Toxic Algae Concerns Cover Entire Okeechobee Waterway

The Okeechobee Waterway provides boaters a passage between the Atlantic Coast of Florida and the Gulf Coast. It is a popular “shortcut” for fishing and cruising vessels traveling from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic ICW and Bahamas. Unfortunately, passage through Lake Okeechobee has recently become unpleasant — and a health hazard — due to this summer’s monumental blue-green algae bloom.

algae fishing
Algae fishing – Darcy Heron

Not only is it unsightly and smelly, but the algae can carry a toxic payload of microcystin. This hepatoxin is known to affect the liver and is linked with several degenerative neurological diseases. Direct contact can often be fatal for pets and animals and it’s also no fun for humans to breathe.

Recent estimates are that over 80-90% of Lake Okeechobee’s surface was inhabited by cyanobacteria earlier this month. After heavy rainfall, billions of gallons of this algae-laden water are currently being discharged from the lake by the Army Corps of Engineers. The St. Lucie River (to the east) and Caloosahatchee River (to the west) act as man-made safety valves for lake levels.

Symptoms of a Greater Problem

Even when no algae is present, the freshwater releases from the lake cripple the estuaries and introduce high nutrient levels to the watershed. It’s these unnaturally high nutrient levels that fuel red tide and blue-green algae blooms.

This summer, nutrient-laden discharges, hot sunny days and stagnant water have combined to produce one of the worst algal blooms in Florida’s history. Psychedelic green swirls on the water’s surface mutate into slabs of foul-smelling blue chunks; at times, so thick birds can be seen walking and perching on them.

Hundreds of miles of the waterway have been plagued with blue-green algae for over a month, igniting anger in residents and boaters on both coasts. Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for 7 Florida counties on July 9th, following weeks of outcry.

Education is Key:

South Florida Boaters and Waterfront Property Owners Seek Answers

In Cape Coral, Florida, the CMCS Sailing Club recently joined with other local fishing and power squadron groups to present a panel of water experts. Speakers from clean water advocacy groups and non-profit organizations were invited to participate on Tuesday, July 17th. Over 200 people gathered at the Cape Coral Yacht Club. Charter captains, fishing guides, local news media, boaters and residents were all seeking the same answers to the water crisis at hand.

Panelists included scientists from Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Dr. Eric Milbrandt and Rae Ann Wessel; Calusa Waterkeeper Rangers Jason Pim & Terry Nelson; and the co-founders of Captains for Clean Water, Daniel Andrews & Chris Wittman.

The group of boaters and water experts explained the current algae bloom and educated guests on Florida’s historical water flows. Current restoration and legislative efforts were discussed along with talking points for correcting Florida’s water mismanagement.

In addition to displaying components of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), guests were encouraged to carefully research local and state political candidates prior to the 2018 elections.

In Florida politics, researching “clean water candidates” is becoming increasingly critical for residents.

Specifically, U.S. citizens are encouraged to contact their federal representatives and senators to urge them to fully fund the EAA Reservoir project. This project, while not a silver bullet, is the single greatest effort that can be made for ceasing harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. It is one of many CERP projects aimed at restoring Florida’s natural flow of water and dramatically reducing the discharge of potentially toxic water to the east and west coasts.

More media coverage of Tuesday’s Meeting:
News-Press: Florida’s algae crisis: Toxic algae haters show up in droves at Cape Coral meeting
NBC 2: Cape Coral hosts clean water forum with water experts
Fox 4: Water experts rally community to discuss solutions to green algae problem

A National Call to Action

This is not just a Florida issue, it affects everyone who visits and boats along its coastlines. Boat building and equipment industries around the country are also feeling the impact. Fortunately, there IS something every U.S. citizen can do to help! Currently, the EAA reservoir project needs approved by Congress for inclusion in the 2018 Water Bill. Citizens in every state should contact their Senators to urge for this funding.

Boaters from the Mid-Atlantic, New England and Gulf Coast traverse the Okeechobee waterway daily… Visitors recreate in the amazing fishing and cruising grounds near Stuart, Jupiter, Fort Myers and Sanibel…

We, as boaters and fishermen, must rally together as a nation. Our voices must be heard in Washington DC in order to preserve these valuable waterfront resources. The Everglades, Okeechobee Waterway and South Florida’s estuaries are far too critical to a vast amount of industries.

We simply cannot allow this mismanagement to continue.