Supercharged by Pollution, Florida’s Toxic Algae Crisis Continues Unabated

[[GUEST BLOG]] You can see more of Julie Dermansky’s in-depth stories and photos on this crisis as well as other environmental issues at DeSmog Blog: Dermansky” August 16, 2018 15:57″Covering stuff up doesn’t make it go away,” said Lilly Womble, an 18-year-old on vacation on Florida’s Sanibel Island. The island is world renowned for its seashells but that day we were watchingemployees from the Sanibel Moorings Resort pull a sheet over a dead loggerhead sea turtle on the beach behind the hotel. One of the mencovering the turtle said that people had seen it long enough, and hedidn’t want it toscarekids.”I think it is better if kids see what we are doing to theplanet,” Womble told me. “Maybe seeing the dead turtle will make them payattention to the environment.” Her 9-year-old sisterEllie agreed, adding that “covering the turtle won’t stop other turtlesfromdying.”Earlier that day the sisters had been on a charter fishing boat 10 milesoff Sanibel Island’s coast, where they saw lots of dead fish, large and small, and another dead sea turtle floating on the Gulf of Mexico’s surface. Thoughthey caught some fish, their father, an avid fisherman, had his daughters throw them back.He explained to them thatit may beyears before marine life can recoverfrom the impacts of the ongoing explosion of toxic algae that already has killed hundreds of tons of fishand other sea life washing up on Florida’s southwestcoast.Dead tarpon on Sanibel Island’sbeach.Womble sisters and a dead loggerhead sea turtle on SanibelIsland.The massmortality of aquatic life which some have called “unprecedented” along 150 miles of Florida’s GulfCoast, stretching from Naples in the south to Sarasota in the north, is the result ofharmful algal blooms, which have been supercharged bypollution.A persistentred tide, caused by a toxin-producing marine alga, that began last October intensified thissummer after a blue-green algae outbreak in Lake Okeechobee made its way to the Gulf. Conditions were exacerbated when theU.S.Army Corps of Engineers released water from the lake to the sea in order to avoid flooding, killing the lake’s blue-green algae (more precisely known as cyanobacteria) and further feeding the red tide at sea. Both algae pose public health risks to people and exposure to their toxins can be fatal to aquaticlife.A State inCrisisThe Sanibel Moorings staff aren’t the only ones tryingto cover up issues related to Florida’s dual toxic algae crisis, say critics of theresponse.Florida Governor RickScott and many other politicians involved in protecting Florida’s wateraretrying to downplay the human role in the crisis, according to Jason Pim. Pim is a Cape Coral waterfront homeowner and hadto temporarily evacuate his family due to the rancid odor fromthe toxic blue-green algae that had taken over the canal inhisbackyard.Fish kill on the bay side of SanibelIsland.Jason Pim with his mother Carol, who keeps her boat in a canal in her backyard, which is contaminated with cyanobacteria.I met the Womble sisters and Pim during my second trip to Florida this summer.I returned two weeksafter first documenting the environmental crisis in July” spurred to return after watchingnational news reports show the mounting fish kill andfail to mention pollution’s contribution.Governor Scott declared a state of emergency on August 13.The proclamationsecured funding tohelp pay for the removal of the hundreds of tons of dead fish andother animals, including sea turtles and manatees, bothendangered species, from Florida beaches in order to encouragetourism.Temporary workers make $12.50 an hour, cleaning up a fish kill in a canal on Sanibel Island caused bycyanobacteria.Dumpster on Sanibel Island full of deadfish.Temporary workers raking dead fish off the beach on Sanibel Island.The governor’s declaration followsanother one he made inJulyin response to the cyanobacteria crisis impacting inland waterways stretching from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic.These freshwater rivers and canals arereceiving toxic algae-laden water discharged from Lake Okeechobeeunder orders of the ArmyCorps.A couple with their children on Siesta Key Beach, the morning before their wedding. The Turtle Bay Resort where their wedding was being held, promised to clean the dead fish off the beach before the ceremony later thatevening.Too Much Nutrient Pollution in theWaterMany state politicians and officials are quick to point out that the algae creating both toxicsituations are naturally occurring organisms. However, they fail to mention that the algae’s current population explosions and the aftermath are notsolely naturalphenomena.Pollution from high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are feeding two different harmfulblooms: Red tide is caused by a marine plankton impacting the Gulf Coast, and the freshwater cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) is affectinginlandwaterways.The two blooms arecaused by distinct organisms but both areresponding to excess nutrients running off the land into Florida’s fresh and saltwaters and feeding the toxic algae populationbooms.Rachael Pyle, who recently moved to Florida, looking out over a fish kill that stretched for miles off North CaptivaIsland.A dead manatee washed up under mangrove trees on the Gulf side of Captiva Island.Florida’s water quality issues have been under Gov. Scott’s responsibility for the last eight years. Instead of doing anything to prevent the two current toxic algae crises,however, Scott has been “throwing gasoline on this marine life dumpsterfire,” Pim said. “The Scott administration spent eightyears deregulating and slashing budgets supposedly benefitting ustax payers. But cleaning this mess up will cost us many times morethan if our leaders would have had the political courage to limitthe nutrient pollution in the first place.”Like Pim, Dr. Rick Bartleson, a scientist with Sanibel-CaptivaConservation Foundation’s (SCCF) marine lab, believesregulating nutrient pollution is necessary to prevent futureoutbreaks.TheSCCF’s mission is to protectcoastal habitats and aquatic resources on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and thesurrounding watershed. It iscollecting the sea turtles stranded on the islands, most of themdead, and monitoring how many are dying from the redtide.Dr. Rick Bartleson, a scientist with Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s (SCCF) marine lab.To address Florida’s water quality problems, the foundation is pushing to end development in wetlands (which act as natural water filters), establish protective water quality standards, and upgrade stormwater regulations for both urban and agricultural areas.Bartleson is troubled that many reports about Florida’s toxicalgae crisis quote politicians who stress that red tide is a naturaloccurrence and happens every year but omit the roleeutrophication plays in increasing the intensity and duration of red tideblooms.Eutrophication, or the over-enrichment of water by nutrients such asnitrogen and phosphorus, has emerged as one of the leading causes of water quality impairment not just in Florida but in water bodies worldwide, Bartlesonexplained. Fertilizers used onlawns and crops and waste from septic systems leach excess nitrogen and phosphorus into waterways, feeding toxic algae blooms everywhere.Bartleson believesfuture toxic algae outbreaks can be curbed, but that it will onlyhappen if politicians turn to scientists forsolutions.Counting Turtles, Dead andAliveI met Kelly Sloan,SCCF’s turtle specialist, while photographing the dead loggerhead sea turtle near the Sanibel Moorings Resort.Sloan removed the sheetand measured and marked the turtle in order to indicate it had been counted andsampled before she notified the island’s sanitation department that they couldbury it. Running short on space, the foundation can no longer collect all of the dead turtles, and this dead loggerhead was too big to handle.Only a small sample of the turtle was collected to determine how itdied.Kelly Sloan and Audrey Albrecht counting sea turtle eggs three days after hatchlings made their way to the Gulf ofMexico.Sloan is alsoresponsible for monitoring the sea turtlenests on Sanibel Island.I joined her and Audrey Albrecht,SCCF’s shorebird coordinator and biologist, as they continued an inventory of sea turtle hatchlings by counting recently hatched eggs in nests.While digging up designated nests from the sand and counting the eggs, they found three alive hatchlings likely too weak to make it out of the nest on theirown.One died shortly after it was found. Another was too weak to swim offon its own, and is now in rehabilitation.The third hatchling made it out into the Gulf with a little extra help from Sloan. Sheassured me that the baby sea turtle had a good chance to make it past the red tide because the hatchlings are born with a yolk sack thatprovides them energy for their first fewdays.Sea turtle hatchling that Sloan helped on its way into the Gulf of Mexico.Sloan is hopeful that most of the sea turtle hatchlings along Florida’s southwest coast will be able to swim beyond the toxic algae unaffected, which reflects the scientific consensus at the moment.After the tiny turtle swam off, we continued in silence down the beach littered with dead fish as the scientists monitored the other turtle nests, counting the future prospects of these endangered animals.Main image: Fish kill on South Lido Beach, Florida. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog

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