Naples teacher Traci Bratcher published a book about E8, the SWFL baby eagle whose survival story captivated the nation.Naples Daily News

Species of fish commonly consumed by locals could possibly be contaminated with BMAA, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Anglers everywhere appreciate the thrill of the strike when a fish is on the end of the line. And sometimes, that is only topped by the reward of a fresh fish dinner.

But what if that fresh-caught fish dinner cost a person his or her quality of life?

It’s a question that must be asked during times when fluorescent green algae blooms plague more than 1,000 square miles of Florida’s fish-filled waters.

Two of the nation’s leading scientists working on the link between toxic algae and serious neurological diseases, said for them, eating a fish from waters bearing obvious cyanobacteria is simply too great a health risk — and a risk they would not take.

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“I would not eat any fish caught in this area right now,” said Larry Brand, marine biology and ecology professor with University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Local health department officials also warn anglers and seafood lovers to use careful consideration before consuming locally caught fish.

“Don’t fish in or around a bloom, and don’t eat any fish caught in or around a bloom,” said Renay Rouse, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Martin County.

Aerial view of toxic algae bloom flowing in a canal Friday, July 14, 2018 in Cape Coral, Florida.,

Toxic Puzzle

Brand and James Metcalf, senior researcher with Brain Chemistry Labs based in Jackson Hole, Wyo., were in Stuart Tuesday to participate in panel discussion which followed a screening of the 2017 film, “Toxic Puzzle.” The film, presented by, a clean water advocacy group based in Stuart, chronicles the links between naturally-occurring blooms of cyanobacteria and deadly neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, as well as other motor neuron diseases.

The link centers around an amino acid —  beta-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA). BMAA is found in cyanobacteria like the ones identified by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on the waters of Lake Okeechobee, Blue Cypress Lake, the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River. In June and July, samples collected by the state agency have tested positive for microcystis aeruginosa or wesenbergii. Some samples have shown concentrations of microcystin well above what the World Health Organization considers safe for contact by mammals like humans, pets, manatees and more.

“BMAA, a neurotoxin, was found in high levels in the brains of dead dolphins which were sampled,” Brand explained. “These high concentrations of BMAA we see in the brains of these dolphins, they obviously got it from the fisheries. It indicates you got BMAA in your ecosystem.”

So, species of fish commonly consumed by anglers, and those who buy locally-caught seafood which comes from local lakes like Lake Okeechobee and Blue Cypress Lake, or waters such as the St. Lucie River, southern Indian River lagoon or Caloosahatchee River — freshwater fish like catfish, speckled perch, bluegill, shellcracker, cichlids, tilapia and largemouth bass, or saltwater fish like snook, sheepshead, mullet, black drum, redfish, spotted seatrout, snapper or tripletail, and others — could possibly be contaminated with BMAA.

Brand said someone who eats contaminated food may not experience disease symptoms for possibly 10 or more years.

Algae blooms reported east of Franklin Locks in Alva. Some worry that it will move west to estuary. Andrew West, News-Press

ALS on Guam

The connection was first observed in a village of people who lived on Guam in the years following World War II. When war between the Japanese and Allied Forces caused an interruption in trade with the islands, the indigenous Chamorro people changed their diet. They began to consume two species of flying foxes which lived on the island and fed on fruits and seeds of tropical vegetation there. They ate so many of the large bats, one of the species became extinct.

About 10 years after the war, Metcalf explained, there was a spike in the incidence of motor neuron diseases about 150 times greater than exists in the world population which is about two in every 100,000 people.

“When we found the cyanobacteria was the source of the toxin in Guam, it led to the whole idea that it could be a global phenomenon,” Metcalf said. “What is unique about the people who are diagnosed with a disease like ALS? Maybe it was something they were doing that led to them having it.”

It is global. Toxic algae blooms occur in the Baltic Sea, the Great Lakes, Australia and in Florida. Metcalf said the research community is taking steps towards cures and solutions while unlocking information along the way.

“We’ve now shown the toxin can cause the plaques and tangles in the brain,” he said. “Now we’ve found a way to stop those plaques and tangles, so we’re already doing phase two human clinical trials on Alzheimer’s and ALS patients. Based upon this research — if it’s successful, and it may not be successful, we don’t know — but it also gives hope and help to people who are concerned about exposure to the algae blooms taking place here.”

“Of course, fish move,” Rouse said. “The fish you catch away from a bloom may have been in a bloom five minutes earlier. So we advise people to closely examine the fish they catch. Other than having been hooked, does it appear to be healthy? Does it have any lesions?”