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Lake Okeechobee toxin test raises concerns about fishing, swimming

News-Journal - 6/12/2019

WEST PALM BEACH -- A test of toxins in Lake Okeechobee returned results more than twice what's considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, raising concerns from scientists about swimming and eating fish from the warming waters.

A blue-green algae sample taken June 5 near the center of the lake was found to have a microcystin toxin level of 17.6 parts per billion. The EPA considers levels of 8 ppb or higher unsafe. The test result was released Monday on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's website.

Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida who studies Lake Okeechobee, said in an "abundance of caution" he would not eat fish out of the lake because the state doesn't test enough areas to know if the high level was an anomaly.

"We have no idea whether that is unique in the lake, or common, or one of the best or worst spots," Gray said. "We have too little information from DEP, or anyone, on the scope of the blooms."

The Florida DEP referred questions about the safety of eating Lake Okeechobee fish to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or Florida Department of Health. A commission spokesman said it was likely a health department issue. The state health department was unable to respond by the deadline for this story but had referred the question to an epidemiologist.

"If eight parts per billion is unsafe to touch, then 17.6 is really unsafe," said J. William Louda, a Florida Atlantic University research professor who studies algae blooms. "Waters at that level should not be used for swimming, water skiing, anything."

Satellite images from June 3 provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show the northern part of Lake Okeechobee with the highest concentrations of blue-green algae. At 730 square miles, Lake Okeechobee fishing guides said there may be algae problems in one part of the lake that are absent in another.

At Roland Martin Marina and Resort in the southwest portion of the lake, employees said Tuesday there is no sign of blue-green algae and no reports of suspect fish.

"We've had 1,000 fishermen catching fish by the cooler-full and they've been doing that the past two months," said Patricia Cook, who works at the front desk. "The water is healthy, people are catching huge bass, nice and fat. Fishing is good."

Blue-green algae blooms are common during the summer on Lake Okeechobee as temperatures rise and more sunlight nurtures growth, but recent studies showing their detrimental health effects on humans and the spread into northern estuaries after lake discharges have increased awareness.

Lake Okeechobee was at 10.99 feet above sea level Tuesday. It's unlikely the Army Corps of Engineers would need to discharge water from the lake this summer or fall unless there is a substantial rainy season or extra-soggy tropical disturbance.

The algae, which is really a cyanobacteria, can cause serious health problems if it becomes toxic, including liver failure in people and animals who swim in or drink tainted water.

Rashes, respiratory problems and nausea also are linked to the microcystin toxin produced by the cyanobacteria.

Wednesday, the state's first Blue-Green Algae Task Force will hold its inaugural meeting in Tallahassee. The task force, created by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will focus on restoring natural habitats and finding ways to reduce the nutrient flows into Lake Okeechobee that encourage algae growth.

The meeting will be broadcast by The Florida Channel beginning at 10 a.m.

Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies harmful algae blooms, said the algae bloom would be visible in water that tested high for the toxin and that other areas of the lake could be safe for swimming.

He said to be especially cautious though of blue-green algae "scum", which is where the algae clump together at the surface of the water.

"Scums can concentrate the toxin 10 to 100 times," Stumpf said. "Especially keep dogs out of areas with scum, or water that has a visible bloom."

This story was posted at PalmBeachPost.com and shared to GateHouse Media's Florida websites.

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