Red Tides Scientists Speak, but Some People Won’t Listen

By: Nancy Smith Sunshine State News

Finally, the scientists.

The only question is, did they show up in time to dispel the ecoterrorist myths and other politically driven bull crackers about Florida red tides?

If you’re looking for answers about the pall of death that’s settled on Gulf Coast beaches, e  click here and spend the hour it takes to view Mote Marine Laboratory’s forum from last week. Frankly, I wish you would. There’s so much intentional confusion out there.

Mote, in Sarasota, is ground zero for Karenia brevis red tide. It is an independent research institution that has studied Florida red tide for decades in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, among other partners. (The Mote scientists’ panel, by the way, is shown on this page: from left, Gretchen Lovewell, program manager for Mote’s Strandings Investigation Program; Dr. Rich Pierce, senior scientist and program manager for ecotoxicology research; Dr. Tracy Fanara, staff scientist and program manager for environmental health; Dr. Vince Lovko, staff scientist and program manager for phytoplankton ecology; and Hayley Rutger, content development manager and moderator.

Unsurprisingly, the most frequent question residents asked the panel: Is Florida red tide related to the blue-green algae bloom plaguing the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries? The answer was no.

Said Dr. Vince Lovko. “Blue-green algae is a type of bacteria that uses the energy of the sun like plants. Those are freshwater species and not always toxic. Karenia brevis, or red tide, is a marine organism that survives in a high-sality environment. … It can use at least 12 sources of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients, making bloom dynamics extremely complex and challenging to sort out.”

This panel Q&A isn’t going to tell you how to stop red tide from moving onshore, or even why it can gravitate from one beach to another in a few hours. Scientists around the world are still working on that one. But it will help you separate fact from fiction, you’ll discover the enormity of the thing you’re dealing with and how you can help as a volunteer now and as a good citizen later.

I Beg to DifferScientists are still investigating theories and connections. For example, what specifically makes red tide grow, why you don’t want to kill it, when it will leave, what effect climate change or Sahara dust might have on it and what breakthroughs are close.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it seems to me since Friday’s online forum, the press is taking greater care to make responsible distinctions in how they play red tide stories. See Kimberley Miller’s “SPECIAL REPORT: A foul task — cleaning up Florida’s red tide corpses” in the Palm Beach Post and Craig Pittman’s “Red Tide’s toxic toll — your questions answered” in the Tampa Bay Times.

The activist terrorists would have you believe coastal nutrient pollution caused Florida red tide.

It did not.

It did not come from Lake Okeechobee or from the Caloosahatchee River or from state government.

Florida red tides develop 10-40 miles offshore, away from man-made nutrient sources. They occurred in Florida long before human settlement. Severe red tides were observed in the mid-1900s before the state’s coastlines were heavily developed.

The problem is, in the 21st Century, the coastlines really are developed. Intensely so. Once red tides are transported inshore toward such an active environment, they can feast and grow on man-made nutrients.

Any nutrient that spills off the land — fertilizer from farms, ranches, golf courses and homeowners’ yards, road runoff, sewage, all the products of development … and for that matter, even dead marine life the organism creates — can Miracle-Gro a red tide bloom.

What the scientists didn’t talk about are the activist-terrorists who seize any opportunity to exploit dead animals and noxious beaches to attack Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and farmers. They have no real solutions. They aren’t interested. Their strategy is simple: Get bad or flat-out wrong information accepted into the narrative, then you upset already frustrated people who in turn threaten farmers and the Okeechobee lakeside communities with violence. And just as important, maybe you elect the people they want you to elect.

Earlier last week CNN, with all its clout, sent reporter Bill Weir to Sanibel Island. Instead of matching a red tide story to the photos displayed of dead fish on the beach, Weir allowed his story to meander into Lake Okeechobee blame. “Scientists search for ‘smoking gun’ in the dead zone of Florida’s red tide” failed to consider that Karenia brevis at times since October has stretched 150 miles along the coast and too far north for the Caloosahatchee to affect. Broadcast and written, it was a story with an agenda.

But like I said, that’s the information you want in your narrative if you’re an activist terrorist. You want people to confuse red tide and blue-green algae. You want to keep Lake Okeechobee “the valley of the shadow of death.”

More disappointing than the CNN story was a commentary from Julie Hauserman, a reporter I hired many years back and have always considered one of the best environmental writers in Florida. Julie is editor-in-chief of the new political and government online site, Florida Phoenix. I knew she would give me a great read, but what I didn’t expect was so much agenda in “Yes, this really is Rick Scott, Adam Putnam and Pam Bondi’s fault.”

“Yes, this really is …” blames dead manatees, marine mammals, fish and hundreds of sea turtles washing up on Florida’s southwest coast not on red tide, an organism born in oligotrophic offshore waters and pushed into coastal waters by winds and tides. Instread we can lay the death of these creatures at the feet of Scott, Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi for claiming that “setting pollution limits for sewage, manure and fertilizer runoff would be an ‘onerous regulation’ by an ‘overbearing federal government.'”

The back story Julie never mentioned: During a deep recession, including a Florida unemployment rate above 11 percent, Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson wanted to impose on Florida numeric nutrient standards she couldn’t justify. A study by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the University of Florida projected the EPA mandates could have cost Florida up to $1.6 billion annually and eliminated 14,500 jobs. Plus, a survey of nine Florida water utilities estimated a household’s sewer rates would have increased by $62 per month, or more than $700 per year. Even Sen. Bill Nelson objected because of “the potential cost of compliance.”

In one analysis, PolitiFact concluded, “The new EPA water regulations would force the state to make drainage canals every bit as clean as pristine Florida river systems.” A cost-prohibitive undertaking.

Incidentally, Mote scientists were asked specifically: Does red tide affect drinking water? “No,” replied Dr. Tracy Fanara. “… Reverse osmosis equipment removes toxins.”

I’m not going to kid myself. I know the activist-terrorists’ agenda won’t go away because Mote Marine Laboratory gave Floridians a Webinar with actual scientists who study red tide every day. They have too much at stake between the election and the money that flows in from billionaire patrons on a mission. But a lot of people watched the video and I believe understand more about red tide this week than they did last. I have hope.

Reach Nancy Smith at or  follow her on twitter: @NancyLBSmith


Florida Live host Dan Maduri discusses how Red Tide is now affecting breathing among Pinellas County residents.

Listen to Florida Live with Dan Maduri weekdays 3-6pm on AM 820 News and 98.3FM Pinellas County.