Dead Fish: Who’s At Fault?

It’s been all over the news; no doubt you’ve seen the story:  dead fish, manatees, and even dolphins in record numbers up and down the west coast of Florida.  Windrows of decomposing sea life clog beaches and harbors, preventing swimming, sport fishing, and all the joys we expect from the Sun Coast.

During the elections, we heard a lot of people casting blame on Governor (and now Senator) Rick Scott.  But is he really at fault?

First, Some Background:

The die-off culprits are algal blooms, a vast red tide off the coast meeting a dense blue-green mass in the canals, rivers, and estuaries.  These infestations are both toxic to most sea life; either one would have caused some fish kills, but together they’ve proven deadly in the extreme.

Red tide (in this case the dinoflagellate K. brevis) is a naturally occurring marine algae that produces highly potent neurotoxins.  It thrives in seawater that is both high in nutrients and low in salinity, particularly in harbors and near river mouths.  Off the west coast of Florida, these microorganisms bloom (meaning breed explosively) almost every summer to varying degrees.  Fish and animals that swim into red tide concentrations are poisoned, usually to death depending on the concentration and toxicity of the strain.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, live just about everywhere, and most of the thousands of varieties are non-toxic under normal conditions.  You can observe this stuff on the sides of your fish tank, floating in ponds and lakes and stagnant streams, and in the kitchen sinks of college kids around the world.  You can also find it growing in Florida, from Lake Okeechobee all the way out to the barrier islands along the Gulf coast — growing so densely that the little buggers are consuming all the oxygen in the water.

A note on causes:  Both types of algae occur naturally, and in small doses they’re not that harmful.  Shellfish live on the stuff, and so do some other denizens of the deep (or, more to the point, of the shallow).  But when the algae population blooms, the associated toxin levels rise — complex neurotoxins from the red tides and various nitrates and ammonia from dense growths of the blue-green.  So when we say we’re looking for causes, what we mean is that we’re trying to figure out why the blooms are so very dense this time around.  Not to worry; we don’t need to look very far.

Not Far At All

For the past couple of centuries, development in Florida has changed the terrain pretty thoroughly.  What was originally thousands of square miles of impenetrable and pestilential swamp has been systematically dredged, drained, canalized, mined, fertilized and farmed, paved, subdivided, and then sold to the highest bidder.  The bidding has gone sky-high, with generation after generation of retirees migrating south to embrace the warm climate — right along with the twin joys of commonly sub-par construction and all the pollution endemic to a densely-packed humanity.

Today, Florida is home to fewer orange groves than in decades past, but it now holds about half of the industrially-farmed beef cattle raised in the U.S.  Much of the agricultural runoff drains into the Gulf of Mexico by way of various river systems; the largest and most polluted is centered at Lake Okeechobee.  Add to this the fertilizers from millions of lawns and thousands of golf courses and you’re talking a fine mix of nutrients for a blue-green algal bloom.

The present conditions in coastal Florida took years to make happen — or, should I say, to engineer.  While the governor’s administration can and should be blamed for failing to ameliorate the current problem (preferring to save millions, cut taxes, and buy votes — a plan that until just now had backfired spectacularly), the flood control system in and around Lake Okeechobee is a perfectly tuned disaster created by the Army Corps of Engineers.  Local scientists have been warning about this for decades; now, with the benefit of hindsight, anyone can easily track the problem step by step from creation through implementation and into today’s coastal horror.

Engineering History, Simplified

Way back in history, when it rained, Florida flooded.  Eventually, the excess water would work its way through the bogs and wetlands, down rivers and mangrove swamps until it reached the ocean.  Once civilization arrived, roads and houses were built, and the generally soggy terrain was drained by a complex system of artificial canals.  This made space for more roads and houses, fields and farms, and so on.  Then, after massive hurricane damage early in the 20th century, huge dikes were constructed to help control the runoff problem, channeling outflow efficiently to the sea.  Such a vast project called for the Army Corps of Engineers, and they’ve been there ever since.

As development increased, so too did the drainage problems.  Low-lying coastal cities grew up around river mouths, and to keep them from being wiped out regularly every time a hurricane hit, overflow channels and flood-control dams were set up along all the major coastal rivers, each one leading to the next on down south through the center of the state.  At the bottom of the chain of channels was Lake Okeechobee with its twenty feet of dike and massive river outflows to keep the levels low.  Seems sensible, right?

The trouble is, the outflow on Okeechobee can only handle about a sixth of all the water that comes in at peak rain times.  It can only go east or west, as the Everglades to the southwest can’t handle it, and the massive urban sprawl to the southeast isn’t something the Army Corps can opt to flood.   What’s happened is that flooding has been shifted from the poorer parts of Tampa and Fort Myers to the richly fertilized green waters of the lake, then down the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf.  And every time the lake gets too high, the Army Corps opens the dams and the green goop rushes downstream, where it grows wildly and clogs up the coastal estuaries, sucking all the oxygen from the water and suffocating the sea creatures that live there.

Guess what lives in coastal estuaries.  I’ll give you a hint:  It eats red tide for breakfast.

This current cycle began peaking during the unusually heavy seasonal rains of 2013, when the recently completed drainage project from the Kissimmee River to the north discharged far more water into Okeechobee than could be handled.  The freshwater dumps into the Caloosahatchee to the west and the St. Lucie system to the east generated massive blue-green algal blooms.  Among other things, this led to a massive dieoff of the things that eat excess algae:  molluscs, oysters, and clams.

Heavy rains have led to green goopy rivers and dead filter-feeder beds regularly over the years since, with the worst conditions occurring shortly after the hugely powerful hurricane season of 2017.  The state has been fighting the Army Corps, attempting to force a solution; the Army Corps solutions to several crisis-level problems have exacerbated other competing crises — and all concerned are blaming everyone but themselves.

And now, a surprise to nobody who understands filter feeders, there’s a massive red tide bloom off the west coast of Florida, killing fish, manatees, dolphins, and no doubt retirees and small children who venture unwisely into the neurotoxic water.

So Who’s To Blame?

A case can be made that the administration of Florida Governor Rick Scott is at fault in this crisis.  Over the past five years, tens and then hundreds of millions of dollars have been funneled into programs designed to repair the environmental damage, but due to poor design, mismanagement, and budget (tax) cuts, it hasn’t been nearly enough.  The governor would tell you that the blame lies with the Army Corps for dumping too much water in the first place, and continuing uncontrolled dumps every year since 2013, making any amelioration projects futile.  And he’s not wrong.

But the Army Corps of Engineers can’t shoulder all the blame.  The project has been seriously underfunded for decades, with Congress and various presidents and agency directors pointing out that Florida’s economy is booming, unlike that of the rest of the country, and that Florida should pay a much larger share of solving what is, in effect, their own problem.  Given the reduced funding and the massive and mutually conflicting tasks facing them, it’s easy to understand (in hindsight) why the Army Corps has been unable to fix things.  Unable to speak ill of their Federal employers, the Army Corps has opted to blame the government of Florida.  And they’re not wrong… not entirely.

The core of the problem, however, is far more basic.  It’s a simple factor that can’t be addressed either by the Engineers or any governor.  You know full well what it is, but I bet you can’t solve it any more than they can:  There’s too many people living in Florida — too much agriculture, too much development, too many tourists and vacationers and retirees.  Reduce the population by twenty million, flood the cities, and turn the cattle farms and sugar plantations back into swamp — and presto!  Problem’s solved.

Which brings us to the good news — environmentally speaking, anyway:  This is a self-correcting problem.  As people experience the stinking beaches and unsailable seas, the green goop mixing with the red, they will go somewhere else for the winter.  Real estate prices will plummet and bankruptcies abound.  Golf courses will go out of business and lawns will grow wild, and before you know it, Florida will have half its present population.

Alas, none of that will bring back Florida’s oyster beds, its clams and filter feeders.  That will take rather longer.  But who knows; maybe red tide will grow legs and start wiping us out on shore.  Don’t scoff!  It could happen.

(Editor’s note:  Red tide dinoflagellates actually do have little propulsive limbs.  Just sayin’.)

For more reading:

“Condominium” and the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald, the Doc Ford books by Randy Wayne White, and most everything ever written by Carl Hiassen

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