Two hundred and eighty-seven dead sea turtles. Eighty dead manatees. A dead juvenile whale shark. Vast, uncountable numbers of dead fish and birds. Fifteen people in the emergency room. Huge economic costs.
The harmful algal bloom (HAB) threatening Florida’s economy and Americans’ health this summer is the worst in a decade. Florida’s beachfront cities, real estate market, and tourism industry have all experienced loss of business in areas prone to HAB events. In addition to producing toxins that poison animals in the water, HABs can produce aerosols that cause difficulty breathing and respiratory irritation in humans. Last week, 15 people were treated in Florida emergency rooms for symptoms related to algal toxins. Considering the threats to public health and the beaches that have turned into marine graveyards, it’s no wonder that this catastrophe is putting $2 trillion in South Florida business at risk—and forcing local mayors to answer to angry citizens.
Southwest Florida is no stranger to toxic algae, but this year’s combination of a nine-month-long red tide bloom and occasional blue-green algae blooms is more intense and long-lasting than usual. Researchers from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami have shown that HABs in Southwest Florida are affecting more areas and occurring 15 times more frequently compared with 50 years ago. The culprit? Nutrient pollution from the land.
All that nutrient pollution—most notably, nitrogen and phosphorus—is coming from agricultural products running off a vast area of Southwest Florida. These nutrients are meant to fertilize crops, but when they flow into waterways, they also supercharge algal growth. The federal government’s and Florida’s long history of draining rivers and digging canals for agricultural use merged the main Southwest Florida watershed system with Lake Okeechobee and its watershed, ballooning the watershed to four times its original size. This created a vast region of agricultural lands stretching from Palm Beach County up into Orange County, all of which flow into Southwest Florida coastal waters. Citing economic concerns, however, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) fought against the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed common-sense limits on nutrient pollution. Today, the coastal communities of Southwest Florida are paying an even higher economic price for Gov. Scott’s short-sighted, damaging policies: frequent, expansive, and lethal toxic algal blooms. After all, no one wants to go to a beach covered in rotting, dead fish.
Gov. Scott’s state of emergency does little to address the urgency of the issue
But Gov. Scott still hasn’t learned to be proactive. On July 9, he declared a state of emergency for Southwest Florida, but this response is far too little, offered far too late. His emergency measures will help local governments clean up the current mess—and will delay the inevitable discharge of nutrient-polluted waters into Florida’s river and coastal systems—but they will do nothing to treat the underlying cause of HABs. And Gov. Scott’s major infrastructure idea for algae is to pledge $50 million to help retain more nutrient-polluted waters in Lake Okeechobee; this will only make the problem bigger. Florida needs leaders who will work toward comprehensive reduction of nutrient pollution by restoring the Everglades, improving local infrastructure, and standing up to corporations that send their problems downstream.
Gov. Scott has been known to flip his position on offshore oil drilling in Florida-adjacent waters, since he found out the hard way that selling out Florida’s beaches and waters is politically toxic. After all, Florida’s economy depends on healthy coastal ecosystems that can support tourism, fishing, and outdoor recreation. Yet Gov. Scott has been resoundingly silent on the underlying causes of HABs, despite the fact that toxic algae threatens necessary ecosystems and the jobs that depend on them. Whether pollution takes the form of black tar or blue-green algae, it’s difficult to make a living as a fishing guide, a hotel manager, or a real estate broker on a coast covered in toxic sludge and dead marine life. Florida deserves better.
Alexandra Carter is a research associate for Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Miriam Goldstein is the director of Ocean Policy at the Center.