Stopping the Red Green Slime Monster

04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sarasota, Florida -- The summers of 2004 and 2005 on the Florida Gulf Coast were out of a B-horror movie. Fish, bottlenose dolphins and manatees were washing ashore here in great rotting masses, dogs were dying after their owners took them for a walk on the beach, scientists were shrugging their shoulders, while just offshore, visible as a great purple stain from the air, bloomed "red tide" -- huge, proliferating mats of Karenia brevis, a dinoflagellate species of algae.

As the K. brevis mats bloom and spread, they emit a potent neurotoxin that kills fish and marine mammals. But as the mats come closer to shore, marine breezes whip the tops of waves containing K. brevis and carry its neurotoxin onshore as a toxic aerosol spray, where it can poison terrestrial species -- including pets and humans.

Assisted by a generous local resident susceptible to the aerosol, the Sierra Club launched a multiyear campaign in the summer of 2004 to take on the red-green slime monster that was afflicting the Gulf.  The Club's premise was simple -- the monster was an algae, algae need nutrients, and Florida's untreated sewage plants and over-fertilized golf courses, farms, and lawns were literally feeding the monster and turning what had once been a sporadic, offshore local event into an enormous blob that in 2004, and again in 2005, hugged the coast for months.

The agribusiness industry and other polluters fought hard to prevent any action, and scientists were intimidated from doing the research needed to prove that over-fertilizing the Gulf was having the effect fertilizer has always had -- making plants (in this case algae) grow.

But we're making progress. Three major Florida counties -- and scores of cities -- have passed ordinances to prevent the application of nitrogen fertilizer during the rainy season, when they simply wash off lawns and into the ocean. Florida has become the first state in which -- thanks to litigation brought by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups -- concentration limits for nutrients will be set by the state for all its waterways.

So far, efforts by the fertilizer industry to prevent cities and counties from acting have been rebuffed, and last December Pinellas County passed an ordinance to control  fertilizer runoff. As a result, major fertilizer companies are shifting from quick-release, heavily polluting products to timed, slow-release fertilizers.

It was refreshing to visit this coast after six years and learn that although red tide and pollution both remain problems in this beautiful, fragile state, commonsense approaches are making progress possible -- and obstructionism is gradually being beaten back.