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

FIVE INDUSTRIES HURT BY FLORIDA’S ENVIRONMENTAL TRAUMAS

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.
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.
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