MANATEES -- DOA
An open letter by Will Wiegman
The Problem of Water Hyacinths in Lake Okeechobee
In the fall of 1995 there appeared an article in a nationally known hunting and fishing periodical featuring bass fishing guides on Lake Okeechobee. When asked about the health of the lake, the fishing guide being interviewed commented on how the 'Federal Boys' were helping out by spraying an herbicide (defoliant) in both Lake Okeechobee, its tributaries and surrounding lakes. The purpose was to eliminate the problem of water hyacinths that were keeping them from fishing near the cattails along the shorelines of the Lake where the record size bass hid out.
The Army Corps of Engineers helped out by opening the series of locks leading down the Caloosahatchee River portion of the Intercoastal Waterway. It was announced in local newspapers that the locks were to be opened for painting and superficial repairs and the waterway closed to boat traffic for a number of weeks. Warning signs were posted at all boat ramps and swimming areas near to where they were to spray. Public service announcements were placed on the local radio stations nearby. The corps also closed the locks on the Miami Canal as well as the water-level control gates that usually dump water southward out of Lake Okeechobee through the sugarcane fields.
The resultant flow of water down the Okeechobee through the open locks was many times the normal controlled rate and carried the dying and rotting hyacinths, both as floating islands and rotting sediment, westward down the River. This mixture of sediment mixed with still active herbicide (a product I believe is called 'Reward') ended up in Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound and the wider portion of the Caloosahatchee River basin.
The Manatees, foraging in their normal winter area there, ingested the caustic mixture as they grazed the bottom grasses for food. The tender tissues of their lungs and digestive systems were chemically burned by the defoliant and led them to be susceptible to pneumonia and infection by the bacteria and amoebae present in the waters at the time. Many Bottle Nosed Dolphin died during this same time period that took a 200 plus death toll on the Manatees, as well as countless other non-threatened bottom feeding fish and crustaceans. These numbers were conveniently covered up by the fact that the commercial gill-netters were put out of business, thereby conveniently eliminating the only official Back Bay and Estuary fish counts available in the state of Florida. (No doubt that this will also come in handy when they start drilling for offshore oil soon)
Winter (tourist season) is a very productive time for these organisms. All of the sewage treatment plants that are allowed to pump into the River and Bay are working to their capacity and above. Lehigh Acres, Cape Coral, Ft. Myers Beach, and North Fort Myers treatment plants all are allowed to dump treated water which is normally 90 to 95% purified relative to their bacteria counts. But, when they are overburdened by the influx of winter residents, their efficiency can drop to as low as 80% this time of year.
The records of the coordinated efforts of these Agencies should be available through their Government Web Sites courtesy of the Sunshine Law. However, this practice of easy access has been curtailed and it is next to impossible to obtain them without a great deal of effort.
Even the findings of the two Toxicologists sent down from Tallahassee to assist with the autopsies done on the Manatees and Dolphins were made unavailable to the public. As far as 'Red Tide' being the cause of the toxins, there is no record of it being present in any of the waters immediately before or during the Manatee deaths, either in the River Basin or the Gulf. The water temperatures in both areas was consistently 7 to 10 degrees below that required for a Red Tide Bloom to occur.
Red Tide indeed!
Dead Manatees and Dolphins - August 17, 1997
Whales in Danger Information Service