Scientists unsure why red tide exists, how to fix problem
SARASOTA, Fla. – Aug. 14, 2018 – While U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan discussed an $8 million grant to combat red tide at Mote Marine Laboratory on Monday, a senior Mote scientist just down the hall questioned whether the toxic algae paralyzing Southwest Florida beaches actually might be an important part of the ecosystem.
Buchanan and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) sponsored the bipartisan legislation that was signed into law earlier this year. The funding was distributed to NOAA and will be dispersed to southern Florida researchers.
Mote scientists are expected to get a large chunk of the grant money, Buchanan said.
The money will used to research possible mitigation efforts, such as a field test of a newly developed method for destroying red tide using ozone, patented by Mote scientists. The device will be field tested in a Boca Grande canal this week. The patented technology was first used to clean water for sea turtles in a 25,000-gallon tank and has been scaled up to process at least 500,000 gallons of canal water.
Is red tide necessary?
Mote scientist Dr. Vincent Lovko, who works with Mote's Phytoplankton Ecology program, says there isn't enough research to determine what would happen if red tide was eradicated or suppressed from the Gulf. Researchers must consider three factors when dealing with an aquatic toxin: prevention, control and mitigation, according to Lovko.
"The control (in Lake Okeechobee) is straightforward," he said. "You reduce the nutrients, and you reduce those (blue-green) algae blooms."
The same can't be said for the Gulf, where a Karenia brevis bloom currently stretches for 150 miles from Manatee County south to Collier County. Any mitigation system would have to treat 1.5 trillion gallons of water to be effective.
"You might not even get it all if you do that," said Lovko, who pointed out that Mote doesn't have permission to treat the bloom.
"There is no literature to suggest what the ecological function of red tide might be," Lovko said.
Single-cell red tide is a protist cell that takes three days to divide. It consumes organic and inorganic nutrients and has flagella that help it move around. The cell is animal-like in nature but photosynthesizes plants and other algae.
"They can actually swim; they are capable of movement," Lovko said. "They can move up and down through the water column (to the sea bed)."
Similar to a forest fire?
One hypothesis suggests that red tide's destructive nature could be similar to the effects of a forest fire, which cleans out underbrush and is somewhat restorative to a forest ecosystem. But it's difficult to see what the ecological function of the toxic algae might be.
There is little information to determine where Karenia brevis ranks on the algal evolutionary scale. There are about 12 known nutrient sources for the harmful algae blooms, which vary based on their location along the southern Florida coastline.
Even if science can identify a course of action that would destroy red tide, there are fears that the death of the organism could release toxins into the water and cause a large-scale marine animal die-off. A similar incident occurred in Chesapeake Bay, where a nuisance bloom was suppressed with copper sulfate. Toxins released by the dead algal bloom poisoned the water and killed fish.
Lovko says there is only one way to find out what can be done to mitigate red tides effects – research.
"Whether or not trying to control red tide would create a dead zone, probably not, that's something that happens over a long period of time," Lovko said. "It's an interesting thought. All those things we have to consider when we're messing with the ecosystem. We do it all the time. We cure diseases … We do a lot of things that are otherwise natural but are a bother to us or a danger to us. There's no reason not to pursue it, but there has to be realistic expectations."
Copyright © 2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla., Carlos R. Munoz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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