Use common sense, listen to the old salts: How to deal with red tide

August 3, 2018
By Marcy Shortuse

Unfortunately, the talk of our town now is red tide and water quality/polluted local waters. For now, our local marine economy is virtually shut down. A few offshore boats are getting out into the Gulf fishing, though.
This current outbreak followed our May rains. We’ve had problems with red tide off and on for at least two years; it got especially bad after Irma. It’s not always killing fish but is constantly influencing our fisheries and economies.
Everyone asks, “What can we do, and when will it go away?” God only knows when this plague will dissipate and leave us alone.
We all need to reduce our pollution contributions. I’ve spent my life on our waters since my honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1970, first up in St. Petersburg, and here since 1981.
I talk with the old salts every opportunity I have and read to gain a better understanding. They all point out that our problems are created by our coastal developments, dredging, wetlands destruction and runoff.
We have dredged, filled, and modified most of our coastline and waterways. Nature had wetland systems that worked untill mankind fixed it for our selfish uses. Watersheds filtered flows naturally through wetlands and reduced their nutrient runoffs. When water flows rapidly it can carry more; as it slows, suspended sediments settle to the bottom. We have created thousands of miles of deadend canals that collect nutrients. We dredged the Intercoastal Waterway in the 1960s, drastically altering natural flows. When we add hundreds of thousands of homes, then millions of new residents, we compound our problems. Now we add more than 100 million annual visitors with their impacts … and we act surprised that we have water quality problems.
We have several problems. Locally, our current red tide bloom started before they opened the Okeechobee locks. This mess inside our bays and on local beaches is from local sources. Every time we have excessive rain runoff, we have problems. Venice and Boca Grande beaches are restricted now because of enterococcus in our waters. Sewage, lawn and road runoff is collecting and feeding local algae blooms.
Lake Okeechobee and its overflow is a separate problem, but it may sometimes contribute to our excess nutrients offshore. If we look at a map, we see a very limited passageway for Lake O/Caloosahatchee water flow to reach and mix with Charlotte Harbor.  Also note this: Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) are a freshwater problem in Florida and not able to live in salt water. They die, then feed the red tide downstream at the river’s mouth. The blue-green algae are toxic and dangerous. Both red tide and blue-green algae kill mammals and most sea life.
The Sanibel Causeway and several river bridges restricted the river’s natural flow that would be used to dissipate this runoff. Also note that longshore drift along our coast is north to south, but there are currents/eddies that can carry this mess to us.
Then we have the Everglades problems. We shut off the natural sheet flows south and forced the flow out both coasts. The Hoover Dike restricts natural flows, depriving Florida Bay and all the river of grass, leaving wet- lands between. As best I can understand it, the only thing we can do to change this mess without billions of dollars is reduce the lake’s minimum depth requirements!  Right now, we have an imposed small window to hold water levels, 14 -17 feet I think. Since we can’t raise it; why can’t we lower the requirements and then significantly increase the retention amount? This way we could hold much more water during wet times and stay safe. We could let the lake flow more consistently, allowing downstream waters to maintain some consistencies. This could allow natural grasses to begin to regain a foothold to filter these waters. This would begin to re-establish fresh, brackish, and saltwater systems along the river.
Now much of the press is sensationalizing everything. Where do many news folks get their information? Reporters need to do some homework, not depend upon the man in the street for “facts.”
Everyone is ranting and blaming everyone else. If you want to stop red tide and blue-green algae blooms, stop feeding them. If you overfertilize or don’t maintain your septic system, you are your problem. We are not the only problems, but this is the fastest way to get results.
We don’t control red tide, but feeding it contributes to our problems. Drifting saltwater algae bloom has overcome much of the attached grass that supports our fisheries, destroying healthy habitats. Lemon Bay and Charlotte Harbor have algae problems. I have complained to SWFWMD and others about this for decades. It gets worst every year.
Please consider some things I’ve learned from my business guiding since 1976. When customers go someplace else, they rarely come back to us. If they enjoy the new destination, we’ve lost them! So how can we reach our target problem solvers and not kill our economy? I’m suggesting an approach like I’ve employed. I explain our current problems and that things change daily.
Several captains asked the government to step in and close snook, trout, and red fish harvests.
This is devastating to us after the hit we took from Irma last September. Pray for a break and be careful about spending your savings. Recovery will be slow. This is my understanding of our situation based on a lifetime upon local waters and all input I can capture.
Capt. Van Hubbard has been a fishing guide in local waters for more than 40  years, and has written for the Boca Beacon for 30 years.