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In Senate Race, Pointed Fingers Over Toxic Algae

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Amy Green / WMFE
The Florida Channel
Tony Sasso of Keep Brevard Beautiful estimates volunteers have cleaned up as much as 10 tons of dead fish from county beaches.

Across Florida blooms of toxic algae are threatening beaches and waterways.

Now the algae stands to influence the state’s top political races.

In Cocoa Beach the afternoon is mild, the sky is bright and the surf is breaking.

But Tony Sasso can’t stop coughing.

Red tide virtually has emptied the beach, except for a few vacationers braving the respiratory symptoms the toxic algae can cause. There are no dead fish, but volunteers have cleaned up as much as 10 tons from county beaches since the outbreak began here last month. Sasso of Keep Brevard Beautiful has been organizing the clean-up. He says the red tide is on Floridians’ minds as they vote.

In Cocoa Beach the red tide is driving beachgoers away. Photo by Amy Green

“People who live in Florida, especially in Florida, near a waterbody or the coast and have been dealing with red tide or green algae or dead fish and all the other things of that are going to place this pretty darn high in their head when they go to vote, as they should.”

The issue is among the most contentious in Florida’s close Senate race between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott. The race will help determine whether Republicans maintain or expand control of the Senate.

Red tide has left beaches from Florida’s Panhandle to the mid-Atlantic Coast with air that is hard to breathe and tons and tons of dead fish. Dolphins, manatees and sea turtles have gone belly-up. The outbreak has coincided with a rash of blue-green algae that began in Lake Okeechobee and spread to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Scott has acted swiftly, declaring states of emergency over the blue-green algae and red tide and securing millions of dollars for research and relief for affected counties. But Democrats have seized on the toxic algae, branding the governor “Red Tide Rick” and criticizing him for deep cuts to environmental budgets.

“Rick Scott has systematically dismantled the environmental agencies of this state over the last eight years,” Nelson told reporters in Orlando. “He has starved them of funds. He has cut their budgets. He eliminated the growth management agency, the Department of Community Affairs.”

Meanwhile Scott blames Nelson and the federal government for the blue-green algae. The governor argues the federal government should be spending more money to shore up Lake Okeechobee’s feeble dike and that could help stem the flows, although environmentalists do not support using the lake as a reservoir.

“Sen. Nelson has gotten us no money to fix the dike at Lake Okeechobee. Zero dollars,” Scott said during an October debate with Nelson. “I put up state dollars, and finally in the last year I went to the president and I went to Congress and I got the money, and the dike will be finished in 2022. But Sen. Nelson has spent 40 years never getting money for the dike.”

Red Tide is believed to be behind this fish kill in Cocoa Beach. Photo courtesy Brevard County

In the state’s gubernatorial race former Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis has blamed nutrient pollution from sugar farmers for the toxic algae. That’s earned him an unlikely endorsement from the influential Everglades Trust. Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum singles out climate change and has said he would be a governor who “believes in science.” Scott reportedly banned words like “climate change” from state agencies.

Red tide and blue-green algae occur naturally but are believed to thrive in warm waters heavy with nutrient pollution from farms and urban areas.

In Cocoa Beach Tony Sasso misses surfing the world-class waves. He says all of his neighbors are coughing.

“I can hear my neighbors in my own neighborhood coughing. I hear them out in their yards and their driveways, going to work and everybody’s hacking and coughing. And it’s a reminder there’s something wrong out there. There’s something wrong with our water and our world and what we’re doing to it.”

He and other voters hope the mid-term elections will help bring Florida closer to a solution.