Sunday, July 30, 2006

Red Tide Forum Educates the Public

On Sunday, July 30, the Sierra Club sponsored a community forum on Red Tide and coastal water pollution at the Sirata Resort on St. Pete Beach.

This was a great opportunity to hear the leading scientists speak about red tide (karenia brevis), and to hear local government representatives and concerned nonprofit groups talk about what is being done to protect our local waters.

Here is a brief summary of what was said:

Dr. Larry Brand (prof of Marine Biology and Fisheries at Univ. of Miami). Dr Brand has analyzed a "data set" collected over the last 50 years. He states that we do not know what starts a red tide outbreak, but he has concluded that the runoff of nutrients from the land have increased the severity of the red tide. He says that red tide biomass has increased about 14 times in the last 50 years. In other words, red tide freqency and severity has, in his opinion, increased.

Dr. Cynthia Heil (Senior Research Scientist and Harmful Algal Bloom Group Leader at the Florida Marine Research Institute, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in St. Petersburg) Concerning the data set that Dr. Brand (above) analyzed, Dr. Heil believes that the data are not reliable. Even Dr. Brand agrees that the data are not as complete as one would wish for, but believes some analysis can be done. Dr. Heil disagrees and is now working to come up with data collection methodologies that will provide data that can be analyzed properly and produce reliable results.

Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick (Manager, Environmental Health Program, Mote Marine Laboratory). Dr. Kirkpatrick leads studies that investigate human reactions to red tide. She is working with the Florida Department of Health on a program to put warning signs up on popular beaches when red tide is present. She is particularly concerned about people with asthma being exposed to the red tide neurotoxin. She cautions that asthmatics who go to the beach during red tide can expect an increase in their symptoms and should take their inhalers to the beach with them. Better not to go to the beach at all during red tide. She also mentioned that commercially harvested shellfish is always safe to eat during a red tide outbreak, because commercial shellfish beds are carefully monitored and are the first to be closed to fishing during an outbreak. This means that you should feel safe eating shellfish in a restaurant even during a red tide episode.

Dr. Frank Muller-Karger ( prof of Biological Oceanography and Director of the Institute for Marine Remote Sensing at the College of Marine Science USF, St. Petersburg) Dr. Muller-Karger conducts research using satellite remote sensing and high speed computers. Dr. Muller-Karger pointed out that the 2005 red tide that so badly affected the west coast of Florida covered 25,000 square miles of water. He addressed the idea of trying to kill a bloom in progress. He said that "this is a dangerous game" and that killing the bloom would only make matters worse. The bloom (which is made up of millions of tiny plants) would die, then decompose, using up the oxygen in the water. This would make a bad situation even worse. All of the scientists present seemed to agree on this.

It seemed to be agreed by all present that the largest single contributor to harmful algal blooms and degradation of coastal water quality is nutrient runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and other pollutants. It was pointed out that in 2005, Pinellas County applied 19,614 TONS of fertilizer. Lest you blame the farmers, it was also pointed out that 16,538 tons were from non-farm use. In other words, from YOUR LAWN! The best solution, stop using fertilizer. The next best solution, use a time-release fertilizer, don't use fertilizer during the rainy season, plant native plants that don't need water and fertilizer.

Finally, even though it is nearly impossible to show cause and effect between red tide severity and nutrient runoff, all the scientists and government representatives agreed that a campaign to reduce nutrient-rich runoff should be undertaken now and will have far-reaching and long-lasting benefits (including more fish in the Gulf).

I've tried to be as accurate as possible in summarizing what was said by the scientists at the forum. My apologies if I have made any errors in my attributions.

David McRee---BeachHunter


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