Florida’s southwest coast, a ribbon of inlets and barrier islands normally brimming with wildlife, has become a red tide slaughterhouse this summer.
Dead fish by the thousands have clogged inlets and canals. Since Sunday, 10 dead Goliath grouper, the massive reef fish that can live four decades or more, have floated to the surface. At least 90 sea turtles have been found stranded as the tide stretches well into nesting season. And Tuesday, as hundreds of residents packed a standing-room-only Cape Coral yacht club to hear about the federal government’s efforts to deal with water conditions, a dead manatee washed up at a nearby boat ramp.
The list goes on: earlier this month the carcass of a whale shark was found on a Sanibel beach with red tide in its muscles, liver, intestines and stomach. Hundreds of double-breasted cormorants, brown pelicans and other seabirds have been sickened or died.
Coupled with a massive blue-green algae bloom that spread across Lake Okeechobee and snaked down the Caloosahatchee River in June, the dire conditions have infuriated businesses and residents, and drawn national attention to the normally quiet tourist towns.
“This is horrific what we’re enduring now, but it needs to be a wake-up call to people that clean water is important to more than just wildlife,” said Heather Barron, a veterinarian and research director at Sanibel’s CROW Clinic wildlife rescue center, which began treating poisoned birds as early as October. “As the person dealing with all these hundreds of dying animals, I’m upset.”
Better known as a sheller’s paradise, Sanibel has started issuing residents a daily status report and calculated the size of kills at six fish for every foot of beach, Barron said.
Up the coast in Englewood, Paige Bakhaus laid off five employees after shutting down her paddle board tour concession at Stump Pass Beach in July and scaling back business to just a few hours on Don Pedro Island.
“It affects us all when something like this happens,” said Bakhaus, who founded her company in 2011. “And my company’s really small, so imagine what it’s like for some of the other bigger businesses.”
Red tide, a type of marine algae that undergoes an explosive growth and begins producing toxins, typically occurs off Florida’s southwest coast every year between late summer and fall and spring. Due to currents and winds, some tides never reach shore. But this year’s tide, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials say, is the worst since the last big tide in 2006, that lasted for more than a year and a half and killed more than 250 manatees. Weather forecasters expect hazardous beach conditions to last at least through Thursday, according to the Fort Myers News-Press.
State environmental officials were not available to answer questions. But Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane blamed the tide on a perfect storm of coastal pollution and a hot Gulf ignited by flushing nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee.
“All they do is obviously fuel the red tide. So it’s a catalyst in making the problem worse,” he said.
Red tides are born far out at sea, fed by bacteria at the bottom of the Gulf, said Rick Bartleson, a research scientist with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. It’s not clear why the algae rise to the surface or move eastward, although some scientists have speculated the Loop Current may play a role. But conditions need to be perfect, he said.
“You have to have currents not tearing it apart when the bloom is getting more and more concentrated,” he said. “You also have to have just the right amount of nutrients.”
When Hurricane Irma plowed over the state, it spread tropical force winds across all 730 square miles of Lake Okeechobee and acted like a mixer for its nutrient-rich mucky bottom. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raced to lower water levels to protect the aging dike, which is about halfway through a $1.7 billion repair job. In the weeks after the storm, the Corps began released three and four times the amount of water above the threshold considered healthy for the river, according to weekly reports issued by the foundation. The district also back-pumped polluted water into the lake from the L-8 canal in Palm Beach County.
By November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite algae tracker began detecting blooms along the coast. Barron said seabirds poisoned by red tide began arriving as early as October, long before the fish kills arrived.
“That indicates there probably were a lot of sick fish,” she said. “If fish-eating birds are sick, then fish are sick.”
Then the turtles began arriving. Normally the red tide season ends before turtles begin nesting. But this year, the tides continued as turtles came ashore.
“Yesterday I was out and there were thousands and thousands of baby flounder and eels. There were just so many eels and with the babies, you think wow, this is the future generation that’s clearly pretty severely affected,” she said.
While the state tracks red tides annually, and issues regular forecasts during the season, inconsistent monitoring and funding makes it impossible to tell whether there are more or fewer tides occurring, according to the state algae bloom website. Data has been collected since 1953 but before 1998 most of the samples were collected near shore and at varying depths. After 1998, the state received federal funding for two five-year monitoring programs that provided consistent data. But after the money ran out, the state relied on volunteers to collect samples.
But Barron said in her seven years at the wildlife clinic, the number of red tide cases has consistently increased.
And this year was the first time in his 12 years as mayor that the city needed to hire more workers to keep the rotting fish from feeding the bloom with additional nutrients, Ruane said.
How long the tide lasts remains to be seen, Bartleson said. Tides in the winter can be flushed out by cold fronts. But with many hot months still to come, the only thing that might help is a good strong current or a virus that exists in tides.
“We’ve had all this rain and now all these dead fish,” he said, “so we’re not running out of nutrients any time soon.”
And while red tide is an annual event, Ruane sees the severity of this year as a chance to educate his constituents about the risks of over-fertilizing, not addressing pollution from stormwater run-off and the need for long-term fixes to the Everglades. He’s also hoping to convince the Corps — he took the agency’s South Florida deputy commander Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds on a tour Tuesday — to speed up changes in managing the lake and reconsider flushing water to the coasts.
It should also serve as a wake-up call, Baroon said.
“Wildlife is the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “It’s the thing telling us your environment is very unhealthy and as a human species you need to do something about it.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly state the size of Lake Okeechobee.