FORT MYERS, Fla. — Once again, Lake Okeechobee is covered with blue-green algae blooms. According to NOAA, algal blooms covered about 260 square miles on the ake, especially in Fisheating Bay and along the western shoreline. The water on that western side eventually ends up in the Caloosahatchee River.
Many of us cross the Caloosahatchee each and every day. With blue-green algae being found in the river, some residents are concerned that we could be in for another ‘summer of slime.’
“It’s only May. Guacamole season is down the road,” said FGCU Water School Professor Dr. Barry Rosen after seeing pictures of the blooms on Lake Okeechobee. Dr. Rosen specializes in algal blooms — which he referred to as 'guacamole.'
Fox 4 showed him photos of the algal blooms shot last week by Ralph Arwood with the Calsua Waterkeeper Environmental Organization. The photos show streaks of blue-green algae for miles over the surface of the lake.
Dr. Rosen also saw a picture that Fox 4 shot near the Moore Haven Lock on Thursday. He said this blue-green algae, pictured below, is likely microcystis.
“It is a pretty decent amount that's floated up and being moved around by the wind and waves,” said Dr. Rosen. "And maybe, maybe making toxin. I don’t know for sure. But it is a possibility.”
Dr. Rosen says Nitrogen and Phosphorus in the lake are likely feeding this bloom.
“All I can tell you is it's probably going to keep growing and growing until something becomes limiting,” said Dr. Rosen. “And then when the grow stops, it crashes. And then anything in the cells will leak out and cause potential problems if there is toxins.”
Those toxins produce no odor.
“When you smell something, it is something else rotting in a bloom,” said Dr. Rosen. “Keep that in mind.”
And that rotting smell could be dead fish. As the algal bloom breaks down, bacteria can thrive, leading to low oxygen events and, ultimately, fish kills.
Rob Howell is a volunteer ranger for the Calsua Waterkeeper Environmental Organization. He said these blue-green algae blooms can snowball into other issues along the river.
“The fish kills happen then we have bacteria that can affect humans even more, like the flesh-eating bacteria and the other issues,” said Howell. “But the animals have nowhere to go when these outbreaks happen. They have blue-green algae from fresh water from Lake Okeechobee and everything that causes flowing out the river down into the Gulf that effects the red tide, cyanobacteria, that effects the saltwater animals and brackish water animals.”
Howell added that local fisherman have started to see less fish in our waterways over the last few years. He said this is likely from water quality issues and algal blooms.
“We are losing populations of wildlife in a very quick amount of time,” said Howell. “But I am starting to see less little fish and less big fish. So, the whole ecosystem is starting to be affected.”
Howell says he would like to see more water pushed south from Lake Okeechobee instead of ending up in the Caloosahatchee. The Army Corps does plan to do just that in their new operating manual, but that doesn’t start until December. The new manual, called LOSOM, was originally scheduled to begin this June, but was delayed due to NOAA study on red tide and its connection to Lake Okeechobee.
When asked how we can combat these algal blooms, Dr. Rosen says we don’t have a silver bullet.
“There is not much we can do about it because we haven’t altered our nutrient flows from the watershed,” said Dr. Rosen. “The Caloosahatchee watershed puts a lot of nutrients into the canal system. Lake Okeechobee can too. But the canal system is really fed by local nutrients that come off the land.”
Dr. Rosen tells Fox 4 while we might be seeing visible blue-green algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee and near the Moore Haven Lock, it is already embedded along the river from the lake, all the way down to Franklin Lock. He says with the right conditions, we will see more blooms this summer.
Also new Friday, the Florida Department of Health has issued a health alert for harmful blue-green algal toxins in the Caloosahatchee near Fort Myers Shores and is advising the public to be cautious. For more information on the health alert, click here.