A group of scientists and experts weighed in on the Gulf Coast's ongoing destructive red tide and the nutrients that feed them at a forum held this week at Venice City Hall.

The city's Environmental Advisory Board hosted the Wednesday afternoon event as part of an ongoing effort by city leaders to wrap their collective heads around the problem.

What industry leaders and scientists — and their sometimes conflicting analyses — say about some of the proposed solutions will likely surprise you.

Dr. Ronald L. Musselman

Retired professor emeritus of chemistry, Franklin and Marshall College

Summary: Nutrient runoff isn't the problem. 

"There's been numerous major studies in the past 60 years [which show] blooms have reached West Florida shores nearly every year," Musselman said.

While many locals say this year's bloom has been the worst in length and severity, he said that's simply not the case.

Red tide blooms lasting 11 months, like the current one, or more are not unusual. He pointed to the 1995 bloom, which lasted 26 consecutive months, and a 17-month bloom beginning in 2005.

Since K. brevis cells split every three days, it's easy to see how a bloom can spread pretty fast.

"One cell can multiply and after one month ends up being 512 cells. It's almost an explosion," he said.

He agreed nutrients are feeding the problem but doesn't believe land-based nutrients are the cause of red tide.

Undersea sediments contribute to it as well. Nitrogen fixation from the air contributes. Also, zooplankton waste from small aquatic animals invisible to the eye.

Deposits from the atmosphere like Sahara dust, nitrates from lightning and sulfates from coal burning all contribute, Musselman said, but aren't the cause.

"They may exacerbate them a bit but we have no clear evidence of their even being a cause. They are definitely not the main factor."

Musselman said studying the Gulf's currents may provide answers.

"This whirlpool eddy sucks up sediment from the trench way down below the west Florida's Gulf Shelf and are deposited in the shallow area of the Shelf. You might say, 'Wow, that's going to make the K. brevis grow fast in shallower, warmer waters,' but it turns out that there are competing organisms for those nutrients.

"You might say, 'We had high temperatures this year and with K. brevis blooming, is there a relationship between the two?' Well, not so fast. Remember, K. brevis gets its start at the shelf in cold, deeper waters, so it doesn't need warm temperatures to grow. Secondly, K. brevis blooms come to shore usually in the fall when temperatures have lowered.

Mussleman's conclusions: "Red tide is primarily an ocean physics problem. The nutrient ecosystem is complex and land-based nutrients play a very minor role, if any."

Alan Jones

Owner of Jones Potato Farm, 2016 Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award recipient. 

Summary: Be wary of blaming Big Sugar and the agriculture industry.

"I appreciate what [Musselman] has said, but in my opinion the harmful algae blooms are fed by onshore nutrient loads," Jones said.

"Red tide is naturally occurring, but plants and animals typically go to where the nutrients are.

"If you live, visit, or do business in Florida you generate nutrients, and therefore, you are part of the problem.

"Once we all realize we may play a small role in these nutrient loads, what can we do to be part of the solution? It really comes down to implementing best management practices on your own home or business to reduce the offsite nutrient loads.

"Agriculture has really taken a proactive approach. We personally are conserving over 1 million gallons of water a day due to new irrigation practices. I've implemented precision farming through GPS and placement of fertilizer following the 'Four Rs' (the right source, the right rate, at the right place, at the right time). It's about understanding how the plant grows, being cognizant of your biological affects due to rain, heat and plant needs."

Urban areas are another story.

"How come the city of Venice doesn't have a best management practices plan for nutrients?" Jones said.

"We've got high water tables in Florida and septic systems that are designed to leach. We need to address that. Venice can do everything it can until it's squeaky clean as a white glove. But if we don't take care of what's going on in Nokomis, or in Englewood, or every watershed, you're never going to make any headway.

"What it comes down to is this: Implement a BMP for all. Not just agriculture. Create an incentive based education plan through tax credits."

Dr. Randy Edwards

Retired marine and estuary scientist with over 45 years of professional experience, including 14 years with Mote Marine Laboratory.

Summary: Land-based fertilizers are the problem, but year-round fertilizer bans are not the solution.

Fertilizer bans do more harm than good, Edwards said.

"Intuitively, they may seem helpful but you should be aware there is no scientific basis for their success. They have never been studied. Nobody has ever shown how effective they are. There are many real world examples that seem intuitively helpful, but the science simply turns out to be harmful.

"The reason is, without proper fertilization lawns would not develop the optimal root and blade biomass needed to filter nutrients and organic matter that would otherwise run off into our waterways.

"The University of Florida has done extensive research on turfs and has come to those kinds of conclusions. An outright ban is not the outright solution.

"Mr. Jones is correct. There are things like best management plans for fertilizer applications on residential lawns that would probably be complicated.

"More importantly, fertilizer bans can have an even greater negative effect serving as a false promise or a silver bullet that allows the public and public officials to falsely conclude they are making a contribution to solving the problem, when in fact it allows them to ignore the real problem.

"False promises are a major impediment to solving the environmental problems. People want to believe in simple quick and cheap fixes, even if they're not real.

He blasted "pork barrel" funding of red tide research, saying it promotes false promises.

"It seems obvious and imperative that red tide work should be conducted and managed by state agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Wildlife Commission, not by a single private entity.

"It should be funded the way the National Science Foundation and other important government agencies are funded — through a transparent, open process, through competitive peer reviewed grant proposals. A process that ensures the best ideas, by the best scientists from the most credible and successful scientific institutions, are awarded funding based on qualification, merit and past results. Not on political considerations."

Mac Carraway

Executive director of Environmental Research and Educational Association, a nonprofit industry group with stakeholders in professional lawn care, sports turf, golf, turf production and affiliated suppliers. 

Summary: Fertilizer bans or blackouts are not the answer.

"Those in the business of applying fertilizers are all about minimization of application, whether it's the turf business or lawn care or on golf courses.

"This year's red tide has been tough. We get that. This one was certainly difficult, with calls for drastic action like fertilizer bans. We don't have important information we need, and are not doing some of the testing we really need to do. 

"In 2007, a Florida Consumer Fertilizer Task Force was convened and in 2008 the model fertilizer ordinance was created. Florida's Urban Turf Rule was been updated twice to reduce use of fertilizers. Some Southwest Florida areas adopted local summertime blackouts from June through September.

"Then, as now, they were promoted as a cure for red tide and nutrient impairments."

But that hasn't been the case, he said.

He pointed to the success of the Tampa Bay seagrass bed recovery project in 2014, before the implementation of blackouts.

Compare that to the East Coast's Indian River Lagoon.

"They did not do the hard work," Carraway said. "They did not spend the money that Southwest Florida did and undertake stormwater and and water recovery projects. Failing to take on stormwater, failing to take on septic adequately accomplished nothing. But they did pass blackouts. It's still a mess there, and further evidence blackouts are not an answer."

"Phosphorus is virtually nonexistent. What we're talking about really nitrogen, but nitrogen is in many things. Animal waste, decomposed plants and fertilizer uses. Fertilizer bans only address the last one.

"So how much synthetic fertilizers are in Gulf waters? No one knows for sure. Total nitrogen is not an indicator of whether the bans are working or not.

"Inexplicably, only one local government with a blackout is doing this precise test, and that's Orange County, and that's only since last year, because they knew that the amount of total nitrogen wasn't a precise enough indicator and they wanted to know for sure if blackouts work.

"The challenge is to establish independent testing that identifies the specific nitrogen sources. The Green Industry doesn't fear those results. It would provide critical evidence that might prevent the imposition of an enormous and unnecessary burden on responsible and professional Floridians who are and have been using these materials responsibly for decades. Punishing the innocent is never good public.

"The city of Venice is making a valiant and enormous effort to lead. We admire Council's stated interests to follow scientific evidence, and saying 'no' to the temptation of quick fixes," Carraway said.

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