Boat dealers and marina owners in Florida are calling it a double whammy: the nearly yearlong red tide that has caused massive fish kills along the Gulf Coast, and the blue-green algae blooms that covered 90 percent of Lake Okeechobee and then flowed down the Caloosahatchee River, affecting marinas and canals in Fort Myers and Cape Coral.
The red tide all but shut down boating along Florida’s southwest coast in July and August, and the blue-green bloom curtailed fishing on “Lake O” for the summer. “This red tide is right up there with the worst I’ve ever seen,” says Richard Pierce, associate vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. “It’s severe and lasting. While it’s patchy and tends to move around, it has extended from Tampa Bay all the way down to Naples.”
Spanning five counties is unusual for any red tide, a natural phenomenon that has been around at least since the 16th century, when Spanish galleons roamed Florida’s Gulf Coast. This red tide, however, has lasted longer than any in the past decade. Marine biologists at Mote identified it in October 2017. While it has since strengthened and receded along different parts of the coast, by early September it was growing in northern areas such as Pinellas County. At its worst, it extended 20 miles from the coast out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Red tides come from Karenia brevis, a phytoplankton that multiplies rapidly in warm water. The organisms form patches of red tide, usually offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore winds can push the patches into the coast. Currents traveling north and south, and even the plankton itself, can also influence the movement of red tide.
“There are always a few cells of K-brevis per liter of water in the Gulf,” Pierce says. “But when they grow to 30 million cells per liter, it becomes so toxic that nothing else can survive.”
In July, fish kills covering the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva islands made national news. On Sanibel, 60,000 pounds of marine life — including fish, sea turtles, dolphins and manatees — were hauled from the beaches. In August, the red tide extended north toward Sarasota and into Tampa Bay.
Red tide can cause respiratory problems for humans, so boating and sunning on the beaches virtually stopped. Hotels and coastal restaurants saw their businesses come to a halt. Boat-rental operations, charter fishing businesses and boat dealers also saw revenues dry up.
“We experienced a growing volume in tows for the year through June, but when this crisis hit and then lingered, our business dropped about 50 percent for August,” says Capt. Kyle Potts, who operates TowBoatUS out of Port Charlotte, Florida. “The water quality issues in South Florida are a growing concern for the health of our local economy.”
Tarpon fishing and the guides who run charter businesses also took a hit, says Capt. Chris Whitman, owner of Stillwater Charters in Fort Myers, Florida. “We had extended, bad blooms on the 100-mile stretch from Sanibel to Boca Grande, so the fish stayed offshore instead of running where they normally run,” Whitman says. “We canceled a lot of trips this summer.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission took the extraordinary step of changing rules for snook and redfish to catch and release, at least through September. “We’ve seen the devastation to redfish and snook populations in southwest Florida, and we support the catch-and-release initiative taken,” Brian Gorski, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Florida, said in a statement.
Numerous other marine businesses have been affected. Louis Chemi, chief operating officer of Freedom Boat Clubs, which has large rental fleets in southwest Florida’s coastal towns, says he’s seen a dramatic drop in the number of boats going out. “Our usage stats are way down, but we haven’t seen much of a decline in membership,” he says. “Our members are waiting it out.”
Tom Papesh, owner of York Road Marine on Pine Island, says the red tide has customers putting purchases of Bayliner boats on hold. “In July, we had strong inshore winds that brought a lot of death here,” Papesh says. “It comes and goes. Last week, there were dead fish everywhere. Now, the water is beautiful. We’ve also seen a gradual return of boats on the water.”
Pierce says some scientists theorize that red tide is like a forest fire that cleans out everything in its path and “rebalances” the ecosystem. “There are other harmful blooms all over the world,” Pierce says. “And this red tide occurs from the Mexican coast all the way over here. It’s a natural phenomenon that can’t really be controlled.”
Another bloom originating in Lake Okeechobee’s warm summer waters wreaked havoc there during July and August, then was ferried down the Caloosahatchee River after the Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates, dumping a concoction of green slime into the river. Blue-green algae thrives on a mixture of sunlight, pollution and warm water.
Karl Havens, director of the Florida Sea Grant program, monitored Lake Okeechobee’s bloom, noting in early September that about half the lake was still covered. The green bloom algae, or cyanobacteria, is toxic. It feeds on phosphorous and nitrogen runoff from farm fields and leaky septic tanks. “I’ve worked with that lake for 23 years, and it’s right up there with the largest one I’ve seen,” Havens says. “We’ll most likely see it around until the water starts getting colder in the fall. A tropical storm could also take care of it really quick.”
But there are naysayers. Ramon Iglesias, general manager for Roland Martin Marina in Clewiston, Florida, on Lake Okeechobee, says national media blew that region’s bloom way out of proportion.
“They’re showing guacamole algae, but that’s where there’s no water flow,” Iglesias says. “People all over the country see that big giant blob of algae and assume that’s all there is. It’s a lie, and it has impacted our business terribly.”
The truth, Iglesias says, is that the algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee are hard to find. “Our fishing guides can find them, but it would take them time,” he says. “Our fishing has been phenomenal this summer. It’s a case of the media exploiting the issue.”
Down in Fort Myers, Deborah Hussey, owner of Prosperity Pointe Marina, is bracing for the next time the dams of Lake Okeechobee are opened and the green water flows into the Caloosahatchee. She says green algae devastated her marina for two months, giving the people who live aboard boats respiratory issues and creating a putrid smell.
“The algae greatly impacted my store business because nobody was out fishing,” Hussey says. “This one was the worst we’ve ever seen. We’ve even brought in a special dredge to try to get rid of it.”
The blue-green algae does not survive in salt water, but this summer it thrived in the brackish marinas of Fort Myers and canals of Cape Coral, with little water flow. Whole marinas turned bright green, and canals filled with rotting fish.
Desperate businesses and homeowners inundated Mote Marine Laboratories and Aquarium with pleas for help for weeks. Pierce says the laboratory was testing ozone on one canal to try and kill the cyanobacteria. “We found a putrefied canal in Boca Grande and filtered 600,000 gallons of water to see if it would work,” Pierce says. “Ozone oxygenates the water and destroys organic matter, including the toxins. We knew it worked on our hospital tanks for injured sea animals. The results on the canal were promising.”
A tropical storm up the west coast of Florida could blow the red tide far out into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists also say it’s likely that the red tide and blue-green algae blooms will go away as water temperatures cool in the fall.
To that point, Whitman says the red tide along the Southwest Florida coast was beginning to lessen by early September in his fishing grounds. But Pierce says there is no funding for basic research of red tide, let alone mitigation and control, so whatever comes next is hard to predict for sure.
“We need to understand it much more to get a better handle,” he says. “But that may not happen. If the worst ones come with 10-year stretches between them, people will most likely forget about it until the next time one hits.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.