Ian wrecks artificial reefs and brings algal blooms to Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Ian not only devastated southwest Florida on land, but was also destructive underwater. It destroyed artificial reefs and brought with it red tides, the harmful algal blooms that kill fish and birds, according to oceanographers returning from a six-day cruise last week organized by the Florida Institute of Oceanography.

Researchers, who used the cruise to study marine life in the Gulf of Mexico after the hurricane, said it left a red tide in its wake and destroyed artificial reefs up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the coast of southwest Florida.

“The once vibrant reefs are now underwater disasters themselves,” said Calli Johnson, the research cruise’s safety diving officer. “Where there used to be a complete ecosystem, there is now only fish that could return after swimming away.”

Before the Category 4 storm made landfall a month ago, Southwest Florida had a reputation for being one of the top saltwater fishing destinations in the United States. Saltwater and freshwater fishing in Florida has an economic impact of about $13.8 billion, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“Time will tell how this affects our larger economy, as changes in the fishing industry and tourism will come from changes in our underwater world,” Johnson said.

Oceanographers on the cruise found high numbers of the naturally occurring algae that cause red tide off Punta Gorda, Boca Grande and southwest of Sanibel Island. It will be several weeks before researchers can analyze water samples collected to determine the threat to marine life off the Florida coast.

The outbreak of the red tide is also threatening manatees off Sarasota and Charlotte counties, which rely on seagrass for food, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

“Florida is at a crossroads with a record number of manatees dying,” said JP Brooker, director of conservation at the Florida Conservancy. “We must keep this issue at the forefront so leaders across the state invest in solutions to improve water quality and protect natural habitats to save our beloved manatees.”

As of mid-October, there have been 719 manatee deaths recorded by Florida’s wildlife officials. Last year there were 982 manatee deaths. Ian wrecks artificial reefs and brings algal blooms to Florida

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