On a warm and clear Monday morning, I meet with Christina Llamas and Shaun Jacobs at Naples Beach, not far from what remains of the Naples Pier. The husband-and-wife team co-own Surf Naples, which offers a summer camp for kids and private surf and skim lessons for adults and children. The Gulf of Mexico is their home base, the place where they operate their business and spend most of their time. Today, it’s impossible to tell anything might be wrong with the Gulf. The water is the color of jade and nearly transparent, flat and smooth all the way to the horizon. In the distance, a dolphin leaps into the air—once, twice. Closer to shore, a trio of women in matching straw hats bob on brightly colored noodles. Children play at the water’s edge.
Despite this idyllic scene, Llamas and Jacobs are worried. They know the Gulf faces a number of threats: debris from Hurricane Ian, nutrient-laden water flushed down the Caloosahatchee, red tide, seaweed, sea level rise. Surf Naples depends on a healthy Gulf, as do many of the businesses in this area, directly or indirectly.
“If our water’s no good, people don’t want to come here,” Jacobs says.
Tourism is big business in Southwest Florida. The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau reports that Lee County receives about 4.5 million visitors each year. In 2022, those visitors spent $4.1 billion. Tourism employs one out of every five workers in Lee, roughly 73,000 jobs. Similarly, Collier County recorded more than 1.6 million overnight visitors in 2022. The total economic impact of those visitors was valued at $2.79 billion. And the tourism economy is deeply tied to the Gulf.
“Every single month we conduct research surveys of our visitors, and their No. 1 reason for coming here is the beaches,” says Collier County’s Tourism Director Paul Beirnes. “Think about it—last year, 1.6 million people from around the globe saved up for an entire year just to enjoy these beaches. They spent their money on fishing guides, dolphin tours, sunset cruises. They’re booking hotels. They’re buying groceries at Publix and filling up their tanks at the gas station. The economic engine of this area relies on that money.”
A healthy Gulf of Mexico is inseparable from that engine. “It’s in the fiber of who we are as a coastal community.”
After the Storm
Hurricane Ian left a number of problems for the Gulf in its wake, to put it mildly.
“After the storm, our biggest concern was debris in the water,” Llamas tells me. “But Collier County did a great job of getting rid of it.”
“We were impressed with how quickly they came in and cleaned up the beaches,” Jacobs says. “Now they’re replacing the sand that we lost.”
As we talk, a man in a Beach Patrol uniform stops by and we chat about the debris that came ashore after Ian—a hotel laundry cart, a port-a-potty, old boards. That’s all gone now.
“I was in the water 30 days after the storm,” Jacobs says. “At that point, I didn’t see anything.” He pauses and looks out at the Gulf. “Not that it lifted the fear for everybody. People are still wary.”
Soon afterward, a young woman walks by carrying a wooden broom handle with a plastic cup taped to one end balanced on her shoulder. She’s with the county, she tells us, and she’s collecting seawater samples for water quality testing. Water quality has weighed heavily on residents’ minds in the last few years, and Hurricane Ian has kicked up new concerns.
For scientists at Florida Gulf Coast University, the biggest threat after the hurricane was less about debris and more about nutrients. Just three weeks after the storm, Adam Catasus—a research scientist at FGCU—led the first in a series of research expeditions into the Gulf of Mexico in order to study the effects of the storm on the marine ecosystem. He and his team collected water and sediment samples, and the preliminary results have Catasus optimistic for the state of the Gulf. “The pattern that we’re seeing is what we’d expect,” he says. “We saw this big disturbance right after the hurricane with all the flooding and an influx of nutrients, but then six months later we saw way less nutrients in the water, more like what we’d expect for this time of year.” That’s good news, he said. “It means the system is cycling the way we would expect. It’s back to business as usual.”
Red Tide Concerns
Michael Parsons, professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School, is similarly optimistic about the outlook for red tide in the near future. “If this is a typical year, we should be out of the woods,” he says.
Red tide—a type of harmful algae that produces toxins that kill sea life and causes respiratory problems in humans—had a brief over-bloom last fall. This was to be expected, Parsons said. “We typically see red tide at the end of September and early October, and it usually extends into late winter and early spring.” Plus, flooding from Hurricane Ian exacerbated the problem by dumping extra nutrients in the Gulf from the Caloosahatchee and Lake Okeechobee. These extra nutrients contributed to an overgrowth of the algae.
The bloom was heavy in February and into March of this year, which Parsons said was initially concerning, but the numbers have decreased since then. “The latest reports have it pretty quiet again. So far it seems like it’s following a typical year.”
An atypical year might look like the summer and fall of 2018, when levels of red tide in the Gulf exploded, killing 2,000 tons of marine life and choking local beaches with decaying fish. Thankfully, Southwest Florida hasn’t seen anything like it since.
“It’s a complicated problem with a lot of stakeholders,” Parsons says. “But the state’s investing a lot of money in water quality and taking measurements to reduce nutrients.”
Barry Rosen, an expert on cyanobacteria who studies freshwater systems, is more ambivalent about the outlook ahead. He monitors Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee, both of which eventually flow into the Gulf, alert to any potential over-bloom of blue-green algae. “It seems like there’s a bit of a bloom of cyanobacteria in the lake coming down the Caloosahatchee, and organisms on the freshwater side are also blooming and growing,” he says. “The rainy season will flush those out, but it will also flush out nutrients coming off the land.”
Determining the exact right combination of water temperature, turbidity, oxygen levels and nutrients that will lead to an abundance of cyanobacteria “is more complicated than rocket science,” Rosen says. “There’s no easy way of predicting it. It’s not as simple as A plus B equals bloom.”
In March, scientists at the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab warned of a record-setting amount of sargassum seaweed—a free-floating brown macroalgae—in the Atlantic. The bloom developed in the sargassum belt, a stretch of ocean that extends from the west coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists estimated that the total weight of the bloom was roughly 13 million tons (though it was made of scattered clumps and mats and not the giant “blob” that early news stories claimed). June and July mark peak sargassum season, and the 2023 bloom was predicted to be the largest ever recorded.
Florida businesses worried that the clumps of free-floating sargassum would wash ashore, where they would become a major nuisance. The seaweed can land in huge piles, like massive snow drifts, that emit hydrogen sulfide gas as they decompose. The gas isn’t toxic, but it smells like rotting eggs and can be irritating.
Yet the Atlantic sargassum is not the macroalgae we need to be focused on, said Rick Bartleson, a research scientist at Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation who specializes in macroalgae. Though the free-floating sargassum in the Atlantic will eventually make its way into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s unlikely that it will pose a real threat to local beaches. “We know from past years that the Atlantic sargassum doesn’t make it to Sanibel,” Bartleson says. “In the Gulf, we don’t have a current that would bring the sargassum close to shore. The Loop Current is way, way out—100 miles or so. It would be an unusual situation, multiple days of the right winds, to bring the algae here.”
But that doesn’t mean Southwest Florida is in the clear, Bartleson warns. “We have our own algae problems here,” he says, “and it causes the same problems that the Atlantic sargassum is going to cause on the East Coast and in the Gulf Stream.”
He points to the “meadows” of sargassum around Pine Island Sound and in Matlacha Pass, as well as into the mouth of the Caloosahatchee—anywhere there’s hard bottom and a strong current. The seaweed starts off attached to the ocean floor and then breaks free, where it floats in clumps before landing on local beaches. And it’s not the only one threatening our waters. “We have multiple species that cause problems,” Bartleson says. He points to a variety with the scientific name Caulerpa, but commonly referred to as killer alga. When killer alga grows unchecked, it wipes out entire ecosystems.
Unlike the free-floating sargassum in the Atlantic—whose origin and abundance remains a mystery to scientists—the cause behind the overgrowth of local seaweeds is no secret. “All of our algae problems are because of too-high nutrient loading,” Bartleson says. Excess nutrients make their way into the estuary and Gulf, super-charging the naturally growing seaweed. “You can’t have a huge biomass of algae without having huge amounts of nutrients,” he says. The source of those nutrients is under debate, though the agriculture and phosphate mining industries both play a role.
Bartleson has studied macroalgae for the last 20 years, and he’s seen more and more algae each year. He worries that the excessive growth of macroalgae will continue. “I don’t see it getting better until we get nutrient loading levels down.”
Rapid Sea Level Rise
In the spring of this year, two alarming studies were published that point to a higher-than-average rise in sea levels along the Gulf Coast. Jianjun Yin, an expert in ocean circulation and sea level change at the University of Arizona, reported a rapid rise in sea levels at several key points along the Gulf of Mexico in the Journal of Climate. According to Yin’s study, the rates of sea level rise were higher at these data collection points than at other coastal places across the United States. And, more alarmingly, the rate of rise has been accelerating since 2010—a timeline that corresponds to the increased ferocity of Atlantic hurricanes with their deadly storm surges and devastating coastal flooding.
A second study, published in Nature by scientists at a trio of universities, showed an above-average sea level rise for parts of the Gulf. Across the globe, sea levels have risen by roughly 1.5 millimeters per year since 1900 and more than 3 millimeters per year in the last 30 years. But in parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, that rate has been as high as 10 millimeters per year since 2010. The report calls these levels unprecedented.
Eyes on the Horizon
Despite a variety of ongoing threats, Llamas and Jacobs of Surf Naples are hopeful about the Gulf’s future.
“The water is amazing,” Llamas says. “It has an incredible ability to heal itself.”
While it’s healing, the pair are doing their part. Each morning, they walk the beach with their surf campers to pick up stray trash and discover what the waves have brought in overnight. The way they see it, they’re preparing these kids to be good stewards of what’s important in Southwest Florida. “We’re teaching them to take care of the Gulf,” Jacobs says. “It’s our home away from home.”