Thousands attend Caloosahatchee Death March
Wearing black, carrying signs and even a coffin, more than 3,000 people turned out Saturday to mourn the death of a river.
Organized by the South Florida Clean Water Movement, the Caloosahatchee Death March stepped off at the pavilion at Centennial Park and proceeded through downtown Fort Myers.
The mission afoot?
To call attention to the plight of Southwest Florida and the death of countless marine life – fish by the millions, sea turtles, porpoises, manatees -as a result of record red tide and blue-green algae blooms fed by nutrient-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
John Heim, co-founder of the Clean Water Movement, said the group gathered to educate people on the ecological disaster that has occurred and to voice anger and frustration in a peaceful manner.
“The name behind the march symbolizes the death of the Caloosahatchee River. It is now recognized as the C-43 Canal, which would break down the protections for the river,” Heim said. “Not to mention the 170 miles of dead sea life and waterways from Marco Island to Sarasota.”
Patty Cummings, of Cape Coral, is an activist who was trying to raise awareness with her own Facebook Live. She said there is more than red tide going on and that awareness needs to be made before it’s too late.
“I have sharks in my canal now. But I know two miles away from me it’s green and blue. I’ve walked the beaches and filmed thousands of dead fish. It felt like a movie. It did not feel real,” Cummings said. “There were no flies or vultures or pelicans. I knew something more is happening.”
People from Sarasota to Naples gathered at the park, most wearing black, some in formal funeral attire.
Black surgical masks were the accessory of choice.
Erica Edwards of Cape Coral had her black dress and veil as well as a sign that she brought for the trip.
“We’re witnessing the death of all of us. The economy, wildlife, everything. It’s symbolism. Millions of fish washing up, manatees, sea turtles, everything,” Edwards said. “I live near a canal and the smell is horrendous. It smells like a pig farm.”
David Menist is a master captain who has seen the carnage of miles of dead fish, wrought by two separate algae blooms – toxin-producing Karenia brevis, the organism that makes up red tide, in the gulf and an unrelated bloom of a different algae, cyanobacteria, which is wreaking similar havoc in the Caloosahatchee and canals in Cape Coral, Pine Island and North Fort Myers.
“It’s causing an explosion we’re not ready to handle. Nothing can survive it. The food chain is destroyed,” Menist said. “We have never seen something like this and it’s spreading. I’ve lost $30,000 in cancellations and you have to tell these people the truth. These aren’t my clients, they’re my friends.”
Bob and Diane Buhler of North Fort Myers started a small business where he would take his boat and show tourists the canals and river. He has seen that venture go up in the stench of a dying ecosystem.
“My canal is as bad as it’s ever been. The algae is getting worse and worse. I don’t trust the water, I don’t want myself or my customers to get sick, so I’m out of business,” Buhler said.
“Just walking out your back door you feel like you’re going to choke. You can’t even enjoy the pool, never mind going to the beach,” Diane said. “We started a new business that never got off the ground.”
Other marchers came in costume, such as superheroes and the grim reaper, and many carried signs to show support and to demand action.
Cyndy Nayer, a water activist, came to speak at the pre-march press conference that was more like a pep rally. As a retired health policy expert, she knows the health impact of such a catastrophe.
“We can expect a lot more respiratory illness, muscle illness. People aren’t out enjoying our tourism and not contributing to the economy,” Nayer said. “This is a travesty and what we’re not seeing is the governor or our congressman. Where are they?”
At 7 p.m., the march began, with stops along the way in front of State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto’s office; the South Florida Water Management District office on McGregor Boulevard, where they held a “die-in;” the Old Courthouse and DeLeon Plaza before heading home in the darkness.
Various chants rang out at each stop along the way.
Richard Smith chanted “Water’s a right, not a privilege” while carrying a cardboard casket.
“I’ve lived here my entire life and I have a good time doing what I do, and we can’t because I can’t get to my destination because of the algae blooms and big sugar,” Smith said. “St. James City is ugly. The shops are closed. Tourists aren’t coming. I can’t go kayaking.”