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Date of Issue: August 03, 2006

Sandscript

Red tide produces more questions than answers, again

Red tide has been the subject of local news of late, despite the fact that the closest outbreak is more than 100 miles away.

Scientists from almost everywhere converged in the area last week to talk about the algae blooms.

First, though, is the obligatory explanation of red tide:

"Florida red tides happen when a naturally occurring single-celled microscopic organism called Karenia brevis - which is always present in the Gulf of Mexico - undergoes a population increase, or bloom. Florida red tides occur nearly annually on Florida's west coast and occur in other areas of the Gulf of Mexico as well. Karenia brevis produces neurotoxins that can kill marine mammals, fish and other marine creatures. Blooms have been shown to affect humans with chronic respiratory problems such as asthma. Because of these impacts, blooms may also have major impacts on coastal residents, visitors and economies.

"Red tide blooms have been documented in the Gulf since the mid-1800s. A particularly bad bloom occurred in 1947. Another 18-month-long bloom lingered off Southwest Florida in 1995-96, and another for 14 months in 2004-05."

The above statement is about the only thing the 75-or-so scientists at the red tide summit agreed upon, it would appear. Oh, except that I would guess that each concluded that their particular field of study needs more money for more research.

If you break down the consensus statement, which has been provided by Mote Marine Laboratory, by the way, you'll get these glimpses of the problems associated with red tide.

  • Karenia brevis is always present. Red tide occurs when it blooms. What causes the bloom? How can it be induced to stop blooming?
  • Red tides occur almost every year. Why are some blooms more severe than others? Why do some last longer than others? What feeds the blooms?
  • Red tide can kill fish and marine mammals. Is there any way to limit the impact of the toxins, or better yet halt its impact altogether? Is that action desirable?
  • Is there some way to ameliorate the impact of the red tide toxin to humans?
  • When red tide is bad, people don't go to the beach, tourists go to other more bloom-free zones, and local economies suffer. What can be done?

Let's see: We've got a bunch of new studies and research going on to quickly identify and track blooms. There's some nifty torpedo-like detection devices that are able to zoom around in the Gulf, taking water samples and relaying real-time data back to scientists. That's a good tracking tool.

Satellites are able to pick up the algae concentrations from space and relay the data to earth, another good tool.

There has been some talk of late that blooms could be acerbated by nutrient-rich stormwater runoff from land, via deepwater springs or groundwater. The fertilizers could serve as a food source for red tide, some have said, causing the bloom to linger longer.

There have also been studies done on human volunteers on red tide-stricken beaches to test just what that toxin is doing to the subjects' throats and lungs to better understand the aerosol issue.

The question that seems unanswered, though, is the cause and trigger of the bloom. What is the conductor that suddenly directs the orchestration of a bloom?

 

Currently ...

According to last Friday's report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, red tide is a problem to our south, but nothing is happening near us.

FWRI's report states:

"A bloom of the Florida red tide organism, Karenia brevis, continues to impact the southwest coast from Boca Grande Pass (Lee County) to Seagate (Collier County) with highest concentrations detected in Pine Island Sound and San Carlos Bay. Medium concentrations of K. brevis have been found in water samples collected alongshore of southern Lee and northern Collier counties as well as in offshore samples collected within 2 miles of the coast. Background concentrations have been detected as far south as the Naples pier. Multiple fish kill reports have been received from Lee and Collier counties."

That "multiple fish kill" may be more than implied. Ralf Brooks, the Bradenton Beach attorney and Cape Coral resident, said they are hauling off 100-pound Goliath grouper from the beaches down there, among other big fish, indicating that the toxin kill level is bad.

Beachgoers here probably remember that most of the fish we see washed ashore during a bloom are eels, pinfish or other "small fry" until the red tide gets massive, when more of the large species start to die and end up on shore.

 

Solutions?

The gang at Solutions To Avoid Red Tide has long advocated a red tide-buster that has apparently worked well off Japan's shores, where good success in abating red tide has been achieved by spraying a clay slurry on the water. The concept runs that the clay serves as a settling agent for the organisms, pushing them down to deeper depths or breaking up their concentrations, or something like that.

Ralf said that they've been talking about doing something similar to that down south, but there are some concerns because the "clay" they want to use is basically phosphate spoil. Since phosphate is used to make fertilizer, somebody logically asked if the stuff they hope to kill the red tide organism with won't actually feed it.

What doesn't kill us makes us stronger?

Lots of questions remain - but few answers as yet - to the red tide problem.

 

Sturgeon death in Sarasota

There was another massive fish kill off Sarasota last week, this one far inland from the coast.

A fire broke out at Mote Marine Laboratory's Aquaculture Park Thursday night. Before the ashes cooled, one of the huge buildings used to raise sturgeon had been destroyed, and about 53,000 pounds of lab fish died.

Mote officials estimate the fire set the aquaculture program back by at least three years.

The lab has been raising sturgeon and selling about 300 pounds of the fish a week to local restaurants. Fish eggs are kept in one tank, and juvenile fish in three others. It was one of the fish tanks that was destroyed, at an estimated loss of up to $1.5 million.

No one was hurt in the blaze, the cause of which is still under investigation.

 

Woodpecker update

Although birders are still uncertain of the existence of a long-thought-extinct species of woodpecker, an Arkansas judge has ruled that there's enough evidence of its presence to halt a $320 million irrigation project.

Birders thought they spotted the extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in swamps near the White River in 2004. The last previous sighting was in 1944. Bird experts and fans have been combing the area ever since to confirm the big bird's existence, to no avail.

Then game the irrigation project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to create a pumping station that would draw water from the river for farming operations. Wildlife officials took the matter to court to halt its construction, arguing that the draw would kill trees that are used by woodpeckers to nest and hang out in, and the noise of construction would stress the birds.

A federal judge agreed with the environmentalists, halted construction, and ordered more studies.

Hmmm ...

I made an eco-blunder in a story about birds as a fledgling reporter. Some Gulffront development was going on at the time, and environmentalists got it stopped because it was the nesting site of what I called in my story "leased" terns, instead of "least" terns.

My mistake came from some weird belief I had that the environmentalists had some set of rare birds that they "leased" to development sites around the state to halt construction.

Could these be "leased" woodpeckers in Arkansas?

 

Sandscript factoid

Florida spiny lobster sport season is July 26-27 in the Florida Keys.

Anyone heading out to dive and catch the delicacy needs to remember that the bag limit is six lobsters per person per day, and size restrictions are also in effect for the bugs.

Also remember that almost every marine law enforcement official in the world will converge on the Keys, if past years are any indication.

Regular regular season starts Aug. 6.

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