Florida's algae crisis: How is it affecting tourism and other businesses?

Laura Ruane
The News-Press

A waterfront home sale – a $7 million one – was imminent last week.

The setting was perfect for sealing the deal, said Dave Schuldenfrei, a real estate salesman on Sanibel for more than 40 years.

 “We’re standing on this gorgeous lanai, looking at the beautiful blue waters of the Gulf. They loved the house,” Schuldenfrei said.

But there was one big hitch. The home hunters mentioned seeing the news about harmful blue-green algae blooms in Southwest Florida waters and red tide that can kill fish and irritate people’s lungs. 

David Schuldenfrei is a Sanibel Realtor who has been advocating for clean water for decades. He recently lost out on a $7 million home sale because the potential buyers were scared off by red tide and toxic algae in Lee County’s waterways.

And, even though neither red tide nor blue-green algae were fouling the waters near this home, “they backed off on the purchase,” Schuldenfrei said, adding: “I’ve definitely lost sales every year to water quality. But this was the largest.”

To be sure, the blue-green and red tide aren't everywhere in Southwest Florida waters. But there's enough of the algal blooms lingering to cause not only health concerns, but pockets of pain for a wide range of businesses.

Did you know?:These SWFL beaches remain clean and free of blue-green algae, red tide

Related:Florida's algae crisis and lingering red tide hurt waterfront home sales

Already, Gov. Rick Scott and other politicians are prodding the state and federal governments for more help. 

These efforts are mixed blessings for the region's lifeblood tourism and hospitality industry. Mentions of  the seven-county "state of emergency"  due to algae blooms, for example, doesn't play well on TripAdvisor.

"On one hand, we desperately need the attention (to the water crisis). On the other hand, we don't like to hear 'state of emergency,' said Kari Cordisco, general manager of Sanibel Moorings.

"I'm getting panicked phone calls from all over the country," Cordisco said.

Everyone agrees the region’s latest water quality crisis is costing business for real estate, tourism and hospitality, retailing and more. But nobody knows how much.

However, they do have an idea of what’s at stake for our economy. According to the Florida League of Cities:

►Nineteen counties and 164 municipalities are affected by the health of the Greater Everglades ecosystem stretching from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay.

►These counties and cities generate 55 percent of Florida’s real estate values.  

►Add in bed taxes charged at hotels and other short-term lodgings, and $2 trillion annually are potentially at risk.

On a smaller scale, tourism in Lee and Collier counties alone has yearly economic impact approaching $4.5 billion.

Sunshine isn’t enough. People come to Florida to swim, fish, hunt and enjoy watching and photographing its wildlife on land and sea.

 “The environment is all Florida has to offer," said Schuldenfrei, a salesman with VIP Realty Group.

David Schuldenfrei is a Sanibel realtor who has been advocating for clean water for decades.

Government begins assessing impact

Government just now is starting to assess the business impacts of the latest water crises that are grabbing so much attention in the news and in social media.

On Thursday, Gov. Scott announced the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity had activated the FloridaDisaster.biz Business Damage Assessment survey to gather information on how algal blooms caused by federal Lake Okeechobee water releases have affected business operations.

In case you missed it:Gov. Rick Scott issues state of emergency for Lee, Martin counties following tour of algae blooms

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, on Thursday filed a bill that would give Florida’s small businesses a tax deduction if they lost earnings because of toxic blue-green algae from Lake Okeechobee discharges. 

Last week, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, asked the U.S. Small Business Administration to quickly open a recovery center, and make agency resources available to small businesses that are adversely affected by the blue-green algae blooms related to water discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

Dirty water is a pain in everyone’s wallets. Here’s what some local business people had to say:

Mixed report from lodgings

As of Friday, the shores along Fort Myers Beach were free of red tide. Blue-green algae hadn’t reached the Gulf.

But Bill Waichulis, chief executive at the upscale Pink Shell resort, noticed the pace of reservations last week at his property had slipped when compared with the same week last year.

He attributes it to the disturbing news about icky blue-green algae and red tide, accompanied by pictures of dead fish.

“It’s going to be a tough third quarter,” Waichulis told fellow members of Lee County’s Tourists Development Council, which met Thursday.

“We haven’t had a lot of cancellations. But do I see booking hesitation? Yes,” said Jeanne Bigos, general manager at the Outrigger resort on Fort Myers Beach.

The water “actually looks better than it has in weeks,” said Jacki Liszak, head of the Beach chamber of commerce.

“We’re getting a lot of calls,” Liszak said. “I’m scared for my businesses if (red tide or blue-green algae) come here.”

Editorial:Crisis only grows below the algae on the Caloosahatchee River

Earlier last week, following a tour of the Caloosahatchee River, Gov. Scott issued an emergency order in Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to help combat algal blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee water discharges.

With news of that emergency declaration, “our phones started lighting up. And we did have quite a bit of cancellations,” said Phillip Starling, general manager at the Sundial resort on Sanibel.

It’s calmed down a bit since then. When people call, “we tell them we’re not affected by the red tide and that the green algae hasn’t gotten to us yet,” Starling said.

His staff directs callers to the webcam on the resort website, “where they can see real-time, what the water looks like.”

Schuldenfrei, the Sanibel real estate salesman who lost a big sale, also manages a 150-unit vacation rental program.

“I can tell you the phones have stopped ringing. We’ve had some cancellations.”

He called the rental program “a canary in the coal mine,” because most upscale home buyers on the islands first sample the area as renters.

Save Our Water:Why does the water from Lake O cause algae blooms? Is the lake polluted?

No business operates in a vacuum. If vacation rentals suffer, so do restaurants and shops, Schuldenfrei noted.

The same goes for lost home sales: They mean fewer purchases at furniture stores, even fewer trips to the barber, he said.

To be sure, the level of worry varies by location.

Collier County doesn’t have to cope with blue-algae from the Caloosahatchee.

And red tide? Only South Marco Beach had a bit of that last week.

“It comes, it goes,” said Jack Wert of the county’s convention and visitors bureau.

And, if red tide keeps visitors from hitting the beach, “they’re going somewhere else, like museums,” Wert said, adding that any fouled water "certainly is not good for the region."

Business at inland Lee County hotels “is slowing down, but I can’t equate that to the water situation,” said Jeff Webb, president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association's local chapter and general manager for Hampton Inn & Suites in the city of Fort Myers.

However, he’s not blasé about water conditions: “It’s gross, nasty. We’re not looking good with the water.”

Commercial fishing

Blue crabs are a prized product of the Caloosahatchee.

 And, they’re getting scarce, said Jeff Haugland, seafood wholesaler and owner of St. James City-based Island Crab Co.

Over time, “those Okeechobee releases are killing the river’s grass beds,” Haugland said, adding:

“I’m 90 percent sure, although I’m not a biologist, and I hate to point fingers.”

The grass beds are like nurseries for small crabs and baitfish, according to Haugland.

He can’t prove the releases are causing the local crab shortage, noting that a three-day streak of heavy rainfall during the wrong time could have the same impact as a lake water release.

Still, if Lake Okeechobee releases were curtailed indefinitely, “I think I would feel good,” Haugland said.

Joseph Pfeiffer, a blue crab fisherman for Island Crab say the harvests this year are down. He says the crabs are starting to move down the river towards the mouth. He believes they are getting away from the algae that is in the  Caloosahatchee River.

Separately from the lake releases, red tide has been present in patches of Lee County for roughly 10 months.

Because the red tide toxin becomes concentrated in filter-feeding shellfish and poses serious health risks, that’s closed clam and oyster beds to commercial harvesting.

During red tide outbreaks area fish markets and restaurants get their shellfish from unaffected regions, including some out of state.

In the summer, The Prawnbroker restaurant group orders most of its shellfish from the Cedar Key area north of Tampa.

That’s not only because red tide might be present locally. In the summer, the shellfish aren’t as big or plentiful in the summer here, said Mark Blust, spokesman for the restaurant group.

Joseph Pfeiffer, a blue crab fisherman for Island Crab say the harvests this year are down. He says the crabs are starting to move down the river towards the mouth. He believes they are getting away from the algae that is in the  Caloosahatchee River. He is heading back to the boat ramp at Rosen Park in Cape Coral. The canal is filled with algae. Normally he would have traps just outside of this canal but he has moved the traps father down the river.

But in the winter, assuming there’s no red tide, “we pull all the clams and oysters we can out of Pine Island,” Blust said.  That didn’t happen last winter, because of the red tide.

The water quality risks to the Caloosahatchee and surrounding waters “make us all very angry,” Haugland said. “It makes it hard for us to support our families.”

Escape to Alaska

On the sport fishing side, at least one guide has suspended summer services because of blue-green algae and red tide.

Capt. Peggy Riley of Coastal Seafari specializes in taking kayaks on her powerboat to remote mangrove areas where clients can paddle around and fish.

A few summers ago, “I got discouraged. People wanted to go out, but the water was too nasty,” Riley said.

So she’s working summers in Alaska as a skipper on a tourist boat.

The rest of the year Riley lives in Cape Coral, just a few pea-soup-green, algae-choked canals in from the Caloosahatchee.

When she returns from Alaska in October, she fervently hopes the water is clearing up, and she can resume her business here.

“We love Southwest Florida,” Riley said. “But if the (water problems) keep up, we might have to move.”

Fort Myers-based water excursion operator Pure Florida take guests on the Caloosahatchee to experience the nature, ecology and history of Fort Myers from the river with the help of certified captains, naturalists and historians.

In case you missed it:What we know about the toxic algae bloom in the Caloosahatchee River

Boat tours tell river's story

“We haven’t had to cancel any trips because of algae,” said Merry Coffman, director of marketing and public relations.

Bookings were down last week; however, she questions whether that’s because of customers’ algae worries or because of rain and thunderstorms.

“We don’t see a lot of the algae in the river’s main channels; it’s mainly in the canals and in the marina,” she said.

That doesn’t mean company guides dodge visitors’ questions about water health and its impact, Coffman said.

“For us, it’s another opportunity to tell the story of the river – it’s ecology and history.

“Even in a bad situation, you can learn so much.”