There’s something rotten in the state of Florida — and not just the heaps of dead fish strewn across its coastline following one of the state’s worst red tide events in more than a decade.
It’s something far more problematic: the Sunshine State’s 2018 Senate race.
This year’s campaign season has unexpectedly become tangled up in an environmental issue that has been around for centuries. Every few years, a tiny, poisonous organism known as Karenia brevis “blooms” in the Gulf of Mexico, dying the sea a reddish-brown.
This is a natural occurrence, but it makes the ocean toxic to wildlife, making for an unsavory sight at the beach and damaging the local economy. It has also taken a toll on endangered species such as sea turtles, manatees and dolphins. In one case that’s gone viral online, a 26-foot whale shark washed up on the shore, riddled with the toxins.
This all has upset a lot of people, and naturally they’ve searched for political scapegoats. Problem is, the partisan outrage isn’t supported by science.
Liberals found their bogeyman in Republican Gov. Rick Scott — or “Red Tide Rick,” as they call him. To his opponents, it’s clear that Scott, the Republican nominee for Florida’s Senate seat, contributed to this year’s red tide by making deep budget cuts to Florida’s water management oversight in his first term and repealing a two-year-old environmental regulation governing septic tanks in the state.
But red tides have been recorded since European explorers set foot on the peninsula in the 1500s. And nutrient pollution — both in the Gulf and in the state’s freshwater system — has been around for decades thanks to land development and agriculture practices that long predate Scott.
No matter. There must be someone to blame, so protesters follow Scott on the campaign trail often dressed in hazmat suits or face masks. The heckling, booing and yelling has gotten so bad that Scott has simply skipped out on some events when they show up.
Conservatives have done their own share of silly finger-pointing. Scott’s campaign issued an ad last month placing blame on its Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, arguing that he failed to address the problem during his decades in office. Others in Scott’s administration have suggested a federal agency overseeing the release of polluted waters from Florida’s Lake Okeechobee bears responsibility.
None of these claims tell us what we really need to know. They reveal, instead, a toxic political environment that has infected the state of Florida. And scientists are fed up.
“Instead of playing the blame game, offer a solution,” said Michael Parsons, a marine biologist at Florida Gulf Coast University and director of the school’s Coastal Watershed Institute.
Parsons explained that we are still not sure why a red tide begins. We know the blooms start offshore, at the bottom of the sea, and are carried in by currents. But we don’t know why this happens some years and not others. Nor have scientists explained why some blooms last longer than others. Some speculate that hurricanes play a role; this year’s red tide, for example, started shortly after Hurricane Irma blew through the region late last year. In that regard, climate change could have an effect on the phenomenon. But this, again, is not certain.
More controversial is the role that nutrient pollution plays in “feeding” a bloom once it starts. Some researchers are convinced that nutrients from fertilizers worsen blooms, but many in the field caution that the science on that point is not clear either. Most agree that human-made nutrients can help sustain a bloom. But there are many other factors at play, too, such as the temperature of seawater and the presence of other organisms fighting to consume nutrients. Even dust carried by the wind all the way from the Sahara Desert can affect these blooms.
If politicians are guilty of anything, it’s likely that they have failed to produce the resources necessary to answer more of these questions. For that, protesters can legitimately direct their frustration to the Scott administration, which did cut funding to red tide research — though we should note that it made these cuts during the economic downturn, which hit Florida particularly hard.
But even if we eventually confirm that human activity has intensified red tides, it would still be wrong to place blame on any one politician. Humans have transformed Florida’s ecosystems over decades, under the leadership of both parties. People across the state are guilty of and benefit from land development that has disrupted the environment. They also consume the products of Florida’s agricultural industry — regardless of their political affiliation.
Toxic politics might be useful during campaign cycles, but it comes with a quiet victim: Science. If we want to adequately address environmental issues facing our country, we need calm and cautious research — and a willingness to accept that everyone’s part of the problem.