Floridians are desperate for some good news concerning red tide.

After months dealing with the toxic Gulf shores and choking on the polluted air, we are willing to look anywhere for a clue to how to prevent or slow down the problem. We’re tired of dead fish and sick of seeing our beloved turtles, manatees and dolphins washing ashore, lifeless.

Finally, there may be a glimmer of positive news — albeit ever slight.

Florida International University and Mote Marine Laboratory are teaming up to seek answers to how red tide kills manatees. The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration issued a $428,000 grant for a three-year study of the cells in the manatee immune system and how those cells respond to certain antioxidents. The study, as written about by the Sun’s Steve Reilly last week, is in its infancy but is already turning up some useful information.

Similar research is underway at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. That’s where a team is examining dead manatees — many recovered from areas in Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties. A Tampa Bay Times story by Craig Pittman documented how precise these biologists were in extracting materials from manatees’ digestive tracts to determine how red tide affected them. They noted it can be as long as two months after fish kills end, that manatees can eat sea grass infected by red tide and die.

These types of research are examples of Florida going in the right direction. While no one expects red tide to ever be eradicated, the idea that we can slow it down or save a few hundred manatees and turtles would present hope in a frustrating battle.

“This collaboration between our researcher and Mote is exactly the type of collaboration we need to help the state of Florida,” Mike Heithaus, dean of FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences and Education said in a press release.

The idea behind the joint project is to — instead of just relieving the ill manatee’s symptoms — to deal with the causes and find new treatments to accelerate healing.

FIU chemist Kathleen Rein said anything that helps with a manatee’s recovery should also aid the healing process for dolphins and turtles.

Right now, about 575 manatees had died in Florida this year. Of those, 103 are due to red tide.

Turtles have fared even worse.

Since November, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 953 stranded turtles, of which 821 were already dead, in an area stretching from Pinellas County to Collier County.

“I attribute 402 of the stranded sea turtles (175 loggerheads, 185 Kemp’s ridleys, and 42 green turtles) to the red tide,” Allen Foley, an FWC biologist, told Reilly for his story. “This is the largest number of stranded sea turtles we have attributed to a single red tide event.”

That number also exceeds the five-year average of 441 stranded turtles state researchers expect from those counties during the same time period.

Florida must get a handle on the problem. There will be no easy cure. The factors that figure into the tenacious red tide outbreak are numerous and difficult to quantify.

But spending money for research and allowing qualified clue-seekers like Mote Marine and the staff at FIU to undertake studies is a good step. Even if the research leads down a dead end, at least Florida can say it is serious about the problem and finding a cure.

That sends the right message to visitors and potential new residents scared off by this summer’s negative news.

An editorial from The Charlotte Sun.^p


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