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September’s Shoreline Spotlight

A monthly submission from the Marine Resources Task Force

September 12, 2018
By Louise Kowich - MRTF member , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Red, brown and neon green not exactly the colors one has in mind when dreaming of coastal Florida. The summer of 2018 will be remembered as a toxic brew of Red Tide, brown discharges from Lake Okeechobee, and Blue Green algae. This 'perfect storm' had troubled our waters since July, wreaking havoc to our environment, economy and quality of life. Visitors and residents alike wonder: when will the nightmare end?

The answer to that question depends on one's time frame. In the short term, the harmful algal blooms (HAB's) will most likely be gone for this season -in the coming months, depending on storms, currents and the volume of Lake Okeechobee discharges. The long-term issues exposed by these lingering blooms are more complex. This problem has been decades in the making and will take a long term public engagement to solve.

Karenia brevis, the microscopic bacteria that causes Red Tide, has been documented since colonial times. The last massive bloom hit our region in 2006. This year's bout is notable for its amplitude and duration. It began in October 2017, after Hurricane Irma, off the coast of Sarasota, and reached very high levels in Lee and Collier counties this July. NASA scientists suggest Red Tide is initiated by dust blown here from the Sahara Desert. What fuels and exacerbates the blooms are water-borne nutrients coming from fertilizers and human and animal waste on land. By late August, high concentrations of Karenia brevis extended in the Gulf of Mexico from Naples to Pinellas County more than 140 miles. The casualties include millions of fish, thousands of birds, and hundreds of sea turtles, manatees and dolphins.

Simultaneously, our estuaries have been slimed by a separate, unrelated bloom commonly called Blue Green algae. Like Red Tide, cyanobacteria occurs naturally, but thrives in fresh or brackish waters, not the salt water preferred by Karenia brevis. Notably, cyanobacteria is thought to be one of the earliest organisms, the primordial soup from which other life forms sprung. The 2018 cyanobacteria bloom originated in the northern reaches of Lake Okeechobee and slithered its way down to us via discharges into the Caloosahatchee River, where it wended its way as far as the canals of Cape Coral. At one point this summer, it covered 90 percent of the surface of Lake Okeechobee, and extended deep into the water column. Both Red Tide and Blue Green algae are considered 'harmful algal blooms' or HAB's, because they lead to health complications in living organisms. Red Tide and Blue Green algae can cause respiratory ailments in humans and be fatal to creatures that inhabit water. Blue Green Algae contains microcystins that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, ALS and Alzheimers. Both HAB's infiltrate sand as well as air and water, creating additional hazards for beach goers.

As naturally occurring scourges, Red Tide and Blue Green Algae will most likely abate in the coming months from storms, currents and seasonal changes like lower temperatures. On the other hand, water pollution will not solve itself without human agency. We must become more proactive in reducing the nutrients that fuel these blooms. Phosphorous from mining and fertilizers (used in agricultural, commercial, and residential applications), and nitrogen from animal and human waste (from ranches, septic systems and storm runoff), continue to pollute Florida's springs, lakes, rivers, and beaches. Lee County's Water Resources Laboratory and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida have certified our waters as impaired, using a wide range of scientific parameters.

Fortunately, the toxic summer of 2018 has jolted the public at large into understanding that clean water must be our state 's top priority if our tourist- based economy, lush subtropical habitats, and enviable lifestyle are to survive.

What can individuals do to help? Above all, we citizens need to make water quality a part of our daily conversations. The "Sunshine State" is above all else a water state. Think Globally and act locally. Clean water must be central to our personal decisions, civic discourse and political debate. Here in coastal Lee County, we live on land that is at origin an extension of the Everglades. We must learn to treat it with the kind of respect we accord that fragile ecosystem to our south. Limit or eliminate fertilizers, especially during periods of heavy rain. Landscape with only native plants. Inquire from your condo association, golf or tennis club, or other recreational facility what measures they take to minimize fertilizer and other pollutants from reaching our water. Reduce the amount of harmful cleaning agents and opt for bio-friendly products. Learn about the role the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection play in monitoring and enforcing water quality standards. Become a student of the hydrological solutions to the Lake Okeechobee discharges, like the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan ("CERP").

It is a privilege to live in Florida. And with that privilege comes the responsibility of stewardship for our environment. Use your voice. Use your vote.

The Marine Resource Task Force, or MRTF, is an all-volunteer advisory committee for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. MRTF meets the second Wednesday of the month, the next meeting is on Sept. 12, at 4:30 p.m., in council chambers at Town Hall. The public is encouraged to attend and invited to comment. We will discuss the reusable bag program, beach access signs, island friendly yard certifications and any other topics as time allows. There is no murphy this month since MRTF did not meet in August.



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