Toxic algae is killing Florida's sea life

CNN's Bill Weir visits the gulf coast of Florida where an algae bloom known as a red tide has killed thousands of marine animals.

Posted: Aug 9, 2018 6:23 PM
Updated: Aug 9, 2018 6:54 PM

On a good day, a beach trip to Sarasota or a boat trip out of Fort Myers can be a sun-kissed adventure filled with relaxation and anticipation.

These are not good days.

The infamous "red tide" has turned southwest Florida into a tragic dead zone with miles of deserted beaches and boatfuls of dread.

The worst toxic algae bloom in recent memory is plaguing paradise and no one has any idea how long it will last and whether this is the new normal.

"Back in 1994 we had an outbreak and it killed 196 manatee," says Bob Wasno, a marine biologist with Florida Gulf Coast University. "Everybody was just completely outraged. They yelled and jumped up and down and said 'This is not going to happen again.' Here we are 24 years later and this is worse than ever."

The daily sightings of dead dolphins and lifeless sea turtles, beaches covered in rotting fish and the first recorded loss of a massive whale shark are all the result of a tiny organism known as Karenia brevis. It occurs naturally in saltwater, produces a neurotoxin deadly to most fish and marine mammals and is potentially harmful to humans.

But while red tides have broken out in Florida for centuries, scientists believe they may be getting worse after generations of unchecked development, water mismanagement and the new scourge of climate change.

"The real question is exactly what role (human) activity is playing on red tides," says Dr. Mike Parsons, a red tide expert at Florida Gulf Coast University. "Between water discharges, our use of agricultural nutrients, the development of Florida and warming seas -- are we poking the bear?"

I rode along as Parsons and his colleague, Dr. Bill Mitsch, set out to sample water 20 miles off the coast of Fort Myers.

It's where the briny Gulf of Mexico mixes with the fresh water that flows down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee, and Mitsch hopes it will yield an answer. "I'm looking for the smoking gun," he says.

Generations of sugar cane farming has altered the chemistry of Florida's biggest lake and a vast system of dikes and dams built to "drain the swamp" and create a retirement wonderland has killed half of the Everglades and put the rest of this vital wetland on life support.

In the wet season, Florida dumps massive amounts of Okeechobee's nutrient-rich water into the most delicate ecosystems, while in the dry season, that water is diverted to farms and cities.

While this feat of engineering has proven great for the economy, it has been disastrous for the environment, and Mitsch's experiment may prove that America's sugar and farming habits are also making red tides worse. But given the political influence of "Big Sugar" over a Republican-led, pro-growth state, even if he finds the smoking gun, he doubts anything will change.

"I think the story would be on CNN," he tells me. "It would certainly be in 'Science' magazine, but whether that would translate to any change in politics? I have to say I doubt it. I wish it would. But I think that we need more scientists, different CSI teams who will try to match the pollution source."

Long the target of environmentalist and sports fishing ire, U.S. Sugar is devoting an entire website to defending its practices. "We share in the frustration over the Lake Okeechobee discharges," the company said.

"We want to collaborate in finding solutions that improve water storage and reduce the risk of discharges occurring again. But reckless and mean-spirited attacks -- which are part of their ongoing vendetta against sugarcane farmers -- misdirect the focus away from any meaningful discussion of the facts that will lead us to real solutions. That these radicals are blaming a single company, U.S. Sugar, for systemic regional problems wrought by over 100 years of change is utterly ridiculous."

Off Sanibel Island, we find a pod of dolphins struggling in the toxic waves. As the sea spray kicks the algae into the air, our throats and eyes burn, so it's hard to imagine the agony of the animals around us.

On a nearby beach, normally covered with Europeans on August holiday, we find a handful of cleanup workers, raking dead eels and horseshoe crabs from the sand.

"Have you seen red tides this bad?" I ask Thomas Ford, a worker with Crowder Gulf Disaster Management. "No," he shakes his head. "Who's to blame?" I ask.

"I think we are all to blame to be honest. I think we all play a role in this one way or another. It goes all the way up the chain and all the way down. We just need to come together and let the scientists get to the bottom of it."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 707111

Reported Deaths: 13216
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion963501718
Lake51613944
Allen39106671
Hamilton34449405
St. Joseph33979539
Elkhart27255432
Vanderburgh22060394
Tippecanoe21765212
Porter17945298
Johnson17507374
Hendricks16786310
Clark12681190
Madison12338337
Vigo12204244
Monroe11443166
LaPorte11118204
Delaware10341184
Howard9652211
Kosciusko9114114
Hancock7964139
Bartholomew7880155
Warrick7681155
Floyd7555176
Wayne6895198
Grant6837171
Boone6541100
Morgan6390138
Dubois6079117
Marshall5779108
Dearborn569876
Cass5683102
Henry5572100
Noble540683
Jackson493069
Shelby478495
Lawrence4338118
Gibson427989
Harrison427670
Clinton418653
Montgomery417786
DeKalb409184
Huntington378680
Whitley377939
Miami372465
Knox365989
Steuben364457
Putnam352560
Jasper350146
Wabash347678
Adams337952
Ripley334568
Jefferson312980
White308154
Daviess289299
Wells286281
Decatur278792
Fayette277162
Greene270685
Posey268533
Scott261053
Clay253244
LaGrange252470
Randolph235280
Washington230731
Spencer227631
Jennings224747
Fountain208445
Sullivan207742
Starke203952
Owen192156
Fulton191439
Jay186029
Carroll185720
Perry180236
Orange177253
Rush170724
Vermillion166043
Franklin165635
Tipton160943
Parke144616
Blackford133831
Pike130234
Pulaski113645
Newton103534
Brown100040
Crawford97614
Benton96713
Martin82615
Warren79615
Switzerland7698
Union69910
Ohio55711
Unassigned0408

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1052099

Reported Deaths: 18991
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1221671356
Cuyahoga1070432069
Hamilton781801168
Montgomery50040996
Summit45383909
Lucas40122765
Butler37721570
Stark31437895
Lorain24166473
Warren23885293
Mahoning20905583
Lake20009362
Clermont19441229
Delaware18038130
Licking16124207
Fairfield15708197
Trumbull15585460
Medina14868259
Greene14668236
Clark13634293
Wood12767185
Portage12384196
Allen11328229
Richland11041198
Miami10536214
Muskingum8706127
Wayne8576209
Columbiana8546226
Pickaway8436121
Marion8377135
Tuscarawas8376240
Erie7566154
Hancock6714123
Ross6699146
Geauga6537146
Ashtabula6495165
Scioto6289101
Belmont5626158
Union557647
Lawrence5467102
Jefferson5324147
Huron5307114
Darke5273121
Sandusky5174120
Seneca5124120
Washington5076107
Athens501556
Auglaize475684
Mercer471684
Shelby456090
Knox4387108
Madison422859
Putnam421599
Ashland413188
Fulton409467
Defiance402596
Crawford3872101
Brown386455
Logan372976
Preble370398
Clinton361560
Ottawa356978
Highland347059
Williams326774
Champaign320657
Jackson308451
Guernsey306649
Perry289949
Fayette277848
Morrow275339
Hardin264264
Henry263766
Coshocton259457
Holmes253399
Van Wert239162
Gallia233346
Pike233331
Adams228552
Wyandot227253
Hocking209059
Carroll189247
Paulding168638
Meigs141538
Noble132837
Monroe128841
Morgan106623
Harrison105336
Vinton81514
Unassigned02
Fort Wayne
Partly Cloudy
42° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 38°
Angola
Clear
45° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 40°
Huntington
Partly Cloudy
42° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 40°
Fort Wayne
Partly Cloudy
42° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 38°
Lima
Partly Cloudy
47° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 44°
Small chances for isolated drizzle Saturday night & Sunday. Sunday morning starts cold, with the potential for frost area-wide, but warms up to where we should be this time of year.
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events