As blue-green algae seen on Lake Okeechobee, task force meets

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After making headlines last year for its invasion of Lake Okeechobee and tributaries, there are signs that the first blue-green algae bloom has returned to the lake. At the same time, a five-member task force assembled by Gov. Ron DeSantis will make recommendations about ways to reduce the nutrients that feed the blue-green algae, while also looking at connections to the red tide on Florida’s west coast.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that the first signs of blue-green algae were found last week near the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam in Martin County on the northeast side of the lake. Last summer, aerial photos showed algae blooms covering much of the lake. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that blue-green algae can harm freshwater and brackish ecoysystems, but also in some cases be toxic to humans.

“Like red tides, cyanobacteria can grow and accumulate, or bloom, when environmental conditions such as light availability and temperature are favorable,” reads a statement on the FWC page. “Nutrient pollution from agricultural and urban runoff causes the majority of freshwater cyanobacteria blooms. Other conditions that contribute to blooms are stagnant water resulting from a lack of natural flushing and land clearing.”

Some scientists are connecting the algae blooms to the red tide that plagued parts of Florida’s Gulf coast last summer.

DeSantis created the Blue-green Algae Task Force in April to make recommendations on ways to reduce nutrients in Lake Okeechobee and estuaries. The task force held its first meeting on Wednesday in Tallahassee.

Task force member Michael Parsons, a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University and director of the Coastal Watershed Institute and Vester Field Station, told the Sun-Sentinel that “fine-tuning” of existing regulations is needed, rather than replacing rules.

“In any field, if you make the rules too strong, too stringent, too unfair, they won’t be followed,” Parsons told the paper. “I think there is a compromise between allowing people the flexibility to work within certain frameworks as well as getting the needed results or the intended results within that framework. You can’t force people to do things, but on the other hand, we do have goals we need to meet, so there has to be a compromise between the two.”

Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell told the paper that environmentalists in Florida are expecting “action” from the task force. It will meet every three to four weeks through August. “The causes of our blue-green algae problems are well understood,” Wraithmell said. “At this point, we need folks who are going to scour the science, look at our regulatory structure, and draft a bold prescription for how to get us out of the problems we are facing right now.”

Thomas Frazer, Florida’s chief science officer, told the paper that the state is already doing much work, but more could be done.

“If we need to do more monitoring, for example to evaluate the effectiveness of various projects, we should probably be doing that,” Frazer told the paper. “If we need to look at a regulation and change that regulation so there is more oversight, people are more accountable, that’s on the table as well.”

Frazer said he’s “optimistic that what we come up with here is not going to sit on a shelf.”

“We have an executive order with a charge that says we’re here to make a difference and we’re going to use this committee to identify areas where we can insert science to make better decisions with how we allocate our resources,” Frazer said.

The committee’s final report and recommendations will be due in September. 

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