Beware the Red Tide!

Beware the red tide. That may sound like a pseudo-biblical warning, but the nasty algae that goes by that name is already popping up in Texas waters this season. And you know what this means: Oyster season, that magical time of the year when we can eat raw oysters fished out of Texas waters, is in danger.

Red tide is an algae bloom that usually pops up in Gulf Coast waters this time of year. If the conditions are favorable — say, there’s been a drought that has made the waters salty and warm, plus there are the right type of coastal winds — the algae bloom can do some serious damage, producing a neurotoxin that kills fish like it’s going out of style and renders oysters toxic.

Cells of red tide algae, a.k.a. Karenia brevis to the scientific types, have been detected in Port Aransas, according to the folks at Texas Parks and Wildlife. Lisa Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University, has set up a detecting system to sample the Port Aransas waters to see if they could manage some early detection for red tide, and they did.

September and October are the months when red tide tends to pop up, and the algae bloom has already made its presence felt in Florida waters: A massive blob formed off the coast of St. Petersburg and has been leaving a trail of dead fish, sea turtles and other marine life in its wake, according to the Associated Press.

If red tide really gets going in Texas waters, it could create a mess for Texas oystermen. The season is slated to open November 1, but Texas Parks and Wildlife has kept the oystering trade shut down for weeks at a time when blobs of red tide algae basically poisoned the oyster beds. (Things were so bad in the 2011 season that it started to feel like Texas Parks and Wildlife folks were opening the bays just to close them back up.) The toxic bloom doesn’t actually kill the oysters, but it will make anyone who has the misfortune to eat a contaminated shellfish violently ill, something to keep in mind as we move toward both oyster and red tide season.

So far, the red tide concentration is so low it won’t mean fish deaths or infected oysters, but that could change if the conditions spin out in the wrong way. Now comes the fun part where we all get to wait and see.