‘Toxic 2018’

Florida algae bloom

The Nightmare that Should Teach Us Several Lessons about Water Quality & Fisheries Management

2018 proved a good time — if there is such a thing — for this angler to have both hips replaced. Though surgery meant six months off and out of the water, the recovery took me out of the fishing game during a convergence of pollution-driven tragedies on scales unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed in Florida. Harmful algal blooms turned the waters I fish so poisonous that many fellow watermen and women are calling this year, “Toxic 18.” These self-inflicted disasters have serious implications for the health of state and federally managed fisheries. It will be interesting, and telling, to watch how the new Governor and members of Congress respond.

To recap, the summer of 2018 kept Florida in the national news for all the wrong reasons. “Toxic 18” ushered in cyanobacteria blooms of biblical proportions. At times, the blooms painted the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River — two of Florida’s most productive estuaries — as well as almost 730 square miles of water in Lake Okeechobee — a deadly shade of chartreuse. The blooms sickened people and killed pets, as well countless fish and other wildlife. The costs to boating-, fishing- and tourism-related businesses were staggering.

At the same time, one of the longest lasting red tides (Karenia brevis) in recorded history also carried over from 2017, intensified, and spread to become one of the most lethal in recorded history. Red tide impacted fisheries from the teeming waters south of Florida’s Panhandle, to southwest Florida’s magnificent Ten Thousand Islands, and swung around the Keys on the Gulf Stream to close beaches and cause significant fish kills from Miami to Cape Canaveral. In late December, after the red tide seemed to have largely disappeared, another major bloom is now affecting the Sarasota area, again.

The fish kills along the peninsular Gulf Coast should be described as mass mortality events, though fish died by the tons along Florida’s Atlantic Coast as well. Innumerable dump truck loads of dead fish were hauled off to waste management facilities. Dozens of dolphins, nearly 100 manatees and almost 300 sea turtles reportedly also have died to date.

Beyond impacts to fish and wildlife populations, both blooms did incalculable damage to Florida’s reputation as the “Fishing Capital of the World,” and put such a deep dent in tourism that it may take years to buff it out. Though the state wisely closed harvest of snook, redfish and spotted seatrout in the worst affected areas, there’s plenty of temptation to liberalize limits in marketing efforts designed to get fishing visitors to return. I keep hearing too much about allowing folks to kill even more fish in the short term to help businesses damaged by the harmful algal blooms. To do so would be an abdication of fisheries management responsibilities, and almost certainly lead to depleted stocks.

Cyanobacteria Cause & Effect

Cyanobacteria, more often called “blue-green algae,” do occur naturally in Florida waters. But saturate those waters with phosphorous and nitrogen from sewage and other fertilizer, while cranking up the global thermostat by belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and you get conditions that are ideal for massive, toxic blooms. Speaking in the context of the blooms, scientists have pointed out that Florida experienced four consecutive years of record heat thanks to climate change. Almost anything that photosynthesizes thrives when you add heat, nutrients, and carbon dioxide.

The blooms more or less originated in Lake Okeechobee, which has been a dumping ground for myriad sources of nutrient pollution since roughly the end of World War II. For decades, agricultural interests around the “Big O” dumped fertilizer- and manure-rich wastewater into a system that, like most of the Everglades, functioned naturally and perfectly as a nutrient-poor (oligotrophic) system, one that processes limited nutrients with the greatest of efficiency.

Urban sprawl and other sources continue to send nutrients into Lake Okeechobee from the north at five times the supposedly “acceptable” level. Meanwhile, when the lake fills up to levels that threaten the “integrity” of its aged earthen dike, we have no place currently to send the water where it can be stored and cleaned so that clean water can be sent south into the thirsty southern Everglades. Instead, water managers shunt billions of chartreuse gallons daily, east and west, into estuaries that are critical to the production of state and federally managed fish species. The freshwater discharges, coupled with local sewage pollution, have largely destroyed the estuaries’ seagrass meadows and bivalve reefs, which are federally designated Essential Fish Habitat (EFH).

Red Tide Cause & Effect

Red tide is also naturally occurring. Its cells originate on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Upwellings, other currents and winds carry them to coastal waters, where they encounter nutrient-rich water. Sewage and other manmade fertilizers have added to that story.

Scientists say that before Florida was developed, the blooms fed on nutrients from the feces of incredibly abundant fish populations, and from land-based detritus delivered by springs and natural runoff. But fish populations today pale in comparison to those of the distant past, and there are so many “straws” in the aquifers that large, freshwater upwellings in the Gulf no longer exist.

But highly efficient nutrient delivery systems do. Unfortunately, those systems are canals and aging sewage infrastructure that dump manmade nutrients directly into coastal waters. Some of those sources of nutrients, especially sewage, come in the forms of molecules that are easy for red tide diatoms to uptake.

Additionally, scientists warn that warmer and more acidic waters caused by climate change are favoring red tide over beneficial forms of algae. As of early January, red tide persists along the peninsular Gulf Coast, where by this time of the year water temperatures should be too cold for blooming.

Fisheries Management Implications

The harmful algal blooms devastated marine life primarily in estuarine and nearshore habitats, including seagrass/mangrove habitats, and nearshore reefs. Those essential fish habitats, which are federally designated Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC) — the highest level of protection for coastal/marine habitats — are essential to myriad fish species, especially fish in juvenile life stages. Especially from Tampa Bay southward, we probably lost large percentages of brood stock and rising year classes among species that spend most or all of their lives in shallow water — species as vitally important to our economy as snook, red drum, and spotted seatrout.

It is also almost certain that we lost major percentages of the young fish from rising year classes across many federally managed species. Those species include fish that grow up in state waters but are generally harvested as adults in federal waters. The harmful algal blooms are especially punishing in the area between Tampa Bay and Naples, the area that is responsible for the majority of the Gulf’s gag and red grouper production. Those species are officially “rebuilt,” thanks to federal mandates in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that require the councils to rebuild depleted stocks in a timely fashion. The good news is that healthy populations are much more resilient and will likely bounce back from the algae blooms more quickly than if they’d been depleted by fishing pressure.

Scores of dead Spanish and king mackerel, coastal pelagic species that are also federally managed, washed up dead along the Gulf Coast. Again, both of those species are federally managed and abundant thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Act. But as this year has reminded us so painfully, we can kill a lot of fish through pollution-fueled algal blooms, beyond those fish that we put in coolers.

Following previous severe red tide events, subsequent stock assessments detected significant declines in several species that are likely attributable to red tide mortality. Fortunately, fishery managers are beginning to use ecosystem-based fisheries management tools in setting science-based annual catch limits, tools that have the abilities to indicate whether we need to moderate landings to protect enough brood stock to fill in age structure holes over time. These tools should help us from digging ourselves into even deeper holes. Instead, we can adjust harvest levels to allow fish populations to rebuild as quickly as possible, while some fishing is allowed.

Moreover, the forage base was clearly impacted along both coasts. Scores of mullet, pinfish and herring washed up dead on the Gulf Coast. Scores of menhaden and mullet washed up dead along the Treasure and Space Coasts. In fact, the annual southward mullet migration ran headlong into the worst of the red tide concentrations along the East Coast.

As a consequence, there may be far fewer calories available to valuable predator species that need them for fuel during the rigors of migrations and reproduction. Depleted forage stocks can hamper fisheries production.

Policy Implications

If state and federal fisheries managers are wise, they will manage the stocks impacted by Toxic 18 cautiously. I appreciate the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) actions that closed snook, trout, and redfish to harvest in the most impacted areas.

Thankfully, in 2018, the Magnuson-Stevens Act survived yet another partisan onslaught. For now, the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils will still be required to manage fish populations at reasonably healthy levels. And by manage I mean managing fishermen by setting science-based annual catch limits. That’s the system that has restored so many fish populations around the country and made the fishing off Florida much better than it has been in my 45 years.

MSA Folly

Toxic 18 underscores the folly of one provision in particular that the House of Representatives passed through H.R. 200, and the Senate introduced in S. 1520, the so-called “Modern Fish Act.” This onerous provision would have allowed the fishery management councils essentially to abdicate their responsibilities to manage fish populations sustainably and for future generations any time something beyond their control impacts fish populations, including climate change and harmful algal blooms. The councils would have been given a legal excuse not to reduce what they can control — levels of extraction at the hands of recreational, charter-for-hire, and commercial fishermen.

In short, if this toxic bit of legislation had made it to the President’s desk, it would have permitted fishery managers to allow fishing at equal or greater rates of extraction despite shrinking fish populations when some other major source of mortality or geographic shift in populations are also to blame. That’s insane.

Which brings me to the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that will likely take place in the next Congress. Toxic 18 reinforces that we need to build on existing conservation provisions with legislation recognizing that our fisheries are under increasing threats from air and water pollution sources — fertilizers and greenhouse gas emissions. They are causing all sorts of problems ranging from harmful algal blooms to ocean acidification to warming waters that are changing the ranges of so many stocks.

The fundamental conservation provisions of the existing law need to be preserved, namely the requirements for science-based annual catch limits and timely rebuilding deadlines. And it’s time to adopt laws that take the larger ecosystem into consideration. Florida anglers need to send those messages to our existing and new federal lawmakers, now.

Algae bloom photo via the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

About Terry Gibson

Terry Gibson serves as Government Affairs Director for the American Water Security Project, which focuses on repairing and upgrading our nation’s sewage infrastructure, and is an outdoor journalist who publishes in fishing, hunting, surfing and diving publications. He recognizes his parents and public lands and water access for bestowing those skills.

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