'Red Tide' Closes Oyster Areas, Prompts Gulf Health Warnings

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A "red tide" algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico has led to the closing of Mississippi beaches, the shutdown of oyster harvesting areas in Mississippi and Louisiana, and warnings of potential fish kills and human health problems in Alabama.

         Health officials say red tides release toxins that can contaminate shellfish and kill finfish.

         They also can cause human respiratory problems, along with irritation of the nose, throat or eyes.

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         The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality closed all beaches Friday, and the state's Department of Marine Resources closed all oyster reefs.

         Melissa Scallan, a spokeswoman for the marine agency, says scientists aren't finding red tide algae close to shore in Mississippi, but are detecting it around barrier islands in the Mississippi Sound. Coastal areas of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle have been reporting a heavy outbreak since October.

         Unusually warm air and water temperatures are allowing the algae to flourish later in the year than normal, Scallan said. Outbreaks typically end when weather cools and north winds drive the algae away from coastal areas.

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         In Louisiana, officials closed oyster harvesting areas 1 through 7 on the eastern edge of the portion of southeast Louisiana that extends into the Gulf, southwest of the Mississippi coast. Friday's closure order said the areas will reopen when environmental conditions are deemed safe.

         In Alabama, health officials warned that anyone with respiratory problems should avoid mists from the affected waters — meaning people may want to avoid the beach despite unseasonably warm temperatures.

         Although red tides are associated with fish kills, Mobile's Press-Register reported Friday that a large fish kill currently being reported in Mobile Bay did not stem from red tide, which flourishes in saltier waters. A scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab said the fish kill appears to have been caused by another species of algae with a similar neurotoxic effect on fish.

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