Piles of dead fish floating in harbors. The bodies of lifeless sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, and the occasional whale shark. A foul, enduring smell, followed by ongoing respiratory problems. And, to top it off, muddy, rust-colored water in place of the sparkling blue beachgoers travel many miles to see on a yearly basis.
Welcome to Florida’s ongoing nightmare.
For months, the state has grappled with “red tide” — toxic algae bloom composed of colonies of algae that have grown out of control — spurring Gov. Rick Scott (R) to declare a state of emergency on Monday. The algae is killing marine life and hindering human health, in addition to dominating political discourse as Florida’s August 28 primary day draws near.
A number of candidates have lobbed accusations at each other over the algae crisis, including Scott, who is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson (D) for the incumbent’s seat. Florida’s agriculture commissioner and gubernatorial candidate, Adam Putnam, is under fire from fellow Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis over his ties to the sugar industry, which some claim is exacerbating the algae crisis. Some Democrats, meanwhile, have vowed not to take donations from the industry.
That growing discord shows just how contentious an issue the algae — notably a naturally-occurring phenomenon — has become. But Karl Havens, a University of Florida professor who directs the Florida Sea Grant Program, told ThinkProgress that the algae crisis is a complicated and nuanced issue — something that’s getting lost in the uproar.
Havens has spent his entire career devoted to aquatic research, with a focus on how aquatic ecosystems respond to stressors, both natural and human-driven. Red tide, he explained, is a complex and tricky phenomenon that many people misunderstand.
What is red tide and how is it distinct from other algae?
Dinoflagellates cause red tide and they are found in many types of water — lakes, oceans, estuaries. In order to bloom and become red tide, however, they need saltwater, making the Gulf of Mexico an appealing location. Blooms also need nutrients, something they can locate naturally or from sources like fertilizer run-off and agricultural byproducts.
“The red tide blooms in the Gulf of Mexico may very well be a natural phenomenon,” said Havens. “We don’t really know if their development has changed much since people were first in Florida.”
But red tide comes with some deeply unpleasant side effects.
“This particular species that forms the red tide, it produces a toxin that can cause all sorts of things, from fish kills to respiratory distress,” said Havens.
The toxins can transfer to the air as waves crash, Havens noted. Then, as people walk along Florida’s beaches, they come into contact with them, leading to a range of side effects, with nausea and vomiting among the potential symptoms.
This is a common occurrence in Florida. So why is it a big issue this year?
Red tide has hit Florida before, at times with great intensity. But this time around, it’s having a more resounding impact, something that’s partially thanks to waves and currents.
“Depending on how the winds are usually going, you wouldn’t even notice it, it’d go away,” Havens said. “But this year, the currents brought it close to the shoreline. Whatever was out there in deeper water got pushed closer to the shore.”
That means the algae is much more visible. It also means its ramifications are being felt in an immediate and visceral way, in an area where tourism is a top industry, as opposed to prior years, when the red tide impacted regions further north.
“A lot of the beaches that many of us like to go to, you can’t go to them anymore. You’ll end up coughing and sneezing. And people are seeing the dead fish wash ashore,” said Havens. “There are dead sea turtles. It’s a very visible event this year, more so than other years.”
The sight of dead animals coupled with strong physical reactions — like headaches and respiratory issues — are steering tourists away from beaches and forcing homeowners to rethink their decision to live by the water, all of which is bolstering media coverage of the crisis.
Algae is a natural phenomenon, but red tide causes controversy. Let’s separate fact from fiction — what are the factors in play here?
Scientists are in agreement: algae is an important part of nature. But other factors are contributing to the scope of the current crisis. Politicians, like Gov. Scott, have pointed to an overabundance of rain around Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake. The Army Corps of Engineers releases water from the lake when it rises too high, sending it off into the ocean — along with a healthy dose of algae.
In all likelihood, that excess water is one contributing factor. But it’s not alone. Pollution from agricultural operations has also been blamed, as have nutrients possibly carried by Hurricane Irma’s winds and waters last year.
Climate change is also an exacerbating factor. As a coastal state, Florida is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and warming temperatures. Warmer air and water give algae the environment it needs to thrive, a point scientists have emphasized.
“We know from research that we’ve done, that as lakes continue to warm, that these things will be more severe,” said Havens.
But that doesn’t mean this year’s crisis can be immediately blamed on human-driven global warming.
“One event can’t be linked to climate change,” Havens emphasized, noting that researchers need more data over a longer period of time. “Long term though, probably.”
Then there’s the sugar industry, which may be taking an outsized amount of blame unfairly.
“One of the rumors that continues to go around and around, is that all of this is the sugar industry,” said Havens, sounding bemused. “And when I first heard that I thought, where did this come from?”
Florida’s sugar production, he said, takes place in areas that probably aren’t directly contributing to the bulk of the nutrient run-off feeding the algae. Moreover, Florida is home to “all different kinds of agricultural industries,” making it hard to level blame at one specific culprit.
Ultimately, he emphasized, human pollution is fueling the issue more generally, regardless of where it’s coming from.
“All of us, myself included, are contributing to the problems we’re having with our water quality,” Havens said.
What is being done to control the algae and fix the problems?
Researchers are working hard to learn more about the algae and to study what’s happening, but they’re running into problems. Florida has gutted its water quality network over the past decade, even as killer algae has grown increasingly more prevalent.
Scott has notably slashed water management budgeting and researchers say they’ve struggled under the weight of budget cuts.
Under pressure on the campaign trail, Scott has pushed to both accelerate water quality testing and to direct money to local businesses reeling from the crisis. His rival, Nelson, has similarly called for more research into the issue and pointed to Scott’s environmental record as an enduring culprit.
But even with additional funding for testing and research, real solutions and understanding won’t come for quite some time, according to Havens, who noted that scientists need time to study the algae.
“It isn’t a quick fix,” said Havens. “We’re talking decades.”
What are the long-term implications of this year’s red tide crisis?
Measuring the impact of this year’s red tide will be hard in the short term. Havens noted that it will take time to study the damage caused by the algae’s prevalence. Some things, however, we already know for sure.
“There’s ecological effects — sea turtles are being killed, so there’s an impact on the sea turtle population,” Havens said. “I think for Florida — here we are in a state where we’ve had environmental regulations rolled back, the biggest impact could be on the economy. We’re trying to create jobs. A lot of the jobs in Florida depend on tourism. People aren’t coming because of the red tide. If you look now, numbers are down. People aren’t filling hotels, they aren’t taking out boats.”
Havens noted that the ramifications could carry into next year, with international tourists especially less likely to return after an unpleasant trip. Longer term, he said, if the issue becomes more common and persistent, it will almost certainly hurt the economy. And if officials continue to roll back environmental regulations in Florida, such possibilities only become more likely.
“Fewer regulations is not such a great idea,” he said wryly.