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A decade of environmental traumas hurt Florida industry

An oil spill, toxic algae blooms and two hurricanes left their marks
Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River, when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. The releases spawned massive blue-green algae blooms. [Palm Beach Post]
Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River, when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. The releases spawned massive blue-green algae blooms. [Palm Beach Post]
Published Dec. 30, 2019
Updated Dec. 30, 2019

Editor’s note: This story is part of “A Decade Defined By,” a series that examines how Tampa Bay has changed in the past decade. We will publish one story a day until Dec. 31. Read the whole package here.

One major lesson of the past decade is this: In Florida, the environment is the economy. If you mess up one, you mess up the other.

Floridians learned that lesson in a big way in July 2010, when weathered oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster off Louisiana first showed up on Panhandle beaches. As the sugar-white sands developed a bad case of thick, brown acne, tourists canceled hotel reservations all over the state. No charter fishing trips. No beach weddings. Ultimately BP agreed to pay Florida $3.2 billion for its losses.

Then, in mid-2013, came an algae bloom so severe that it became known as Toxic Summer. It started in Lake Okeechobee, spread to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and later the St. Johns River, driving away tourists.

An algae outbreak as thick as guacamole followed in 2016. It took over the waterfront in Stuart, producing a smell one resident described as “death on a cracker.” The beaches shut down for the Fourth of July and killed local tourism.

Two years later, toxic algae blooms erupted all over Florida, from the St. Johns River to Lake Okeechobee, as well as on both coasts. Blue-green algae plagued some parts of the state. A Red Tide bloom lingered for 16 months, killing manatees, dolphins and other marine life. Voters were so angry at then-Gov. Rick Scott for rolling back environmental regulations — including required inspections of septic tanks — that they chased him away from a campaign appearance.

An aerial photo shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, Fla.,Wednesday, June 29, 2016. [GREG LOVETT | AP (2016)]

Then a pair of hurricanes named Irma and Michael, fueled by the warmth of climate change and aided by rising seas, clobbered the state.

Newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis has vowed to take on toxic algae and climate change. The next decade will show whether he succeeds.

Tens of thousands of dead fish and crustaceans washed up on Madeira Beach in Pinellas County in 2018. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2018)]


1. Tourism. Although the statewide tourism industry is in good shape, in part thanks to repeat business at the theme parks, some segments suffered devastating losses from the oil spill, hurricanes and algae blooms. Last year the state’s tourism marketing arm, Visit Florida, launched an $8.89 million marketing campaign to counteract the public relations damage done by Hurricane Michael and the algae blooms.

2. Charter boats and other rentals. A 2018 Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council survey of 12 counties found that Red Tide caused 626 temporary and permanent layoffs among charter boat operations and other waterfront rentals.

Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, Fla., are surrounded by blue green algae, Wednesday, June 29, 2016. [GREG LOVETT | AP (2016)]

3. Timber Hurricane Michael tore up an estimated 2.7 million acres of timber, toppling trees that were the basis of the economy in several North Florida counties. One estimate of the monetary damage is more than $1 billion.

4. Seafood. Gulf Coast shrimpers, oystermen and seafood processors claimed the BP oil spill cost them more than $1 billion. The company fought that claim for two years, then surrendered.

Downed trees are seen from the air near Tyndall Air Force Base in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael near Mexico Beach, Fla. i October 2018. [GERALD HERBERT | AP (2018)]

5. Waterfront real estate. A study of home sales along the coast in the wake of the BP oil spill found values fell an average of 15 percent as a direct result of the spill. Four years ago the Florida Realtors Trade Association analyzed property values in the counties hit most often by algae-laden waters from Lake Okeechobee found that the disaster had suppressed property values by as much as $428 million annually


  1. Florida has more wetlands than any state other than Alaska. They serve as important habitat for wildlife and filter out pollution from the environement. Developers have long wanted the state to be in charge of issuing permits to fill them in, rather than the Army Corps of Engineers. The state has now taken a crucial step toward taking over wetlands permitting.
  2. Pasco County commissioners introduced an ordinance Tuesday governing upkeep of empty property after residents complained about the condition of the Links Golf Club in Hudson, which closed in June 2019.
  3. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia on the floor of the Florida House in 2017. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  4. In this radar image from the National Weather Service's Key West facility, a massive flock of migratory birds is seen moving north early Monday. The green/yellow objects are biological objects flying north over the Keys. The darker blue objects indicate rain.
  5. These marine mammals were named "right whales" because they were considered by whalers to be "the right ones to hunt."
  6. Island Estates, a neighborhood in Clearwater Bay. There are three City Council races on this year's ballot as the city prepares for the realities of climate change.
  7. Florida Department of Environmental Protection staff conduct regular seagrass monitoring to assess the health and diversity of seagrass meadows within the St. Martins Marsh and Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserves north of Tampa Bay. A state legislator wants to extend the aquatic preserve to all of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties.

Charlie Shoemaker for The Pew Charitable Trusts
  8. One of two dolphins found dead in Florida recently of gunshot or stab wounds.
  9. Florida stopped providing free juice at welcome centers last year. [Times (2015)]
  10. USF scientist Stephen Hesterberg holds two oyster shells from Crystal River -- one small and modern, the other large and prehistoric. Hesterberg was part of a team of scientists who have documented how Florida oysters have shrunk since prehistoric times. Climate change may be a factor. [Courtesy of the University of South Florida]
  11. In this Jan. 29, 2020 photo made available by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, confiscated hammerhead shark fins are displayed at the Port of Miami. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, that the shipment of dried fins was believed to have originated in South America and was likely bound for Asia. Officials estimate the total commercial value of 18 boxes of fins to be between $700,000 and $1 million. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)
  12. The U.S. Geological Survey says a powerful magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica on Tuesday. [Google]