For those of you around last summer and fall, the memories of the stench and dead debris are no longer fresh, but I’ll bet they still come back readily when we think about them.
It’s hard to believe six months ago there were times when it was unbearable to be outside near the water; when cleaning up dead sea life from our beaches was a daily event; and when the situation was so dire it had some of us wondering if a small tropical storm might help blow the red tide bloom offshore and cause it to dissipate.
Wishing for a storm during hurricane season? Now that’s desperation.
As season began and red tide faded, officials from Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were invited to speak at luncheon after luncheon. They made presentation after presentation to help educate people on the phenomenon. They reminded them this natural phenomenon is nothing new for our area, and there’s still a lot left to learn. Some even gave pointers on what we can do to help.
But many experts seemed squirrely on prevention, hesitating and couching answers to questions about fertilizer and coastal development with caveats about more research being needed.
This was unbelievable to some who believed that yes, of course it’s a natural phenomenon, but humans must have a role in red tide because it seems to happen more frequently and worse than in the past. They became suspicious of why scientists wouldn’t just come out and admit that.
They wanted the government to step in to help control nutrients entering our waterways. They wanted aggressive pollution controls and possibly a limit on coastal development to control future pollution.
That sparked a reaction from those on the other side of the issue. They feared a knee-jerk reaction of government control. They pointed out that red tide has been going on since the 1500s, and we don’t know enough to regulate it out of existence. They reasoned that we could potentially spend hundreds of millions in Sarasota and Manatee counties alone without knowing if it will be effective in stemming future red tides.
We heard from many readers in both camps. Some wondered about conspiracy theories about Mote itself, claiming it either has the technology to rid us of red tide blooms but is hiding it for monetary gain, or it won’t speak against nutrient runoff because of funding it receives from phosphate companies upstream. We’ve debunked both of those theories in our pages previously — unless you believe, as some readers do, that The Observer is a shill for these organizations by reporting their research.
Misinformation about the separate, blue-green algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee further fueled the fire of confusion. Did it cause the red tide bloom that stretched from Collier to Pinellas counties? Did it fuel it? Are humans responsible for all of this?
It seemed there was too much information and not enough, all at the same time. Why is it so confusing? Why can’t we agree on what should be done? Why do we not seem to know what’s causing this and how to stop it?
As we learned from reporting this series, the answer is simple, but unsatisfying: Red tide is complicated. And despite years of studying it, there is no scientific consensus on what to do.
Why is it so hard?
To begin with, the organism responsible for it, Karenia brevis, is a bit mystifying itself. It is a single-cell phytoplankton that floats around in the ocean, waiting for conditions that provide it the opportunity to start multiplying. That’s pretty straightforward.
But what scientists don’t fully understand is how it goes from a grouping of cells to a bloom that can strangle miles of coastline. A 2007 report by Mote (spurred by the 17-month-long bloom in 2004-2006), states that K. brevis reproduces at a fraction of the rate of other phytoplankton, which means other organisms should easily outcompete it in the race for nutrients. Yet, as we know, this isn’t always true.
The same paper states that although many would like to point to land pollution as the cause of a growing bloom, it is difficult to make this link. For example, although red tide intensifies around inlets, which leads many to believe it’s growing in response to nutrients from land, scientists say it may instead be caused by how water density changes around inlets. This changing density may help the organism accumulate and gather in concentration in these areas, thus sparking a bloom.
Further complicating the matter is that K. brevis is not a picky eater, meaning it can make the most out of a lot of the nutrients present, even recycling them when it needs to. That means it has the ability to thrive where other organisms can’t. So not only can it survive in water with few nutrients offshore, once it comes inshore, where coastal pollution has the potential to feed it, this becomes a big problem in ridding ourselves of a red tide once it has started.
“If coastal pollution does nothing more than extend the duration of red tide blooms, it still remains of paramount concern because the duration of a given bloom is often the most significant factor in its overall impact on coastal communities,” the report states.
Furthermore, it’s not like one pollution source is responsible. In all likelihood, it’s a variety of sources from a variety of places that all contribute nutrients to the bloom.
Dust from Africa is even mentioned as a possible contributor in the report. Dust! As that continent becomes drier, more dust gets transported to the Gulf of Mexico via transoceanic clouds. The iron in the dust allows red tide’s friend, a blue-green algae called trichodesmium, to fix nitrogen for it, thus creating another nutrient source and a possible spark for blooms.
In addition to transoceanic dust clouds, water salinity, temperature, climate, currents and weather patterns all are named as possible contributors. This all requires research and data collection.
As the report states: “As red tides have continued to take their toll on Southwest Florida, public frustration has intensified. Coastal communities want a cause identified or a cure unveiled.
“Policymakers are also frustrated. Decades of research have yielded much knowledge about Florida red tides, but the results fail to identify a primary nutrient source behind the blooms.
“State and local government officials have expressed their desire to address the problem, but little consensus has emerged about the most appropriate course of action.”
That was in August 2007.
What we can do
As the scientists in the report warn, just because we don’t know for sure what’s causing these blooms doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing things that we know can contribute to their growth, longevity and impact.
As you’ll read in this week’s part of the series, there are many organizations doing many things to try to combat this on all levels.
First, we need more research to help our solutions be effective. Mote’s Red Tide Institute is a start, but it will take collaboration and funding across a broad scientific community to find more answers.
Most importantly, we cannot allow public awareness on the issue to disperse with the blooms of red tide. We need to break the cycle of only paying attention and funding solutions to this problem when it is present.
Second, if science has shown us anything, in general, it’s that nature likes to be in balance. When it gets out of balance, we usually suffer consequences until it restores equilibrium. On its most basic level, red tide is an issue of balance: One organism has gone rogue, taking over the ecosystem for its own benefit and killing nearly everything else in it.
Most of the efforts you’ll read about in this week’s stories aim to maintain nature’s balance: making sure our bays and estuaries are healthy with filtering organisms such as clams, scallops and oysters; ensuring we’re not polluting our water with nutrient runoff from sewage, stormwater or fertilizers; and cleaning up environmental disasters that can contribute to that imbalance, such as the blue-green algae in Lake Okeechobee.
Last, let’s remember that complicated problems require multifaceted solutions. There’s no silver bullet to fix or prevent it, but that means it takes all of us doing our part.
For those of you frustrated with the lack of science (on both sides), take solace in common sense solutions. Rather than getting bogged down in debate, let’s do the things we know we can do to make a difference for cleaner, healthier waterways.
After all, with an economy that’s built around our water, who doesn’t want that?