Recent local television network reports linking Fort Myers Beach recording its first direct algae bloom in eight years have been called untrue by a local official.
Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen… conducts shoreline surveys along the island shoreline and dispelled such reports.
The Beach has been receiving its typical batches of red, green and brown drift algae, but these small drifts are not out of the norm.
“The algae that is making appearances on the beachfront is not unusual,” said Laakkonen. “It can happen pretty much any time of the year, but we are not receiving them in any densities that are extraordinary.”
Laakkonen did say an uncommon algae called “lyngbya” has been seen in smaller blooms periodically nearby off the Sanibel Causeway.
“Lyngbya is an algae that is very competitive with sea grass, which can actually cover the blades and choke out the sea grass by preventing sunlight from reaching it,” Laakkonen said. “It’s an indicator species that basically informs when something is going wrong in the estuary system. When it comes in, it can be unpleasant on the beach. We really haven’t had it on Fort Myers Beach too much.”
According to the latest Caloosahatchee River and Estuary Condition Report from Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation on July 1, Lyngbya was dense near shore in Pine Island Sound and along the Sanibel Causeway, and small clumps of red drift algae were washing up at Sanibel’s Tarpon Beach on June 30, 2014.
“Red, green and brown drift algae are accumulating in light to moderate clumps along Fort Myers Beach and in the surf zone,” the report said. “Dead halodule and thalassia (seagrasses) were also found along the north end of the island. A fine silt was also observed in areas of the wet sand.”
Officials from the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation could not be reached for comment.
During one of his most recent beachfront surveys on Thursday, July 3, Laakkonen noticed algae coming in with the tides but, while some was sticking on the shoreline, most was leaving with the outgoing tide.
Algae outbreaks occur when extra nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, other fertilizers) are added into the marine system.
“When (extra nutrients) reach some of the algae beds, it causes it to grow rapidly off the bottom,” said Laakkonen. “Then storms or waves come in and causes the algae to dislodge and drift. Sometimes, they wash up on the beach.
“Late last year and early this year there was a large bloom of drift algae all along the coastal waters, on the sea grass beds and offshore. But, we got lucky because we did not have a lot of storm conditions to push that up onshore. You may have a bloom offshore but, until the waves push it onshore, the average beach goer would not know. Or, we may have a minor bloom where the waves set up and push it all up onshore to make it look much worse than it may be.”
The Town scientist did say there was a small outbreak of red drift algae earlier in 2014.
“It stuck around for a few days. It got relatively thick in one spot, and our public works employees went out and removed several full containers off the beach,” he said. “That was the extent of it.”
High flow regulatory freshwater releases discharged from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee watershed mixed with fertilizer runoff can cause pollutants to flow down the river and aid in the algae blooms, just like last year.
“Those nutrients are probably still out there,” said Laakkonen. “It might take some time for the system to re-boot and get back to a normal baseline.”
The regulatory releases are necessary sometime, especially when there is a high level of salinity in water, which also causes harm to the native coastal habitat.
“We are getting more water. We need more water, especially right now because we need to get the system acclimated to the rainy season,” said Laakkoen. “Local rainfalls and local watershed flows have been helping the system acclimate.”
The latest SCCF condition report stated: “Freshwater flows have reduced salinity below the million fibers per liter threshold. Flows are currently in the suitable range for tape grass in the upper estuary and oysters and seagrass in the lower estuary.”
The report also stated that the United States Army Corps of Engineers began a 10-day pulse release on June 19, with average flows of 650 cubic feet per second to the estuary measured at the S79 water control structure. The schedule included two days of zero flow. SCCF recommended the the Corps maintain flows to meet the established ecological targets within the estuary for tape grass, oysters and seagrass. Regarding the lower estuary condition, the salinity at the Iona/McGregor area was 17 psu on June 30 (within the optimal range for oysters) and the average salinity at Shell Point Retirement Community was 28 psu (within the optimal range for oysters).”
Laakkonen says the coastal habitat has remained well-balanced so far this summer.
“The system appears pretty healthy. We haven’t had any harmful algal blooms like red tide,” he said. “We’ve had just a little bit of drift algae coming onto the beach. But it’s here and gone before most people can notice.”
Red drift algae is not the same as red tide. First officially recorded in Florida in 1844, red tide is a different organism and likely a different mechanism, says Laakkonen. The harmful tiny-celled algal bloom is still considered a natural phenomenon, which produces toxins that could kill large numbers of fish. It is so named due to its high concentrations causing Gulf waters to turn reddish brown.
“Red tide likes additional nutrients, so when we have additional nutrients dumped into the system, it could potentially occur, but there is still a lot of research to nail down the causal links,” he said.
Southwest Florida had a red tide take place in the spring last year. While not severe in intensity, it lasted close to half a year.
“There was a lot of red tide that was offshore and by the inshore areas,” said Laakkonen. “There were days that you could actually smell the red tide coming in.”
According to the most recent Mote Marine Laboratory beach conditions, the three reporting locations on the Beach show no red drift algae and no respiratory irritations that can be associated with red tide at this time.
Photo caption: BOB PETCHER Sparse amounts of drift algae can be found along the Beach shoreline, but there hasn’t been an outbreak on the island.
Bob Petcher, Fort Myers Beach Observer
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