A Southwest Florida couple saw a tiger shark eat a grouper 10 miles off the coast of Port Charlotte on Sunday, July 29, 2018.Stephanie Morris and Justin Hawkins


The chorus to the Five Man Electrical Band’s 1971 hit song rings true today in Southwest Florida.

“No swimming” signs line many beaches and coastal areas here. Some signs say don’t eat the fish. Others say avoid the water. Some warn of a beach hazard issued by the National Weather Service.

And in some places where there are no signs, nature tells the story.

Untold numbers of dead fish have washed up in the past two months, and more than 400 sea turtles have been recovered from local waters and beaches since Nov. 1.

Two major water quality tragedies are hitting the region at the same time — a red tide that’s lingered here since October and a blue-green algal bloom that started in June.

“This is really an extreme event,” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. “Words almost don’t describe it. The human health effects, the fish and wildlife effects, the (manatee and sea turtle) mortality effects. The economic effects are going to be very significant.”

Both blooms are toxic to humans and wildlife.

The red tide is thought to have claimed most of the animals, including a manatee that was tied to the dock at the Cape Coral Yacht Club Tuesday while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was fielding questions from an angry crowd a few hundred feet away.

Army Corps regulations dictate when and how much water should be released from Lake Okeechobee.

The blue-green algal bloom popped up on Okeechobee about two months ago, and toxic conditions later sprang up on the east and west coasts, the areas that receive the majority of discharges from the lake.

The blue-green algae is in the freshwater portion of the Caloosahatchee River while the red tide is along the coast and stretches from Sarasota to Marco Island.

Will either go away soon?

“I can only hope,” Cassani said. “This red tide has been going on since October and it’s just nightmarish, not just to fish and wildlife but humans too.”


The National Weather Service has a beach hazard advisory in place through Aug. 6, and the Department of Health in Lee sent out a public advisory Friday afternoon.

The impact on wildlife has been high, especially in the past two months.

More than 100 sea turtles have turned up on Sanibel beaches since the start of June.

“We recorded 10 dead strandings yesterday and we’ve had one so far today,” said Kelly Sloan, a sea turtle expert for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “It’s incredibly heartbreaking. We’re up to over 120 since the red tide bloom started and we’re over 70 since June 1. That’s when we really started seeing the spike.”

All 10 of the turtles recovered Wednesday were Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered sea turtle on the planet.

“This is going to have impacts on the population for years to come,” Sloan said.

Some water quality scientists think Hurricane Irma stirred up nutrients that were at the bottom of the Everglades drainage system, which stretches from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys.

Those extra nutrients would explain why the blue-green algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee River has been so strong this year.

Toxins measured in the river earlier this summer showed levels were tenfold and higher the amount of exposure that’s recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

On July 9, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Lee, Glades, Hendry, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to help combat algal blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee water discharges.

With blue-green algae covering the nearby beach at the Cape Coral Yacht Club and warning signs up that say don’t eat the fish, Patrick Hedman was the only person fishing on the pier.


Hedman of Sweden stuck a hook into a fat shrimp, reeled in his line a little and tossed the offering into the Caloosahatchee River.

“They keep steeling my shrimp, so something’s out there,” said Hedman, who was flanked by dozens of crab trap buoys. “But we’re disappointed and it’s bad for the kids.”

The crab traps were within a rock’s throw of the sign that warned against eating seafood landed from the pier.

Hedman said he and his family may not come back to the area, which is possibly a bad omen for the tourism industry.

Beaches have been largely empty in recent days.

Fishing guides and bait shop owners are being hit too.

Rob Smith, owner of Captain Rob’s Bait and Tackle in Cape Coral, said his business is down 30 to 40 percent because of the one-two punch.

“It’s the worst summer we’ve had,” said Smith, who has owned the business since 2003.

Smith said this year’s red tide bloom is worse than the notorious bloom of 2006, which happened the year after several hurricanes made landfall in Florida.

The blooms are hitting Southwest Florida where it hurts most: tourism.

Smith said he’s just hoping to make it through the summer.

“You take tourism out of the economy and this region is gone,” Smith said. “We don’t have other industries. And if I went out West and saw something like this, I wouldn’t go again. This could really impact our future.”


A paddle through the Northern Everglades with News-Press reporters Chad Gillis and Andrew WestAndrew West, News-Press

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