Photographer documents possible herbicide tie to Florida red tide, toxic algae

Researchers agree chemicals may cause blue-green algae, red tide

ORLANDO, Fla. – An environmentalist and photographer for National Geographic has gathered visual evidence he believes proves herbicide spraying in Florida waterways has created the red tide and the blue-green algae bloom that is choking our lakes.

“Oh, it’s definitely happening,” Jim Abernethy told News 6 last week. “It’s happening to the tune of 714,000 gallons a year.”

Abernethy said state-approved spraying of the herbicide glyphosate used in commercial brands such as RoundUp, could be an unchecked cause of the state’s water problems.

According to the University of Florida Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, the chemical is one of 17 “active ingredients” in herbicides currently approved for use in Florida waters.

The chemical is used “only by careful application because, in general, glyphosate damages most plants it contacts, according to the center's website.

[RELATED: Red tide and blue-green algae: What's the difference?]

Abernethy said he is convinced the intended effect has created an unintended side-effect. E. Allen Stewart, an environmental engineer, said Abernethy may be right.

Stewart said the 33,000-acre Lake Apopka is real-life proof “to what can happen with loss of biodiversity.”

“If there are no aquatic plants there to pick up the nutrients, the blue-green algae will step in,” Stewart said. "A lot of these things are unpredictable, chaotic.”

The potential link to herbicide spraying is getting a closer look in the scientific community.

Dr. James Douglas, a researcher at Florida Gulf Coast University, is planning to conduct controlled experiments to determine if there is a connection between herbicide spraying and the blue-green algae.

“The data to evaluate the hypothesis is not all there yet,” Douglas said. “Spraying too much might contribute to water pollution and green algae blooms. We’ve seen the dead manatees. We’ve seen people concerned about their own health.”

Abernethy, who lives in South Florida, has been crossing the state presenting video evidence gathered in the field  as proof that aquatic spraying may play a role in the latest red tide epidemic.

“We could be poisoning our own aquifer and it needs to be stopped,” Abernethy said. “This is an antiquated system of plant management. It needs to be gone or at least reduced.”

Stewart, who writes a blog for the People’s Alliance Supporting our Obligation to Posterity,  or PASOP, recently wrote, "Blaming is easy but does little to resolve the issue.”

Stewart argues that scientists have known about the potential for red tide and the blue-green algae blooms for years.

“We’ve done a lot of things that have disrupted the quality of our lakes,” Stewart said. “We need to listen to the scientists. Innovation is hard. It requires some different outlook and it requires commitment.”

Douglas is preparing grant applications to fund his research project.

For more information on the Florida waterway issue, go to: or

In the meantime, here are several suggestions from environment group leaders suggest on what you can do to help protect Florida's waterways.


About the Author:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.