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DeSantis task force warns of Red Tide effect, but silent on cause

Florida’s Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force wants more research.
Worker clean up dead fish kill in a  canal in Apollo Beach. Red tide-triggered fish kills were reported in downtown Tampa. on Bayshore Boulevard, Apollo Beach and a MacDill Air Force Base earlier last summer.
Worker clean up dead fish kill in a canal in Apollo Beach. Red tide-triggered fish kills were reported in downtown Tampa. on Bayshore Boulevard, Apollo Beach and a MacDill Air Force Base earlier last summer. [ Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission ]
Published Jan. 26|Updated Jan. 26

A new report by a task force convened by Gov. Ron DeSantis was anticipated by some to provide answers on what’s triggering the Red Tide that’s blanketed Tampa Bay waters with rotting fish.

Issued earlier this month by the Florida’s Harmful Algal Bloom Taskforce, the report concluded that the Red Tide bloom last summer will likely get worse “without hard work and careful planning.”

Report recommendations for that hard work include streamlining permits to test new mitigation technologies, improving public health strategies to reduce harm and encouraging more research into how nutrients feed Karenia brevis — the microscopic algae that causes Red Tide.

Yet some environmentalists said they are underwhelmed by the report’s absence of meaningful findings or a tangible course of action.

“To have this document that just sort of re-establishes that Red Tide is here, that it’s with us, is a little disappointing,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We have the right tools, right now we just need the political will to enforce those laws.”

The report noted that the effects of climate change, including warmer water temperatures, changes in salinity and rainfall and rising seas appear to promote harmful algae blooms that wreak havoc on ecosystems and economies.

The report devotes a section to “nutrients,” stating that an imbalance of nutrients “can increase the frequency, duration and intensity” of harmful algae blooms. It states that addressing “Florida’s nutrient enrichment problem will require improvements to existing regulatory programs.”

While the report lists “actions to reduce excess loads of nutrients entering our freshwater and coastal systems,” under recommended “long term focal areas,” it does not name any such nutrients or polluters specifically. It does mention the task force’s support of “agricultural best management practices.”

“This report fails to address what I believe should be the focus, which is reducing pollution at its source,” said Justin Bloom, an environmental lawyer and board member at Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. “This needs to be done through increased enforcement and regulation of polluters, rather than focusing on more monitoring and mitigation.”

But understanding the role specific pollutants play can be complicated. Scientists say nutrient chemistry in seawater is an extremely complex issue, and more research is needed to fully understand how different nutrients fuel blooms. The report states that better understanding of that science will allow for better mitigation in the future.

”There been about 12 different hypotheses of how Karenia brevis uses nutrients. And I hate to say it, but it’s probably a combination of all 12 of those theories,” said one task force member, Barbara Kirkpatrick, Executive Director for the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observation System. “So we’re moving ahead on some, and we’d like to be further along, absolutely, but we’ve come a long way.”

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Kirkpatrick described the need for more research as “a building block” for future solutions. “We have to keep the gas pedal down on all these different fronts — public health, the nutrient question, new ways to detect and observe it.”

Lopez said she wants to see better enforcement of Florida’s existing limits on wastewater discharge and the state’s Clean Waterways Act.

The report suggests that better communication is needed to enhance public awareness of Red Tide and allow for “free movement of information among stakeholders.”

The Department of Health can be provided with resources to protect people from Red Tide, including improved training for health care professionals “that improves diagnosis, treatment and reporting of Red Tide related illnesses,” figuring out how to better protect those who work closely to blooms “possibly through protective equipment” and further research into Red Tide’s health effects, the report said.

Other suggested research areas include detection, tracking and prediction of blooms.

The task force will meet virtually today at 9 a.m. The meeting is open to the public and will allow comments. Discussion topics will include the report, and the progress of the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative, a partnership between Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

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