Rolling with the Punches- adapting to changes when things don’t go your way.

This is a pretty good description of what’s been going on here at the Seashore these past weeks. Just as we had been finalizing all the plans for the Artist-in-Residence program, a screening of Rock the Park featuring Padre Island, and our National Public Lands Day event, red tide decided to roll in. Cue the chaos and panicked running around the office. For those of you that don’t know, red tide is a harmful algal bloom (HAB) that pretty much obliterates all the fish and crustaceans where it occurs. The dinoflagellate (latin name Karenia brevis for all you scientifically inclined readers out there) produces a neurotoxin that binds to the gills of fish and prevents them from breathing. These dead fish then wash up on the beach by the millions. When the concentration in the water is high enough, the algae can actually become aerosolized. When the waves crash on the shore, it enters into the air, causing coughing, sneezing, eye irritation, and even nausea. With the concentration at the current level, just going from the visitor center to the parking lot results in coughing fits and tearing eyes. Not the most pleasant of circumstances here.

Let’s talk about some of the other physical effects. The neurotoxin is concentrated in the gills of fish after they die and can cause some problems for land-dwelling animals. Ground squirrels, tree frogs, and coyotes have all been affected by the tide. The thought is that these animals either lick/try to eat the dead fish washed up, or it could merely be a result of breathing in the aerosols. Not much is known about it. It’s even affected dogs, with visitors unknowingly bringing them to the seashore and letting them play in the water. Unfortunately some of these dogs don’t make it, which is pretty heartbreaking to think about. We try to get the information out to the public in every medium possible, from warnings when they enter the seashore to social media to press releases to appearing on TV news broadcasts.  However, even with all of these warnings, some people still don’t realize how serious it can be.

Now the point of this post isn’t to make everyone feel sad and depressed, but to help show what conditions we’re dealing with here. We’re operating under a general rule of trying to convince people it may not be the best time to come to the seashore. When we get phone calls, we tell them how it really is and suggest coming at a time when the red tide is gone. We’re not posting any pictures on social media that would make people want to come out here, such as a sunrise or beach view with #wishyouwerehere. That’s definitely not happening. Instead we’re posting pictures of dead fish and updates on the current situation. We’re trying to get the word out that these are not safe conditions to spend time at the beach.

We’ve spent the last week canceling many of our events. Our National Public Lands Day beach clean up: canceled. 2 of the 3 Artists-in-Residence: canceled. College group beach clean-ups: canceled. All of the daily interpretive programs: canceled. We also have no idea when the red tide will leave. Most times when it comes, it stays until the cooler months of December. It’s really thrown a monkey wrench into the whole “Volunteer Ambassador” thing when we’re telling people that it’s not safe to be here.

I’ve sort of shifted from volunteer ambassador-ing to begin tagging along with other divisions as they do their day-to-day work. Yesterday I was able to go along with the Resources and Science Division to do a red tide assessment. These occur twice a week to make sure we are keeping up to date with the conditions. I started the day at 7am and met Charlie and Alicia, two of our scientists, at their office to get the truck ready for the trip down island. The day before, I was fitted for my respirator (seriously) so all I needed to finish off my PPE were some waders.

Me in my PPE
Me in my PPE

We got the red tide sample sheets, collection vials, and some ice, as well as a coyote kennel (serious again) in case we found any sick-looking coyotes. Once we were sure we had everything, we started the trip down island. As soon as we drove onto the beach, you could tell it wasn’t going to be a pleasant 20 miles of driving. The beach was inundated with dead fish. The dead catfish are the ones you need to worry about. Their spines can puncture not only your feet, but car tires! A flat tire is not something you need when you’re twenty miles down island surrounded by dead fish. It was also pretty bumpy driving since the beach hadn’t been driven very much by visitors. As we got close to the 20 mile marker, conditions were just too bad to go any further so we decided the 19 was close enough. We put on our respirators, pulled on the suspenders of our waders over our shoulders, and took our first steps into the tide. To be totally honest, it really wasn’t that bad with all the PPE! The respirator filtered all of the dead fish smell out, as well as the irritants that cause coughing. I was actually able to look around and see the numerous species of fish that had washed up that you would never see otherwise. Some of the washed up fish were also so huge! This is my wader next to one to help with the scale.

HUGE fish
HUGE fish

Below is a stargazer, a bottom dweller. If you have some time, google them. They’re pretty wild creatures.


Alicia went into the water to a depth of about 2 feet and collected 2 water samples while Charlie did an estimate of how many dead fish there were in 10 square feet.

Alicia taking water samples.
Alicia taking water samples
Charlie and Alicia searching for unusual fish.
Charlie and Alicia searching for unusual fish

We also had to note the level of decomposition of the dead fish and our level of irritation. Once we finished this location, we hopped back in the truck and started to drive back up the beach.  We stopped again at the 10 mile marker, the 0, the North boundary of the park, and the laguna side of the island. It was encouraging that at each stop there appeared to be fewer dead fish washed up. Hopefully this means the tide is moving south and will clear out soon! When we finished collecting the samples, we brought them back to the lab where we analyzed them.

Alicia at the microscope.
Alicia at the microscope

We put 1mL of the sample onto a slide and (after some slight spillage and correcting for it) placed it under the microscope. Then we counted. And counted. And counted some more. It took awhile, but we wanted to be thorough and give the most accurate count we could. We determined that at the worst location we sampled, the concentration was over 14,000 cells/mL. For some context, anything more than 1,000 cells/mL is considered high. After we finished sampling we put the vials into the fridge and called it a day.

Overall, this was great experience and I cannot wait to get out into the field with them again! It was nice to get back to my science roots and put my marine bio experience to use! This just goes to show that while we may not be experiencing the best conditions for visitation and can’t be planning too many volunteer activities, there is still plenty to do while we wait it out. And we even discussed some potential uses for volunteers with their daily activities, so this experience is a win-win in my book!