Home Environment Florida’s Perfect Environmental Storm: The Complex Balance of Biodiversity and Sustainability

Florida’s Perfect Environmental Storm: The Complex Balance of Biodiversity and Sustainability


Part One The Rank Smell of Blooming Algae and Rotting Corpses: Florida’s Tipping Point

This article is the first part of a series covering a controversial subject with a number of differing positions on the cause, effect, and solutions to the red tide crisis.

The putrid smell is the first thing that hits you followed by the site of a rotting graveyard of marine victims, all felled by a single-celled organism, the dinoflagellate species Karenia brevisalgae, colloquially known as red tide or Florida red tide.

The Science

By now you have become familiar with Florida’s red tide if not by reading the articles then by glancing over the hundreds of titles from “Everything you Need to Know About Red Tide” to “Red Tide Blamed for Massive Fish Kill at Robinson Preserve”. Red tides, named for the muddy brown hues created by the harmful algae blooms (HABs), are not uncommon in Florida (and a number of other states). In fact, many states plan for the bloom, taking measures to warn citizens of the possible exposure to toxins and other harmful effects. The Karenia brevis, most abundant in Florida’s waters, is a different species than the algae bloom found in the northeastern United States and the Gulf of Maine. This is caused by another species of dinoflagellate known as Alexandrium fundyense. The related Alexandrium monilatumis found in subtropical or tropical shallow seas and estuaries in the western Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern Pacific.

This isn’t the only harmful algae bloom haunting Florida’s waterways. The toxic blue-green algae plaguing Florida’s fresh waterways, like Okeechobee, is believed by many to contribute to the massive die-off of marine animals as well as creating havoc with human health, drinking water quality, and upsetting the balance of a once pristine state. It is necessary to clarify that blue-green algae are not algae at all – they are bacteria called cyanobacteria. And there are many species, many of them quite beneficial that are normally present in many lakes, estuaries, and oceans. Certain cyanobacteria however can be toxic to both aquatic animals, and to people. The cyanobacteria blooms which occurred this summer in Okeechobee and within the freshwater rivers which are outlet from Okeechobee, were the toxic species. When presented with ideal conditions these toxic cyanobacteria will grow quickly, producing cyanotoxins (toxins produced by cyanobacteria) that can make humans and animals sick.  

The Problem

While these two phenomena are separate and caused by differing species of algae, combined, they have created a huge challenge within the state of Florida. The red tide phenomenon isn’t new in the state nor is it historically new. In biblical terms, many scholars believe the Nile river ‘turning into a river of blood’ as described by Exodus is actually a red tide. The red tide is also referenced in Homer’s Iliad in Greece, documents from the Tang Dynasty in China, American Indian Lore from Alaska, and during the Spanish explorers’ discovery of the New World in 15thcentury. In this case, Florida’s red tide, while it could be described as a tragedy of biblical proportions, is more aptly described as a modern-day plague. While the red tide is similar to the black plague that killed indiscriminately in England, it is far more vicious and deadlier to the environment as a whole, killing on a massive scale, taking the lives of millions of fish, invertebrates, and mammals. Unlike the plague, the cause is not a single species of bacteria. Instead, the deadly combination of the red tide and toxic blue-green algae are attributable to a variety of factors, from natural to man-made. Many scientists blame gulf temperatures, weather patterns, dust from the Saharan Desert, salinity in the water, pollution, as well as increased and wide spread use of pesticides and fertilizers. Researchers have observed a long-term upward trend in the concentration of Karenia brevissince the 1950s.

So, who or what is responsible for this upsurge?

The answers lay in a complex system from agricultural businesses along Lake Okeechobee, chemical spraying of unwanted or invasive aquatic plants, flow manipulation and drainage of water in the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, and a lack of a cohesive plan to mitigate these very different sources combining together and flowing into the Gulf.  This culmination of factors lends to each other and unfortunately this is where the contentious discussions begin. The science is conflicted regarding the overall causal factors, influenced by an honest misunderstanding of the actual problem, industry supported academia and research, and politics at all levels. The current situation is further amplified by the bureaucratic dependency on quick and short-term solutions and a refusal to acknowledge the depth of the massive die off of a multitude of different species and the increase in cancer and other diseases tied to the resulting environmental degradation – although the evidence speaks for itself.

What do an environmental engineer, a pastor, an environmental advocate, and a charter boat captain have in common?

These men, along with many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are keenly aware of the environmental disaster that has become synonymous with Florida. We will meet them along this journey as well as a number of other individuals who are fighting not only for the environment but their lives, as they face science, public conceptions and the government head on.

Allen Stewart III P.E is a registered professional environmental engineer, biologist, and the retired principal engineer and vice president of HydroMentia, Inc. of Ocala, Florida. A native Floridian and an advocate for environmental preservation, reclamation, and restoration of Lake Apopka, Lake Okeechobee, The Indian River Lagoon, and The Everglades, Stewart has extensive experience in the development, design, and full-scale operations of impaired surface water and advanced wastewater treatment facilities based upon Managed Aquatic Plant Systems (MAPS), extending back to the mid 1970’s.

“There is an interconnection across the Kissimmee Basin, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades. These systems are intertwined and when we begin to change their ecosystems we affect change all along the larger system from the rivers, marshes and lakes down to the Gulf. Nature has a way of establishing an equilibrium. The Everglades is very unique – a flat marsh some 50 miles wide which flows at an imperceptibly slow rate for about 120 miles south from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay. Prior to the influx of European culture, the area was a cornucopia of life for fish, birds, and other wildlife, which the indigenous people sustained as a source of food, cultural and religious ceremony, medicine, shelter and water.

Around 6,000 years ago nature set up a balanced system—an equilibrium; however, when Euro-American populations moved in and realized how challenging it was to farm in the flooded marsh, they began to place much of their energies into changing the land to suit their needs. Eventually they imposed upon the system an overloading of nutrients along with disturbance of historical flow patterns, and the introduction of toxic chemicals, such as herbicides and pesticides – and as we see – we now have a serious dilemma.”

Scott Wilson, a pastor and fisherman with a passion for the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes has become an advocate for the state, the wildlife, and the people of Florida impacted by the red tide. The first thing he will tell you is that he is not a scientist, yet he has spent countless hours researching, investigating, and documenting the herbicide use in the chain of lakes. His interest in the overuse of chemicals has garnered significant attention on social media as well as the interest of nature documentarian Erin Brockovich.

“The water quality, habitat, and fishery has gotten progressively worse since 2011, but exponentially worse over the last month. It is clear we have something in that water that is creating this disaster. Usually red tide is localized and lasts a couple of weeks – this is not the case today.

Consider the amount of chemicals being sprayed into the lakes – ten to twleve containers, each with 100 gallons of mix, per day. That is 100-gallon tanks times ten to twelve times in one day – the math speaks for itself – 1000 to 1200 gallons per boat per day. This is a complex, multifaceted situation with so many trails and ultimately so many victims.”

Jim Abernethy, owner of Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures based in South Florida, is an award-winning author, photographer, cinematographer and environmental advocate who pioneered shark encounters without a cage. Much of his life has been spent in and around the water both personally and professionally. He is best known for his passionate crusade for shark protection.  Abernathy’s passion and relentless conservation efforts resulted in his founding WildlifeVOICE and Operation Blue Pride. Both non-profits concentrate on conservation as well as education and encouraging positive wildlife encounters.

“I was on a trip when I received a text message from a friend – it was a picture of a dead whale shark on Sanibel Beach. It was heartbreaking. When I had the opportunity, during this trip, I would watch the news and it was so dismaying to hear the responses from the politicians. Sure, what they said was partially true – red tide is naturally caused by the vast amounts of rain we have had – but they stopped there. The proportions of dead animals washing on-shore is absolutely horrifying. From memory – there are 100 million tons of sealife [seahorses to small fish] dead [all classified under three feet]. This staggering number includes larger species as well: one whale shark, two false killer whales, 700 manatees, 110 bottle nose dolphins, 49 critically endangered goliath groupers, a multitude of birds, and 1100 sea turtles of five different species all listed as being endangered.

This is not normal! This is an environmental disaster. I grew up in the Everglades and the once thriving forests and waterways are now … well … the lakes and rivers have turned into mudholes and the animals are gone.”

Captain Slate, owner and operator of Capt. Slate’s Scuba Adventures located in Tavernier Florida just south of Key largo, is a longtime advocate for marine life. He has seen the results of the red tide first hand and the impact it has made on both the environment and the tourism industry.

“This red tide is the worst we have seen – the sheer volume of dead marine mammals including birds is exponentially larger than previous years combined. We have a lack of accountability all up the food chain – from the lack of enforcement of the use and disposal of fertilizers to the use of toxic pesticides in the lakes. We have been fighting hard to stop this disaster by encouraging stricter laws and looking at alternatives to the use of chemicals and fertilizers – like mechanical farming. As citizens we need to hold our politicians accountable as well as the big businesses who are adding to the nutrient load in the water.

Millions of fish are being killed including bottle nose dolphins and manatees, but they aren’t the only victims … humans are also succumbing to the effects of the red tide. We have to find the culprits and address them holistically.”

The debate over the cause of the red tide seems endless but regardless of the canned responses from government officials to scientists and academia the results are … deadly. We will explore the different views from natural to man-made or a combination of both and how these factors are all part of an extremely complex ecosystem. For now, the state maintains a vigil eye as they search for answers, while residents watch as the bloated carcasses of the once thriving marine populations both inland and along the coast grow. The petitions demanding answers is also growing – the current state of Florida is simply unsustainable.

Learn more about how these men are making an impact and how you can join this necessary movement in January’s edition of Scuba & H2O Adventures Magazine.