Red tides, lost summers

manatees
Please be careful while boating - manatees are just under the surface. - Cora Berchem, Save the Manatee Club | Submitted

By Katie Tripp, Ph.D.

Director of Science & Conservation, Save the Manatee Club

Martin County, located along Florida’s southeast coast, adopted the term “Lost Summer” in 2013 to describe the disaster caused by discharges from Lake Okeechobee into coastal communities. Posted signs warned against swimming, fishing or otherwise coming in contact with the water that was covered in guacamole-thick algae. The moniker was unfortunately applicable again in 2016 and now again in 2018.

On Florida’s west coast, red tide has killed nearly 1,100 manatees over the last 23 years, and because blooms now occur so frequently, they are no longer characterized as unusual mortality events for these protected marine mammals. The organism that causes red tide is naturally-occurring. The input of human-generated pollution into our coastal waters, which causes that organism to bloom and wreak havoc, is far from natural. The same is true for the various algae blooms that have occurred in the Indian River Lagoon in recent years, resulting in the deaths of manatees, dolphins, fish, and seabirds and the loss of tens of thousands of acres of vitally-important seagrass.

Florida’s waters are in crisis, and we need leaders who will protect our natural environment. Too many of our decision-makers and residents continue to be in denial about our state’s long-running addiction to growth at any cost and the toll it takes on our environment. Politicians have won election and re-election by campaigning on lower taxes and reduced oversight, but they have neglected the need to protect and invest in our natural environment. Too often, voters make decisions without having properly researched candidates, or they fail to vote at all. Until more citizens engage in their democracy and vote with the future in mind, Floridians can expect continued lost summers and lost opportunities to fix our ailing waterways.

Dr. Tripp has been Save the Manatee Club’s Director of Science and Conservation since May of 2008. She received her Ph.D. in Veterinary Medical Sciences from the University of Florida, where she conducted research on manatee physiology.