Blue-green algae, also known as Cyanobacteria is found naturally in the environment, but given the right conditions it will grow explosively as it has recently along Florida’s eastern and western coasts and waterways.  We can live with a little algae in our lakes and streams, but when you have a ‘bloom’ of this magnitude, the repercussions are far reaching for humans and wildlife that live on or near the water.

This is happening right when the communities on these Florida coasts would normally be seeing large tourist numbers, but the blue-green algae not only produces toxic chemicals, it smells bad and coats shorelines in a slimy mass.  These chemicals have been linked to disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimers, and can affect the liver and nervous system. Immediate effects often include eye and skin irritation and occasionally respiratory problems. If it can have this effect on humans who can limit their exposure to the algae by staying out of the water, we know it must impact the animals and birds that are either in the water all the time or feed in it.

According to Dr. Zack Jud, Director of Education for the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, “When you have an algae bloom that’s producing known toxins that marine animals live in, there’s a pretty high likelihood that you’ll see negative health effects,” adding that, “”One of our big fears is its short term and long term effects on the ecosystem and the animals that live in our waterways,”

Algae bloom in lake Erie

This is a satellite image of Lake Erie showing the spread of blue-green algae.

The thick blanket of algae can suffocate fish and kill sea grass, adding even more ‘fuel’ to the formation of the algae. The majority of algae outbreaks come from water filled with fertilizer, as well as sewage and manure pollution that has not been properly regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection.  These are found in the water released from Lake Okeechobee. “ It’s like adding Miracle Grow to the water and it triggers massive algae outbreaks,” according the Alisa Coe, spokeswoman for a local nonprofit organization. This explosion of algae is so  massive and intensely green that a NASA Landsat 8 satellite captured it in a photo during a flyover in early July.

Goose in algae

A Canada Goose pushes through a mass of blue-green algae

While immediate concerns are always for humans, the danger and long term effects of a toxic algal bloom on wildlife populations are only partially known and understood.

Grebe with chick in algae

A Pied-billed Grebe ferries its chick through thick blue-green algae

For    Birdwatchers this is particularly distressing, because so little is known or has been studied about its effect on birds. It has been implicated in mortalities of free-ranging ducks, including Mallards, American wigeon, and American Coots.  Geese, Eared Grebes, Franklin Gulls, Herons and Songbirds have also been considered victims of the ‘red tide’ (another name for this phenomena) algae blooms.  Unfortunately there has not been much research on the effects of these events on waterfowl and waterbirds in particular.  These are birds who get their food out of the water and in the process ingest some of it.  Trying to track and capture these species before they sicken and die would be a huge undertaking.

The best solution to this awful environmental problem is to mitigate the source of contamination.  Scientists have long said a long-term solution would be to move the water from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades, where pollutants could be filtered out. A decades long effort, often delayed, to restore the Everglades would be necessary and this of course involves multimillion or billion dollars in investment.  But back at the source (Lake Okeechobee) stronger enforcement of regulations regarding the introduction of sewage and manure would help immensely, as would reduction of  nitrogen and phosphorous (from lawn and field fertilizers) This would definitely decrease the intensity and duration of algal bloom events.

By Kate Crowley