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  1. Opinion

Red Tide and Lake Okeechobee's blue-green algae ruined the dreams of my brother, the fishing guide, and literally worried him to death

Mark Futch aboard his boat
Published Nov. 1, 2018

The official word is that my brother died of a sudden cardiac arrest.

But I'm blaming Florida's toxic algae release of blue-green goo from Lake Okeechobee into the Gulf of Mexico. It broke my brother's heart.

My brother was Mark Futch, a premier tarpon fishing guide from Boca Grande, hailed throughout Florida for leading a successful campaign to outlaw fishing equipment that was killing tarpon, a large game fish that is inedible but sought after for sport and its renowned leaping ability. But when the purposeful release of toxic algae hit the Gulf of Mexico, killing everything in its path, including Mark's charter fishing business, his heart just couldn't take it.

I don't think Mark is the only one. The local "coconut telegraph" is buzzing with stories about a different fishing guide who left a note for his loved ones in his pickup truck. They found his body a few days later, hanging in a tree by his favorite fishing spot.

Back in May, south Florida received record rainfall. Lake Okeechobee was filled to the brim and its water was infested with algae born from foul runoff attributed to Big Sugar, Big Citrus, golf courses, manure from the cattle industry and 2.6 million septic tanks leeching human waste.

On June 2, the Army Corps of Engineers and local water managers released the poisonous green slime from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River. Then, amid fears of a dike breach, another goo release came on Friday the 13th in July.

Millions more gallons of green slime water flooded the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River estuaries, killing everything below the surface. Everything. Billions of critters. The Gulf Coast death toll includes every species of fish that lives in these estuaries as well as dolphin, manatees, sea turtles, even plankton-eating whale sharks. On its way west along the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers, the poisonous green goo combined with Red Tide in Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor and killed everything from manatees and dolphin to tarpon and turtles, even wiping out crabs and shrimp.

The algae bloom became Florida's Three Mile Island, an underwater Chernobyl that's left in its wake a fishless desert from Naples to Tampa/St. Petersburg and up to 20 miles offshore, so say divers who've been there.

When Okeechobee's goo mixed with an unfortunately timed but natural Red Tide in Boca Grande Pass, where my brother had operated his business for 43 years, 15,000 silver king tarpon averaging 100 pounds apiece disappeared. And so did the final 45 days of my brother's guide season that would have paid off a new $32,000 engine, a Caterpillar turbo diesel with a Borg-Warner transmission attached to a new brass propeller.

He had taken on a lot of debt. The goo, which only made an already existing Red Tide worse, stressed him out. He sat around. He gained 60 pounds. No money was coming in.

I think that when Mark lost those 45 days of fishing in June and July at $900 a day, his world fell apart. The boat sat at the dock gathering barnacles. He had no idea how he was going to pay off the engine and provide for his family. Would the Gulf of Mexico ever recover?

His heart exploded a week shy of his 64th birthday.

Capt. Mark Futch's ashes were set free Oct. 13 in Boca Grande Pass. Dozens of boats filled with friends, family and admirers watched as the box containing his ashes refused to sink for the longest time. Hundreds of people stood on the shore near Port Boca Grande Lighthouse. The community held a potluck.

Mark earned a lot of respect for co-founding the Save the Tarpon coalition that convinced the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission to outlaw a jig responsible for killing off tarpon. He was concerned about protecting both the fish and his heritage as a fourth-generation Florida fishing guide whose great-grandfather, Cicero Franklin "Frank" Futch, fished President Teddy Roosevelt. Clients, and later friends, of my brother included Katharine Hepburn and Neil Armstrong. When Hepburn stayed on Boca Grande for weeks at a time, Mark would fly her in his seaplane to Turtle Bay, and she would sit on the floats and tell stories about dating Howard Hughes and other Hollywood types while Mark gathered oysters and shucked them for her, dousing them with hot sauce and key lime. He caught Neil Armstrong a 110-pound tarpon, and Armstrong rewarded him with a signed autographed picture of him and Mark.

I can't help but think that Mark's death signified the end of a way of life. The Futch family was one of the first to settle Boca Grande. Ever since the 1870s, there's been a Futch fishing Boca Grande Pass.

Now there's one less. And my heart is broken.

David Futch is a Florida native and former fishing guide who now lives and writes in California.

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