After suffering for 11 months and 22 days with the prolonged red-tide bloom of 1995-96 that left piles of dead fish on the region’s beaches and clogged our canals, Longboat Key’s mayor, the late Gen. Jim Patterson, decided enough was enough. Something had to be done to deal with this persistent plague on the Key’s marine environment.
Accustomed to mobilizing forces from his years in the military, the mayor called together concerned citizens for a strategy session at the Holiday Inn, on Lido Key. They included Longboaters Gordy Haglund, Virginia Sanders, Jim Brown, Hal Lenobel, Art Falls and Anna Maria Island restaurateur Ed Chiles. START (Solutions To Avoid Red Tide) was born.
Soon after the meeting, Haglund’s son, Rob, was named the first executive director, and Brown helped raise the initial funding through his town newsletter. Over the years, as START’s following grew to nearly 500 members, Longboat remained the nucleus of the organization, accounting for nearly half of the statewide members and most of the leadership.
From the beginning, START’s mission has been to seek ways to control and mitigate the harmful effects of red tide. But we soon found that red-tide research was disparate and scattered throughout the world with little or no coordination. It also lacked focus on results-oriented control and mitigation applications.
To address this shortcoming, START joined with other key players in the red-tide arena, leading to the creation of the Red Tide Alliance. This consisted of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Mote Marine Laboratory, START and the Florida Department of Health. This collaboration brought together the leading scientists studying red tide, government agencies in charge of assuring the safety of our seafood and protecting human health and a citizens’ group helping to raise awareness and funding for control and mitigation solutions.
After a concerted effort working with state policy makers, Chiles and former Longboat Key Commissioner Jeremy Whatmough and Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Gil McRae were able to persuade Gov. Jeb Bush to approve a special recurring Red Tide Control and Mitigation Program in 2007. The program funded 12 new red-tide research projects on topics ranging from the impacts on human health to biological and physical controls of red-tide blooms or their toxins. Participating institutions in the Red Tide Control and Mitigation Program included Georgia Tech, University of South Florida, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Mote Marine and The Smithsonian.
From 2007 to 2009, START stepped up its education outreach with the production of two high-definition documentary films, “Guardians of the Gulf” and “Red Tide Refrain.” The former premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival and has now been made into an hour-length PBS TV special that has been aired on stations in Tampa and St. Petersburg. “Red Tide Refrain,” a 20-minute film, has been screened at Mote’s
Immersion Theater and is now a teaching aid for our local middle-school science teachers in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The film has also been featured on the Florida Education Network, which provides streaming TV programming to Florida’s schools.
Unfortunately, with the impact of a faltering economy and declining government revenues, state policy makers ended the Control and Mitigation Program at the end of 2009. Despite this setback, START’s goal is to expand contact with Florida’s policy makers to try to reinstate the Control and Mitigation Program.
There were promising research studies that either controlled the power of the released toxins in red tide, limited the available food source or even preyed on the red-tide organism itself. With renewed funding, these research studies could be completed with the possibility of some viable measures to control the extent or impact of a future red-tide bloom.
START also recognizes the growing scientific evidence that the conditions leading to various marine water-quality issues are related. For instance, controlling runoff is a key factor in safeguarding our marine environment. That’s why START, at the urging of some of its Longboat members, joined those advocating a fertilizer ordinance with a rainy season nitrogen ban. This is also why START has revised its mission statement to include “Preserving our coastal waters” as its prime objective.
Along with our continued support for Mote’s Beach Conditions Report giving 24/7 wind, sea and weather conditions at our beaches and, when needed, red tide alerts, START has now produced 15- and 30-second public service announcements for local TV stations that will be aired when a red-tide bloom is headed for our shores. START will also be sending e-news messages to our members and posting bulletins on our website with information about volunteer opportunities if the Gulf oil spill ends up on our shoreline.
Finally, Longboat Key will be the focal point of START’s new education outreach program on “Sustainable Seafood.” Working with seafood purveyors, restaurateurs and chefs, START will launch a series of events to acquaint the public better with sustainable seafood options for restaurant selections and home use.
There will be demonstrations on how to select, buy and prepare sustainable seafood. Look for announcements about our special sustainable seafood dinner event on our website at START1.com and in The Longboat Observer later this fall.
Sandy Gilbert is the chairman of START and a former chairman of the Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board.