Dr. Zack Jud Of Florida Oceanographic Society Discusses State's Toxic Algae Crisis
With recent months turning public attention toward algae—whether the green muck invading waterways or the red tide forcing would-be beachgoers to steer clear—it’s encouraging to speak with a local organization dedicated to keeping our area not just habitable, but flourishing.
At the Florida Oceanographic Society, located on Hutchinson Island, the mission is to “inspire environmental stewardship of Florida’s coastal ecosystems through education, research and advocacy.”
To that end, visitors can enjoy interactions ranging from hands-on stingray feedings to guided nature trail walks through the center’s 57 acres of coastal hardwood hammocks and mangrove swamps. There’s also fish and sea turtle programs at the 750,000-gallon lagoon.
We caught up with Dr. Zack Jud, director of education, to discuss the recent algae issues and find out what the average person can do to help resolve them.
Let’s dive in on the recent toxic algae crisis. What’s going on?
We’re really in the midst of multiple algae crises. We came off of a summer filled with stories about cyanobacteria dumping out of Lake Okeechobee, and just as soon as we caught a breath of relief—as the Army Corps of Engineers suspended discharges out of Lake Okeechobee—we end up with an East Coast red tide algae bloom. In both cases, [the blooms] have the potential to cause severe environmental harm, severe human health issues and severe economic damage to our community.
Is the red tide caused by pollution, or is it a naturally occurring process? What’s causing this, and why now?
The organism itself that causes the red tide algae bloom is definitely naturally occurring. Spanish sailors reported red tide-like events hundreds of years ago.
But there’s very little doubt in my mind that the nutrients we’re dumping into coastal waters, whether it’s Lake Okeechobee discharges or runoff from other urban canals—those nutrients, the nitrogen and phosphorous that come from farm fertilizer and sewage and septic tank discharges—all of those nutrients are, without a doubt, in my mind, adding fuel to our current red tide algae bloom. We’re seeing a very protracted red tide. We’re seeing a very intense red tide. We’re seeing massive, massive losses of marine life. I think the nutrients that we are putting in the water are certainly fueling the fire of this red tide event.
What is the Florida Oceanographic Society doing to handle the algae crisis? Is there anything to be done?
When we have an acute event, whether it’s a cyanobacteria bloom dumping into our estuary from Lake Okeechobee, or a red tide event affecting our coastal waters, we immediately bring that into our educational programming on a daily basis. We had nearly 65,000 visitors come through the coastal center last year and—twice a day, every day—we do a set of free educational presentations for our guests, so six presentations per day.
In those programs, we talk about current environmental issues and how they’re affecting our community, so immediately we bring our guests up to speed about the cyanobacteria. We bring our guests up to speed about the red tide. We bring in the most contemporary science and the most current knowledge that we have into our daily programming here at the [Florida Oceanographic] Coastal Center so that our visitors can leave with a better sense of knowledge about the problem and maybe some inspiration to try to make personal changes to help find a solution.
You know, so many of these issues really boil down to politics. We understand the science behind solving most of Florida’s water issues. As complicated as they are, we understand the tasks that need to be taken to fix these issues. What we need is political will to make the science become a reality. We talk about that on a daily basis with our guests. We believe that knowledge and education are really the most important tools in our fight for the health of the environment. That’s a big part of our mission.
Very cool. My grandmother actually lives in Stuart, and she would always take me to the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center as a kid. I remember all of the educational programming your organization does and your efforts to spread an interest in and love for the local environment and marine environment.
That’s one of the things that sets us apart from other organizations: everything we do has an environmental focus on it and an educational focus on it. Even our animals. We tell people every day that our animals aren’t here just to look at; all of these animals are here to help you learn. They’re conservation ambassadors. They help inspire our visitors to care about coastal environments and the ocean and our estuaries.
By developing a personal connection to the marine life that lives in these areas, it opens the door for people to also start caring about the less attractive issues, like algae and muck and nutrients.
What can the average person do to handle the algae issues and work to preserve our environment?
There’s kind of two sets of things people can do. They can change their behaviors, their day-to-day behaviors, in a manner that would benefit the environment. So, personal decisions like what you plant in your yard, how you fertilize your home and what you do with grass clippings and pet waste can all have a small but measurable impact on the health of the environment.
If you have a community of 10,000 people and they’re all dumping pet waste and grass clippings into drainage canals, the cumulative effect of that small action on an individual’s part can add up to having an environmental impact. If enough members of our community stop using fertilizer, we are going to have a reduction in nutrients entering our estuary. If people take the opportunity to convert from septic to sewer when that opportunity becomes available, that individual action will have a positive impact on the health of the estuary.
But so many of the issues that are affecting our estuary are far beyond the individual’s control. These are issues that are influenced in Washington, D.C., by lobbyists and they really are driven by politics and driven by industry.
The second set of things—in addition to kind of personal advocacy and changing personal behaviors—our citizens can become informed voters, can become vocal with their elected officials. By understanding the environmental problems that we’re dealing with, you can have a very articulate conversation with your local, state or federal elected official. That’s the only way that we’re going to see laws changing to help support the health of the environment.
This election cycle, for the first time in my memory, all of our candidates have some sort of environmental platform. In the past, even when the environment was an issue, you just didn’t hear about it. You didn’t see it on TV commercials. There were other political issues that were more important. I think the voice of Florida voters finally got loud enough to cause our elected officials to start to look at the environment as an important part of their platforms. And that’s a big deal. Without that, we would not have some of the legislation that’s been passed into law in the last year, and that’s a step in the right direction.
Personal decisions and choices to help the environment are one thing our community members can do, but then becoming informed and aware and able to discuss these issues with our elected officials is the other.
For someone like me, the environment is a huge issue. But you realize that there’s an awful lot of people that maybe don’t view the environment as the biggest and most important concern. In the past, when we had environmental issues, it seems like the issues were focused on the environment. Now, we’re really seeing that the public is understanding environmental issues are tied to economic issues, and environmental issues are tied to human health issues, specifically algae-related issues. When we have these cyanobacteria blooms and red tides, it affects tourism, and it’s a trickle-down effect. It’s not just affecting, you know, fish restaurants and fishing guides. It affects the entire community because, in Florida, our tourism is driven by our environment. People come here to enjoy the beach, go fishing, and snorkeling and boating.
We’re finally starting to see just how big of a human health threat some of these algae blooms are, specifically the cyanobacteria that comes into our area from Lake Okeechobee. This stuff’s scary, and we really don’t have a full understanding of how it’s going to affect us, but there’s some pretty compelling scientific evidence that long-term exposure to cyanobacteria can cause neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS. I am personally concerned that cyanobacteria will be our next global public health emergency. I worry that human exposure to cyanobacteria may turn into a story like asbestos or lead paint, where we didn’t realize it was a problem until it became a huge problem.
Cyanobacteria comes from the dumping in Lake Okeechobee, right?
Correct. We do not see cyanobacteria in the St. Lucie River unless they’re discharging from Lake Okeechobee—and even then, when they are discharging, we don’t always get cyanobacteria. But if there’s a big bloom in the lake, the man-made C-44 canal that connects Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River delivers that cyanobacteria to our doorstep.
I think it’s really important to mention that there are thousands of different species of algae and cyanobacteria on earth. Not all of them are bad. Sometimes people oversimplify and make uninformed comments like, “Algae is everywhere. I have algae in my backyard pond. That’s not connected to Lake Okeechobee.” We’re not talking about algae. We’re talking about one specific species of cyanobacteria that blooms in Lake Okeechobee and is delivered into our estuary by a man-made canal and by drainage practices and water control practices that are controlled at the state and federal level that aren’t putting the environment first, that aren’t putting human health first, that aren’t putting the economy first. In many ways, they’re putting agriculture first.
What makes our local area’s ecosystem so unique and worthy of preserving?
Oh, there’s no question about it. The Indian River Lagoon is the watery artery that runs through our entire region of Florida—[it’s] 156 miles long. At one time, it was considered the most biodiverse place in North America. It drives our economy, it drives the ecology of the area. It’s just such a special, remarkable place—and we are destroying the Indian River Lagoon.
At the southern end, where we live, Lake Okeechobee discharges are a huge problem. At the northern end, it revolves more around sewage discharges from sewage treatment plants, septic tank leakage, fertilizer from people’s backyards. In our estuary, both of those are huge issues—but in different parts of our estuary, one takes priority over the other. In our part of the estuary, you could turn off every septic tank in Martin County and we’re still going to have huge amounts of fresh water dumping into our estuary, and we’re going to have toxic algae when Lake Okeechobee blooms. In the northern Indian River Lagoon, up in Brevard County, the issues are really dominated by septic and sewer and backyard fertilizer, not agriculture.
Even if we cleaned up the water in Lake Okeechobee to the point that it was drinking-water pure—when you dump a billion gallons or more of that water per day into a salty estuary, you are still polluting that estuary. Just by changing the salinity, you’re killing the oysters, the sea grass and all the animals that rely on those ecosystems. They’re dumping water into our estuary at incorrect quantities, incorrect qualities and at incorrect times. All three of those are important, not just one.
As an organization, we are very actively trying to restore broken parts of the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. We do oyster reef restoration, seagrass restoration and mangrove and marsh grass plantings along shorelines. We know that our restoration efforts aren’t going to solve the bigger issues that are tied to the Everglades restoration, but we hope that we can keep our local ecosystem healthy enough that there’s still something worth fighting for once bigger solutions take effect at the state and federal level.
Volunteers are really the core of our restoration work. Volunteers help us plant seagrass and build oyster reefs, weave seagrass mats, so our community can actually come out and help us with our restoration work and also with our advocacy and our sharing of the mission of inspiring environmental stewardship of Florida’s coastal ecosystems.
The Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children (ages 3 to 12), and free for members. Stingray, lagoon fish and sea turtle programming takes place twice daily (once on Sundays).
890 NE Ocean Blvd., Stuart; 772.225.0505; floridaocean.org
Photos courtesy of Florida Oceanographic Society