Florida’s algae crisis draws fire from activists and lawmakers

The "red tide" is dangerous to humans as well as marine life.

A Red fish is seen washed ashore after dying in a red tide on August 1, 2018 in Captiva, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A Red fish is seen washed ashore after dying in a red tide on August 1, 2018 in Captiva, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida’s toxic algae bloom is wreaking havoc on marine life and jeopardizing the state’s trademark beaches, in an unprecedented season of destruction that experts have linked to pollution and poor environmental policies.

Every year, Gulf Coast states like Florida face a toxic algae bloom that can cause water to appear red in color, prompting its “red tide” nickname. But the current red tide has lasted longer than any such bloom seen in more than a decade, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials.

As CNN reported last Thursday, some 100 miles of coastline are currently impacted from Sarasota County to Collier County, with no end in sight.

The issue is already playing a role in the 2018 midterm elections, especially for Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is running for a U.S. Senate seat. Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D), Scott’s opponent, has criticized the governor for not regulating polluting farms and businesses enough, exacerbating the red tide.


Rep. Ron DeSantis has also made the controversy part of his primary campaign against fellow Republican Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner. Putnam is connected to the sugar industry, which has been linked to nutrient runoff feeding the algae blooms.

Consisting of a colony of microscopic algae, red tides do not always contain harmful toxins. But Florida’s has proven extremely deadly, killing turtles, dolphins, manatees, and other marine animals. As of late July, the algae may have also killed a whale shark for the first time.

In addition to making the water toxic, the algae can also release air toxins, which in turn cause various health problems including respiratory issues, something Sarasota County residents have reported experiencing. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that algae blooms can also cause vomiting and nausea, among other symptoms.

Officials have pointed to a range of potential culprits for the bloom, including Hurricane Irma. When the storm struck Florida last year, the winds allowed nutrients that feed algae to feed coastal waters.


During an emergency public meeting called last Tuesday to discuss the issue, Gov. Scott linked the problem to water discharges by the Army Corps of Engineers from Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake. The Corps releases water in the area when it approaches 15 feet above sea level, posing a flooding hazard.

But some scientists have questioned that explanation, arguing that the red tide has numerous nutrient sources without accounting for Lake Okeechobee’s water discharge. Excessive algae bloom in general is also linked to both rising temperatures and pollution. That includes storm run-off from both rural and urban areas, which carries fertilizers and animal feces.

According to the nonprofit environmental legal group Earthjustice, agricultural and sewage run-off into Florida’s waterways is causing the toxic algae outbreaks.

Some activists are increasingly connecting the algae bloom to pollution as well. After Scott declared a state of emergency over the bloom in July, famed environmental advocate Erin Brockovich slammed the governor for allowing “a billion gallons per day of toxic water” to enter the Gulf of Mexico.

In a more recent Facebook post published last Tuesday, Brockovich again highlighted the situation facing Florida, sharing graphic images of dead fish in the state’s waters. Addressing state lawmakers, including Gov. Scott, the California-based activist called for swift action.


“To the Governor of Florida and to ALL the elected representatives of Florida… what are you doing? What are you thinking? Are you just really going to stand by and stand down and watch this destruction? You cowards! People are sick! The ecosystem, the marine life is dying! Do your damn jobs and get off your ass and help your people, your state, our environment,” she wrote. “This is so wrong, at every level, that there are no words to describe it!”