By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
Florida: Hit the beach — Feel the burn.
No, that would not be a catchy slogan for a tourism campaign.
It is a fair warning for anyone planning to head to Florida beaches, particularly on the Southwest coast, amid one of the worst outbreaks of toxic algae ever recorded in the state with the nation’s second-longest coastline.
It is an ecological disaster and heartbreaking to see images on news reports of thousands of dead fish massed along beaches where killing slime lines the surf and dead sea turtles and bloated bodies of manatees have washed up on shore in alarming numbers.
The New York Times has multiple reporters on the story. It’s in the Wall Street Journal, on weather.com and on news outlets via the Associated Press all the way to Seattle.
Normally, state and local tourism officials bask in the free publicity whenever TV cameras broadcasting events in Florida show palm trees and idyllic beach scenes on the lead-ins and cutaways.
To the contrary, the latest dispatches are a Chamber of Commerce nightmare. It’s a catastrophe for the Florida tourist industry, making it a major blow to the state’s economy.
The only benefit could be in spurring do-nothing politicians to action.
Much of the toll on sea life has been attributed to red tide, caused by Karenia brevis algae, which is not an unusual occurrence. It has been documented in the Gulf of Mexico off Southwest Florida since the 1840s.
This instance is far from typical, showing no let-up after nine months — the longest and most severe since a 17-month episode from 2004-06.
Red tide one aspect of complex environmental problem
But there is more to the crisis than red tide. It is not confined to one unfortunate stretch of coastline and is not a momentary blip on weekend and vacation plans of sun-and-fun seekers. It is complex and multi-layered, and it has implications throughout an environmentally fragile and vitally important state.
Among the many symptoms is the green glop that this summer has blanketed as much as 90 percent of Lake Okeechobee, rendering one of the country’s premier freshwater fishing venues a stinking, hazardous holding tank. The toxic tendrils of the sea of cyanobacteria have reached both coasts through flood-control discharges from the lake.
Meanwhile, Broward County Mayor Beam Furr revealed that the largest section of coral on the Southeast Florida Reef tract, known as Monster Fav, has died. It was the oldest living creature in South Florida, dating to the mid-1600s.
None of this can be considered surprising in state led by a climate change denier in Governor Rick Scott, who avoids addressing any environmental concerns until he can pretend to be a hero in declaring a state of emergency.
Ultimately, that’s on voters who put blind trust in Scott not once but twice, and others like him who act on political expediency and the interests of industrial polluters.
At the epicenter of that is the sugar industry, led by the two-headed monster of U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, a major source of the phosphorous and nitrogen-laden agricultural runoff near Lake Okeechobee that is feeding the toxic soup.
Big Sugar has wielded major clout for decades, pouring $57.8 million into political campaign contributions between 1994 and 2016, according a review of state Division of Elections records by The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau.
Scott, who is now running for the U.S. Senate, has been a major beneficiary of Big Sugar’s sweet persuasion, but so have many others on both sides of the aisle.
In 2016, the sugar industry contributed about $8 million spread evenly between Democratic and Republic candidates. It will buy influence wherever it finds a willing sucker.
See where candidates stand on environmental issues
A grassroots organization called Bullsugar.org is among the groups pushing back against the polluters. Bullsugar.org is part of a movement to buy land within the agricultural area to facilitate storing and cleaning water to reduce the toxic discharges into the Everglades and the waterways leading to the coasts.
Of more immediacy, the group is pushing support for candidates committed to clean water over special interests in the elections this November. Visit Bullsugar.org for its evaluation of how candidates running for governor, attorney general and agricultural commissioner rank on environmental issues and action.
Keep in mind, the problems fouling Florida’s beaches and waterways didn’t originate with Scott and the current crop of politicians. In 1981, Sports Illustrated published “There’s Trouble in Paradise,” a lengthy piece highlighting many of the environmental issues that persist in Florida today.
The lack of progress and inaction over the past four decades is inexcusable and has contributed to the crisis of today.
Red tide was a naturally occurring problem, killing fish and fouling beaches, then as now. But scientists quoted in many of the news reports assert that nutrients and waste in the runoff from farms and residential areas can enhance and prolong it. The toxic pollution absolutely acts as fertilizer for the dangerous cyanobacteria.
Warming of the oceans is another contributing factor to a number of problems, including the algae blooms and blight of the coral reefs on the East Coast stretching through the Florida Keys.
The latest State of the Climate report showed that 2014 through 2017 were the four warmest years since measurements began in the late 1800s.
“I find it stunning actually to see the extent of how these record warm temperatures affect very important parts of our ecosystem,” Greg Johnson, a NOAA oceanographer, told the Palm Beach Post.
I planned to visit some of the effected coastline until learning that the toxins in the waters were causing respiratory problems and sending people to the hospital.
Some of those were on the East Coast where contaminated water was discharged from the lake through the St. Lucie River. The stink and irritation became so bad in the Stuart area that Florida Sportsman magazine had to close its office because staff members were getting sick.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, direct contact with the algae can produce a rash, and there is research indicating a link between extensive inhalation of toxic algae fumes and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.
The situation is most extreme in Southwest Florida where hotels, fishing guides, operators of eco tours and every other business related to the waterfront are suffering along with the sea life as tourists flee or cancel plans.
Beaches Florida’s top tourist attraction
It’s staggering to the state as well as to the environment.
The No. 1 tourist attraction in Florida?
Not that artificial wonderland in Orlando . Beaches beat the Mouse.
An impact study showed that in 2012, 42 percent of the 91.4 million out-of-state visitors to Florida were on beach-oriented excursions.
I thought about the resort just off the beach at the north end of Naples that we have visited numerous times during summers over the past 15 years to spend a couple days on the gleaming white sands of nearby Clam Pass Park.
The pass itself, a shallow, narrow inlet, is superior to any lazy-river type attraction I’ve seen for a cooling float in the tidal flow. On the incoming tide you can ride the current in to a pleasant lagoon surrounded by mangroves. On the outflow it carries you to a shallow sandbar on the edge of the gulf where wading birds gather by the hundreds. The photo gallery above is from a prior year.
Sickening to think of that beach now lined with dead fish and the pass teeming with toxic algae.
More galling to see politicians brush off scientists’ warnings on climate change as an annoyance to their pursuit of profits.
In 2017, Rick Scott expressed support for the Trump Administration withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate accord, saying, “You cannot invest in your environment without a good economy.”
Sorry, governor, you’ve got that backwards. Without a healthy environment there is no foundation for a good economy.