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Fish, sea grass kill, inundates Fort Myers Beach

July 31, 2018
By JESSICA SALMOND ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Victims of the water quality state of emergency are washing up on Fort Myers Beach's shores daily.

The beach is being inundated with sea grasses, dead fish and drift algae.

These marine organisms began appearing Thursday, and continued heavily over the weekend, connected to the almost year-long red tide algae bloom coming ashore from the Gulf of Mexico.

Article Photos

Although the Town of Fort Myers Beach is actively raking the beaches to clean up the drift algae, more washes ashore.


In addition, the respiratory irritation and smell of dead fish is cloying the air.

"My 30-, 60-, 90-day outlook is way worse than it was last year," said Scott Safford, co-owner of the Sea Gypsy Inn.

The water quality issues bombarding the beach are already having a chilling effect on his business. Last week, two guests left after a day instead of making it through their four-day stay because of the respiratory irritations caused by red tide. Safford had two cancellations Monday morning.

Fact Box

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Visiting Fort Myers Beach?

Bay Oaks: free for now

In an email Monday, Town Manager Roger Hernstadt said the entrance fees for Bay Oaks Pool will be waived until further notice so residents and visitors have a place to swim.

Where to watch and report:

Red Tide reports:

FWC publishes a red tide status report on Wednesdays and Fridays that can be found online at

NOAA releases a twice-a-week harmful algal bloom bulletin twice a week; subscribe to it at


marine life:

For sick, injured or dead sea turtles contact the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Sea Turtle Hotline at 978-SAVE-ONE (728-3663) or FWC's Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922). FWC's hotline can also be used to report any sick or dead animal.

To report a fish kill, contact FWC's Fish Kill Hotline at 800-636-0511 or submit a report online. The public can also download the free FWC Reporter app to their mobile device.

To report a bird mortality, visit

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When guests call in asking about the water, he said he's honest with them.

"If you're coming down to hang out on the beach, I'd recommend rescheduling," he said.

Sea grass serves an important role in the estuarine system, providing food for animals like manatees and also serving as home and safe zones for fish nurseries.

But the grasses are dying and washing up on the beach - a sign of the imbalance of salinity in the estuary, said Rae Burns, Town of Fort Myers Beach environmental technician.

"We want our sea grasses in the sea grass beds, protecting our fish," she said.

The grasses need a mix of salt water and fresh water to thrive; too much of either is detrimental.

With two weeks of freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee, that mix has been thrown out of balance.

It's not just sea grasses - dead fish are here now, too.

Red tide has been concentrated in northern Lee County for weeks, but the bloom has shown its consequences now on Fort Myers Beach. This year's red tide has been fed by the freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee; the nutrients in the water are the same kind that red tide likes to feed on.

Dead fish have been washing up on shore on the beach, dead from Karenia brevis. K. brevis is the organism that makes up red tide; it produces a toxin that kills fish and can cause respiratory irritation to people and animals when it becomes airborne.

"The winds are blowing everything in shore," Burns said. "Fort Myers Beach is getting red tide now."

Burns said people should not pick up or bury the fish - especially catfish, as they have a painful barb.

"Let us handle them," she said.

The Public Works Department is cleaning up the fish on the beach.

According to the semi-weekly report by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) released Monday, Lee County is experiencing high levels of red tide from north to south in both the Gulf and bay areas, with the exception of the bay area of south Lee County, which is not experiencing red tide.

The beach is also littered with drift algae - large clumps of red or brownish seaweed. It's a separate issue from red tide, but the town is trying to pick up the excess, Burns said.

There is a large clump of the drift algae living offshore, but currents and winds are breaking off pieces of it and pushing it toward the beach, Burns said.

The town is not removing the algae from the wrack line - the line made by high tide - because the wrack line, and the algae, serve an important ecological role in feeding shorebirds and other creatures. But, there is excess drift algae washing up, and the town will do emergency raking to remove anything past the wrack line, Burns said.

According to an email from Town Manager Roger Hernstadt, the town will continue to clean the beaches as necessary, and the town is working to get contractors to remove dead fish from the town's canals and waterways. The raking will continue as it's needed.

Tractors could be seen Monday trying to pick up the drift algae, but new chunks washed up alongside fish, eel and horseshoe crab bodies within minutes.

Hernstadt said in an email Monday that the entrance fees to the Bay Oaks Swimming Pool will be waived, effective immediately, to give residents and visitors a place to relax and swim.

"The pool fee waiver will continue until further notice or until beach conditions improve," Hernstadt said.

Safford is concerned that it could take weeks to clean up, as there are fish kills being reported 20 miles offshore. It can take a while for those bodies to get to shore.

He's lived through red tide before, but said this is the worst it's been.

"When you smell it, when you see it, it's unbelievable," Safford said. "They've got to stop the discharges right now."

Sanibel is getting hit with red tide as well, including large dead creatures washing on shore.

Last week, a number of sea turtles and a whale shark were the victims.

"We have a big fish kill from Punta Rassa to the Sanibel boat ramp up the beach and along the shoreline; they are seeing everything," said Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resources policy director for Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. "It's devastating - the death and the smell and just safety, from contamination. These are dark days. We've got everything washing up, apparently."

The 26-foot young male whale shark was exposed to red tide; K. brevis was present in tissue samples taken by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials last Sunday. But, it's not known yet if the red tide was the cause of its death.

"The muscle, liver, intestine - tissue and contents - and stomach contents of the whale shark all tested positive for the red tide brevetoxin - Karenia brevis," Melody Kilborn, spokeswoman for FWC's Southwest Region Office, said. "The whale shark was exposed to the red tide bloom, but this does not necessarily indicate this is why it died."

Holly Milbrandt, environmental biologist with the Sanibel Natural Resources Department, reiterated that the initial results are only an analysis of the four samples and further research will be required.

"This isn't really meant to be a final report," she said.

Milbrandt echoed that the whale's exact cause of death may never be revealed.

"But I can say this is a contributing factor," she said, referring to the existence of brevetoxin in the tissue samples. "Red tide definitely played a part."

Milbrandt noted the recent sea turtle strandings on the islands and other local sea life being impacted, pointing out that the area is in the midst of a red tide bloom that has been lingering since October.

"This is a really challenging time for our beaches and the Caloosahatchee," she said. "I think it's evident that things are not right in our shore waters."

The reason beach-goers are seeing the full impact of bloom's severity is due to wind direction.

"We're seeing the effect of it because the on-shore wind is blowing it all on shore," Wessel said.

Such blooms feed on nutrients in the water - the more nutrients released from the river's watershed and Lake Okeechobee, the greater the chance of marine-life killing blooms in the gulf, Wessel said.

To that end, SCCF is urging the community - particularly voters - to demand prevention at the source of the pollution.

"The primary driver is nutrients in the water. We need to stop loading nutrients in our water bodies," she said. "As we stand here in the middle of this extreme event, what we can do is ask for the state to tighten water quality and stormwater standards. Our options are limited while we're the middle of an event. It's sort of like when the house is burning, that's not the time to call about getting an insurance policy."

SCCF has set up a call-to-action component online at

"We're encouraging people to send a letter to current officials and ask questions of candidates both," Wessel said.

Safford hopes voters can put party lines aside and vote for candidates who will support clean water.

"People from every political angle are saying the same thing," he said. "People need to wake up. You have to vote for water first."

- Valarie Harring and Tiffany Repecki contributed to this story.



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