Countless fish and marine mammals, including tarpon, snook, trout, goliath grouper, dolphin, turtles, snapper and at least one whale shark have all fallen victim to a toxic algae bloom darkening the Gulf of Mexico—a red tide. During peak travel season for much of the Gulf Coast, beaches in seven counties in southwest Florida are littered with the putrid, rotting carcasses of marine life killed by lethal concentrations of algae.
The event, ongoing since the beginning of summer, has caused Florida Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency, and placed a burden on the region’s fishing community.
“It’s brutal,” says Whitney Jones, owner at Whitney’s Tackle Box on Sanibel Island, Florida. “Everything you can imagine is floating up dead and it has been for weeks. It’s devastating.”
Coming off of his best business month to date in July of 2018, Jones began receiving orders placed at this year’s ICAST show just days after the red tide started to wreak havoc on his fishing grounds. Now, the 15-year tackle industry veteran says he’s got shelves full of products on an island without anglers.
“It has affected the whole island. People have cancelled reservations at a lot of the hotels. Some of them are only 10 or 15 percent occupied. That’s where a lot of my business comes from. This island is just like a ghost town. The impact is dramatic, and everyone is looking at each other asking, ‘When is something ever going to be done?'”
Red tide can cause respiratory problems in humans, as well as skin conditions. Food poisoning is also a danger to people who consume mollusks harvested under a red tide; but to aquatic life, the algae is lethal.
Gov. Scott has promised $1.5 million in financial assistance in the wake of this year’s event, most of which is earmarked for clean-up efforts.
Who’s to blame?
Locals are blaming the Florida sugar industry. Subsidized by hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, Florida’s sugar industry offers a large target for outdoorsmen and environmentalists in the Sunshine State. Some 400,000 acres of Florida real estate are occupied by the industry around the shores of Lake Okeechobee, on the borders of the Everglades.
That acreage includes some of what used to be marshland—responsible for naturally filtering water before it meets the sea— that has been drained and converted into farmland for Big Sugar, resulting in the diversion of nutrient-rich waters from Lake Okeechoboee into the state’s coastal areas with little filtration. Combined with agricultural runoff from cattle farms in the northern part of the state, and mixed with the naturally occurring red tides offshore, it’s a recipe for catastrophe.
“This issue went viral on social media for the past several weeks, and a lot of misinformation was spread,” says Captains for Clean Water, “Mainly, the connections between red tide and the discharges. Red tide is naturally occurring. The blooms form 10-40 miles offshore. But when the blooms are blown inshore, they are able to use nutrients from the discharges and other pollution. That’s what we’re seeing now.”
A long term solution
Captains for Clean Water is among a group of activist organizations leading the charge to stem the red tide and reduce the amplifying runoff from Lake Okeechobee in the future.
“We have a solution on the table right now sitting in Congress waiting for a vote.” Captains for Clean Water expressed in a statement. “The EAA Reservoir and the Central Everglades Project will provide roughly a 50 percent reduction in Lake Okeechobee discharges. It took two years of tireless dedication to get this project to where it’s at now, and it’s imperative that we channel all of our energy to get this project authorized and funded.”
In April, more than 150 outdoor companies banded together to urge Congress to authorize the EAA Reservoir. Meanwhile, the Sugar Policy Modernization Act, which would ban sugar subsidies from the government, sits in The House of Representatives under review. As of its last action, 70 members of Congress had signed on to support the act—none from the state of Florida.
At Whitney’s Tackle Box, Jones says the solution cannot come quick enough. “There’s nobody here. So, our charters have come to a 99-percent drop-off. We don’t even know what’s in the future. That’s the scary thing. What’s going to happen next year or the year after? Let’s not forget, the whole industry is all in it together. We all buy together. It’s not just me. You know how many tackle stores are down in southwest Florida who buy millions in inventory from Shimano, Penn, Daiwa, and every company you can imagine? Everyone is going to feel the effect here.”