Project Summary

Words and Photography by: Martha Molfetas

October 2018

On the ground: Labor Day Weekend 2018

Over Labor Day Weekend, our Executive Director, Martha Molfetas; and our Director of Communications, Michelle Chasteen; went to the Fort Myers area to interview people impacted by this ongoing pollution crisis; and photograph the places affected. In addition to our interviews, we also communicated with Staff Attorney for Save the Manatee, Anne Harvey Holbrook - who has spent her life as a conservationist and an environmental lawyer. We also spoke via email with infrastructure engineer, Mallory Clancy, a Fort Myers local and Professional Civil Engineer. Their expertise and technical prowess is included in the slideshows below.

We went from Fort Myers Beach to Sanibel Island, to Matlacha and St. James City to Cape Coral; and many places in-between. On what should have been one of the busiest weekends of the year, the entire area was a ghost town. The once pristine clear blue Gulf waters have been replaced with red colored waves. Canals have also been altered from their former glory to deep browns, and occasionally greens and yellows. But this is not the first year this has happened, over the last five years, this has become a regular occurrence lock in step with planned releases from Lake Okeechobee; managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Over the last five months, the entire area has suffered from a severe red tide and a noxious cyanobacteria bloom, aka: blue-green / green algae; creating a dead-zone that has spanned from Sarasota to Marco Island, and into the Everglades on the west coast. It has even spread into the Miami area - creating a travesty on both coasts. In Lee County alone, 1,700 tons of dead sea turtles, manatees, fish, and other marine life have been collected. Financially it has cost the entire state an estimated $8 million in business losses, Sanibel and Captiva Islands are estimated to have lost $4 million during the July red tide alone. The Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce estimates that businesses lost $2.7 million in August, with roughly $560,000 in wage losses for the community.

Florida is a diverse state, with swamps, springs, beaches, and wetlands - a unique nexus of water and land. What happens in one area can have drastic impacts on other communities. Addressing this issue will require an all hands on deck approach, including state, local, and national responses to both environmental pollution regulations alongside engineering and infrastructure solutions. The cost of doing nothing is far too great. Lives are at stake. Local economies are at stake. The future of Florida is at stake.


Research Brief

{Coming soon} There’s a lot of technical aspects, scientific nuance, and policies that have inter-played to make these red tides and algae blooms a new normal for the Fort Myers area. For more on how this pollution crisis has started, how it’s unfolding, and how we can turn the tide - check out our short research brief.


Stories from the Field

Over the long Labor Day Weekend, we spoke with five Fort Myers area residents, all impacted by this ongoing crisis. Their stories are featured in the slideshows below, in the order that we met them. Some have had their livelihoods threatened, others have had to endure health impacts from it, all have had their lives changed by this ongoing pollution crisis.

Donna Sellers | Fort Myers Beach

Donna works at a local Fort Myers beachside hotel, and runs a small cleaning business. She lived in Fort Myers for 18 years, moved to North Carolina, and moved back recently to the area. Over the last months, she’s become progressively ill from gasses emitted by the red tide and algae bloom while watching beachside businesses come to a standstill. Her livelihood and her health have both been impacted by this ongoing crisis. We spoke with her on what should have been the busiest day of the year, Labor Day Saturday. The hotel and the surrounding area were all a ghost town. When we first met with Donna, she was debating how much longer she could stay here. After Labor Day Weekend, Donna went to North Carolina for three weeks to detox from all of this, within her first week of returning back home to Fort Myers, she is now just as ill as she was in early September. She’s now making plans to leave the area permanently.

Hover your mouse over the image to see interview quotes and descriptions.

 

Roxanne Goettsch | Sanibel Causeway Islands Park + Fort Myers Downtown

Roxanne is a ride-share driver, picking up and dropping off people throughout the Fort Myers area. Before the red tide and algae bloom started, she could expect to respond to about 20 riders per night during weekends, earning close to $150 a night. Since the blooms started, she’s now lucky to make $40 with tips on a Friday night. We met with Roxanne on Sanibel Island, at the Causeway Island Park. As we drove from Fort Myers Beach and across the Causeway, there was zero traffic, you could easily count the cars on the road on one hand, on a day that should have been filled with beach goers. We were the only people at Causeway Island Park this Labor Day Saturday, on a day that would usually be booming with locals and tourists jockeying for parking spots.

Hover your mouse over the image to see interview quotes and descriptions.

 

Brian David | Estero Bay + Matlacha

Brian has been living in the Fort Myers area for 20 years, spending the last 14 years as a fishing guide captain throughout South West Florida. With each algae and red tide bloom over these last few years, Brian has seen his business suffer and the ecosystem become unrecognizable. This year has been particularly devastating, where in the past you could go sight fishing in that Caribbean clear blue water, now it’s a dark hue of brown, red, or green; dead fish float in the canals and wash up on shore, while other dead marine life drops to the bottom and feed brown algae - perpetuating the cycle of death and devastation. When he does go guiding, the fish he and his groups do catch are released, for fear of what bacteria they may possess from the blooms.

Hover your mouse over the image to see interview quotes and descriptions.

 

Ken Cranor | Sanibel

Ken is a local glass artist from Collier County, whose studio is at the Fort Myers tobacco shop, The Treasure Chest. He has spent his whole life in Southwest Florida, over the last few years - he’s noticed the increasingly grave impact these blooms have had on local marine life, as well as surrounding communities. With that in mind, and with a particular affinity for the gentle sea turtle, he and his son created Welcome to Turtle Island. Through this initiative, he and his son sculpt glass into turtle figurines that can be worn as a necklace or bracelet to both raise awareness and raise money to protect sea turtle habitats - currently they give the proceeds to the Collier County Conservancy.

Hover your mouse over the image to see interview quotes and descriptions.

 

Tatiana Martinez | Cape Coral

Tatiana works at a global business consulting firm based in Fort Myers. A life-long Floridian, prior to moving to Cape Coral, she lived in Fort Lauderdale. In the last year since she’s relocated to the west coast, she’s seen the canals by her home turn a rancid green color; and Jaycee Park become unsafe. It used to be a favorite location for family outings with her three-year old son. We met with her at that park. Over the summer, her son has developed unending respiratory issues that have not subsided with antibiotics. She suspects it’s from the now contaminated air. Despite the new job, she and her husband are considering selling their home and moving.

Hover your mouse over the image to see interview quotes and descriptions.

 

Lake Okeechobee + Surrounding Areas

What’s happening in this picturesque place is having a dire impact on downstream communities in the Fort Myers area. Environmental rollbacks have allowed large-scale agribusinesses surrounding Lake Okeechobee to use more pesticides and more nutrient rich fertilizers. That runoff flows into Lake Okeechobee; and later, through a system of locks, flows into the Caloosahatchee River. A vital freshwater river that flows into Estero Bay and the Fort Myers area, bringing with it that same nutrient rich runoff and bacteria into these communities. Those nutrients feed red tide, while also bringing freshwater green algae into saltwater areas.

Hover your mouse over the image to see interview quotes and descriptions.