Red tide devastation.

Image: Shutterstock

Like many of us, I headed north this summer. But news of the red tide followed me to Michigan. My kids sent me pictures of coastal back yards shimmering silver with dead fish and even sea turtles, manatees and dolphins, and I read The New York Times and Wall Street Journal interviews with Sarasota County residents, who described stinking air, empty beaches and panicked businesses. When I returned, our air conditioning broke, and the stench of red tide filled the house.

Pam Daniel

I started coughing and ended up with full-blown bronchitis. The next week, I interviewed Mote Marine Laboratory scientists and posted a blog on this website explaining how red tide, although naturally occurring, can feed on nutrients from stormwater runoff and other manmade pollution.

So I thought I knew all about red tide.

But then we took our boat up the Intracoastal to north Casey Key, walked across the dunes to the Gulf—and stopped, in shock. Dark, rust-brown water was lapping on the sand and extended out for hundreds of yards. It looked filthy, like a poisonous stain disfiguring the clear, blue-green Gulf of Mexico that so famously frames our coast. I didn’t want my grandchildren to even dip their toes into it. Not until I stood there and saw it did the visceral reality of this red tide bloom hit me.

It’s been more than a decade since Southwest Florida struggled through a real-estate bust that led to the Great Recession, and today’s booming growth has some analysts fretting about another real estate bubble. But looking at that dark, nasty water, I had another thought. What if it isn’t an overheated market we have to worry about? What if the next recession is the nature recession? Southwest Florida’s gorgeous shorelines and waterways are the reason so many people flock here, the basis of our growth and prosperity. Without those waterways, this would just be a hot, hurricane-prone place to avoid.

For as long as I can remember, scientists and citizens have been warning we need to protect our fragile natural assets, yet during the last decade, our elected officials have stripped away regulations and oversight. Is nature finally striking back?

My brother David, a business-minded, apolitical guy, lives down the coast in Fort Myers. Not only did red tide hit their Gulf beaches this summer, but freshwater algae fed by pollution turned the Caloosahatchee River, which flows through the city, into a quivering bowl of thick, neon-green Jell-O. “I can’t imagine a tourist coming here ever again,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “This is going to ruin Florida. It should be a wake-up call to the entire world about the devastation that will come if we don’t take care of our resources. The only thing I care about when I vote is going to be who is best suited to clean up the water and solve this crisis.”

In a few days, we’ll be heading to the polls. I’m with David. What about you?

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