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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sanibel Hope

Sunset, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge with birds, Sanibel Island 1/21/07

Sanibel Island viewed from causeway

Sanibel Beach with Red Drift Algae 1/18/07

We are in Sanibel Island now and, as you may know, Sanibel is facing some tough environmental problems. In the last few years, the hurricanes (more numerous because of global warming?) have dumped excessive water on FL. That water goes into Lake Okeechobee and, in order not to have the lake flood, much of that is released by the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers down the Caloosahatchee River to Sanibel Island’s surrounding waters. Trouble is, the polluted fresh water from the lake contains heavy nutrients, like nitrogen and phosporous, that contribute to excessive algae blooms and also dense sediments that hurt sea grass growth. The releases of this polluted water can kill oyster and clam beds, severely impact the marine environment and its wildlife, and hurt the toursim industry.

Excessive algae blooms have impacted Sanibel’s Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge where there is bloom of green filamentous algae (especially visible last year). Even though this year has been a dry year (no hurricanes) and there have not been the excessive water releases, some of Sanibel’s beaches are piled high with excessive red drift algae. The city has been pressured by many to clean up the algae, but environmental groups want to make sure it’s done with care, since cleanup could impact dune vegetation, mollusks and crustaceans shorebirds feed on, as well as resting and nesting habitat for many bird species and sea turtles.

Rest assured there are many organizations such as, the city itself, PURRE (People United to Restore Our Rivers and Esturaries), SCCF (Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation) and others fighting hard to find solutions to the polluted water quality issues facing Sanibel.

The SCCF website says its annual fund drive will provide “an extremely exciting scientific response to harmful algae blooms such as Red Tide and the water quality problems flowing down from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee into our estuary. We intend to purchase six marine research water quality sensors. Our Marine Research Laboratory scientists will collect streaming data using this real-time coastal observatory system. The first of its kind in this area, the scientitsts will be able to gather sampling data in a 12-hour period that would previously have taken a year under more conventional sampling practices. This data will be used to encourage more sustainable water management practices on the local, state, and federal levels.”

The City of Sanibel has an excellent website called Sanibel H20 Matters, that has weekly updates and tons of background information on the scope of the crises.

This week’s update from that website,

- Announces that the city is allowing the removal of the beach red drift algae but restricting removal to the use of hand tools like rakes. Cleanup will only be authorized until Feb. 15 the beginning of the Snowy Plover nesting season.

- Quotes from a newspaper article that says....“ People who have been fighting to protect the Caloosahatchee River's water quality won a significant battle Thursday morning. Agencies that manage Lake Okeechobee agreed to designate land where excess water from the lake can be stored in an emergency instead of being released into the river”....."Sanibel Mayor Carla Brooks Johnston told the district board that a short-term solution is important to give the estuary at the mouth of the river a chance to heal. She and others have complained that it's overloaded with nutrients and algae blooms caused by releases from Lake Okeechobee during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons”....”We can't have that happen again”, Johnston said, "We need to be able to recover and have the waters clear themselves out. ... We're an island surrounded by the effects of releases. Our environment is our economy... I'm pleased with the progress since I was here a year ago dialing 911," Johnston said. "We need proof and we need evidence and we need to see what exactly your plan is going to be."... “Johnston said the decision of the district and corps to work together on this issue is a vast improvement from last year, when they simply pointed fingers at each other. But, she said, more needs to be done to find additional water-storage areas.”

- Announces, “a new Medical Committee has officially formed to research the possible presence of human pathogens in waters in and around Sanibel. This committee is composed of local island doctors and includes Council member, Dr. Steve Brown. The committee will act as an advisory group to City Council.”

We have been on Sanibel for several weeks and here are some of the things we have seen:

- Many of the beaches are full of red drift algae piled high and on some beaches we saw dead fish and even dead birds. Tides can sometimes temporarily wash away the algae. Many beaches had lots of the algae, a few had little.

- The vegetation on Sanibel, though may tall trees were lost in the hurricanes, is very lush and full of fruits, such as wax myrtle berries, figs and cabbage palm fruits. There are many flocks, numbering in the hundreds, of wandering Tree Swallows and Robins, both of whom eat berries in winter. There are three Bald Eagle nests with young in the nest. The Christmas Bird Count put out by the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society showed a return to more normal count numbers of birds after the drop seen for the last two years following the hurricanes.

- Ding Darling refuge has many birds sometimes, not other times, depending on the tidal schedules and other factors. We have been in the refuge at dusk and seen many Roseate Spoonbills (see my photos from last post) and roosting shorebirds at high tide. There have been Red Knots and other shorebirds feeding in the refuge. We met scientist Brian Harrington, Red Knot expert, earlier in the month and he had just banded 300 Red Knots on Sanibel.

- The lighthouse end of the island, which was quite demolished by hurricanes, has been replanted and birds are there providing good photo ops. See my post tomorrow.

Where does this leave things now? Sanibel is facing a crises, but fighting hard to remedy it. Will the cooperating agencies involved be able to work together to find a solution fast enough to stop the ecological damage being done to Sanibel before the next hurricane season brings with it the threat of more massive water releases? We hope so. Stay tuned and read the city’s website.

Photos © Lillian Stokes, 2007


Anonymous said...

Love visiting Sanibel each summer. It's a dream little island for photogs and videographers.

Great photos

Anonymous said...

Mr. & Mrs Stokes - thank you for your continued interest in our community & more important protecting our unique environment. Judie Zimomra,City Manager of Sanibel
PS - Love your books, have them all in my personal library z

Lillian and Don Stokes said...


We think Sanibel is a very special treasure. Thanks for all you do for Sanibel.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled on this post today (a little late to the party, I know) and thought I'd let you know that SCCF did manage to buy those sensors - they got enough funding for 8! You can see real-time data from the 7 that are in the water at

Thanks for the thoughtful post about the area. :-)