For much of the past year, as Southwest Florida was blanketed by the stench of red tide, public officials heard one loud demand from coastal communities: “Do something!”
What they meant was, “Make it stop!”
But that wasn’t possible, and it may never be possible, given that red tide is an explosive bloom of algae that exists naturally in the Gulf.
Huge fish kills, believed to have been caused by red tide blooms, were first recorded in these parts by Spanish sailors about the time Miguel de Cervantes wrote “Don Quixote.” “Stopping” it may be an impossible dream.
Or not. We don’t really know.
The grassroots message to public leaders in fuller expression was, “Do something to make this stop or be less intense for shorter periods in the future.”
Again, we don’t know if that’s feasible. It may well be that more-intense and longer-lasting blooms of Karenia brevis toxins are caused by nutrient pollution — leaking septic tanks, sewage treatment plant overflows and/or the run-off of agricultural and landscape fertilizer. Research suggests those are contributing causes.
It also may be that the circulation of ocean currents contributes to long, intense red tides. A study released last month by a University of South Florida marine science physicist suggests last year’s red tide began deep in mid-Gulf, where Karenia brevis grew in relatively nutrient-free water, and then was carried by an “upswelling” pattern into the Gulf current loop. Near shore they bloomed in nutrient-rich waters.
The scientist, Bob Weisberg, said his research may allow him to predict whether we’ll see more of the same in the coming year. He expects to make an announcement in June.
We can’t break down true cause and effect by guesswork, only by deep scientific research like Weisberg’s. That is why recent action by the Florida Legislature is significant.
In a 112-1 vote, the House passed a bill that designates $3 million for red tide research annually for the next six years. The bill passed the Senate and is expected to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The legislation was sponsored by two local legislators — freshman Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte. No surprise it won strong backing from all legislators from the region most affected by the recent outbreak. Most impressive was the margin of victory and the recognition from all that “something” needed to be done.
The response may not be as dramatic as many would like, but the research is critical for real, fact-based approaches in the future.
The legislation will create the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative, a collaboration between Mote Marine Laboratory of Sarasota and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Research Institute, based in St. Petersburg. Its goal is to develop technologies and tactics to control and mitigate blooms. Annual reports will be filed.
This is an important step. The last red tide had a devastating impact on wildlife, on people who live near the shoreline and people who visit our beaches, as well as the region’s overall economy. We need science to determine causes and strategies to prevent and mitigate the outbreaks. That’s the essential foundation for development of future public policies.