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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

How Sugar Subsidies Are Ruining Dozens of Florida Beaches (and Destroying Vast Quantities of Marine Life)

Fertilizer runoff from subsidized sugar fields is causing massive Red Tide blooms, killing marine life and ruining beaches.

ABC News reports that “Toxic red tide blooms are creeping up Florida’s west coast, killing marine life and irritating humans.” The red (or maroonish) tide is truly a nasty problem that I have experienced first-hand in the form of a ruined vacation.

It is a potentially toxic algae to wildlife when it occurs in high concentrations. The Karenia brevis algae can be a threat to fish, birds, and even manatees. At least 92 manatees have been killed so far and at least one whale shark! This creates conditions at the beach of discolored water, dead fish, and a horrible smell. Tourists are adversely affected as well as local businesses.

The algae are a natural phenomenon that has been known of for almost two centuries. However, the harmful “blooms” have occurred much more often and in more places in recent decades. More recently, it has been plaguing southwest Florida beaches since November 2017 and is now particularly bad over a larger area.

Regulation and Algal Blooms

I was recently attacked on Facebook for explaining all the benefits we would receive if we reduced the number of regulators and their budgets, i.e., fewer unnecessary regulatory restrictions on businesses and resource owners, less spending and taxes, more resources in the productive economy, and more entrepreneurship to name the primary ones.

There is no need to create a Red Tide Project or to declare a War on Red Tide.

My “friend” wrote that if we reduced the number of regulators, who would protect him from all the various perceived evils, including the red tide at the Florida coast. I replied to him, in part, that we pay for over 100,000 regulators for financial markets and they did not protect us from the financial crisis, that BP’s deep-water oil rigs are extremely highly regulated (in fact they would not be drilling in deep water at all if not for regulations!), and, in fact, EPA rules and regulators are there to protect the interests of polluters and to block citizens from protecting themselves in court. That was the end of the conversation.

Back to the story. Actually, this is an old story that I most recently wrote about four and a half years ago. There is an easy answer to why this red tide problem is growing increasingly worse, as well as having an easy solution. There is no need to create a Red Tide Project or to declare a War on Red Tide.

The Red Tide starts as natural growth of the “bad algae” dozens of miles offshore near the continental shelf. That algae can then drift toward shore and enter brackish water inlets. The blooms are not stimulated in open circulating waters. However, they are stimulated to grow and get bigger in the presence of manmade nutrients, such as fertilizers that have run into water sources from agricultural production all over the Gulf of Mexico.

Federal rules, regulations, and regulators are the cause.

In contrast, if the water in the Gulf is circulating well, then it brings more natural nutrients to the coastline. These nutrients feed other types of green “good algae” which keeps the Red Tide in check. In other words, mother nature can keep the problem in check.

However, when water circulation is down and fertilizer runoff is in play, you have a problem. A multi-billion-dollar problem.

Subsidies and Government Pollution

Though other factors play a role in the algae bloom crises, one of the most significant involves the sugar industry. A combination of federal sugar subsidies, federal regulations on pollution, and federal control of Lake Okeechobee (a giant lake in southern Florida) runoff guidelines have created a recipe for disaster.

The federal sugar subsidy prevents Americans from buying sugar from Cuba and other sources. This means that we have to produce our own sugar and that we pay the world’s highest price for sugar. It also means that we grow sugar and sugar substitutes in a high-cost fashion using a lot of fertilizer!

According to ABC News:

Once the red tide is inshore, the algae can grow even more using man-made nutrients, such as fertilizer.

“The increase in runoff may likely exacerbate an existing bloom,” Weisberg said.

Earlier this week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott called for the FWC and FDEP to “mobilize all available resources” to address the impacts of the red tide.

On Friday, Scott blamed the cause of the blooms on “the federal government releasing water from Lake Okeechobee.”

“For too long, Floridians have had to deal with harmful algal blooms caused by the federal government releasing water from Lake Okeechobee into our rivers and coastal estuaries,” Scott said in a press release.

So, there you have it. Federal rules, regulations, and regulators are the cause. The federal sugar subsidy has created a massive increase in fertilizer use in agriculture in southern Florida and in other states, such as Louisiana. The EPA protects farmers and others who dump chemicals into the water by setting protection “limits,” and then federal officials dump excessive pollutants into our waterways and we have no recourse against them.

I think the solutions are simple and straightforward. End the sugar subsidies and the EPA and its protection limits. Restore the right of the people to sue polluters that cause demonstrable harm.

Reprinted from the Mises Institute.

  • Mark Thornton is an American economist of the Austrian School. He has written on the topic of prohibition of drugs, the economics of the American Civil War, and the "Skyscraper Index". He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.