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It Seems Nature is Trying to Tell us Something Again, but are we Listening?

During last year’s “summer of slime,” toxic blue-green algae bloomed across South Florida. Blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) are microscopic bacteria found in freshwater lakes, streams, ponds and brackish water ecosystems. They can produce toxins (such as microcystins and anatoxins) which affect people, aquatic life, livestock, and pets that swim in and drink from the algae-contaminated water. Blue-green algae grow and colonize to form “blooms” that give the water a blue-green appearance or a “pea soup” like color.

 

toxic blue-green algae that colored the water bright green in martin county florida in 2016Adding to the disarray were fish-killing blue-green algae outbreaks, particularly major blooms caused by the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Gulf-bound Caloosahatchee River. Unlike red tide, which originates in salt water, the blue-green bloom starts in fresh water. But both are deadly to aquatic life.

 

It seems nature is trying to tell us something again, but are we listening? According to the Tampa Bay Times, isolated blue-green algae outbreaks, caused by local polluted runoff, are being reported around the state, including in Pinellas and Manatee counties. The Tampa Bay Times reports scientists have found that toxins in Okeechobee are three times the level that is considered safe.

 

Conservationists are concerned about the regular Okeechobee discharges, necessary to maintain safe lake levels safe, will again ignite extensive blue-green algae outbreaks this year. This problem has led the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to consider new limits on how much toxic algae should be allowed in the state’s waterways.

 

an overhead look of a green sea turtle swimming in the open oceanIn addition to last year’s blue-green algae outbreaks, massive red tide blooms killed more than 400 sea turtles, at least 150 dolphins and countless fish, including goliath grouper and tarpon, in the Gulf of Mexico. The stench of the carcasses or the air-borne red tide toxin itself, which irritates people’s eyes, noses, and throats, drove away tourists, wrecked coastal economies and created millions in public cleanup expenses.

 

At one point, red tide blooms affected nearly 1,000 miles of coastline, from the Panhandle to the East Coast, but the primary impacts were on Southwest Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission judged the red tide outbreaks the longest and most severe recorded in Florida.

 

The crisis abated as winter approached, but the threat remains. Red tide is unpredictable. The wildlife commission now reports only scattered minor amounts of the microorganism and no fish kills. However, a red tide major bloom could quickly erupt.

 

Yet some good came of last year’s events. Meaningful steps were taken on several fronts to protect our waters and marine life. The Florida Aquarium, which helped respond to last year’s crisis, is poised for action should another toxic bloom occur and now has more resources at its disposal.

 

That last year’s impact would not be forgotten was demonstrated when Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly issued an executive order once assuming office that, among other things, created a Blue-Green Algae Task Force and selected the state’s first Chief Science Officer, to address the polluted runoff problem, particularly the nutrient-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee that end up causing algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

 

a headshot portrait of the florida aquarium's president and ceo roger germann with an undersea backdropThe governor, who named Aquarium President and CEO Roger Germann to his environmental transition advisory team, directed state agencies to speed Everglades restoration work and seek $2.5 billion in funding over four years, an increase of $1 billion. Restoring a more natural flow to the vast Everglades network will result in cleaner water and healthier estuaries. It was, after all, the re-engineering of the complex water system stretching from Central Florida to Florida Bay that precipitated so many water problems. Among the multiple destructive impacts: using the Caloosahatchee River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and the St. Lucie River, which flows into the Atlantic, as virtual drainage canals for Lake Okeechobee.

 

 

The governor, who had made clean water a campaign issue, last month also last signed legislation that will spend $3 million a year for the next five years in a partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory to research the causes and effects of red tide. The state budget that DeSantis approved included another $6.6 million for red tide research.

 

The funding is much needed. While there is no debate nitrogen pollution in the culprit in the blue-green algae outbreaks, red tide is more of a mystery. The naturally occurring microorganism – Karenia brevis – is typically found at low concentrations about 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution does not appear to trigger the outbreaks, which were recorded by Spanish explorers centuries ago. However, as blooms move closer to the coast, nutrient pollution from fertilizers and septic tanks may make outbreaks longer and more intense. More research may lead to better methods to predict red tide outbreaks and minimize its impacts.

 

a wide-angle photo of a calm open ocean

The opening earlier this year of The Florida Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center is designed to save turtles suffering from injuries or illnesses, regardless of the cause. But the facility at the Center for Conservation near Apollo Beach will be a valuable resource in reviving sea turtles that would otherwise suffer a tortuous death from red tide.

 

Unlike fish, which die quickly and rarely can be saved once affected by red ride, sea turtles can recover if rescued in time. Otherwise, their death is slow and painful. Dr. Ari Fustukjian, associate veterinarian of The Florida Aquarium, described red tide’s vicious effects.

 

“Brevetoxicosis, the toxin caused by red tide, causes a whole bunch of nasty symptoms, ranging from respiratory injury to gastrointestinal disease to neurologic disease… Sea turtles often become comatose.”

 

Floating helplessly, the turtles may be attacked by sharks or hit by boats, adding injuries that also must be addressed. Even when red tide bloom dissipates, Fustukjian stressed the toxin continues to claim victims because “it accumulates in seagrasses and is ingested by manatees and turtles.”At the 16,000-square-foot rehabilitation center, turtles are treated in well-equipped hospital rooms.

 

There are five different-sized pools, totaling 300,000 gallons of water, where the turtles can comfortably convalesce.  It even has an 11-foot deep dive pool designed to help the turtles regain sufficient swimming and diving strength to be returned to the wild.

a group of small green turtles swim up the a window in a rehabilitation pool located at the florida aquarium's sea turtle rehabilitation center in apollo beach

Fustukjian said the new center has not yet treated any turtles for red-tide-related problems, but it already has successfully aided numerous turtles for other afflictions, including cold-shocked sea turtles from the East Coast.

 

Fustukjian himself has plenty of experience with red tide and recently detailed the response: “Drugs are administered to help offset the effects of the poison, and you treat any secondary problems, like injuries, or maybe the turtle has pneumonia because it could not lift its head out of the water.”

 

After the emergency treatment, the turtle is not out of the woods. Fustukjian said the turtles must be carefully tended as the toxins, “which accumulate in the animal’s fatty tissue, slowly leave its system.”Patience and rigorous monitoring are essential. “The last turtle I treated for red tide, it took three weeks before becoming responsive.”

an aerial shot of the florida aquarium's sea turtle rehabilitation center in apollo beach on a sunny day

 

With its Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center, The Florida Aquarium has the personnel, space, and resources to save more sea turtles that otherwise would succumb to the algae harmful effects.

 

People, understandably, frequently call The Florida Aquarium when they see a distressed turtle. However, the appropriate contact is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Law Enforcement at 1-888-404-3922 or *FWC on a cell phone. Its officers will respond to the emergency and make sure the turtle receives the proper care at The Aquarium or another qualified institution.

 

The Florida Aquarium team also wants beachgoers and boaters to know they can aid in the algae bloom response effort by reporting any outbreaks they observe. The Florida Department of Environment Protection’s site lists all the contacts needed to report outbreaks, health effects and wildlife impacts. Aquarium officials also suggest residents register with the DEP’s weekly update on algae blooms.

 

Addressing the deadly algae blooms will require a rigorous statewide commitment to clean water. Even with that, there may be no eliminating the naturally occurring red tide, though perhaps its severity can be curtailed. But after last year’s horrors, residents should be encouraged that the state is no longer taking these microscopic but deadly menaces for granted and wildlife organizations such as The Florida Aquarium are prepared to provide aid to victims quickly. 


a headshot photo of joe guidry, author of this blog post and former opinion editor with the tampa tribune in front of the florida aquarium's mangrove tunnelABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Joe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...