Dear Florida friends,
I am seeing a ton of misinformation about the red tide and algae blooms (some of that misinformation is being spread by camps that have a financial interest counter to your well being) and I want to make some key points about what is happening. It’s a long story why I am knowledgeable about this particular problem, but what I have to share comes from kind scientists and marine biologists who took the time out to educate me, and quite a lot of firsthand experience with the water releases coming from Lake Okeechobee and its horrific effect on the Florida coast. I am not presenting this as scientific data, just what a dude who cared gleaned from observation and doing a little homework.
1. DANGER! PLEASE STAY AWAY from red tide, blue green algae, and the dead plants and animal life covering the shores, unless you have sufficient respiratory protection and skin and eye protection. This is no joke. There is a neurotoxin called BMAA that is found in both the blue green algae and red tide (both cyanobacterias) that has a scientifically proven link to ALS, PARKINSON’S DISEASE, and ALZHEIMER’S! Human populations that live in areas where they are exposed to cyanobacterias and BMAA have a significantly higher rate of these diseases than they should otherwise have. If you are genetically predisposed, treat this like nuclear waste.
2. Practice common sense. If there are a lot of dead things around, it is probably not a safe place for you, your children, or your pets. Where there are dead things, there is a ton of bacteria (red tide and blue green algae are actually a type of bacteria!), so going swimming, touching anything near the beach, or breathing in the air near a bloom (or the effects of a bloom) on the coast is not wise. There are a host of diseases awaiting your carelessness. Stay indoors, be aware of the risks when you smell red tide, and limit exposure however possible.
3. Yes, red tide is naturally occuring. It comes from far offshore, and is pushed towards the coast by wind and tide. It does NOT come from the water releases from Okeechobee. This is what Big Sugar wants you to understand and share, and it is absolutely true. Science backs it up. The problem is semantics. The IMPORTANT POINT here is that the massive influx of phosphates and nitrates into the Gulf from agricultural runoff from Lake Okeechobee water releases feed that red tide algae and causes it to explode into a massive bloom, which continues to spread wherever the right conditions and nutrients persist. Red tide comes from the Gulf - but it feeds on phosphate and nitrate, which is what is in the runoff coming from the sugar fields. Do not blame red tide or say red tide is a problem - it is not! It is naturally occurring. The problem is phosphate and nitrate pollution. Big sugar, with the help of the politicians they have paid off, has polluted your water and beaches, killed untold amounts of sea life, posed dire health risks to the populations on both sides of the state, and deeply harmed the tourist-dependant economy of Florida. They should be held accountable.
4. The cycle works like this: There is a particularly heavy stint of rain across Florida. Nutrient rich agricultural runoff from north of Lake Okeechobee flows into the lake. South of the lake, the sprawling sugar fields become overly flooded, so the sugar companies back pump this nutrient rich water into Lake O. This water that comes from the sugar fields is easily recognizable as it is the color of potting soil, with lots of suspended particles, and offers only a few inches of visibility. It is the majority of the pollution in the lake. As this water makes its way out of the lake and into the ideal conditions in the Caloosahatchee River and St Lucie Canal, it begins to feed the naturally occuring blue green algae which explodes into the thick, toxic mats. As this blue green algae completes its life cycle and moves down stream, it begins to break up, giving a chunky blackish look to that potting soil water. At this point the water is even more phosphate rich owing to the addition of the dead mats of blue green algae and any plant and sea life it has killed. As this water leaves the river and hits the delicate coastal grass flats, it blocks out the light and burns the delicate turtle grass, which requires pristine conditions to keep its roots in the soft sand and accomplish photosynthesis. Often this nutrient rich water will cause other types of algae to grow on the turtle grass, hastening its demise. This is why you often sea turtle grass mixed in with the dead fish during a red tide. As this water moves into the Gulf, it meets up with the cyanobacteria that is red tide and if the temperature and salinity conditions are right, there is a massive bloom of red tide. As the red tide goes through its life cycle and even more sea life is killed, the water becomes even more nutrient rich. This cycle continues until the nutrients are either exhausted or the conditions become less favorable for the red tide cyanobacteria.
The reason I knew three weeks ago that Sarasota was going to get hit was because I have lived at both the mouth of the Caloosahatchee river and Sarasota and I know the water tends to move north with tides and winds this time of the year, and that it takes about two weeks for the water coming out of the Caloosahatchee to reach Sarasota.
Often, the conditions around Sanibel and Captiva Islands are not favorable for red tide so there isn’t a bloom until the water from the Caloosahatchee reaches the cooler, saltier water around Sarasota and Tampa. This furthers the myth that the red tide in these places is not related to the big sugar runoff.
5. Could this be caused by lawn fertilizers, leaky septic tanks, and runoff from cities and suburbs? Yes, definitely in the Indian River Lagoon. But less so for other locations. Look at a map and a calendar. Red tide events coincide with water releases from Okeechobee. And between Okeechobee and the Gulf, there is not much in the way of cities and suburbs, just farmland and small towns. If it was primarily caused by the general population, massive red tide blooms would be present offshore of every major Florida city at some regular yearly interval. It’s a contributing factor but probably not even on an equal footing with the pollution caused by a handful of a few powerful agricultural companies.
6. What can you do? Document and share what you see, smell, and experience. Wear protective gear and limit exposure, but don’t let these crimes go undocumented. Make sure everyone you talk to understands the basic science and the dangers, and are communicating clearly the full set of facts regarding red tide, blue green algae, and the polluted waters coming from Okeechobee. Sure, sign petitions and call politicians, but the truth is these politicians already know all the details. The political decision makers in this are corrupt and also benefit from the massive sugar subsidies that have flooded Florida since the boycott of Cuban sugar in the early 60s (the era that red tide started becoming a bigger issue). Informing them of a problem they have a huge hand in causing is silly. Asking them nicely to fix it is even less productive. For them to properly address this problem could easily show their complicity. Thier solution is to say we need more scientific study - and then defund the study once the red tide has passed and you've forgotten. Confrontation, public shaming, and threats of holding them personally responsible via legal recourse unless something is done immediately to mitigate this is the only path forward. This is not about governing, this is about breaking a cycle of corruption. Remember, personal responsibility is the corrupt politician’s kryptonite, their Achille’s heel. Stay within the law, but make it clear to them that the scrutiny that is about to rain down upon them can only be mitigated with their total commitment to making Big Sugar and other polluters pay for ecological, human, and economic damages they have caused, and the cost of creating safeguards for their industry so that the people, wildlife, and water of Florida can have a healthy future.
Be careful out there. - g
Jeff Leith Video
Jeff Leith is in Cape Coral, Florida
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