Research shows bad blooms back to the 1800s, so the question is … Are we really feeding the red monster?

Research shows bad blooms back to the 1800s, so the question is … Are we really feeding the red monster?

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE

Hype on social media and on local television news channels continues regarding our red tide bloom, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been a few years since we had a fish kill of this magnitude, particularly in combination with the death of larger fish and aquatic mammals.

In the last couple of weeks we have tried to report on some of the theories that people have regarding the source of such a bad red tide bloom, but in no way should this information be construed as fact. Most local red tide researchers are choosing their words very carefully at this point, as it has become very clear that the general public wants answers … and they want them now.

The problem is, Florida’s human population has been using the state’s water supply as a dumping ground for many, many years. Everything from grass clippings and fertilizer in a private citizen’s yard to a major corporation’s cow pasture or sugar cane field runoff goes into our water supply, sometimes even trash and sewage.

We have also altered the path of the natural flow of our water systems to promote urban growth and farms. We pump fresh water into brackish water, and brackish water into salt water systems. Water that used to run south into the Everglades – a series of ecosystems naturally designed, like a giant kidney, to filter out impurities – now runs east and west, directly out into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

The bottom line is, it’s still not been determined by even the top researchers in the world what part of our influence on Florida water is the most destructive. When you put millions of people on a peninsula of sand floating on water (and at the crux of two very different bodies of water), what happens in central Florida can, in the long term, very well affect what happens in the Gulf of Mexico. We do not have a rock bottom here in Southwest Florida, and as we lose more of our natural ecosystem stabilizers and purifiers like mangroves and pine forests, there is nothing to prevent contaminated water from spreading.

In the last couple of weeks we have discussed theories presented by many lay scientists, including the potential ecological impact of freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee, the prevention of water flowing southward because of an endangered species, and of course don’t forget the Big Sugar theory. The other two theories we haven’t really covered yet (short of the Apocalypse theories) are the big cattle ranches and the greater Orlando/Disney World urban area shooting a phosphorescent arrow through the “liquid heart” of Florida – Lake Okeechobee. These areas are to the north, east and west of the lake, but unlike what has happened with the strict pollution controls for sugar companies in the last two decades, many researchers believe those sources of contamination have not been properly addressed.

Another theory many people haven’t heard as much is the problem of radioactive waste filtering through Central and South Florida’s water supply. In the late summer of 2016, a large sinkhole opened up under a fertilizer plant in Tampa, and a very large quantity of contaminated water containing phosphogypsum was transferred into one of the state’s biggest aquifers of drinking water.

Some blame that leak on the fish kills. Others say it is what has put the “killing touch” on this year’s red tide bloom.

When you look at all of these theories across the board, you can see why researchers would have a hard time pinpointing the exact culprit. If asked to pick the most evil component out of all of this, the best answer would be to say, “All of them.”

And yet, major fish kills have been reported as far back as the 1800s.

Looking back on red tide blooms in Southwest Florida’s history

In 1955 a study was published by The Marine Laboratory at the University of Miami called “Red tide outbreaks off the Florida West Coast.” It was written by Anita Feinstein, A. Russell Ceurvels, Robert F. Hutton and Edward Snoek. It includes all available information regarding red tide  blooms on the west coast of Florida from 1844 to January of 1955. In the prefacing remarks it is noted that blooms seemed to occur more frequently in the months of August through January (which still primarily holds true, with exceptions), that individual events are part of bigger outbreaks that moved from the south to the north, and that summer outbreaks appeared to have originated “mostly north of Venice, with winter and spring outbreaks further south.”

The preface also notes that the individuals who were recorded in the study as noting the events were not usually trained scientists or people who had spent their lives in this area of Florida. There are records from ships’ logs, personal letters, newspaper accounts and observations from scientific researchers.

The report begins by saying, “It would appear, from a preliminary analysis of the reports of late 1953 and 1954, that the red tide, in the absence of onshore winds, travels with the northward component of the Florida West Coast Cyclonic Eddy, moving from south to north. It is suspected that the red tide originates inside of the passes, and that the epidemic is carried by these currents to the points of observation.

“In other words, it seems that various reports of red tide outbreaks along the coast are usually reports of a single, moving outbreak, While this does not preclude red tide outbreaks which may originate independently over a wide area, the occurrence data presented in this report would seem to show that further progress in the analysis along these lines would depend in part, on a greater knowledge of current movements. It is of the utmost importance to obtain further data, inasmuch as the problem of control will obviously be relatively simple if it can be shown that a long sequence of outbreaks has its origin in a limited focal area. If the reverse is true, control would involve the almost simultaneous treatment of a relatively long coastline and be relatively impractical.”

On page 3 of the study it specifies our area as having some of the most severe attacks (severe meaning by the length of its onshore reach).

Here is a sampling of the outbreaks reported:

1844: “One of the oldest residents on the Florida coast, Mr. Benjamin Curry, of Manatee, told me, what others confirmed, that as far back as 1844 a widespread destruction of all sorts of saltwater animal life occurred, apparently due to causes precisely similar to those which produced the lately noticed desolation.” (Ingersoll, E., 1882, page 75)

1856 or 1857: ‘It is said that in 1856 or 1857 there was a similar occurrence of limited extent over in the bay, and frequently the smacks fishing near shore along the coast meet fresh water, which kills their fish…” (Jefferson, J. P., Porter, J. Y., and Moore, T., 1879, page 245)

About 1865: “…that fishermen returning from the coast of Florida with fish, in an apartment of their boats communicating freely with the surrounding water, have had them die suddenly on reaching a certain kind of water distinguishable by its color. This has occurred several times, notably about 1865 and in 1878, when large numbers were thrown on the shore at Key West, many of them of very large size, so that perhaps all that came within the influence of the poisoned water perished sooner or later.” (Glazier, W. C. W., 1882, pages 126-127)

Intervals between 1854 and 1878: “Again, in 1854 the fishes suffered all along the southern shore and have done so at intervals since, to a less degree, until in 1878 an excessive fatality spread among them, which was wider in the extent of its damaging effects and probably more destructive in point of number of its victims than the later visitation of 1880. Even the cooler half of 1879 was not exempt from some appearance of the plague.” (Ingersoll, E., 1882, page 75)

The year of 1878 seemed particularly bad. They say:

“About two years ago, certain portions of our Gulf waters became poisoned in some way that caused the death of all the fish that came in contact with it.” (Moore, M. A., 1882, page 125)

“During its prevalence two years ago, the military commander at Fort Jefferson on the Tortugas had to make daily details to carry off the dead fish thrown up on the beach for fear it would breed a pestilence.” (lbid., pages 125-126)

January, 1878: “In regard to some of the manifestations of this deadly influence in the sea during 1876, Mr. John Brady, Jr., an intelligent captain, told me that the time of year was January and that the ‘poisoned water’, to which universal belief credits the death of the fishes, could easily be distinguished from the clear blue of the pure surrounding element.” (Ingersoll, E., 1882, page 75) “… and a very severe attack was reported in January, 1878.” (Taylor H, F., 1917, page 13)

September 11, 1878: “On her return, on the night of the 11th, she struck it off Rebecca Shoals, about 25 miles east of here, and found it extending some 10 miles out in the Gulf. That same night it came down upon us here, and the next morning the beach and surface of the water, as far as the eye could reach, were covered with dead fish …” (Ibid., pages 244-246)

October 12, 1878: “Fish of all kinds on the beach, weighing from a few grains up to Jewfish, weighing about 150 lbs.” (Ibid., p. 246)

November 20, 1878: “Since my communication in October, another large body of the dark-colored water described therein made its way down the coast, across Florida Bay … its approach could be seen distinctly; at first, belts of it, some narrow, others broad, came into the harbor, following the various channels leading to the northward, and only in these belts were the fish affected; in the course of 24 hours, however, all the water in the harbor was similarly colored, and the surface water was covered with dead and dying fish.”

(Jefferson, J. P., 1879, page 363)

Another reference to 1878 shows up a few pages later, and it says, “In 1878, for instance, practically all sponges accessible to the hookers  between Johns Pass and Cedar Key were destroyed and the fishery was abandoned for several years, the first sign of recuperation being about 1882. About 1895 a similar occurrence in the northern part of the Bay grounds killed the sponges between St. Marks and the mouth of the Suwannee River from about the 5-fathom curve to the greatest depth explored by the hookers, and in 1901 I was informed that the first sponges taken since then from the depleted bed had been obtained recently.” (Moore, H. F., 1910, page 501)

In 1947 almost a year’s worth of entries were made involving a massive kill in our area. In fact, it was reported that “there were dead fish floating from Boca Grande to Tampa Bay,” and that Southwest Florida’s coastal cat population – a valuable commodity in that day and age – was severely depleted by the animals eating fish tainted with red tide.

We will post a link to this entire report on our website, bocabeacon.com, but you get the idea of it. Pages and pages of reports, some detailed and some vague, about the history of red tide on our coast.

Publishing partial results of this study is not meant to sway anyone from being a good steward of our water. We have a long way to go in determining which components of our water issues are the worst offenders. But while you can argue that cattle ranching has a longer history in Florida than any other state (it’s true, it has been around for more than 400 years), the thought that cattle runoff was prevalent enough in the 1800s to affect our Gulf of Mexico is a long shot. We are most certainly feeding the blooms, and for all we know there may be more to what is lurking in our water than just red tide. But until scientists complete their work, we as laypeople are left in the dark, hoping the truth prevails in a sea of questionable politics and undercut research budgets.

In summary, it’s best to apply the most logical facts to our own personal hypotheses. While it’s easy to blame a big corporation or egregious pollution, sometimes the answer is right in front of our faces.

One local fisherman said this current red tide bloom was created out of a “perfect storm” of conditions.

“We do have water quality issues, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But this is an event, this isn’t the end-all and be-all of the fishery. This was created by months of low rainfall, followed by a tropical storm system in May dumping lots of water on lawns that have been simmering in fertilizer and pesticides. Those chemicals ran off into the Peace and Myakka Rivers, and then into Charlotte Harbor. Combine that with water temperatures that heated up quickly and a series of neap tides, which are weak tides just after the first or third quarters of the moon that don’t move the water around much, and you just fed the red tide bloom that’s been around for many months. But fishing is already starting to improve, and I believe this will last that much longer.”

We have, in fact, had a large bloom offshore since fall of last year. When the easterly winds prevailed it wasn’t very noticeable, but as soon as those onshore winds started prevailing again in the afternoons, it was a bit smellier. In the last three weeks the bloom has become what many call unbearable, but make no mistake … it won’t last forever.

For current updates on red tide call the FWC at (866) 300-9399, go to their web site or to noaa.org. To report fish kills call (800) 636-1511.

For the complete 1955 study go to http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/general/lib/CEDAR_files/cedar42.pdf