Problems in Paradise: Possible Red Tide Outbreak – Troubled waters strike Florida during prime time

Troubled waters strike Florida during prime time

Redfish Christmas: Mark Naumovitz with his catch.
Redfish like these are under threat from algae blooms in the Gulf. Angler: Mark Naumovitz.

By Jerry McBride

Just when the water finally started to cool off enough to invigorate fish appetites. Just when the heat subsided sufficiently to make afternoon fishing bearable. And just at the start of the bait run . . . we may have an outbreak of red tide.

Florida is a big state, featuring 1,400 miles of coastline. So that leaves the vast majority of the state unaffected during one of the most productive fishing periods of the year. But for anglers in two areas hundreds of miles apart, conditions created by over-nutrification are gut-wrenching.

It's nothing new in Stuart, Florida. When it rains heavily anywhere to the north, Stuart pays the price. It’s been that way since the 1930s, when Lake Okeechobee was converted from its natural state into America's biggest drainage pond. Runoff drains south into the lake, concentrating polluting nutrients from upstream ranches, citrus groves and municipalities. Seven hundred thousand acres of corporate sugar and vegetable farms (Big Sugar, as it's known collectively in Florida) block traditional spillways to the south. So the only relief is to dump the pollution east to Stuart or west to Ft. Myers.

Fear the Blob: Is a Florida red tide developing? Photo: Wikipedia
Fear the Blob: Is a Florida red tide developing? Photo: Wikipedia

Even local canal runoff, the current culprit, is devastating. Water managers are flushing over two billion gallons of crap, in Florida author Carl Hiaasen‘s succinct description, daily into the St. Lucie and Indian River Lagoon estuaries. Seagrass and oysters barely beginning to emerge from last year's deluge are suffocating in the filth once again, and people are being warned to limit contact with the water. Kayak anglers are among those most affected.

Eight hours to the northwest, Panama City Capt. Justin Leake first reported dead snapper, grouper, redfish and other species floating on the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, and bait dying in his livewell, on Sept. 29. Water testing by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists on Sept. 25 found low, non-toxic concentrations of Karenia brevis algae—the most likely cause—to the east off Gulf County, but nothing in the Panama City area. (I paddled the area for 10 hours on Sept. 26 and found no indication of red tide.) The parameters of the outbreak and direction of movement have yet to be determined, but it could have serious ramifications for kayak fishing in this incredibly popular area of the Gulf.

Red algae outbreaks occur in response to high nutrient levels in the water, reducing oxygen levels to the point that virtual dead zones are created. Released toxins can be fatal to aquatic mammals such as manatees and can cause respiratory distress in people exposed to fumes.