BOCA GRANDE, Fla. – Just north of Fort Myers, Boca Grande is known for its pristine beaches, but now the sand is littered with dozens of dead animals.
Over the past five days, everything from eels to pufferfish — and most strikingly, several goliath groupers, which can weigh up to 400 pounds — have washed ashore.
Fisherman Chris O’Neill has been working in the waters off Boca Grande for two decades, but said he’s never seen anything like this.
“Hundreds of goliath grouper dead, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles. It’s significant death to that ecosystem, ” O’Neill said.
On Tuesday, O’Neill counted up to 40 dead goliath grouper. And it’s not just the fish taking a hit — he also spotted a dead manatee.
“The larger fish have gotten hit in great numbers, and that’s what really concerned me,” O’Neill said.
He believes red tide is to blame.
The most recent testing by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found medium to high concentrations of the harmful algae, which can turn the water red and orange.
The algae blooms are frequently found in the Gulf of Mexico and wind and currents can bring the red tide closer to shore.
FWC said its staff have been out in the field, identifying affected species, estimating the number of dead fish and obtaining samples from fish carcasses.
“The FWC takes this matter very seriously,” spokeswoman Melody Kilborn said.
State officials said tests along Florida’s east coast show only background levels of algae.
The bloom is not only threatening marine life, it is also hurting tourism in Boca Grande.
This week, Susan Chesley and her family were visiting Boca Grande from Washington state.
“It’s absolutely horrible, horrible,” Chesley said. “You can’t stay out here very long. I don’t think because breathing it in makes you cough pretty bad.”
O’Neill said it could take years for some of these fish to repopulate these waters.
He is now pleading with officials — to find a solution.
O’Neill attributes the rise in algae to Lake Okeechobee. When water levels rise in the lake, the Army Corps of Engineers pumps excess water out to sea to prevent flooding.
“Anytime that happens, we always see death,” he said.