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Toxic algae is killing thousands of fish in Florida and making people sick

Captain Billy Norris recently had to institute a “catch-and-release” only policy for his company, Pale Horse Fishing Charters in Bonita Springs, Florida. For a stretch of the summer, business was booming. Then, the corpses of manatees, sea turtles, and other marine life starting washing ashore.

“It’s really, really bad,” Norris, a lifelong Floridian, told VICE News. “I’m unemployed until this goes away.” Aside from all dead fish, he can’t even sail out to sea without coughing.

Since early July, thousands of dead fish have washed up along Florida’s Gulf Coast shores, likely due to a high concentration of toxic algae known as the “red tide.” But there’s another type of algae invading Florida that’s making people — not marine life — sick: Cyanobacteria has covered some of state’s lakes and canals covered in neon blue-green scum. As a result, people are trickling into local hospitals complaining of symptoms like nausea and shortness of breath.

It’s not clear if the booms in the different types of algae are related, but they’ve wreaked havoc on Florida’s unique ecological systems — and the tourist industry that relies on them. Gov. Rick Scott even issued an emergency order, which mandates water sampling, more warning signs, and better communication between Florida’s official tourism group and local businesses. Ultimately, the algae explosion could cost Florida millions of dollars.

A third type of algae, called sargassum, also saw a record bloom for July, although the brown seaweed-like substance poses more of an annoyance to south Florida beaches than a threat.

Captain Billy Norris recently had to institute a “catch-and-release” only policy for his company, Pale Horse Fishing Charters in Bonita Springs, Florida. For a stretch of the summer, business was booming. Then, the corpses of manatees, sea turtles, and other marine life starting washing ashore.

“It’s really, really bad,” Norris, a lifelong Floridian, told VICE News. “I’m unemployed until this goes away.” Aside from all dead fish, he can’t even sail out to sea without coughing.

Since early July, thousands of dead fish have washed up along Florida’s Gulf Coast shores, likely due to a high concentration of toxic algae known as the “red tide.” But there’s another type of algae invading Florida that’s making people — not marine life — sick: Cyanobacteria has covered some of state’s lakes and canals covered in neon blue-green scum. As a result, people are trickling into local hospitals complaining of symptoms like nausea and shortness of breath.

It’s not clear if the booms in the different types of algae are related, but they’ve wreaked havoc on Florida’s unique ecological systems — and the tourist industry that relies on them. Gov. Rick Scott even issued an emergency order, which mandates water sampling, more warning signs, and better communication between Florida’s official tourism group and local businesses. Ultimately, the algae explosion could cost Florida millions of dollars.

A third type of algae, called sargassum, also saw a record bloom for July, although the brown seaweed-like substance poses more of an annoyance to south Florida beaches than a threat.

Blue-green algae

Blue-green algae blooms have historically taken over Lake Okeechobee, the largest freshwater lake in Florida. The freshwater algae just needs nutrients, sunlight, and shallow, still water to thrive. This year, however, a heavy rainy season flushed more pollutants into the water, which gave the algae an extra boost of nutrients.

“Based on the changes in the climate and changes in the weather, predicting the nutrient enrichment of systems is going to continue to become a greater problem,” said Euan Reavie, a senior research associate studying algae at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“When the fish are washing up by the thousands, people understand that it’s not healthy for them to be swimming or fishing in those waters.”

With the added rain, the water levels also got too high for the aging levee, responsible for holding back all that polluted water in Lake Okeechobee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to unleash the algae-rich water into local rivers and canals to relieve some of the stress on the levee. Locals told VICE News the algae problem appeared to kick into high gear after the water was released.

The neon-green scum started as a thin film on the canal around the first week of July, said Shawn Cott, who rents out half of his duplex home in Cape Coral and runs a maintenance business. Within a week, the algae was inches-thick and choking the water.

“I basically have my life savings in my home. It’s our retirement home,” Cott said. “We cannot go outside. We have a nice pool that overlooks the canal. The smell is so bad.”

The algae also spews toxins that can affect the liver, nervous system, and skin.

Jennifer Hecker, the executive director of the EPA-funded Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, was recently conducting some water quality testing in the area and saw a few dead fish off the beach. She didn’t even go in the water.

“Within that hour, I became so sick for two and a half days that I couldn’t breathe,” Hecker said.

Red tide

In late July, the corpse of a whale shark washed up at Sanibel Island, Florida. And in Collier County, which includes Naples, 79 sea turtles have turned up dead since the beginning of the year, according to the Naples Daily News. Brevetoxin, a neurotoxin created by the red tide, may have caused their demise. The microscopic algae appears nearly every summer, but it’s never been this bad, Norris said. Near Anna Maria Island, residents are using rakes and pitchforks to scrape dead fish out of the water, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The harmful algae bloom has been occurring on the Gulf Coast along southwest Florida for several months, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been keeping tabs on the situation since November, according to Melody Kilborn, a spokesperson for the southwest region office of the commission.

The red tide itself isn’t that unusual; the naturally-occurring phenomenon has been documented across the state’s coast since the 1840s. This time around, though, it’s resulted in massive deaths of marine life. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Fish Kill Hotline has received more than 450 reports and requests for information since the bloom appeared.

It’s also not immediately clear what’s causing the bloom to be so severe this year. In the past, red tides have lasted a few weeks to more than a year. Sunlight, nutrients, and salinity can influence the growth and persistence of the algae, on top of wind direction and currents. “When the fish are washing up by the thousands, people understand that it’s not healthy for them to be swimming or fishing in those waters,” Hecker said. “We’re a real estate- and tourism-based economy here, we depend on clean waters and clean beaches” For humans, the toxins produced by red tide can cause coughing or eye irritation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s not going to be solved soon. We need to start by figuring out the problem and the true causes,” Reavie, the algae researcher, said. “Everyone has their opinion on who is to blame.”

Cover image: A boat sails through a deepening algae bloom across the Caloosahatchee River on June 27, 2018, in Labelle, Fla. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)