Calusa Waterkeeper outlines dangers of toxic algal blooms

Chad Gillis
The News-Press
Algae builds up at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin on Thursday. The bloom started about two weeks ago in the upper stretches of the river and has since worked its way toward the coast.

Cancer clusters, more dead pets and an increased rate of neurological diseases are all possibilities when talking about exposure to a massive algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee River. 

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani spoke to a crowd of about 50 Thursday night at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers. 

"There’s at least one cancer cluster around Lake Okeechobee – liver cancer," Cassani said. "And the residents take their water from the surface waters, I think from Lake Okeechobee."

The lake has a bloom that's covering about 90 percent of the surface, and waters spilled from the lake have fueled blooms in both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. 

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Cyanobacteria blooming in the Caloosahatchee River are from a strain, Microcystin, that's known to promote tumor growth and liver cancer and has been associated with a protein linked to Parkinson's, ALS and Alzheimer disease. 

The bloom in the Caloosahatchee started about two weeks ago in the upper stretches of the river and has since worked its way to downtown Fort Myers and Cape Coral. 

Thick clumps of sky-blue and avocado-green algae were piled up Thursday along the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam and other locations along the river. 

The organism that causes blue-green algae blooms occurs naturally but is fed by warm weather and excess nutrients from farms and homes. 

Cassani said this is one of the worst blooms he's seen in the Caloosahatchee. 

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Not only are the blooms health issues for people on and around the river, the blooms are particularly cruel to some pets and practically any animals that come in contact with them. 

"They’re extremely toxic to dogs," Cassani said. "These things produce a really bad smell and it attracts dogs." 

Cassani said the death rate for dogs known to be exposed to blue-green algae is nearly 60 percent. 

Several veterinarian websites say pets and livestock exposed to blue-green algae should be taken to an animal hospital or vet immediately. Death in some animals can happen as soon as 15 to 20 minutes after exposure. 

Cassani said the economic impacts of the massive bloom are hard to gauge, although a study commissioned by Florida Realtors in 2015 showed that property values in Lee and Martin counties were suppressed by almost $1 billion due to poor water quality. 

"When you look at at the trickle-down effect to the economy, it’s quite extraordinary," Cassani said. 

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Holly Rauen helped organize the talk for the Southwest Florida Pachamama Alliance.

She and others have been going to the river to see the damage. 

"Yesterday we went to the Ortona Lock and we watched the water coming from the lake and the green stuff swirling around," Rauen said. "And then it would go through the main lock and churn and churn and churn and we watched the water with the green bacteria race into the middle of the lock."

She said the presentation was difficult to hear because of all the ecological damage, but that the topic needs to be discussed in public and at the polls.  

"We all need to hear the hard facts right now, and John Cassani's presentation, as dire as it was, is what our people and candidates need to know," Rauen said. 

Rauen said she believes waterways like the Caloosahatchee will be clean again, someday. 

"I really believe in the power of the people," Rauen said. "We need to talk to each other. We need to talk to anyone who’s running and we need to strike at the roots of the problems." 

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter.