Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Summer 2005: The Big Bloom

Here on the Gulf Coast, newspaper stories about red tide appear annually, as regular and predictable as humidity. Fish die, the shoreline stinks, tourists wheeze and cough, the tourist industry groans -- and journalists explain, dutifully, how it all happens: From time to time, algae grow, explosively, in the Gulf and release toxins as they die. The topmost layer of warm Gulf water traps the dead-algae stew down below in cooler water, where the toxins and lack of oxygen kill sea creatures. Scientists continue to study why, the stories tell us.

Wait a couple weeks, and the red tide and the red tide stories typically go away. Only this summer, neither went away, and the area affected by red tide seemed to get bigger: A low-oxygen "dead zone'' encompassed several thousand square miles in the Gulf west of Tampa Bay where not much survived. Divers reported dead shellfish littering the Gulf bottom. Charter boat operators found masses of dead fish, turtles and other marine life floating offshore in an area that stretched at times from north of Tarpon Springs all the way south to Sarasota.

Aside from the size of the dead zone, there's additional context for this year's Big Bloom that makes it something to notice. For one, there's already another dead zone in the Gulf, off the coast of Texas and Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River. It recurs each year and has grown from about 100 square miles to nearly 5,000 -- about the size of Massachusetts. Similar dead zones exist elsewhere in coastal zones in the world, often near the mouths of rivers that drain heavily developed areas, according to the Pew Oceans Commission.

Declining water quality in the Gulf -- and elsewhere in Florida -- needs to be seen as a major growth management issue.Meanwhile, though they weren't red tide, strictly speaking, algae blooms plagued other Florida waters this summer, including a large part of the St. Lucie River and a West Palm Beach canal. Plumes of blue-green algae also slimed parts of the lower St. Johns River.

Algae growths are natural events. Red tide-like blooms of varying sizes in the Gulf, according to some accounts, have been documented for a century. There was a giant bloom back in 1971 in the Gulf, for example, that did a lot of damage.

But the size and intensity of the blooms seem to be growing. And while scientists haven't come up with a "gotcha"-type discovery that links one particular kind of nutrient or pollutant with big algae blooms, many say there's clearly a link between increased coastal development and declining water quality. According to Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell who's written about dead zones, about 20% of the nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers seeps into groundwater, rivers and streams, and ultimately makes its way into coastal waters. Green lawns, in other words, likely have something to do with red tides.

It's unclear how quickly the marine environment off Florida's Gulf Coast will rebound from this summer's Big Bloom. But it's completely clear that declining water quality in the Gulf -- and elsewhere in Florida -- needs to be seen as a major growth management issue. If Florida's Gulf Coast begins to develop what looks like a recurring dead zone, neither tourists nor condo shoppers are likely to pay big bucks to smell fish rot on the beach.

This past legislative session, lawmakers created an Oceans Council (House Bill 1855) composed of 15 scientists to provide a scientific umbrella as the state goes about protecting the environmental health of its coast. The links between pollution and red tide should be a concern for that group.

Just as important, that same concern also needs to be a focus for the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, the 15-member panel the Legislature created this past session to help rewrite growth management laws. The panel is chaired by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who presumably smelled some of red tide's effects on Pinellas County beaches this summer.

The Pew Oceans Commission, which issued a report in June 2003 called "America's Oceans in Crisis," wrote that more than tourism and recreation is at stake in the health of the coast. "Our very dependence on and use of ocean resources are exposing limits in natural systems once viewed as too vast and inexhaustible to be harmed by human activity. Without reform, our daily actions will increasingly jeopardize a valuable natural resource and an invaluable aspect of our national heritage."

This summer, as a great deal of political and civic energy in Florida went into worries that oil-drilling platforms could rise above Florida's Gulf waters, the truth was that those concerns may be better placed in what's happening beneath them.Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at mhoward@floridatrend.com.