■BY MARCY SHORTUSE
Hacking and sneezing continues as red tide is still finding its way to Gasparilla Island shores. While sometimes it seems worse on the Gulf side than the Harbor side – and at other times vice versa – the bloom is a doozy.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, coastal areas from Manatee County down to Collier County are experiencing some degree of red tide, with our area being listed as moderate and southern Sarasota County listed as high.
Large fish kills have been found on the beaches of Little Gasparilla Island and Stump Pass, while Gasparilla Island beaches seem to have a few less. Most of the island’s dead fish are now in the mangroves and inlets on the Harbor side, the waterways and canals. The bloom has begun to impact local businesses and real estate rentals as well, and some visitors have cancelled vacations to the area after hearing about the fish kills. Health advisories have been issued in the past week for people suffering with asthma, COPD or other breathing-related problems to stay away from the affected areas if at all possible.
This most recent encounter with red tide (a bloom has lingered offshore since late last year, but hasn’t been as close to shore) did start earlier than the freshwater release from Lake Okeechobee that just took place, but the timing is bad, because the organism that comprises red tide – Karenia brevis – does feed on the nutrients from the freshwater releases. You’re hard pressed to find a water quality researcher who won’t agree that between more rainfall and the Lake O nutrient-rich freshwater releases, the bloom can only be enhanced.
Fresh water is flowing from the central Florida locks at almost 700 cubic feet per second, sometimes for weeks on end, to lower the water level in Lake Okeechobee (which is currently about 13 feet above sea level). That fresh water would ideally flow in a sheet down across all of southern Florida, but it is currently only allowed to flow east and west. On our coast of Florida that water is routed down through the Caloosahatchee River and out into the Gulf. The fresh water is filled with both manmade and natural nutrients that are foreign to the salt water fishery environment.
Capt. Tommy Locke is an island resident and fishing guide who is very involved with a group called Captains for Clean Water. He has been studying our water quality for 27 years, as it directly affects his livelihood.
“I’ve been involved with Captains for Clean Water since US Sugar’s CEO, Robert Buker, came to talk in January,” Locke said. “He was trying to turn our community’s attention away from the water quality issue. It burned me up, and I had to speak out. He then accused me specifically of being paid by a hedge fund manager in D.C. to attend and speak against him. He told me and all of the radical environmentalists I was sitting with to let him know that he got his money’s worth. I was there for the fishery and wellbeing of our area and nothing else. Captain’s for Clean Water was there for the same reason, and I have been on board with their organization ever since.”
Locke said that in the early 1990s and early 2000s there was a drought, which meant there were no water releases from central Florida. Those years, he said, the water was gorgeous.
“Because of the heavy rainfall flowing into Okeechobee and then being unnaturally pushed out of the Caloosahatchee River, our water quality has declined considerably in the past 10 years,” he said. “And I’m not alone in thinking that red tide in June is not normal.
“We have two major problems: The Everglades are in severe need of fresh water and the west and east coasts of Florida have an excess of the lake runoff. The Everglades are losing estuaries for baby tarpon to thrive in, Florida Bay is losing over 40 thousand acres of turtle grass, and the east and west coasts are suffering because of nutrient overload. If we don’t take back control and send Florida’s water where it’s naturally designed to go and filter through the Everglades, Florida’s entire fishery – including Boca Grande’s – will collapse, and then we’ve all got a problem.”
In next week’s edition we will broach this subject with Mote Marine Laboratory scientists, as well as other water quality researchers in the area, to see what their thoughts are regarding the Lake Okeechobee fresh water discharge situation.