Pollution, Red Tide & Fish Kills – What Does It Mean To Marinas?

My original title for this article was going to be “Red Tide Rising,” but with all the talk in the U.S. about the potential for a “blue wave” this election day, it seemed a little too political.

The red tide I am talking about is the ecological disaster of sorts that, as of this writing, is still crippling much of the southwest Florida coast. While red tide certainly exists in other places around the world, the extent of the 2018 red tide outbreak in southwest Florida is a good example of what can happen elsewhere. It is remarkable, impacting a roughly 135-mile stretch of coast and often extending out into the Gulf of Mexico from 10 to 30 miles as of late September. Within that zone much of what had been living in the water is dead, and it’s been this way for months. The pictures of dead fish, eels, turtles, manatees, dolphins, etc. are endless, and at times seem almost biblical in proportion.

Toxic Karenia Brevis
The life form thriving in these waters is Karenia brevis, a particularly nasty type of red algae that produces powerful neurotoxins. And as if those toxins being in the water is not bad enough, they also get released to the air as the algae break apart due to waves at the surface or along the shore. Lifeguards keeping watch over the mostly empty beaches in Sarasota have been issued respirators. Incidents of respiratory and related illnesses for those living along the impacted coast are up dramatically. There are many reports of pets, particularly dogs becoming seriously ill having been on beaches, swum in the water or eaten the abundant dead fish.

Needless to say, impacts to coastal related businesses have also been substantial. Stories of unused boats, boats being hauled and stored upland, empty hotel rooms, barely populated restaurants, laid off employees and closed bait shops abound. The more direct the connection to the water, the greater the impact – but as the conditions persist the economic impacts are spreading inland.

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To be clear, it is not as though red tides and other harmful algal blooms are something new to Florida, or for that matter, much of the Gulf coast or other parts of the world. But the extent and persistence of the red tide this year is not normal, and the frequency and duration of red tides seems to be getting worse. There is, as always, some debate as to the specific reasons, but many fingers are pointing to increased pollutant loads in upland runoff. In the current episode, particularly waters flowing from south central Florida’s massive Lake Okeechobee, including significant releases from the lake related to Hurricane Irma’s trek through Florida in September of 2017.

Media Attention
Despite the scale of the problem, it has not really received that much national or international attention. In part that is likely tied to the abundance of other news dominating the airwaves, whether political or meteorological. A hurricane striking North Carolina or a tsunami in Indonesia have far greater ratings potential than a long drawn out siege of red tide! But in part it is also likely due to the fine line that many politicians, tourist boards and business owners have been walking – or trying to.

On the one hand Florida’s governor declared a state of emergency on August 13, highlighting the severity of the problem and providing additional funding to the impacted communities. On the other hand, part of that funding was dedicated to tourist boards to help ensure that “communities continue to bring in the visitors that support so many families and businesses.”
Yes, there is a really serious problem going on, but come on down to our shores anyway.

Okay, it has not entirely played out that way. But there has been quite a bit of criticism of the tourist boards, politicians and others for not handling this situation very well – with much of it focused on a failure to acknowledge what was happening in the first place and then not providing enough clear information as it became unavoidable.

Why does it matter?

Well, here’s a direct quote of a review from TripAdvisor:
“Upon check-in on Monday, July 30, we were not made aware of the red tide by the front desk staff. We only found out because we walked into the area where the stores and restaurants were located and saw all of the dead fish in the gulf and also washed up on the beach and began to cough excessively, we knew something wasn’t right. [They] should have been honest with us before we flew to Florida! Had we known about the red tide (physical effects and inability to go on the beach and swim in the Gulf) we would have chosen to go someplace else for our vacation! It was an awful vacation for us. Never again!”

This resort made the same mistake as the tourist board. Yes, if they had been honest upfront they would have lost the current booking, and that can hurt—a lot—but now what they have is even worse: a customer who will never come back and who has and will continue to spread the word about a bad experience.

Meanwhile, in areas just north of the impacted area, where the water is and has been clear, there have also been declines in business as people assume that the problem is affecting the whole west coast. So the lack of clarity, so to speak, on the public relations front is making the problem even worse than it is.

Honest and Transparent
When you have a problem like a red tide, hurricane or other disaster, or even if it is some lesser disaster (like your bathrooms are not working), you have to find a way to let your customers and potential customers know what’s going on—and it’s got to be as honest and as transparent as you can be. The last thing in the world you want is for one of your customers to show up with family and friends for a great day on the water only to find a marina full of dead fish.

The other most significant and perhaps obvious takeaway for marinas is another point I’ve often made before, but bears repeating – boating depends upon clean water! I know I frequently rail against the inconsistencies and at times absurdities of specific regulations—but never the overall goal, because without clean oceans, lakes and rivers, there is no recreational boating. The current red tide in Florida may be an extreme example, but at the same time it is a potent reminder. We need to support efforts that support a healthy environment, individually and through our various trade organizations. In addition to how we do business, we need to keep an eye on what is happening in our towns and, in many cases, those far inland. What happens in and around Lake Okeechobee doesn’t stay in Lake Okeechobee! Changing rules on industrial and agricultural runoff, spending (or not spending) money on infrastructure and how it all is managed does make a difference.

I know it quickly starts to seem a bit overwhelming, maybe even insurmountable – but I honestly do not believe that to be the case. YOU can make a difference. I can make a difference. And the more we work together, the greater the good we can accomplish.
Happy boating—and hopes that by the time you are reading this cooler temperatures and easterly winds will have brought relief to southwest Florida.

Dan Natchez is president of DANIEL S. NATCHEZ and ASSOCIATES Inc., a leading international environmental waterfront design consulting company specializing in the design of marinas and marina resorts throughout the world. He invites your comments and inquiries by phone at 914/698-5678, by fax at 914/698-7321, by e-mail at dan.n@dsnainc.com or on the Web at www.dsnainc.com.