Turn tide on Florida pollution

By Sally Swartz, Editorial Writer
Palm Beach Post; January 23, 2008


Red tide makes people cough and sneeze, and kills fish, dolphins and manatees. Once rare on the Florida’s east coast, it appeared again during the holidays, for the third time since 2002.

The killer tide may have drifted south from the Jacksonville area or could have been carried on currents from the Gulf of Mexico to touch beaches in Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties and northern Palm Beach County. State scientists blame red tide for 52 manatee deaths in 2007, nine of them on the east coast. Previously, the east coast had had no more than one red tide-related death per year.

Red tide continues to be a bone of contention among Florida scientists, who debate what causes this ocean-borne plague. State-paid scientists traditionally blame it on nature. But a couple of Florida mavericks – Harbor Branch Oceanographic Society’s Brian Lapointe and Larry Brand, of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science – have for years cited data that blame human causes, such as sewage, fertilizer and agricultural runoff.

In November, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that pollution from fertilizers dumped from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico helps feed red tide cells that eventually form into clumps driven by wind, currents and tide to show up on Florida beaches. The NOAA research did not pinpoint sources, such as lawn and farm fertilizers.

Still, Stuart DeCew, the Florida Sierra Club’s red tide campaign coordinator, points out that red tide is a global trend. "We’ve seen a 100-fold increase in harmful algal blooms that corresponds with the increase in use of synthetic, chemical fertilizers," he said. Red tide is a problem in places such as China and Norway, as well as Florida.

The "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, an 8,000-square-mile area left each summer after algae blooms suck all oxygen from the water, is not a Florida-only phenomenon. No fish or other marine life can live in such a dead sea, and the Gulf’s dead zone is one of 200 worldwide. "The dead zones have been doubling every decade," Mr. DeCew said.

For the past few years, Mr. DeCew and the Florida Sierra Club have been pushing Florida to finance more red tide research, particularly research that looks at the links between the destructive algae blooms and human activity. Lee County on Florida’s west coast gave Dr. Brand a grant to analyze 50 years of the state’s red tide data. He concluded that blooms are 10 to 15 times more intense and last longer than those recorded a half century ago.

The chief change is an increase in the human population surrounding the Gulf. Bostwick Ketchum, a former associate director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, found links between land-based nutrients and red tide as early as 1947. Lawrence Slobodkin followed with corroborating research in 1953. Mr. Slobodkin backed the Sierra Club’s push to get state tax dollars redirected.

State scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, the research branch of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, for years insisted that there wasn’t enough money or existing technology to link nutrient-laden runoff from land to the toxic blooms at sea. Of course, anyone blaming development, agriculture and industry must take on powerful lobbies. Except for a former Miami Dolphins center, all conservation commission board members named by former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Crist are contractors, engineers, developers, lawyers or investors.

There is hope. NOAA has provided $4.7 million for a five-year study on the role of nutrients such as fertilizer in runoff in triggering red tide blooms, with the money spread among several Florida research institutes. The state is providing $850,000 for research projects aimed at minimizing the size, intensity or duration of red tide blooms.

That’s where we need to begin, Mr. DeCew said. But research won’t change the fundamental problem. Floridians next will have to help change what is in water now sent to the sea in runoff and wastewater. That means using different fertilizers, re-using wastewater to irrigate lawns, mandating low-impact design standards for new construction and retrofitting existing homes – and embracing other "fixes" that research may bring to light.