By Jenn Greacen-Crawford, CMO for the Marine Exploration Center 

 

As a marketer,  I tend to look for the “fluff” and well, sell things. You know, the sizzle to the steak. It’s just what we do.

So when I am working with a global education giant and non-profit, The Marine Exploration Center, and something like (gasp) RED TIDE appears in my own backyard, I get…. Excited? 

As a 41 year Florida native, I know Red Tide is bad. It makes the air smell, my respiratory system acts up, and the beaches are less than pleasant with all of the rotting fish. For tourism and hospitality, Red Tide can be deadly as well, temporarily halting economic progress which is just bad for Florida all around. 

So why the enthusiasm? Well, when your scope is to find things that are relevant to engage and educate the community on matters of Marine Science, and something like this gets so much press, it’s an “opportunity”. 

But this opportunity has a very big problem. The facts. 

I hate to use the phrase “Fake News” but unfortunately ( as Snopes will concur) it’s all around us. And this time, Red Tide has been the subject of the misinformation. 

From its origins and patterns, to where to place the blame, Red Tide has been making headlines of prodigious proportions this year. Sure it’s massive in its physical scale but, as I know from being a life-long resident,  Red Tide is also a recurring phenomenon. 

So I decided to take it away from politics, sales, and social media rumors and get unbiased answers from our very own Zach Ostroff.  

Zach has spent years in research, education and curation including locally maintaining the famous 33,500-gallon habitat at the Guy Harvey Resort, RumFish Grill.

If he can keep those fish safe, healthy and happy in such a delicate environment where a few drops can make a difference, certainly he can explain the water of our Gulf of Mexico to us. 

I was glad I did. Because the story is deeper than you think!

 

Jenn:

 First things first, what truly is "Red Tide"

 

Zach:

 "Red Tide", a type of "harmful algal bloom" or HAB, is an overabundance of a certain species of phytoplankton. This species -Karenia brevis - produces toxins called "brevetoxins", which in high concentrations results in fish kills, marine mammal mortalities, and can cause respiratory irritation in people along affected coastlines.

 

Jenn:

Wow! That is a lot of information. So for the non-scientist…. it means?

 

Zach:

 A type of toxic plankton is growing too much, producing high concentrations of toxins in local waters that kill wildlife and impacts our health.

 

Jenn:

And, am I right in recognizing it seems to come every year? Is it a naturally occurring pattern or does it have a man-made influence?

 

Zach:

The phytoplankton responsible for red tide - Karenia brevis - blooms annually in the Gulf of Mexico. Blooms naturally begin many miles offshore along the western Florida shelf in late summer to autumn. The upwelling of deep, naturally nutrient-rich water feeds phytoplankton growth, contributing to the formation of red tide.

 

Jenn:

Okay. So what about the effects of man? Do we impact it? 

 

Zach:

At first glance, it’s natural to assume that we are responsible for recent red tides. Just like applying fertilizers on land, more nutrients means more plant growth (in this case algae growth). However, given that these blooms originate far offshore, it doesn’t appear that our nutrient pollution influences their formation.

 

Jenn:

So then, the current Red Tide issues, I have read articles and seen several reports that link the algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee to Red Tide.  Can you explain this? 

 

Zach:

So far, there is no conclusive link between red tide and nutrients from Lake Okeechobee. 

Terrestrial nutrient pollution does contribute to harmful algal blooms and it should be our goal to reduce and/or prevent it, but when it comes to red tide no correlation has been found between the severity of red tide seasons and the amount of nutrients being contributed from land.

 The strength, location, and persistence of red tide along our coasts is a combination of many factors including prevailing wind direction, annual variation of ocean currents, and biological influences such as competition from other types of algae.

 

 

Jenn:

So, how do we reduce Terrestrial Nutrient Pollution? 

 

Zach: 

Nutrient pollution comes from many sources: farming and agriculture, runoff from our lawns and golf courses, seepage from septic systems, and much, much more. There is a lot we can do individually and as communities to reduce nutrient pollution. Locally, we can fertilize responsibly, we can keep pet and yard waste out of our storm drains by picking up after our pets and keeping grass clippings on the lawn and off the street, we can ensure that our infrastructure properly contains and treats sewage, etc. On a larger scale, we can support sustainable agriculture – voting both with our dollars and for politicians who value investment in environmentally sound business practices.

A few related resources:

 

Jenn:

But, essentially, no matter what we do or don’t do, Red Tide will continue to return? 

 

Zach: 

Yes, red tide will continue to occur annually, though it will not always be as severe.

 

Jenn:

So then, Why do you think Big Sugar and the Algae Blooms in Okeechobee have been cited as linking to the cause of Red Tide? Is this just a coincidence in timing? 

 

Zach: 

Since algae blooms are often the product of nutrient pollution, including those occurring right now in Okeechobee and the connected St. Lucie River, it’s an easy association to assume. Okeechobee is drained through the Caloosahatchee as well, bringing its nutrients this way too; it’s natural to think there’s a correlation to red tide.

 

Jenn:

How does Red Tide resolve itself and is there anything man can do to correct it after it has started or does it have to run its course as naturally as it starts? 

 

Zach: 

The more we learn about red tide, the more complex we find its cycle to be. So far, there are no artificial methods to control or mitigate red tide. Many are currently being investigated, but we should be extremely cautious trying to meddle with natural processes. Usually when we change something about the natural environment, we end up learning a harsh lesson and paying for it later. I think our best course is to continue learning about red tide, including looking for ways we might be contributing to its severity.

 

Jenn:

So then, what makes this news? 

 

Zach: 

No one wants to see massive fish kills, dead marine mammals, turtles, and birds. We’re becoming increasingly aware of how important a healthy environment is to our own health. We want answers and accountability for such devastation. While our outcry concerning red tide might be unfounded, environmental issues nonetheless are rightfully prominent in our national discussion – especially as we head towards midterm elections. This is exceptionally so in Florida. We spent the last century altering the hydrology of our entire state (how water naturally flows southward to and through Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades), and we’re seeing the consequences of that.

 

 

More from Dr. Bob Weisberg of the Weinberg group USF St. Petersburg College of Marine Science:

Once a bloom occurs, CMS-USF and Florida Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) scientists track where the bloom may go. FWRI provides cell counts; CMS-USF uses an ocean model to forecast the movement. Not only is Red Tide transported along shore, new cells may also arrive from offshore. So improved predictions require offshore, near bottom observations.

This understanding applies more generally because organisms depend upon the water properties in which they live. Thus only through an interdisciplinary, systems science approach will we become better stewards of our coastal ocean.

http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/letters/Sunday-s-letters-Understand-the-Loop-Current-s-role-in-Red-Tide_171151350