Florida will spend nearly $20 million by 2025 to research ways to control, if not alleviate, the red tide blooms that devastated Southwest Florida’s beach economy for 15 months spanning 2017-18.
The Senate late last week unanimously approved the proposed "Florida Red Tide Mitigation & Technology Development Initiative," which would provide $3 million a year for the next six years for the state Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and Mote Marine Laboratory’s Red Tide Institute in Sarasota to form a research partnership.
The initiative is incorporated into Senate Bill 1552, sponsored by state GOP Chairman Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, which was endorsed by the Senate in a 37-0 floor vote and transmitted for endorsement to the House.
A companion bill – House Bill 113, sponsored by Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte, and Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota – was temporarily postponed on second reading, but is expected to be passed and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
During brief floor comments Thursday, Gruters said the state has spent money on red tide research during algae blooms before, but the money “dries up” when there are no blooms.
The six-year commitment ensures sustained research can be conducted to provide comprehensive, actionable results, he said.
During their committee hearings, SB 1552 and HB 113 were widely endorsed with some environmental and business groups quibbling that there should be more emphasis on preventing algae blooms rather than controlling them.
Mote Marine Lab CEO and President Dr. Michael Crosby said in committee testimony that the annual $3 million allocation over a six-year span would help develop Mote’s Red Tide Institute, sustain research programs and identify technologies to fight red tide.
Mote’s Red Tide Institute was created through a $1 million donation from The Andrew and Judith Economos Charitable Foundation and a five-year grant for $751,487 from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation.
Crosby said with the $3 million a year research initiative from the state, the institute will have programs developed to battle red tide within three to five years.
The pending adoption of SB 1552/HB 113 follow the recent publication of a University of South Florida [USF] study in The Journal of Geophysical Research-Ocean that found ocean circulation and currents fostered the conditions that spawned the 2017-18 red tide outbreak.
According to USF marine scientists, water temperatures and man-made factors – such as fertilizer run-off – were not discernible factors into extended red tide bloom, which are influenced, and can be predicted, by the level of nutrients off-shore, not along the waterfront.
If nutrient levels are high offshore in spring, other phytoplankton will grow much more rapidly than Karina brevis, the algae that cause red tide, and it won’t be able to bloom, the USF scientists say.
On the other hand, the study points out, in a low-nutrient environment, Karina brevis will thrive while competitors struggle.
Water movements in the Gulf of Mexico currents are driven by wind, channeled into the Atlantic Ocean along the continental shelf by the Gulf Stream and subject to “upwelling,” which occurs when deeper water rises to the surface, USF marine scientists explain.
The study confirms previous research that shows red tide does not originate near shore but offshore when “upwelling” brings Karina brevis to the surface in low-nutrient circumstances and are then carried and spread by Gulf currents.
USF Oceanography Professor Robert Weisberg told the Bradenton Herald the study’s findings dispel “the myth that land-based fertilizers are to blame” but does not preclude the possibility that development and climate change could be factors in exacerbating blooms.
Pollutants are “not the root cause,” he told the Bradenton Herald. “Of course, we don’t want to be polluting our waters but to blame red tide on land-based runoff is a stretch. We don’t really even know that for sure, but we do know it doesn’t cause red tide.”