Looking at Florida’s growing issue with algal blooms

Photo by Brenda Lin

Toxic algae affecting coastlines in Florida has forced authorities to declare a state of emergency in seven counties. Lee county has been hit particularly hard with thousands of tons of dead sea life washing up on the shores of Fort Myers Beach.

From the time I was six, I would fly by myself from Houston to Fort Myers to visit my dad and spend a weekend at the beach. Those memories are some of my favorites, fostering my passion for conservation and dedication to the environment. Swimming has always been my sport of choice mostly because of my upbringing in southwest Florida. Fort Myers is at the corner of the Caloosahatchee River, the Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico. The sand is powdery and white which means sand castle building competitions are frequently held there and tourists flock to the area year round.

I loved the beach and all the animals that lived there. There were sand dollars littering the ocean floor, sea turtles swimming in the shallows, sandpipers scuttling across the sand, fighting conchs dragging themselves along and manatees lumbering across the canals.

Currently, clean up efforts are underway to collect all of the dead sea life littering the beach. Tourism is down and even locals are trying to get away from the area. The algae polluting the water has essentially suffocated and poisoned everything else living there from the sea grass that manatees eat to people in the area. The CDC lists the possible sources of exposure as eating contaminated fish or shellfish, drinking the water, swimming or breathing in sea spray. Local fishing has come to a stand still and people are avoiding “locally-sourced” seafood in stores, with good reason.

The most common method of infection is through contaminated food. Many dogs have also fallen ill from drinking water from lakes and from trying to eat dead animals on the beach. Symptoms of Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB)-Associated Illness include vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, weakness, low blood pressure and numbness.

Fertilizer used on lawns and farms in the area around Lake Okeechobee cause these algae blooms. Fertilizer runs off into the lake or canals and then follows the Caloosahatchee River out to the Gulf of Mexico on the west side of Florida.

The algae blooms in the lake and freshwater areas and then continues out into salt water.

Algae flourishes in warm freshwater, so increasing the salinity of waterways in South Florida poses a viable solution. Lake runoff has caused problems for years, causing cloudy brown water in the water and along the beach.

In the distant past, the water from north of Lake Okeechobee would pass through the lake and overflow to the south in the Everglades; but, because people live in the area, the government built levees and eventually the Herbert Hoover Dike to contain the flooding runoff, which is now diverted through lakes into the ocean on either coast.

Funding and resources have now been diverted to help fight the algae spread, but the efforts seem to be too little too late. Waiting to fix a problem until it has been declared an emergency can  and will be detrimental to the ecosystem.

Both the state and federal government need to implement regulations to prevent fertilizer from being used unless absolutely necessary. We cannot let the agricultural industry in Florida destroy the tourism industry as well as the beautiful   environment that drew people to the area in the first place. Humans have taken their toll on Florida by overfishing, developing and drying the Everglades with invasive tree species, building on the natural habitats of sea turtles, destroying reefs with anchors and just by messing with the coral too much.

Even twenty years ago my dad would reminisce about how much healthier the reefs and wildlife were in his childhood. Now, I get the opportunity to do the same. A plastic straw ban went into effect on Fort Myers Beach in February and boating speed limits have long existed to protect manatees but little has been done to combat the growing industrial chemical pollution.

Keeping plastic out of our oceans is a great effort to make, but so much more needs to be done. Billboards all over Florida state “Don’t feed the monster” to remind us to use caution when fertilizing, but change has to be on a large scale. Small individual efforts are great, but changes to the culture and laws will do more to stop the monster.