Florida-based photographer and conservationist Jim Abernethy is on a mission to save Florida’s water.
“I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks with a small team, investigating all aspects of the red tide,” he said.
In recent months, discharges from Lake Okeechobee have caused blooms of toxic, slime-laden algae across the Southwest Florida coast. In addition to the blue-green algae blooms, residents have also noticed a dramatic increase in fish and aquatic mammal deaths due to red tide, a type of algae bloom that originates offshore in saltwater. (The Coastal Breeze News featured an in-depth article on the issue. Read it at www.coastalbreezenews.com/articles/algae-blooms-hit-southwest-florida/).
“The red tide, in my opinion, is very much like a small campfire,” Abernethy said. “Under normal conditions, it would not affect much, but we are dumping millions of gallons of gasoline onto this small fire and burning Florida and all its wildlife to the ground.”
Abernethy believes that the solution to the toxic algae problem Florida is currently facing lies in an invasive aquatic plant known as hydrilla.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) describes hydrilla as an exotic aquatic plant that affects state lakes and rivers. It is Florida’s most widespread invasive plant species, covering approximately 45,406 acres of water across the state.
To combat the fast-growing hydrilla, the FWC sprays herbicides into canals, rivers, and lakes, including waterways surrounding Lake Okeechobee. As of 2018, the state of Florida has 17 registered herbicide compounds that have been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including the controversial and most commonly used herbicide compound, glyphosate.
Glyphosate has long been the center of a public health debate regarding its possible carcinogenic nature. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, some studies suggest glyphosate has a possible carcinogenic potential. Though results have been varied.
After spraying the hydrilla with herbicide, the plant dies and sinks to the bottom of the lake where it decomposes, according to Abernethy.
“As it decomposes it puts out nutrients that is dissolved into the water, flows into Lake Okeechobee, and effectively feeds the blue-green algae,” he said.
According to Florida Gulf Coast University professor James Douglas there are two main ways that excessive spraying of herbicides can contribute to the toxic algae blooms affecting Florida.
“One is the simple fact that when plants die and decompose, that releases nutrients and nutrients fuel the growth of the algae,” Douglas said. “The other way that herbicides may contribute to these algae blooms is that the herbicide itself, the chemical when it breaks down, it breaks down into forms of phosphates that are actually a nutrient that fuels the growth of algae.”
Abernethy suggests that instead of chemical means of fighting the invasive plant, the state of Florida introduce more mechanical measures. However, according to the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants through the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, some mechanical harvesters such as chopping machines, may actually increase the plant’s distribution in the water.
Other nonchemical measures include the introduction of biocontrol fish and insects, such as the Chinese grass carp, which eats the invasive plant.
Regardless, Abernethy believes that reducing Florida’s use of herbicides is vital to the health and future of the state.
“I hope that we’re smart enough to realize that we need to shut this off immediately so we can stop killing not just the hydrilla but the all the other plants and animals that are in there that rely on a healthy ecosystem in order to survive,” Abernethy said.
Visit www.CoastalBreezeNews.com for more updates on the current red tide levels affecting Southwest Florida.