I don’t want to publish this post.

Part of me does not want to promote the disaster that is our South Florida ecosystem right now.

But I feel compelled to. It just won’t go away.

Documenting the Deplorable

We’re now almost two months deep into documenting the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) bloom that started in Lake Okeechobee in June.

On Thursday, I had the great honor of helping a visiting cyanobacteria expert take water samples in Southwest Florida. Dr. James Metcalf from the Brain Chemistry Labs of Jackson Hole, Wyoming has graciously been participating in expert panels during screenings of the Toxic Puzzle documentary this summer. On recent trips to Stuart and Fort Myers, he also took the opportunity to sample both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee.

John Cassani, Calusa Waterkeeper helped him sample the Caloosahatchee River near North Fort Myers on Wednesday, August 15th. A day later, I helped escort Dr. Metcalf around the mouth of the Caloosahatchee and throughout Pine Island Sound.

The primary objective was to test for microcystin (aka blue-green algae, cyanobacteria), but we are also interested in the extent that it seems to be co-existing with brevatoxin (aka red tide, karenia brevis). Another point of interest is we’re seeing the microcystin sustain itself in higher salinity than was previously thought possible. We’re all looking forward to the results.

An Ominous Start

dead sea turtle & fish
dead sea turtle & fish

As I made my way out the Caloosahatchee that morning, scummy tidelines were visible downstream of Shell Point. Several lines of foamy discharge, marine grass, and dead fish swirled across the channel on the outgoing tide. In the third line I came across, a small sea turtle was dead, shell up. I called the FWC fishkill hotline and got their answering machine. It was before 8am.

I picked up Dr. Metcalf at the Punta Rassa Boat Ramp and we were joined by reporter Jaclyn Bevis of NBC2. We made our first “toxic trawl,” of the day in demonstration for their news report. While they were aboard, we observed a large amount of dead fish, including mullet, catfish, and pufferfish. There were so many species, likely killed by the red tide, but clearly floating in water that was also inhabited by cyanobacteria flowing out of the river.

Researchers studying SWFL waters

Research is underway right in Southwest Florida to look closer at the Cyanobacteria infecting the waterways all the way down the Caloosahatchee and into the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. James Metcalf out of Wyoming visited south Florida this week to get a closer look at exactly what is happening in the water down the river and into the Gulf.

After about an hour of discussion and observation we dropped the news crew back at the ramp and proceeded up the sound to Boca Grande Pass and a full day of water sampling. We did seven trawls inshore of Boca Grande, Captiva and Sanibel.

Running the Sound

dead redfish
a dead slot-sized redfish

Throughout the journey, Dr. Metcalf and I conversed on water quality, science, traveling and politics. Our discussion was often punctuated by pauses as we approached another patch of dead fish…  “This is really bad,” James would say… “Yea…” was my typical response… Rinse and repeat, over 20 miles or so.

We saw dead mullet, catfish, snapper, greenbacks, pufferfish and eel in great numbers. Plus the occasional redfish, gag grouper and mackerel. All obvious victims of the worst red tide fish kill I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

We spotted several live dolphin, and at least one (healthy?) manatee when we stopped for fuel. Plus a couple sheepshead frolicking in the shallows of Tarpon Bay. Overall, the water color looked as black as my coffee, with a few tiny exceptions near the spoils inside Captiva Pass.

None of this nutrient-polluted water should be here.

Washing Over Us

Overall, while out in the thick of it, I guess I compartmentalized the emotion. I was appalled by what I saw, but kind of matter-of-factly ran through it like a man, or scientist, should. However, we were touring the exact same waters I’ve fished and sailed on my entire life. Waterways I can pilot through from memory, in the dark, without the use of a spotlight. The waters we intend to raise our children on–littered with the rotting results of our states’ collective carelessness.

Not only was the water befouled, but the air an unfit cocktail of brevatoxin and the more mysterious effects of cyanobacteria odor.

Sanibel Boat Ramp
Sanibel Boat Ramp

The magnitude of it all didn’t really sink in until I was back home. The boat was tied up and I had just finished rinsing off the icky feeling of “I probably contacted something harmful today” from my body. When my family pulled in from the school day, scenes from on the water flashed before my eyes as our two elementary-aged daughters filed into my office for a hug.

Will my children ever get to experience the estuary like I did? Certainly not during their next few formative years… The damage is done and it will take time for the ecosystem to bounce back.

It’s water under the gates…

The reality is that all of us in this fight realize we may not see a noticeable upgrade in water quality for many years. We are fighting to leave a better ecosystem for future generations.

This is where years of neglect and compromises in Florida politics have delivered us. 

Progress Must Accelerate

Is Florida a harbinger of climate change and the threat of warmer waters? Can Florida officials ever get the water quality, quantity and timing right? Are we totally screwed? Only time will tell.

What I am sure of, is the powers that be in Florida that currently stand in the way of progress WILL fail. The only constant is change, and we have witnessed far too much devastation this summer to sit on our laurels.  I am certain that my experiences Thursday will fuel my determination for a very long time.

I am resolute. For our children.

Tarpon Bay
This view from SCCF’s new lab on Tarpon Bay is undeniably beautiful. But as Dr. Metcalf and I learned, several different species of cyanobacteria and karenia brevis are currently lapping up at their back door.

How You Can Help

The water quality issues we are facing are undeniable. As such, organizations like Calusa Waterkeeper are being flooded with questions on how people can help. Many of the meaningful actions the state needs to take will be long-term policy changes and Everglades restoration projects. In the meantime, there are some VERY SIMPLE, NO-COST actions we can take as Florida residents:

  1. Please research the environmental records of this Fall’s electoral candidates and VOTE accordingly. 
  2. Stop using man-made fertilizers.
  3. Donate or become a member of Calusa Waterkeeper, advocating for clean water based on scientific observations.
  4. Plant a tree (or 50) to help STOP storm run-off at its source!