Florida lawmakers in DC learn there are no easy fixes for red tide plague

An aerial shot over Sarasota County coast on Sept. 30, 2016. A Mote Marine Laboratory researcher saw areas that are likely concentrated groups of red tide.
An aerial shot over Sarasota County coast on Sept. 30, 2016. A Mote Marine Laboratory researcher saw areas that are likely concentrated groups of red tide. Mote Marine Laboratory

Red tide has become a vexing issue for many residents of Sarasota and Manatee counties over the past year, but lawmakers from Florida’s 29-member congressional delegation learned Wednesday that the natural phenomenon is hard to stop.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, the co-chairman of the state’s delegation, which met as a group for the first time this year Wednesday, opened up the line of questioning by asking what was the best course of action that the federal government could take to fight red tide and its potential impact both on the coastline and state’s tourism industry.

The answer? Raise awareness.

“Red tide is the hardest for us to directly reduce,” said Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer and algal bloom expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who attended the meeting to answer lawmakers’ questions. “The most effective way is to have enough information for the public and enough education so it is not a disaster when there is a red tide.”

Red tide is caused by algal blooms when naturally-occurring red tide phytoplankton form a dense cluster and release toxins, resulting in the death of aquatic animals, as well as a foul odor, along with coughing and watery eyes among some beachgoers. It has persisted long after its normal season from late summer to early fall in the state, dotting the coasts with dead fish.

One big problem with red tide is the damage it inflicts on tourism and seafood industries. NOAA estimates that $82 million a year in economic loss in the United States can be attributed to toxic algal blooms, which includes red tide.

A few methods of reducing red tide were brought up during the meeting, including disrupting stagnant fresh waterways, which algal blooms thrive in, said Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“When we release water, we do it in a pulse pattern, which scientists said is better than a straight flow, as it breaks up the stagnation of the water.”

She also noted that continuing to support collaboration between federal and state agencies, as well as local universities, in studying the issue can provide better answers to how to best deal with red tide.

Another solution Stumpf mentioned was dumping clay into affected bodies of water, which can help reduce certain types of red tide by sticking to the algae and pushing them to the bottom of the water. But he conceded that clay is often ineffective, as it will work against some algal blooms but not others, and also can be environmentally problematic when it coats the bottom of a river or lake.

Stumpf added that increasing public awareness of red tide – including where blooms are occurring and the side effects, which are usually not lethal to humans – will help put the problem into context.

“It should be an inconvenience, not a crisis,” Stumpf said. “It should be like a thunderstorm; you don’t cancel your vacation to Florida because of a thunderstorm.”

Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw also attended the delegation meeting, which focused on coastal issues and the state’s waterways.

Shaw used his opening statement to address the importance of Lido Beach, located in Sarasota. He advocated for a renourishment of the beach, which has been gradually losing its sand over the years.

The beach “annually brings over $150 million in economic impact, as well as over 3,600 jobs, and pays about $5 million plus in state taxes,” he said. “This is a very vital portion of my community and the community in which many of our visitors come.”

Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican from the state’s 18th Congressional District, later asked Reynolds whether rehabilitation work on the Herbert Hoover Dike – located in southern Florida around Lake Okeechobee – could be finished earlier than the expected date of 2025 if funding was increased.

“We don’t think it’s feasible to speed it up any faster than 2022,” Reynolds said.

Josh Magness: 202-383-6172, @josh_mag