Liz Barber has enjoyed the beautiful beaches and islands near her Sarasota home for 45 years. She’s an attorney at a real estate law firm in downtown Sarasota and often heads out to get lunch if she has time during the work day.
About a year ago she stepped out to grab a bite near her office and smelled a stench so bad it caught her by surprise.
It was red tide. Karenia brevis cells, the algae that causes the stinky – and dangerous – condition, ravaged the west coast and decimated wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico.
Barber, 60, took a trip to her beloved Siesta Key and Lido Key only to find the stench so bad, she wondered how anyone with respiratory issues could stand it.
The terrible smell had financial consequences, too. The beaches were barren of life, and the tourism and hospitality industries took hits so hard the state government even took notice.
Barber said her real estate firm has seen “a dip in business directly related to the godawful red tide smell.”
“It worries me that it’s going to come back again. I don’t know if Sarasota business and real estate and islands can take it again,” she said. “It’s a trickle-down effect … if this becomes a bigger part of our reality, what are we going to do to keep our communities surviving financially?
Following an environment-related survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, the Miami Herald asked readers what they want to know about our environmentally sensitive peninsula.
What is red tide?
A red tide is caused by a harmful algal bloom that contains organisms that produce toxic chemicals. The chemicals affect both marine life and humans, and most notably attack the central nervous system of fish, causing them to die. Waves can release toxins into the air, which can cause respiratory infections in people with conditions like emphysema or asthma. Toxins can also accumulate in oysters and clams, which make them toxic for humans to eat, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Red tides can last as little as a few weeks or as long as a year, depending on the nutrient load in the water, sunlight and water or wind conditions.
While red tide blooms have been documented along Florida’s Gulf Coast since the 1840s, the most recent event over the course of 16 months, from November 2017 until February 2019, was the first since 2007 to impact Florida’s southwest, northwest, and east coasts simultaneously. It was the worst bloom since 1953.
Last year’s intense bout left dead manatees, sea turtles and rotting marine life on the Southwest Florida beaches, a situation that was exacerbated soon after Lake Okeechobee exploded with a massive blue-green algae bloom. To get rid of it, water managers began flushing it to the coast. The red tide that started months earlier deepened, with the worst of the fish kills appearing in coastal waters fed by the vast lake’s western relief outlet, the Caloosahatchee River.
While red tide is naturally occurring, a federal study going back more than a decade concluded that man-made pollution worsens it. That makes the lake (which has high levels of fertilizer nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen) a likely source.
The birth of a task force
Two days after a newly minted Gov. Ron DeSantis took office, he changed course from former Gov. Rick Scott, who slashed budgets for the agencies that were supposed to enforce pollution regulations and monitor quality.
In an effort to avoid the massive fish kills, beach closings and respiratory distress characteristic of 2018, DeSantis unveiled sweeping measures to focus on Florida’s water quality. The proposal included $2.5 billion spent on water quality, and a task force to address blue-green algae and pollution that caused the most intense red tide in decades.
Red tide research funding
The task force DeSantis created received $4.8 million in funding from the state budget and will be supported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s existing red tide research program. It’s meant to focus on identifying the source of the nutrients feeding red tide and exacerbating the blooms.
DeSantis also signed a bill earlier this year that awards $3 million a year for the next five years to Mote Marine Laboratory, a Sarasota research nonprofit and the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The partnership will study, test and develop red tide mitigation techniques. The partnership, dubbed the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative, is meant to research the causes and impacts of red tide.
In 2018, Mote established the Red Tide Institute to study mitigation and control, thanks to a generous Longboat Key couple. Later in 2018, the state invested over $2 million in the testing and development of red tide mitigation, including technology being developed by Mote.
Earlier this summer, Congress also voted to earmark $6.25 million to research long-term effects of red tide. The funds come out of a larger spending bill, which instructs the National Institutes of Health to research the algal bloom.
© 2019 Miami Herald, Samantha J. Gross. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.