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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: 359430

Reported Deaths: 6033
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion48740894
Lake30537484
Allen20668338
St. Joseph19177245
Elkhart18813246
Hamilton15457182
Vanderburgh10956137
Tippecanoe1012335
Porter932192
Johnson7732177
Hendricks7353165
Vigo6736106
Monroe604854
Madison5858125
Clark575986
Delaware5535108
LaPorte5291105
Kosciusko512948
Howard417680
Bartholomew380065
Warrick364374
Wayne362893
Floyd360279
Marshall343150
Grant326753
Cass323232
Hancock320663
Noble292450
Boone282056
Henry280741
Dubois271934
Jackson266638
Morgan259246
Dearborn252832
Gibson220333
Shelby216661
Knox212122
DeKalb210838
Lawrence205951
Clinton204025
Wabash195224
Adams192724
Miami191218
Daviess176747
Montgomery171429
Steuben168616
Jasper167717
Harrison167025
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Whitley162417
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Putnam147831
Decatur145246
Wells145035
Randolph143724
Clay140426
Jefferson139719
Posey135722
Scott129725
Greene121054
Jay115516
Sullivan111418
Jennings106315
Starke104328
Spencer9678
Fulton96419
Fountain9588
Washington9019
Perry89221
Carroll81313
Franklin80228
Orange77028
Vermillion74911
Owen72210
Parke7056
Tipton68327
Blackford66116
Rush6488
Newton62513
Pike59321
Pulaski49720
Benton4483
Brown4226
Martin4006
Crawford3611
Union3032
Warren2893
Switzerland2825
Ohio2507
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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 446849

Reported Deaths: 6753
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin57040674
Cuyahoga43640768
Hamilton34945379
Montgomery23828265
Butler17529154
Lucas17023438
Summit16486374
Stark11437231
Warren994381
Mahoning9092303
Lake840880
Lorain8213106
Clermont712156
Trumbull6752155
Delaware668142
Licking658677
Fairfield634265
Greene623977
Clark6038142
Allen569995
Medina565858
Wood5434113
Marion523067
Miami513168
Portage441676
Pickaway440350
Columbiana4131103
Richland409643
Tuscarawas405980
Wayne3838108
Mercer319859
Muskingum314512
Hancock284546
Ross278766
Darke275463
Ashtabula271957
Erie266670
Auglaize265841
Geauga257251
Putnam246455
Scioto240023
Union232213
Lawrence223341
Shelby222317
Athens22134
Seneca209621
Belmont198729
Madison191019
Sandusky189233
Huron185422
Preble180021
Jefferson172316
Defiance167733
Washington164129
Fulton159730
Knox159520
Crawford158620
Logan153821
Holmes153239
Ottawa143732
Ashland135133
Williams132912
Brown12675
Jackson125913
Clinton125619
Highland124418
Hardin122126
Champaign12158
Guernsey117115
Henry114629
Van Wert114118
Morrow11262
Fayette108117
Perry104513
Coshocton102815
Gallia95615
Pike9352
Adams91513
Wyandot88019
Hocking80718
Paulding78215
Noble69828
Carroll61412
Meigs49612
Monroe41022
Morgan37014
Harrison3053
Vinton2996
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