Water Experts Speak
to Those on 'Front Lines'
of Hospitality Industry
On Monday morning, Town Environmental Science Coordinator Keith Laakkonen, Rae Ann Wessel of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), Dr. Richard Pierce and Dr. Emily Smith of MOTE Marine Laboratory and Diane Holm of the Florida Department of Health gave a presentation on water quality to hotel workers, eco-tour providers and others on the front lines of our tourist industry.
"The purpose of this is to get the right information out there so that people understand how it’s all connected,” said Wessel. "We’re going to explain things like red drift algae, and what vibrio bacteria are, as well as provide background information and resources.”
Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda opened the presentation by welcoming everyone to the Town.
"The single most important thing to the people here is water quality,” she said.
Wessel spoke first, saying that she has been working in southwest Florida for 35 years. She began her presentation by explaining how water used to flow south from the Kissimmee River basin into Florida Bay.
"Today, we’ve engineered the system for flood control, and very little goes to the south but rather to the east and west,” she said. "Originally, the Caloosahatchee River was not connected to Lake Okeechobee, but began at a waterfall east of LaBelle. We now have this problem that we call the 'Goldilocks Principle' - we either have too much water or too little.”
"When too much water flows too fast, there is no treatment and we suffer from massive algae blooms,” she continued. "On the flip side, when the water is cut off at Lake O during droughts, the salinity gets to 20 parts per thousand (ppt) up at the locks - 30 miles away - which kills all the nursery areas for shrimp, crab, fish and manatees. Some of this is manmade from too much fertilizer, which does the same thing in the water as it does on land - it makes plants grow.”
Wessel went on to explain that much of the water comes not from the lake - but from the Caloosahatchee watershed - which extends from the city of Moore Haven east to the coast.
"The amount of run off we get from the lake versus the watershed changes every year,” she said. "Last year, 20-62% of excess water came from the lake, but so far this year, only 9% of the excess water has come from the lake,” she said. "Our watershed is 800,000 acres. In 2007, we deployed sensors where we can watch releases and discharges on a real time basis - every hour they take readings, which folks can see by going to www.recon.sccf.org.”
Next, Laakkonen gave a presentation on what kinds of things wash up on the beach and the importance of the wrack line.
"It’s amazing what washes up on the beach through different seasons and storms,” he said. "This is called our beach wrack community, and it’s very important to our shorebirds. It also starts primary dunes, provides food for crabs and birds and serves as a place for tiny shorebirds to hide from predators.”
Laakkonen explained that many different types of algae (seaweed) routinely wash up on the beach, some of it harmful but most of it not.
"We get a lot of interesting things washing up, the most common right now are tube worms and pen shells - which are very sharp,” he said. "We also get wash ups of live and dead sea urchins. Note that it is illegal to take live animals of every kind, though folks are encouraged to toss live starfish and sand dollars back in the water.”
Pointing at a slide of a gooey black blob, Keith said that what many people confuse as tar balls is actually something called sea pork.
"We’ve never had a tar ball on any beach in Lee County,” he said. "We do get stuff called sea pork, which people call about because they think they’re organs or tar balls, also sea squirts and egg cases from rays. We do have jellyfish on the beach, which range from no stings to ‘do not touch’ - so if you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it.”
Laakkonen explained that the Town will rake or remove the wrack line but only if it is an excessive accumulation or caused by red tide.
"Red drift algae and red tide are two different things,” he said. "You can swim in red drift algae but swimming in red tide may cause respiratory problems.”
Keith then went over some frequently asked questions.
" 'Is it safe to swim when discharges are high?' Generally yes, because tannins are not harmful but I always refer people to the MOTE report, which is accessible by going to www.mote.org/beaches,” he said. "We also get calls about what do we do if we see live/dead animals washed on the beach. For live animals, call Florida Fish & Wildlife (FWC) at 1-888-404-3922, and for dead ones call Town Hall at 239-765-0202.”
During a question and answer session that followed, Ray Judah, Coordinator of the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition and former Lee County Commissioner, pointed out that the dark coloration in the water is not only caused by tannins, but also excess nutrients and harmful chemicals.
During a presentation on red tide, Dr. Richard Pierce explained that red tide outbreaks are normally referred to as Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) as they are caused by many types of algae and have been occurring all over the world for as long as records have been documented.
"These blooms are harmful because they produce neurotoxins that causes massive fish kills, contaminates shellfish and respiratory problems,” he said. "The algae occurs naturally in the Gulf in low numbers (up to 1,000 cells per liter), but emit very little toxins. When there is a high bloom - over 5,000 cells per liter - there are too many toxins and shellfish become unsafe to eat. Red tides are patchy, some beaches are affected and some aren’t.”
Pierce explained that causes of red tide are driven by many factors, including nutrients from decaying fish on the bottom, estuarine discharge of nitrogen and phosphorous, natural discharges from swamps and human-derived fertilizers and sewage.
"So what are we doing about red tide?” he concluded. "We have some public/private partnerships that provide real time monitoring, new technology for forecasting, and a comprehensive action plan for response strategies, mitigation and control.”
When Pierce finished speaking, Judah questioned him as to why more emphasis wasn't put on the effects from nutrient-laden freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee, and Pierce replied that 'many factors contribute to red tide'.
Finally, Diane Holm explained that what has been referred to as 'flesh-eating' bacteria by some local media is actually a bacteria called 'Vibrio' that can cause blood infections.
"Vibrio lives in brackish and salt water that is warmer than 58 degrees, but there is more of it in warmer waters,” she said. "Only 1% of the population is at risk for getting infected by this, which is caused equally by eating raw shellfish such as oysters and swimming with open wounds.”
Holm said that - of those infected - approximately 50% will end up needing medical care.
"Risk factors are weakened immune systems, chronic liver disease and delaying medical care,” she said. "The bacteria causes septicemia (blood infection), it does not eat flesh. The symptoms are similar to typical food poisoning.”
Holm finished by saying that the bacteria can be fatal if the blood infection gets firmly established - about 50% of the cases - and that this year there have been 98 cases in the United States, 15 of them in Florida and 2 in Lee County. For more information on Vibrio in Florida see the Florida Department of Health website: newsroom.doh.state.fl.us.
Keri Hendry Weeg
Stay current on water conditions with these online resources:
Vibrio vulnificus Reports bit.ly/FLVibrio
State Beach Reports bit.ly/FMBbeachreport
Mote Beach Reports mote.org/beaches
SCCF Recon Reports recon.sccf.org
FWC Red Tide Reports bit.ly/FWCredtide