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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Red tide lurking to the north; ghost netted sharks to east

There are some slight traces of enough red tide to kill a few fish north of us.

The good news is that only a few fish are washing ashore on Pinellas County beaches, and counts of the toxic algae are on the low side. Water temperatures are in the low 60s, too, which is not a typical temp for red tide - the blooms usually occur when water is in the 80s. There are also no red tide reports anywhere near Anna Maria Island.

The bad news is that there are readings high enough to kill fish not all that far north of Anna Maria Island. Red tide researchers are finding levels of red tide that warrant "probable fish kills" south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and near Mullet Key.

For the uninitiated, red tide is caused by blooms of a tiny marine organism called a dinoflagellate. Red tide is always present in the water but, for some reason, occasionally goes into an orgy of reproduction. Levels of 1,000 parts per million in seawater will explode to a million or more. The bloom produces powerful toxins that can cause fish to die and humans to start coughing and sneezing.

Shellfish like oysters, clams and coquinas, accumulate so much toxin they become toxic to humans.

Red tide blooms have been documented in the Gulf since the mid-1800s, with a 14-month lingering bloom hitting the Island in 1994-95.

Red tide is also harmful for manatees, with the bulk of manatee deaths in 2003 attributed to the algae attack that lingered in Collier, Lee, Charlotte and southern Sarasota counties for much of last summer.

It's important to remember that red tide is usually a spotty phenomenon. One stretch of beach could be littered with dead fish and coughing beachgoers, and another area several hundred yards away can be pristine.

An interesting element of the recent red tide levels is that there seems to be no presence of the algae in Bishop Harbor, the site of the estimated 2 million gallons per day of treated wastewater discharge from the defunct Piney Point phosphate plant.

Some environmentalists had feared that the high-nitrogen discharge would spur a red tide bloom. Readings at Bishop Harbor - it's in extreme northern Manatee County north of Port Manatee near the Hillsborough County line - are described as "none."

Makes you wonder what the water currents are doing with that treated wastewater, though. Perhaps the wastewater is spooling somewhere off Pinellas County's beaches, kick-starting the red tide into blooming?

Sharks off the East Coast
With all the attention on sharks off the Island of late, this report from Florida's East Coast may be of interest.

It seems that upwards of 1,000 dead sharks were found entangled in a "ghost net" off St. Lucie County in the Atlantic Ocean.

Ghost nets are fishing nets that have been abandoned by fishers, probably because of faulty buoys or bad weather. The net found off Port Salerno last week was about 1,500 feet long and discovered by divers in about 80 feet of water.

According to the Associated Press, a team of state and federal officials were able to pull the net out with its grisly cargo, which also included a dead loggerhead sea turtle.

An investigation is under way to discover the net's owners, and prosecution will ensue if the identity of the fishers can be made.

Both civil penalties through the U.S. Endangered Species Act and criminal penalties may be levied, officials said.

Tour Emerson Point
The University of Florida and the county's master gardener program are offering free tours of Emerson Point in Palmetto throughout the year, with the next tour starting at 9 a.m. Sunday.

"Manatee County and Florida have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Emerson Point to build one of the finest nature preserves in the State," according to Jane Morse, extension agent for environmental Horticulture. Groups of master gardeners will be showing visitors the wonders of the 195-acre preserve.

The tours will start at the parking area for the Observation Tower, follow the shell path to where it connects to the North Restoration Trail, and go from there to the Terra Ceia Trail. This leads to the Observation Tower and returns to the parking area. The walking tour takes about two hours, and a maximum of 12 participants will be allowed.

"A portion of the tour - the 8-foot-wide shell path - is handicap accessible, but the remaining trails are not," Morse said, adding that "the balance encounters some rough terrain."

Reservations are a must and may be made by calling 722-4524 Monday-Friday.

Other dates this year for the tours are Feb. 14 and 29, March 13 and 28, April 10 and 25, May 8 and 23, June 12 and 27, July 10 and 25, Aug. 14 and 29, Sept. 11 and 26, Oct. 9 and 24, Nov. 6 and 21 and Dec. 4 and 19.

Emerson Point, by the way, is located in Palmetto on the west end of Snead Island and is reached by going west on 10th Street. When you cross the bridge to the island, turn right on Tarpon Avenue, then left on 17th Street, which ends at the park.

New restaurant?
Sarasota City commissioners will decide the fate of a new 162-seat restaurant on City Island early next month.

What's the big deal? you may ask regarding yet another restaurant in a dining-heavy town like Sarasota.

It's to be built on city-owned land and would be operated by Mote Marine Laboratory at a cost of $1 per year as a not-for-profit entity. Neighboring restaurateur Old Salty Dog, also operated on city property, pays the city better than $50,000 a year for its lease.

Mote officials have said there won't really be any competition with its neighbors. The Mote restaurant will only be open during lab and aquarium hours and only open to mote visitors, members and guests.

And in an effort to assuage the concerns of neighbors, Mote officials have offered to set aside 7 percent of net proceeds generated by food service in a trust fund, proceeds from which would be distributed by the city and Mote in the form of scholarships to needy students in Mote programs.

The restaurant is part of a Mote expansion effort that would include ground-level parking, a 10,000-square-foot level for the restaurant and a multi-use facility, and a 10,000-square-foot third level for a consolidation of dolphin, sea turtle and manatee research facilities.

City commissioners are scheduled to decide the matter Feb. 2.

GloFish go to court
It looks like a federal court will decide if neon-like glow-in-the-dark fish will find their way into your aquarium.

GloFish are genetically altered freshwater zebra fish which, under a black light, glow reddish pink. The fish are being bred at two fish farms in Hillsborough County.

The International Center for Technology Assessment filed suit in federal court in the District of Columbia to halt sale of the fish, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

The company that introduced the fish, Yorktown Technologies of Austin, Texas, went before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year for permission to market the bright little critters. FDA officials said that since the fish wouldn't be used as either a food or a drug they were out of the agency's purview and passed on the matter.

The suit seeks reconsideration on grounds that the fish could cause problems if released in the wild.

Apparently the fish aren't big sellers. Despite the name "GloFish," they don't really glow under ultraviolet light, they just turn pink. And they cost about five times what a regular zebra fish could cost.

Sandscript factoid
There is more to red tides that dead fish washing ashore on beaches and scratchy throats among beachgoers. According to the Longboat Key-based group Solutions To Avoid Red Tide, an average bloom of up to four months duration can cause upwards of $20 million in lost revenue to the state. The economic impact includes loss of bookings for shoreside rentals, restaurants, shops and other "non-point" sources in addition to the "point" loss of fish and shellfish sales, plus charterboat reservations.

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