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As Red Tide Flourishes, Political Pressure Increases

Newsweek logo Newsweek 8/9/2018 David Magee

Veterinarian Dr. Heather Barron, from the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, checks the health of a kemp's ridley sea turtle that was found washed ashore after becoming sick in the red tide on August 1, 2018 in Sanibel, Florida. Dr. Barron said, 'this year's red tide is absolutely the worst she has seen for adult sea turtles,' as they rehabilitate some of the turtles being found needing help.: Florida red tide sea turtles © Joe Raedle/Getty Images Florida red tide sea turtles As scientists search for a “smoking gun” amid Florida’s red tide dead, while locals and tourists are stunned by the stench and death of sea life, the ecological nightmare is increasingly taking a political tone.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, called on the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) in hopes of getting help with algae and red tide crisis that is the worst in Florida since 2005-2006.

“I called on the CDC to help with the algae & red tide crisis here in Florida,” Nelson tweeted Wednesday. “They just wrote back. Said they are ready to help but can’t until the state asks for it. What is going on? Why aren’t state leaders asking for help? This is a real crisis – we need all hands on deck!”

The red tide and algae outbreak is part of several raging climate issues impacting the U.S. at the moment, including the worst wildfires ever.

Meanwhile, in Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo said in a tweet the “red tide devastating marine life in SW Florida is the result of a contaminated” Lake Okeechobee while promoting support of a co-sponsored bill the “Harmful Algal Bloom and Research Control ACT" of 2018 to help protect water quality.

The bloom began in 2017 and scientists say it isn’t expected to ease until the water temperature cools late this fall or winter. That means months more of the red tide and algae bloom could plague Southwest Florida, killing fish and sea turtles that wash ashore.

The latest testing by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission revealed a bloom that shows high counts of “1 million cells per liter and higher along the Southwest coast, from the north end of Sarasota County to Marco Island,” reported the Fort Myers News-Press.

The FWC said in its report that fish kills and breathing issues in humans can occur when levels reach 10,000 cells per liter. The News-Press reported that in recent days the counts "were close to 2.5 million cells per liter at the Sanibel Lighthouse," according to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

Initially, the bloom that began in October 2017 was mostly offshore but it has moved closer to beaches in recent months, bringing both its smell, impact and political sensitivity closer to shore. With more than 450 “stranded and dead sea turtles recovered in Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Sarasota Counties this year,” according to the News-Press, the public has seen an up-close image of the devastation, increasing pressure on politicians to get something done.

But first, scientists have to figure out what’s making this red tide and algae outbreak so much worse.

"The real question is exactly what role (human) activity is playing on red tides," said Dr. Mike Parsons, a red tide expert at Florida Gulf Coast University,” according to CNN. "Between water discharges, our use of agricultural nutrients, the development of Florida and warming seas -- are we poking the bear?"

Dr. Bill Mitsch is working with Dr. Parsons, sampling water 20 miles off the coast of Fort Myers, according to CNN, looking at where the Gulf of Mexico mixes with fresh water that flows down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee. 

"I'm looking for the smoking gun," he said.

The toxic red tide has experienced a bigger bloom than normal this year even though it is an annual occurrence. Compounding the issue is that inland, Florida has also suffered from an outbreak of cyanobacteria in Lake Okeechobee "that spilled into rivers and canals carried the toxic green sludge east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Gulf of Mexico.

Already distressed Floridians gagged on the noxious odor, and more than a dozen people reportedly went to local emergency rooms after coming into contact with the contaminated water," according to NBC News.

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