Toxic algae confirmed in St. Lucie River; residents urged to avoid contact

MARTIN COUNTY — The bad news in the St. Lucie Estuary just got worse.

Tests by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lab detected concentrations of Microcystis aeruginosa, a type of cyanobacteria that can produce toxins in the blue-green algae blooms that began covering the estuary early his week.

Because of the test results, the Florida Department of Health in Martin County is urging residents to avoid contact with algae in the entire estuary, from the St. Lucie Canal to the St. Lucie Inlet.

The tests do not confirm the presence of toxins. That would require further analysis, according to Kevin Baxter, a spokesman at the lab.

The toxins in Microcystis aeruginosa can be harmful to people and pets. Exposure to water containing toxins may cause nausea and vomiting if ingested and rash or hay fever symptoms if touched or inhaled.

Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, compared the current blooms to the catastrophic explosion of blue-green algae that blanketed area waters in 2005.

"It sure looks like the Microcystis aeruginosa we had back in 2005," Perry said. "It's got that same radiator-fluid color."

Perry called it "the devastation of an ecosystem that, besides being a thing of beauty, is the basis of our economy. To see it like this just makes you sick. In fact, it could literally make you sick."

Perry said the blooms probably aren't going anywhere for a while, and they're likely to cause some serious problems while they're here and even after they're gone.

"This bloom could last for several months," Perry said, "and it could be as bad as we've ever seen it."

The algae bloom in 2005 appeared during the summer and lasted until November, which Perry said might also be duplicated this year.

"With the influx of fresh water from local runoff and Lake Okeechobee dropping salinity levels, the nutrients all that water is bringing and the sunlight from long summer days, we've got the perfect combination of conditions for algae blooms," Perry said.

The algae blooms affect life in the estuary in several ways.

"First, seagrass is being shaded and can't grow," he said. "Toxins in the algae can kill lots of little animals like shrimp and crabs. And animals that hunt for food in water that should be clear are being messed up because they can't see their prey through the algae."

Even when the algae dies, Perry said, it's a killer: The dying plant cells fall to the bottom and are eaten by bacteria that use up all the oxygen in the water.

"When the oxygen in the water goes below 5 milligrams per liter," Perry said, "that's when the fish kills start."

If you spot blue-green algae, contact the Department of Environmental Protection at 772-467-5572.

To report fish kills or abnormal fish behavior call:

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 1-800-636-0511

For more information, visit the Martin County Health Department's website.

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