Larry Brand looks for things that don’t make sense, and keeps looking until it starts making sense.
His conclusions have not always been popular with his fellow scientists or with government officials. But the marine biology professor was popular last week before the local chapter of the Sierra Club. The standing room only crowd listened intently to the complex lecture that ended up with alarming conclusions about Florida’s twin scourges, red tide and blue green algae.
He is currently sounding the alarm in two areas. The alarm most relevant to Charlotte County is that red tide is getting dramatically worse with human activity. His second alarm is gathering international attention — that blue green algae holds a toxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“It’s the result of trying to feed 7.5 billion people,” he started out, explaining to the crowd of nearly 100. Florida’s international status as an agricultural haven has placed undue pressure on its unique ecology, he said.
Agriculture deserves most but not all of the blame, according to Brand’s research. He is among the first to criticize the sugar industry for its historic damage to the Florida Bay. But he learned in his studies that part of the problem occurs naturally here in Florida. There is naturally an outsized supply of the two big pollutants, phosphorus and nitrogen.
“It’s not what you see in the rest of the world,” he said of Florida’s algae problems.
He identified underground migration of natural phosphorus deposits into the Florida Bay. He also linked the mid-century draining of Florida’s peat swamps south of Lake Okeechobee, to a dramatic increase in the release of nitrogen, independent of fertilizer.
To prove that red tide is getting worse, Brand published a study back in 2007 that relied on complex statistical analysis. His peers at the time, such as with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, publicly criticized the work as too manipulative of statistics.
“They keep saying it’s all natural,” he said, describing how state-funded scientists have until recently described red tide.
As often happens with Brand’s work, however, the standard opinion starts to coincide with his conclusions. This summer, Mote President Michael Crosby agreed on public radio that red tide is made worse by human pollution.
At the Sierra Club meeting, Brand accused his peers of avoiding inconvenient numbers. For example, he said, his research shows the intensity of red tide has gone from a high of 2.5 million organisms per liter of water 50 years ago, to a high of 35 million today.
“Red tide is 15 times more abundant today than it was 50 years ago,” he said.
Yet the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has only one category for “high” levels of red tide, and that is anything over 1 million, he said. This makes it look like high levels of red tide are the same today as 50 years ago.
“What’s changed in the last 50 years?” he asked. “It’s got to be us.”
His work in blue-green algae is most relevant in Florida’s communities tied to the Caloosahatchie River and the St. Lucie River, which receive huge discharges from the algae-laden Lake Okeechobee. But cyanobacteria, as it is called, is a worldwide problem, he said.
Brand is a leading researcher into a complex compound abbreviated as BMAA, found in cyanobacteria. Brand has been conducting autopsies of sea animals ranging from crabs to bottle nosed dolphins. In these animals he has he has found high concentrations of BMAA.
BMAA is also found in high concentrations in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, he said, but not with another neurodegenerative disease — Huntington’s. Huntington’s, he explained, is almost entirely genetic, and not linked to environmental exposure.
Last week, scientists from the University of Florida revealed their finding that these big-brained dolphins may indeed be suffering from Alzheimer’s much like humans.
Brand and other scientists are currently trying to figure out if BMAA is airborne with cyanobacteria. This would be bad news for those who live near water polluted with it, Brand said. Asked if Florida’s seafood industry is at risk, Brand noted that cyanobacteria mostly affects fresh water fish, not saltwater.
His advice on harmful algae in Florida went beyond the need to do better job regulating pollution runoff. Key to controlling algae, he told the Sierra Club attendees, is to put the water back on ancient peat deposits that have been exposed. This requires reflooding portions of south Florida, and is not a popular solution with developers and industry.
His lecture, though alarming, was well received.
“I think he’s brave,” said Ellie Decker, of Manasota Key. “I think we need to listen to him.”