October 17th, 2005

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Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

By Dan Rupert ('old rupe)

Every sad story starts out with someone getting hosed and is supposed to end with the bad guys finally getting their just desserts. I don't think that's going to be a player here.

Some time back yours truly wanted to go south into Florida for a month or so and catch a few bass and crappie, but my funds were a little limited. I searched the net for some cheap digs that the roaches wouldn't carry me away in, hopefully in an area that the hurricanes hadn't completely destroyed.

Lake Okeechobee's fishing had been devastated for the time being so I settled on the Harris chain of lakes just north of Orlando. I had fished those years ago. I found a trailer that a hard-up fish camp on Lake Griffin was willing to rent for four hundred dollars a month, boy that should have been a clue.

Three days after I arrived on Lake Griffin I hadn't been able to catch one bass or crappie after eight hours a day trying. I thought I knew how to fish that type of southern lake, but obviously I had a few things to learn. I was the only fisherman in the fish camp and the owner was never present so I went into town and stopped at a tackle shop and threw myself on their mercy, bought the obligatory few lures and asked what was wrong.

I was told that the state had treated the lake to destroy some algae that was trying to take it over and fishing had suffered. I tried a couple of other lakes in the chain but the fishing was terrible. After a few sixty mile trips to Orange Lake, where, I did fairly well, I got badly sunburned and packed up and went home. Not a great trip. The fish camp owner even stuck a few extra charges on for good measure.

While casually searching the net at home later I discovered the truth. According to the articles I read Lake Griffin, like 80% of Florida's lakes had been invaded by a toxic blue green algae (Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii) from India by way of Australia and a half a dozen tropical countries. Subjected to high phosphate run off the lake had a tremendous algae bloom in the 90's and from '95 to '97 people started to notice the dead alligators. It's really hard to miss a dead gator. Look at the top of the page again. More than 450 large alligators (longer than 5 feet) have died of "unknown" (my quotes) causes since alligator mortality studies were initiated in December 1997. There is evidence the mortality began prior to May 1997. Unusual numbers of dead soft-shell turtles and long nosed gar have been found. Sick alligators are lethargic and show peripheral nerve damage and brain lesions. Local shore birds also exhibit the same neurotoxic symptoms. Lake Apopka lost its resident population of pelicans. Entire year classes of bass and crappie have disappeared. There are effectively no bass in the lake. Catfish seemed not to be affected as much.

I was hot. The fish camp owner was also head of the water district for central Florida. He had to know. The reason he got that job was so that he could put pressure on the government to do something to Lake Griffin to rescue his fish camp. With no fish in the lake I understood why I was the only one there. Somehow he just neglected to really tell me about the toxic nature of the algae in the lake, along with the bait and tackle shops in town. There were signs up at the lake and tackle shops, but they didn't convey the serious nature of the problem. Old Rupe had been storied to. The state hadn't affected the fishing on the chain of lakes, the algae had wiped out most of the wildlife that swam, walked, or flew in Lake Griffin, and part of the contents of the rest of the chain. The more I read the nastier it got. Alligator hatch rates had dropped to less than 10% as compared to normal lakes hatch rates of 70-90%. This lowered hatch rate has shown up in other lakes to varying degrees. When I read those lakeside warnings I had no idea how it really was.

Clindrospermopsis is distributed throughout the water column, in fact a serious bloom may only present as a deep green-brown color. Most articles associated toxicity with the presence of a bloom, though that's no guarantee. Sometimes the algae is toxic and sometimes its not. The algae and its toxins are poorly understood, and the assays for the toxins involved (cylindrospermopsin, anatoxin-a and saxitoxin) are expensive and only done in a few places. It isn't clear to me that the investigators have a clue as to what aspect of the algae is causing the observed physical effects. It affects different organs in different animals, i.e. nerve tissue in alligators and birds and liver tissue in humans. There are two forms of the algae present, a curved form and a larger more toxic straight form. Some strains of the algae are more toxic than others. The algae is very small sometimes attaining concentrations of 200,000 per ml and showing no smell or taste.

It has killed alligators, bass, crappie, pelicans, cattle, sheep and dogs and maybe humans. It is believed that it might be the cause of a debilitating and sometimes fatal human disease in northern and central outback Australia known as Barcoo Spews. In 1979 following copper sulfate treatment in a reservoir to eradicate Cylindrospermopsis in Palm Island, Australia, almost 150 people had to be hospitalized for liver damage after drinking water from that reservoir. Lacing the cells with the copper sulfate releases the toxins into the water. Drinking water strategies generally are not effective. In fact Florida doesn't require its' water treatment plants to test for algal toxins, and Florida has 45 marine/esturine and 15 freshwater toxic algae. Russian roulette with a faucet?

Cylindrospermopsin (the toxin) was detected in 34 lakes, many samples were lethal to mice in bioassay. Buy stock in Budweiser and bottled water. Where it's moderately blooming even swimming in it can cause stomach problems and skin rashes. Inhaling water with the algae in it has caused respiratory problems. Alligators have not presented with liver damage, but have shown peripheral nerve damage and brain lesions along with a 50% reduction in a nerve transmission rate. I don't care how much the state of Florida would like the problem to be the result of something beside Cylindrospermopsis they can't hide their dead mother in the freezer forever. Since it only affects large alligators that would imply toxin accumulation. Does it accumulate in humans too? I almost forgot, it may be genotoxic and carcinogenic also.

The really bad news is that Cylindrospermopsin isn't restricted to one lake in Florida, or just Florida. It's spreading nationwide. See Ann St.Amand's excellent article Cylindrospermopsis: An Invasive Toxic Algae and notice the nice map of the distribution of the algae.

So, as Paul Harvey says, "And now the rest of the story." It's not the problem. It's the cover up.

Officials say there is no evidence of death in humans and fail to mention observed lesser toxic effects. The truth is the diagnosis of Cylindrospermopsis poisoning is almost impossible to make. Only a few places can do the expensive assay and the toxicity mimics natural causes. Some of the toxins in the algae are neurotoxins. Are we missing the causes to many fibromyalgia and Parkinson's Syndrome cases? How many "snow birds" get sick after they return home and either die or never return to Florida? No doctor up north would make the connection, or in Florida either.

I was asked, "Do you think Florida minimizes the problem like they did the mugging of tourists in rest areas and in airport rental cars?"

Would they let those poor goobers fishing for their lunch do so in ignorance? Would they intentionally minimize the press reports on the problem? What could I say?

My reply was, "Not for a measly trillion or two. Maybe for real money, but not for chump change." Maybe ruining the states tourist income isn't in the national interest, but from the research I have done it looks like someone made the decision on how to handle toxic algae. Minimize, minimize, minimize.

After all goobers always get sick and die. ~ 'Old rupe

P.S. They sell Blue-Green Algae as a nutritional supplement. It has been found to be occasionally contaminated with trace amounts of Microcystis, a toxic algae. The potential effects of these trace toxins is unknown.

Publisher's Note: Following is a list of the research 'Old rupe read before sending this article in to us. He included the Internet citation for each in the hope you will read them also.

NOAA Center of Excellence for Great Lakes and Human Health
Harmful Algal Bloom Event Response
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Cylindrospermopsis: An Invasive Toxic Alga
Ann St. Amand

Livestock poisoning by blue-green algae
By Susie Wood, Massey/Victoria University, and Kathy Parton, Pathology group, IVABS, Massey University

Cylindrospermopsin [CASRN 143545-90-8] Review of Toxicological literature
Submitted by Bonnie Carson M.S.
Integrated Laboratory Systems
Prepared for Scott Masters Ph.D.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Final Report December 2000

Frequently Asked Questions on Cylindrospermopsis and other Potential Toxin-Producing Blue-Green Algae in Indiana Waters
Indiana Division of Natural Resources, Division of Fish and Wildlife Web Site

Effect of Toxic Algae on Alligators and Alligator Egg Development
USGS Water Resources Research Grant Proposal
James P. Ross. University of Florida, Water Resource Center

Assessment of Effects of Diet and Thiamin on Lake Griffin Alligator Mortality
James P. Ross Et al
Final report to St. Johns River Water Management District 30 November 2003
Contract #SF624AA

Diet and Condition of American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in Three Central Florida Lakes
Amanda N. Rice
University Of Florida Masters Thesis, 2004

Frequently asked Questions about Cylindrospermopsis
Arizona Department of Game and Fish, Health Services and Environmental Quality

Severe hepatotoxicity caused by the tropical cyanobacterium (blue-green alga) Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii (Woloszynska) Seenay Raju isolated from a domestic water supply reservoir.
P R Hawkins et al
Applied and environmental microbiology
1985 November, 50(5):1292-1295
Pub Med Central

Monitoring Changing Toxigenicity of a Cyanobacterial Bloom by Molecular Methods
Judith A. Baker
Applied and Environmental Microbiology
2002 December, 68(12) 6070-6076
Pub Med Central

06.21.2000 Algae Possible Cause of Increased Alligator Deaths in Lake Griffin
Ed Hunter
University of Florida IFAS News

Lake Griffin Alligator Die-Off: An Overview
Alligator Management Program
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
January 20, 2005

The Toxic Algae Threat in Florida - A more Tempered View
Dr. Ed Philips University of Florida IFAS

A Wave of Momentum for Toxic Algae Study
Environmental Health Perspectives
Volume 109, Number 4, April 2001

Cyanobacteria and their Toxins
Phd David Stone
Oregon Department of Human Services

Toxic Cyanobacteria in Water: A Guide to their Public Health Consequences, monitoring and management
Edited by Ingrid Chorus and Jamie Bartram

Blue-Green Algae Bloom Management
NSW Murray Regional Algal Coordinating Committee
Blue-Green Algae Management Protocols
Published by the Water Directorate, 2001

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