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Fort Myers Beach struck with sea grass, fish kill

By Staff | Jul 30, 2018

Signs of the ongoing water quality state of emergency are washing up on Fort Myers Beach’s shores.

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

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 the past 14 days 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.

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.”

The Public Works Department is cleaning up the fish on the beach. Burns said they’d made a first sweep Thursday morning with plans to remove more during a second round later.

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.

According to the semi-weekly report by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), Lee County is experiencing moderate to 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.

“When it gets to levels like this, we can get rid of what we can without disturbing wrack line,” she said.