Sarasota finds itself in the center of the search for answers as scientists and policymakers work both sides of the question to improve water quality in the region.
Like other citizens who found themselves compelled to take some sort of action in the wake of a red tide bloom that fouled Sarasota County’s shores, Joe Bruno said the sight of dead sea life strewn across area beaches was a powerful motivator.
As a longtime Sarasota resident, Bruno wasn’t unfamiliar with red tide. But this time around, things felt different. The images of its effects were more visceral. The strength and duration of the phenomenon were unnerving.
“The deaths became more and more common,” Bruno said. “We recognized this was not a normal red tide, especially those who had many decades of life experience down here.”
Although Bruno was initially troubled by the effect the red tide had on the marine environment, he soon became equally as distraught by what he perceived as an insufficient response from local officials. He worried too much emphasis was being placed on offsetting damage to the tourism industry rather than improving water quality. He wanted to see more action, a greater sense of urgency from Sarasota leaders.
He joined the group Hands Along the Water, a grassroots regional coalition that held demonstrations and lobbied for governmental action in response to the bloom. In October, he spoke at a Sarasota County Commission meeting and asked for more stringent fertilizer regulations. In December, he was part of a group holding protest signs along the bayfront.
He hoped the group’s efforts would help educate others and ultimately produce meaningful progress on a problem that became too severe for him to ignore.
“I can’t close my eyes to this,” Bruno said.
Activists like Bruno aren’t the only ones who felt stirred to join the fight against red tide. From government officials to major marine and wildlife institutions to local businesses, Sarasotans are searching for strategies to help avoid another event as damaging and disruptive in the future.
In the second installment of a two-part series, The Observer examines how the community is navigating the challenges associated with red tide in pursuit of meaningful solutions to a complex issue.
Solutions and strategies
Sarasota finds itself at the center of the scientific fight against red tide thanks to the presence of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.
Responding to the severity of the most recent bloom, last fall, Mote received a $1 million private gift and established a dedicated Red Tide Institute to pursue technology designed to combat the issue. The state authorized $2.2 million in spending toward red tide mitigation, which included funding for Mote initiatives. Another bill currently in the state Legislature would give the institution $18 million through the next six years as part of a red tide research partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Despite an increased vigor for finding options for mitigating and controlling red tide, Mote officials are attempting to manage the expectations regarding the timeline for finding solutions. Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said despite the work the institution and FWC have done to monitor and research red tide during the past few decades, there’s still a lot left to learn about the algae blooms. Crosby said scientists also have to be cautious about ensuring any potential red tide treatments don’t have negative effects on the broader marine environment.
“We have to make sure we do no greater harm,” Crosby said.
“I fully expect that within a period of three to five years, we will have available deployable technologies that can be used to battle red tide.”
Michael Crosby, Mote Marine Laboratory President and CEO
Because of its emphasis on the need to do more research, Mote has drawn criticism from some activists, including Bruno, who are eager to see short-term solutions. But Crosby said research and production of usable technology can happen in parallel. He said there are already promising leads for mitigating red tide, and he anticipated the Red Tide Institute would be able to produce meaningful results in the near future.
“I fully expect at the end of a year, you’re going to see significant progress,” Crosby said. “I fully expect that within a period of three to five years, we will have available deployable technologies that can be used to battle red tide.”
Meanwhile, local governments have debated what policy steps might most effectively improve water conditions in the region. Commissioners in Manatee and Sarasota counties, Longboat Key and the city of Sarasota have all held discussions on red tide in the past six months, focused in particular on water quality improvement initiatives.
Officials have tried to educate residents about the best practices for avoiding the introduction of harmful nutrients into the water. Sarasota County plans to hold a water quality summit this spring, hoping to bring together citizens from across the county to discuss options for improving the quality of local waters. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation has convened a nutrient management working group, bringing together local leaders in a quest to find the most meaningful policy solutions.
“We need to better understand — what’s contributing the most in terms of nutrients, and what are the actions that will help improve that the most, in the most cost-effective way?” said Stevie Freeman-Montes, the city of Sarasota’s sustainability manager.
Although local governments have indicated a desire to take action in the wake of the recent red tide event, they’ve also run into some challenges. Residents have campaigned for a year-round fertilizer ban or a crackdown on aging septic tank systems, but state regulations limit the ability of local legislators to pursue such initiatives. Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh wants to focus on improving aging pipes and other infrastructure, but figuring out how to pay for those projects is a delicate issue.
Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines has emphasized the need for statewide action on red tide, expressing concern that a few good steps toward improved water quality won’t be enough to show meaningful results.
The rest of the community is finding ways to do their part. For more than a decade, the citizen-led group Solutions To Avoid Red Tide has been working on practical water quality projects for more than two decades. Visit Sarasota County is helping local businesses post up-to-date images of Sarasota on Google Maps, hoping to inform potential visitors the region has bounced back from red tide.
Community associations have worked to improve their landscaping practices to prevent harmful runoff from entering the sewer system. The Central Cocoanut Neighborhood Association is working with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program to help fund an environmental education program at Bay Haven Elementary School, having fifth-grade students design watershed restoration projects.
“We’re trying to proactively engage the community through the kids and raise the awareness of what’s happening,” said Arthur Lindemanis, a director of the Central Cocoanut Neighborhood Association.
Perhaps to the dismay of some residents, Crosby has said there is likely no one silver bullet to solve the problems associated with red tide. But across the community, people have vowed to do what they can to improve the quality of our water, to use the severity of the latest outbreak as motivation to keep focused on the search for solutions.
As a result, for those working to develop innovative strategies for addressing red tide, there is an optimism a better future awaits.