tide is a neurotoxin.

“They can have deficit in blinking abilities and form corneal ulcers, or lacerations on their eyes,” Stevens said. “We test their eyes, make sure they can blink. If they can’t, we will stain their eyes and treat them appropriately so they can blink. A lot of birds have gastrointestinal problems and have blood in their stool, so we treat that, as well, with antibiotics. But again, it’s mostly supportive care, since we can’t actually get rid of the toxin while they are infected.”

The average stay for a cormorant is up to two days, depending on the concentration of the toxin in the blood. Terns and smaller gulls can take up to two weeks of therapy, while pelicans can take longer.

The animals are then released away from areas with reported red tide.

CROW takes in injured or sick animals from Sanibel/Captiva to Fort Myers Beach to as far as Lehigh Acres. Some victims are trauma patients or fishing line injuries and orphans, such as baby raccoons, squirrels and possums.

CROW also employs college students who stay for different amount of times, including externs (a month or a few weeks), fellows (six months) and interns (one year).

The red tide will usually dissipate when the weather warms up and is not conducive to the algae’s feeding habits.

If the marine wildlife off the coast of Fort Myers find their unfortunate paths go through the red tide, hopefully their road will lead to CROW’s front doorstep, where they can heal and head back out into the freedom of the great outdoors healthy once again.