Florida

Lawmakers jump to fund red tide research, but some environmentalists are wary

Evidence of red tide as hundreds of dead fish are cleared from Coquina Bayside

Manatee County workers scooped hundreds of dead fish from the shoreline at Coquina Bayside in August 2018 as signs of red tide crept northward up the coast.
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Manatee County workers scooped hundreds of dead fish from the shoreline at Coquina Bayside in August 2018 as signs of red tide crept northward up the coast.

At its height, last year’s intense bout of red tide brought respiratory distress, deposits of dead marine life and a sharp hit to the state’s tourism industry.

The massive fish kills and beach closings on the Gulf Coast also drew attention to former Gov. Rick Scott’s environmental record, which included slashing budgets for the agencies that are supposed to enforce pollution regulations and monitor water quality.

Two days after he took office, Gov. Ron DeSantis changed course. He unveiled sweeping measures to focus on Florida’s water, including a proposal to spend $2.5 billion on water quality and an executive order creating a task force to address blue-green algae and pollution that caused the most intense red tide in over a decade.

This year a pair of bills are promising an investment in red tide mitigation to the tune of $3 million per year for six years. As of Tuesday, both bills had passed unanimously through their first two committee stops, but environmentalists from the Sierra Club and the University of Miami are not so keen on the plan.

The investments award the money to Mote Marine Laboratory, a Sarasota research nonprofit, with the goal of creating a partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, instead of opening a process that would allow other research agencies, colleges or universities to bid for the funds.

Mote, critics say, focuses too much on mitigation and doesn’t do enough to prevent red tide.

“[Mote] is in the best possible spot in the country,” said Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. “You have to have some point person, and I’m more than willing to give it to the group that has shown leadership from the get-go. These guys have already been leaders and it makes sense to continue on that research.”

The bill also has the support of Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, who has been working on the bill with Gruters.

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Red tide caused widespread fish kills on Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches last summer, including this one on Sanibel. Getty Images

“I believe we must continue to explore innovative, research-based solutions that will help Florida address ongoing environmental concerns,” Galvano wrote in a statement Tuesday.

The Senate has proposed $6.6 million annually for red tide research as part of its proposed $90.3 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year.

Galvano, who used to sit on Mote’s board of trustees, is named after William Mote, who helped establish the lab. Mote was a friend of Galvano’s parents and a student of his father, Phil Galvano, who was a famous golf instructor.

“Without him, [the bill] wouldn’t move as fast,” Gruters joked.

In 2018, Mote established the Red Tide Institute to study mitigation and control, thanks to a generous Longboat Key couple. Later in 2018, the state invested over $2 million in the testing and development of red tide mitigation, including technology being developed by Mote.

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The twin bills give some environmentalists pause. Mote, environmentalists say, needs to spend more time and resources on prevention. If they don’t, the negative effects will be “foisted upon taxpayers,” they say.

Cris Costello, of Sierra Club, said the group is “sidestepping” from the science that shows human waste and agricultural runoff feed the nutrient loads that instigate much of the pollution.

She pointed out Mote’s relationship with companies like Mosaic, which produces a commonly used phosphorus-based fertilizer that creates solid waste and polluted water. Mosaic is listed as a corporate sponsor on Mote’s website.

“Both the polluters and Mote win with this narrative,” Costello said. “Mote wins because they get money. The polluters win because the focus is not on the source of the nutrient pollution, but rather on control and mitigation.”

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Larry Brand, an oceanographer at the University of Miami, compared nutrient pollution to trash. He said it should be treated in the same way.

“If I take my garbage and throw it over the fence into my neighbor’s yard, they are going to call the cops or sue me,” he said. “Why do we allow some operations to dump their waste? You’re letting the problem develop and after you got the problem … we need to prevent the problem in the first place.”

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Richard Pierce, the associate vice president for research at Mote, said the collaboration continues a decades-long partnership between the lab and the state agency. He said without a bidding process for the funds, it “will be less expensive and less bureaucratic this way.”

“We’re going to be collaborating with universities and agencies to bring the best to this problem and figure out what can be done again,” he said. “In some instances there may not be much that can be done about it.”

Pierce said the funds will go toward monitoring technology, robotic sensing devices, more coastal surveys and lab research. He said the funds will help collect more data and better reduce red tide’s impact once it gets ashore.

Pierce said prevention is a “very important aspect” and that funding will be going to both. However, he added that red tide would occur whether people inhabited Florida or not, citing travel logs from Spanish explorers in the 1500s.

David Shepp, a lobbyist for Mote, said prevention can be addressed, but it will not be the only focus.

“To simply say we want to prevent red tide is like trying to prevent hurricanes,” Shepp said. “It’s naturally occurring.”

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.

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