As Red Tide lingers along Gulf Coast, scientists develop new tools to track it

Beachgoers experiencing respiratory issues
Posted at 5:50 PM, Mar 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-01 17:50:27-05

Some beach-goers along the West-Central part of Florida have been experiencing some of the symptoms of Red Tide algae blooms in recent weeks.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) says the red tide organism, Karenia brevis, has persisted in the shore waters from southern Pinellas down to Collier counties in low, but sometimes medium to high concentrations in Sarasota County.

Fish kills have been reported at Manasota Beach (Charlotte County), Bonita Beach (Lee County), and Marco Island (Collier County) over the past week. Respiratory irritation has been reported in Manatee County (at Coquina Beach), Sarasota County (Lido Key, Siesta Key, Venice North Jetty, Venice Beach), Charlotte County (Manasota Beach), and Collier County (Naples Pier, and South Marco Beach).

Among the many scientists in the Tampa Bay Area tracking the blooms is Dr. Tracy Fanara, a staff scientist with the Mote Marine Laboratory.

An engineer by training, she's working on developing new tools to help people better track and report the naturally occurring organism that occasionally causes problems for beach-goers.

"The best thing we can do to protect the public from the effects of red tide are to alert [them] where the blooms are and where the effects are," Dr. Fanara tells ABC Action News.

When red tide crashes in the waves and goes airborne, it can cause real trouble, especially for people  with respiratory problems, like asthma or COPD.

Right now, testing is done by local health departments, but sometimes it can take one to two days for results to be shared with the scientific community, in part because samples need to be brought back to a lab to be studied.

Dr. Fanara and the Mote Marine Lab are creating smartphone apps to improve the process.

One NASA-funded app would allow the user to take a video of a sample through a microscope, and then upload the video to the NOAA.

Dr. Fanara is teaching Sarasota County lifeguards to use the application.

"This application can get us the results immediately," says Fanara.

Another application still in development would allow the average beach-goer to report their personal, albeit subjective, experience with red tide if they encounter it. While less scientific, Fanara says the more data they have, the better they can alert the community.

While those apps are still in development, there is a website people go refer to that has the latest reported information about red tides: which provides twice-daily updates on 31 beaches in the Southwest coast and the panhandle.

Meanwhile, research into red ride continues.

Mote Marine Laboratory recently announced an "anonymous challenge" donation of $100,000 to Mote scientists to expand their red tide-related research and outreach efforts in Boca Grande.

The donors have challenged the southwest Florida community to match and exceed this philanthropic investment to support Mote’s efforts to address harmful algal bloom impacts in Boca Grande.

“We are grateful for this generous charitable investment and we are excited to move Mote’s red tide research efforts to the next level,” says Mote's President Dr. Michael Crosby.

“We expect that a successful match to this challenge grant will significantly advance Mote’s innovative red tide research, monitoring and mitigation program in Boca Grande while directly engaging and benefiting the residents of this community."

This southwest Florida region is known for its beautiful beaches and coastal culture, fisheries and other ecologically and economically important marine resources. However, harmful algal blooms (HABs) – such as Florida red tides caused by Karenia brevis algae – can deter tourists, kill fish, close shellfish harvest areas and cause beachgoers to cough and sneeze due to airborne toxins.

So far, there is no tried-and-true way to combat some of the most challenging HABs without risk to the Gulf’s sensitive ecosystems. However, Mote and partners have led innovative HAB research for decades, and this new challenge donation will help Mote expand its innovative approaches and technologies to address the critical need for HAB prevention, control and mitigation.

Specifically, the new challenge donation will support:

  • Expansion of local community outreach and engagement to benefit those affected by HABs;
  • Advanced technology such as citizen science apps for mobile devices and field sensors for HAB forecasting support;
  • Improved rapid response strategies for mitigation of HAB impacts on public and ecological health and economics; and
  • Innovative strategies and technologies for HAB control.



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