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Algae Blooms And Lake O, Manatee Emergency, And ‘The Key Lime Crime’

A boat churns through blue green algae in the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
A boat churns through blue green algae in the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle.

How high should Lake Okeechobee go? A new plan could redefine the lake. Manatees are dying off at faster rates than in years past. Plus, Key West, key lime pie bakers and a mysterious murder in Sundial's Book Club pick for this month.

This post has been updated.

On this Tuesday, June 15, episode of Sundial

Algae Blooms And Lake O

Algal blooms are back with a vengeance this summer, threatening the health, environment and economy of the state. Blue-green algae has been found in Lake Okeechobee and other central Florida waterways, leading to a health advisory in Palm Beach County. Steve Davis is the chief science officer for the Everglades Foundation and explained on Sundial what makes this year’s algae occurrence unprecedented.

“We saw the majority of the bloom before the onset of the wet season. We started to see the bloom developing in the month of April before there were any substantial inflows to the lake. This is a 'pollution from within' story this year," Davis said.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for water management in Lake Okeechobee, is set to meet this July and is finalizing a lake management plan. The plan will be set for a decade and will determine whether or not water needs to be released from the lake. Tommy Strowd is the executive director of the Lake Worth Drainage District.

“Lake Okeechobee has been known for decades as the liquid heart of South Florida. Virtually every water conveyance is connected to it in some form or fashion. The blue-green algae issue is sort of a recent development that we are now adding to the host of issues that we are trying to sort through. As we restore the ecosystem, restore Lake Okeechobee but also try to provide a reliable water source for the residents of South Florida,” Strowd said.

Palm Beach County Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel has called on the Army Corps of Engineers to delay their plans for Lake Okeechobee for 90 days. She believes more community input is needed and better scientific research about the implications of water management plans for the next decade.

Algal Blooms And Lake O
Fertilizer runoff causes toxic algal blooms. This one covered a third of Lake Erie in 2011.

Manatee Emergency

Manatees are an integral part of Florida’s marine environment. New research finds they’re dying off in record numbers. More manatees have died in the first SIX months of 2021 than all of last year, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. Boats have regularly caused problems for the threatened species but scientists believe the primary cause for the recent die-off has been a dwindling food supply.

Dr. Martine de Witt is a veterinarian with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, focused on the manatee population.

“To see adult animals in these large numbers starve to death is very unusual," de Witt said. "A large proportion of the mortalities are adult animals. Normally you don’t see them starve from disease, often it’s the juveniles that are affected by those diseases."

Manatees depend primarily on seagrass, which has been heavily impacted by a growing number of algal blooms in the estuaries and coastal waterways where manatees are found. De Witt described a gruesome scenario for many of the starving manatees — some up to 40% below their average body weight with bones visible through their skin.

She and other veterinarians have been able to rescue starving manatees using advanced technologies. But she’s concerned about the future of the threatened population.

“The [issue] isn’t going to be resolved in a year or a few years. I’m not a seagrass expert. There have been efforts over the years but it’s just very challenging if the water quality does not cooperate, it’s really hard to grow those seagrasses back,” she said.

Sarasota Congressman Vern Buchanan called upon the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change the status of manatees from threatened to endangered given the large number that have died off this year.

Manatee Emergency

‘The Key Lime Crime’

Key West is known for its laid-back lifestyle. But the book 'The Key Lime Crime’ shows us that the pastry chefs behind the island’s sweet key lime pies are anything but laid back.

It’s our Sundial Book Club pick for June. The mystery fiction culminates when a fancy chef brings a key lime puff pastry to a pie-baking contest.

The city’s pie aficionado and host of the contest is beside himself and a fierce rivalry begins in Key West’s pie baking world.

Someone gets pied in the face, but that’s not the worst of it — one of the pastry chefs is mysteriously murdered.

The story is part of the Key West Food Critic Mysteries book series by author Lucy Burdette.

‘The Key Lime Crime’
'The Key Lime Crime: A Key West Food Critic Mystery' by Lucy Burdette

This post was updated to correct the agency that U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan has urged to take action on manatees. He made the call to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not the state's fish and wildlife commission.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.
Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.