Audubon biologist finds himself at center of controversy

OKEECHOBEE — Dr. Paul Gray, of Florida Audubon, has been known to drink the untreated water from the marshy areas of Lake Okeechobee, illustrating his confidence that the marshes clean the water. Dr. Gray says a lot of good things are happening on the Big O with the return on some of the aquatic vegetation along the shoreline, thanks to this summer’s lower lake level. The wading bird populations feeding on the lake have been phenomenal, he said.

Yet on June 10, a comment Dr. Gray made to a coastal reporter resulted in a headlines like: “Lake Okeechobee algae bloom toxic; Audubon biologist says do not eat fish from lake.” The story was quickly picked up by state and national media. By the next morning, the announcer on National Public Radio was issuing a health alert warning everyone to avoid eating fish caught in Lake Okeechobee and citing Dr. Gray of Florida Audubon as their source.

Dr. Gray call for more algae testing.

The negative media attention — based on a discussion about a single water sample from a lake that covers 730 square miles — had fishing guides fuming.

In an interview on June 11, Dr. Gray said he did not issue any official Audubon decrees about the lake. He explained that the T.C. Palm reporter called him to discuss the latest algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee. During that interview, the reporter asked if Dr. Gray would eat the fish caught in the lake. Dr. Gray said he was just giving his own personal opinion. He was not speaking for Audubon. He was not issuing a public health warning.

“I’m not the health department,” he added.

The Audubon biologist said he would not eat the fish because he just does not have enough data to make a judgment one way or the other, so he would err on the side of caution. He said he would not eat the fish from any lake or waterway where there is an algae bloom unless there has been testing to show the fish is safe.

“The problem is that we don’t have enough information,” said Dr. Gray.

On June 5, one water sample taken near a algal bloom on Lake Okeechobee, about 10 miles southwest of Port Mayaca, tested positive for microcystin with a toxin level of 17.6 micrograms per liter, double the new standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of 8 micrograms per liter as safe for human recreational contact. (The World Health Organization had previously set 10 micrograms per liter as the level safe for recreational contact.)

“Is that higher than average? Lower than average? Was that a hot spot? We just don’t have enough data,” said Dr. Gray.

When the bloom started also makes a difference, he said. If the bloom just started the day before, the fish are probably safe to eat, he said.

Most other tests on Lake Okeechobee this summer have shown levels of 2 micrograms per liter or lower. One test closer to Port Mayaca on June 5 had no microcystin. A water sample taken June 4 in an algal bloom about 10 miles north of South Bay also contained no toxins. A sample taken at the Port Mayaca Lock had microcystin levels of 1.47 micrograms per liter. Per the FDEP website, no lake samples were taken between June 5 and June 12. A sample taken June 12 of a windblown build up of blue-green algae at the Port Mayaca Lock has been sent for testing.

The Florida Department of Environmental Regulation should test the water more extensively and more often to give the public more information about the water quality, Dr. Gray opined. The occasional samples done when algal blooms are reported are not enough to provide the data needed to really understand the algal blooms and the extent of any toxins present.

Dr. Gray said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite imagery has shown concentrations of cyanobacteria in Lake Okeechobee this summer, although the NOAA images do not indicate if the cyanobacteria is the type capable of producing toxins and does not indicate whether or not toxins are present. The last usable imagery was from June 3. Due to clouds and rain when the satellite passed over the lake, the images since June 3 have not been usable for the NOAA computer program.

Dr. Gray said ideally, FDEP should test a regular grid pattern with 20-30 sample sites on the big lake weekly. In the past, there was not funding for more testing. He said now that the state has put aside funding to deal with algae concerns, he hopes the new blue-green algae task force endorses more water sampling. Last summer, he said, the state missed a great opportunity to learn more about the blue-green algae in the lake.

He said FDEP should do more testing to ensure the safety of those who eat fish from the lake, especially the low-income residents who rely on their catches to feed their families. Those members of the public who can’t afford a boat are fishing from the shoreline, he said. More regular testing should be done of the water along the shoreline, not just for Lake Okeechobee, but for all South Florida waterways where fishing is popular.

Dr. Gray added that over the years he has been concerned about the water quality at the Pahokee marina where he has sometimes seen children fishing in areas with visible algae. He has noticed a lot of birds at the marina, and has speculated that the bird droppings might be responsible for the increased nutrient levels that feed the algal blooms there. The layout of the marina is also conducive to algae blooms which are more common in areas where there is little water movement.

The Florida Department of Health has advised everyone to avoid swimming in areas where visible algae blooms are present, and to avoid eating fish caught in areas where visible algae blooms are present. There is no way to tell if the bloom contains cyanobacteria capable of producing toxins and there is no way to tell if toxins are present or not just by looking at an algal bloom, so the health department advises to err on the side of caution.

Until more testing is available to scientifically prove if the toxins are present or not, Dr. Gray said he plans to do just that — err on the side of caution and avoid eating fish caught in any bodies of water where visible algae is present. This does not mean he believes the fish are not safe, he explained. It just means he does not have the data he needs to answer the question.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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