Captain Ben Biery owns a small charter business on Sanibel Island. Most days that means taking people out on guided fishing trips, sightseeing tours, and other boating activities. So what does it mean for someone like him when the main attraction driving the income you depend on is suddenly unavailable, or worse, not safe for your clients?
Scientific evidence pointing to the health risks associated with exposure to harmful algal blooms is stacking up. One of the most recent studies conducted by researchers at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute found that 95% of recruited study participants had detectable levels of microcystin in their nasal passages, despite various levels of exposure to the water. The findings indicate that the toxins are aerosolized, adding yet another layer of concern for those exposed each year when priorities governing the operational management of Lake Okeechobee dictate massive lake releases into local waterways.
The trouble doesn’t stop there. For business owners like Capt. Biery, the public perception left behind by the Lake Okeechobee discharges is almost as toxic as the green slime that mats the waterways and shorelines of coastal communities downstream.
“It’s one of those things that will chase people off,” Biery told Bullsugar in an interview.“ I can remember times when people called and cancelled because they’d heard about the algae. It’s just not a pleasant thing to be around. It makes everything that you do on the water, particularly from a fishing perspective, more difficult. I know it’s hurt my business.”
Biery isn’t alone. His story is one of thousands across South Florida that have made their way to the surface in the wake of toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee. The financial impacts on small businesses like his carry a heavy weight when combined with others in the same situation. According to the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing in Florida has an economic output of $11.5 billion and supports more than 106,000 jobs. With so much riding on clean water, one has to wonder how many more summers like 2018 Florida can take.
The current priorities governing the operational management of Lake Okeechobee are risking multi-billion dollar industries and the health and livelihoods of thousands of people. In 2019, Floridians were reminded that the Army Corps could successfully manage the lake differently. Almost a year later, waters in the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie have rebounded significantly and residents have enjoyed a much-needed break.
In Stuart, City Commissioners have recently eased off a proposed lawsuit against the Army Corps, citing improved operations that have some water moving south and west. But this week Lake Okeechobee is teetering on the edge of 13 feet and the start of this year’s rainy season is just around the corner. We’re fast approaching our last opportunity to manage the lake now in a way that will protect Floridians from another disastrous summer.
Capt. Biery’s story is a reminder of what’s at stake. The health of this state’s economy and the safety of its people are inextricably linked to government action that prioritizes the protection of its most iconic resource now, not later.