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Florida Gulf Coast’s sugar-sand beaches attract visitors from around the globe, but this year they are drawing international attention because they have become a veritable horror movie. Those fabled shores are smothered with dead fish and an overwhelming stench as deadly algae outbreaks are killing fish, crabs, sea turtles and dolphins and other marine creatures from Florida Bay to the mouth of Tampa Bay.
While the death toll changes daily, the toxic brew has killed more than 400 sea turtles, nearly 100 manatees, and even a young whale shark. It also is causing people to flee the coast, a few to the emergency room, with burning eyes and hacking coughs. The environmental and economic impact is devastating. Yet the bloom threat is complex and defies simple remedy, though unquestionably cleaning up polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee should be a priority.
The Florida Aquarium staff has plenty of experience treating red tide’s wildlife victims and is prepared to come to their aid as the bloom moves north. Dr. Ari Fustukjian, associate veterinarian at The Florida Aquarium, detailed its insidious 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.” Severe cases, he said, usually result in death. “Less severe cases affect different species in different ways. Sea turtles often become comatose. Manatees become neurologic and can show signs of seizures.” Fustukjian said fish – living, eating and breathing in affected waters – rarely can be saved. However, the toxin takes longer to kill a turtle or manatee. If found and rescued, they may be brought back from the brink, but it can take weeks or months. They must be kept in clean water and given fluids and antibiotics as the toxins work their way out of the system.
Sometimes as the sea turtles float helplessly, they are attacked by sharks or hit by boats, and those wounds must be treated. Fustukjian predicts red tide will continue to claim victims even after the bloom dissipates. He said, “It accumulates in seagrasses and is ingested by manatees and turtles. You are going to keep seeing effects because it gets into the bottom of the food chain.” Fustukjian said oysters and clams endure the red tide well, though they become unsafe to eat. The filter-feeders actually eat the red tide microorganism, and Manatee County is experimenting with reviving its oyster and clam population to combat red tide.
While red tide is commonly faulted for all harmful outbreaks, there are two culprits in this summer’s coastal carnage: red tide and blue-green algae. Both are deadly to marine life. Pollution undoubtedly is a major cause of the blue-green algae blooms. With red tide, the pollution link is subtler. Dr. Robert Weisberg of the University of South Florida’s Collaboration for Prediction of Red Tides has studied red tides for 20 years. He said that the red tide microorganism, or Karenia brevis, normally is found at low concentrations about 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. It takes the proper conditions for an explosive bloom to occur.
Ironically, a key condition is low offshore nutrient levels. Given that algae thrive on nutrients, that seems crazy, but Weisberg explained other fast-growing, less harmful microorganisms “prevail” when the nutrient level is high. In contrast, “red tide grows very slowly and can get a foothold in low-nutrient water.” Without much competition from the other microorganisms, the red tide can reach a concentration point where it begins killing fish. “Ocean circulation takes it to shore along the bottom, not the surface, and it becomes dominant,” he said.
Weisberg suspects that nutrient pollution contributes to red tide’s growth as it moves to shore. There likely are other factors, including heat, salinity, even windborne dust from Africa. He said the Collaboration for the Prediction of Red Tides’ computer models, based on wind, currents, cell counts and such, indicate this outbreak will continue to be severe in the coming weeks. Weisberg warned against thinking that simply eliminating nutrient pollution will “end red tide.” After all, it is a natural occurrence and was observed by Spanish explorers long before development and agriculture claimed much of the landscape. Though water pollution may not be the direct cause of a red tide bloom, many long-time Floridians, myself included, tend to believe it is making outbreaks longer and more intense. Red tides were a rarity when I was a kid. They now seem far more common. This latest bloom has been around since last October. Weisberg said the science is not clear on such assumptions. There are still years with no red tides. But he stressed, regardless, clean water is essential to a healthy ecosystem. Unlike red tide, there is no question whatsoever about pollution being a major cause of the other fish-killing bloom on the Gulf coast.
Toxic blue-green algae outbreaks along Southwest Gulf waters are the result of nutrient-laden water being released from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Okeechobee waters, tainted by runoff from surrounding agricultural operations, also are emptied into the St. Lucie River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean with similar harmful effects. The water is discharged during rainy periods to prevent flooding. Environmentalists for years have pushed for a water storage and treatment system with a large reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee as part of the Everglades restoration plan. This would prevent flooding, end the damaging releases to the coast and provide a reliable source of clean fresh water to Florida Bay, where seagrasses are dying because of the lack of clean, fresh water. Modest plans are in the works as part of the federal-state Everglades restoration effort, but the plans still require Congressional approval.
Captains for Clean Water, started by Southwest Florida charter boat captains appalled by the fouling of their fertile fishing grounds, as well as other environmental groups, want action. They also believe the state could be more aggressive on cleanup, pointing out that Amendment One, properly spent, would provide the necessary funds. The constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2014 required the state to spend one-third of real estate transactions on conservation. Though passed by 75 percent of voters, Tallahassee lawmakers have largely ignored the public’s directive, spending the funds for other uses, including salaries. Too often, politicians, decrying “job-killing regulations,” consider only the costs, not the benefits, of environmental protections. The folly of such short-sightedness can be seen in the mounds of dead fish along Southwest Florida waterways. The economic impacts are already are serious.
The Naples Daily News reports the fish kills are affecting home sales. In Sarasota County, where tourism has a nearly $3 billion economic impact, there are reports of coastal businesses being off by 50 percent. Tourism in hard-hit Lee and Collier counties has an economic impact of nearly $4.5 billion. In Manatee County, it’s $1.2 billion. The Naples newspaper calculated the 19 counties and 164 municipalities affected by the health of the Everglades ecosystem stretching from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay generate 55 percent of Florida’s real estate values. Clearly, cleaning our waters is as important for Florida’s economy as it is for marine life.
Moreover, as Dr. Fustukjian underscored, Florida must recognize the necessity of protecting entire watersheds. “When you change the nutrient levels available to a bloom, you are going to have repercussions,” he said. “We can’t ignore that what we do drives environmental changes.”
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune