The Marine Industries Association of Southwest Florida and Tampa Bay released the findings of a two-year study to quantify the economic impact of harmful algae blooms and red tide on its member businesses. It’s believed to be the first study of its kind in the boating industry.
“We all knew HABs negatively impacted our industry,” says executive director John Good. “But we’ve needed real numbers to back up our calls for regulatory actions to stem what’s become an annual nightmare on our waterways. Now we have them.”
The association teamed up with the West Coast Inland Navigational District to fund a study by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. What made the need for the research compelling was in 2018-19, Southwest Florida suffered through the longest period on record with extensive HABs and a red tide. While the latter is an infrequent natural phenomenon, HABs are essentially a product of human activity that turn waterways into seas of green goop.
“When the nightly TV news reports health warnings of blue-green algae in Lake Okeechobee, the Okeechobee Waterway, Lake Worth Lagoon and other waterways in South Florida, including the presence of the toxin microcystin, it obviously doesn’t send the message that boating is a great family activity,” Good says. “Toxic concentrations over 100 times the EPA recreational guideline have been reported.”
According to the study, revenues from boating plummeted during the HAB/red tide events in southwest Florida. Study respondents reported boat sales declined an average of 75 percent. The sales of marine accessories plunged an average of 41 percent. Boat storage experienced an average decline of 29 percent. And other support businesses saw a 42 percent drop in revenues.
Not unexpectedly, PWC sales didn’t escape the decline, averaging 33 percent down. Boat and PWC rental operations, normally very popular in southwest Florida, took a 50 percent hit. And i need a loan of 2000 dollars boat maintenance service firms saw a 17 percent revenue drop.
Fishing and marina store purchases also took a beating. Fishing supplies dropped a whopping 56 percent, while accessory purchases made in marina stores plunged 37 percent.
The researchers continued to survey marine businesses for a period after the HABs/red tide event had ended in 2019, and while business improved in most categories, revenues were still down for some time. Industry members pointed to press coverage that seemed to raise concerns among potential customers as to whether HABs were still an issue or that it all would likely return.
Overall, then, the combined average percentage of change in annual revenue for locally impacted businesses was down 28.22 percent in 2018 and down 15.4 percent in 2019.
Lake Okeechobee is widely acknowledged to be the major source of HABs in southwest Florida. Often referred to as “Florida’s inland sea,” it’s the largest freshwater lake in the state, covering 730 square miles, and the eighth largest freshwater lake in the nation. The Kissimmee River is the lake’s primary source, feeding into it from the north. That river flows through big farming and livestock co-ops and through more than 70,000 acres tilled by 45 sugarcane growers that annually produce more than 350,000 tons of raw sugar. The phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers are the major triggers of HABs.
To control water levels and flooding on Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps of Engineers sends algae-laden water west through the Caloosahatchee River to Florida’s southwest coast and east through the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic coast. Moreover, these ongoing Lake Okeechobee discharges with high levels of blue-green algae could also worsen any red tide bloom by acting as a source of nutrition.
“Discussions are underway at the local, state and federal levels on how best to mitigate and/or prevent HABs,” Good says. “We will use the results of this economic study to document to lawmakers and regulators the clear need for serious action, beginning at the very source of the phosphorus and nitrogen. Action is long overdue.”
As luck, or bad luck, would have it, the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County has issued a health alert for the presence of blue-green algal toxins in Lake Okeechobee and other waters. The public is warned not to “drink, swim, wade, use personal watercraft, water ski or boat in waters where there is a visible bloom.”
Further, the DOH advises: “Wash your skin and clothing with soap and water if you have contact with the algae; keep pets away from the area; and do not cook or clean dishes with water contaminated by algae blooms — boiling the water will not eliminate the toxins.”
The warning goes on, but hopefully the Marine Industries Association of Southwest Florida and Tampa Bay study will shed more light on the problems HABs cause for the boating and fishing industries.