Mote Marine working with Florida legislative staff on draft bill to give company approval, before red tide blooms appear, to quickly deploy technology shown to kill the algae

Mote CEO discusses permitting issues with county’s Legislative Delegation

Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby makes a point to the Delegation members on Oct. 26. News Leader image

During the Oct. 26 meeting of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation, Michael P. Crosby, president and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory, said he and his staff would be working with legislative staff in Tallahassee on a draft measure to facilitate rapid deployment of technology that Mote would like to test as a means of killing red tide without harming other organisms in the Gulf of Mexico.

That comment came in response to a question posed by Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte.

Crosby had explained that it is essential to have permits in place a priori — before a red tide bloom appears. Then, the governor could declare an environmental state of emergency, which would enable Mote to put its technology to use.

A massive red tide bloom, Crosby pointed out, moves “on an hour-by-hour basis, so you can’t wait weeks to get a permit” to try out the technology in a specific location.

He and his staff have been having “very positive discussions” with federal and state environmental regulatory agencies, Crosby said, “but this is going to require herding more than just cats” to get such permitting authority. “That is the greatest challenge that we are facing, sir,” he told Grant.

Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, chair of the Delegation, responded that he and the other Delegation members look forward to the Mote-legislative staff collaboration on such an initiative.

Early on during his remarks about Mote’s priorities for the 2024 session of the Legislature, which will begin in January, Crosby thanked Grant and Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, for sponsoring the legislation to establish the red tide mitigation program at Mote, which is in its fifth year.

Following his first legislative session after becoming governor in November 2018, Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1552, which established the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative. That is a partnership between Mote and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The bill committed a total of $18 million to their research, the Governor’s Office pointed out in a news release.

DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1552 on June 20, 2019 during a ceremony held at Mote’s City Island facilities in Sarasota.

“We have looked at well over 300 different approaches for controlling, for mitigating red tide,” Crosby told the Delegation members, who were meeting in the Sarasota County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota on Oct. 26.

“We’ve brought in over 20 institutions from around the world, here to Sarasota, to work on this with us,” Crosby continued. Mote has identified more than a dozen different compounds and approaches “that we know — we know — can in fact decrease the impacts of red tide here in this environment,” he said. “We’re transitioning now to deployment technologies.” The next goal, Crosby added, is ensuring the transition into “full implementation … to help our communities deal with the scourge of red tide.”

Rep. Michael Grant. Image from the Florida House website

Grant responded that he has been working on means of getting rid of red tide since 2004.

A question that Grant posed about any hindrances Mote has been facing in moving the processes it has developed from the lab to the field prompted Crosby’s comments about the permitting proposal.

Crosby first explained Mote’s tiered approach to developing red tide mitigation strategies. After being developed in the lab, he said, they were tested in “thousands and thousands of gallons” of water and then in “some very, very small, next-to-the-dock kind of tests” whose results had been “very positive.” The larger-level field work would be the third tier of the initiative, he added.

As The Sarasota News Leader reported this spring, Mote won a U.S. patent in January 2006 for “applying seawater containing low levels of dissolved ozone directly onto or under the surface of water containing harmful algal bloom.”

The patent abstract said, “Since only low levels of ozone are required for this method to be effective and since the application of ozonated seawater is directed to the bloom itself, release of excess ozone into the atmosphere and/or surrounding water is minimal, which is advantageous since it greatly reduces adverse effects of ozone on the environment, marine life, and human health. The low concentration of ozone utilized in this method is sufficient to destroy the red tide organism, but leave surrounding marine life unharmed.”

Another company’s interest in similar technology

In March, with red tide again plaguing coastal communities in Southwest Florida, David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), told the News Leader that experiments going back to the 1970s had shown that ozone could reduce the toxins produced by red tide.

Then, in the 1990s, Tomasko continued, researchers at the University of South Florida confirmed that “ozone can detoxify [red tide].”

A company that Tomasko said he could not identify by name at that point had contacted he SBEP about testing an ozone process over 10 acres of Sarasota Bay when enough red tide was present to determine the effects of the process it had developed.

David Tomasko. Image courtesy Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

The company and SBEP had been working with staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to obtain the necessary permit for the pilot project, Tomasko told the News Leader.

Representatives of that company were aware of Mote’s patent, Tomasko said. “The whole issue has really been scalability,” he continued, referring to the technology. “I think that [Mote scientists] just never had the engineering expertise to make it scalable.”

Two representatives of Mote sit on the SBEP Technical Advisory Committee, Tomasko added.

Within weeks after the News Leader spoke with Tomasko, red tide conditions began to ebb, as documented in Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) advisories.

Red tide was not detected on the Southwest Florida coastline from late July until the week leading up to Sept. 22, when it was observed at background concentrations in one sample from Collier County, FWC’S routine updates show. Then, in its Oct. 6 report, FWC noted that the algae, Karenia brevis, had been observed “at background concentrations in two samples from Sarasota County.”

The Oct. 13 FWC report said that the algae had been observed at background to low concentrations in 20 samples collected across Southwest Florida over the previous week. Sarasota County was the only one of five counties where it had been observed from background to very low concentrations in and offshore, FWC added. Only background concentrations were found in samples taken offshore of Manatee, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties, FWC pointed out.

Then, in its Oct. 27 update, FWC noted only background concentrations once again for one sample each from Sarasota, Lee and Collier counties and one collected offshore of Pinellas County.

Mote’s red tide permitting history

In early March, a spokesman for Region 4 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the News Leader that he could find no record that Mote had approached the Region 4 staff, in Atlanta, to inquire about obtaining a permit to test its ozonation technology in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Responding to a similar News Leader inquiry submitted to staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Alexandra Kuchta, FDEP’s press secretary, wrote in a March 22 email, that she was able to find only one example of a permit that the department had issued to Mote for a test of the ozonation process. That was in 2018, she added, when “DEP authorized Mote to deploy a small-scale pilot project using its patented ozone treatment system to remove red tide and its toxins from seawater entering Mote Aquarium.”

Mote personnel did not respond to the News Leader’s requests this spring for information about the patent or the ozonation testing.

The human factor

When the News Leader contacted Tomasko of SBEP on Oct. 30, to learn the status of the nonprofit’s work with that company he discussed in March, Tomasko wrote in an email, “We are still pursing … a technique that could potentially be useful for responding to red tide blooms, but have decided to restrict ourselves to the monitoring part only, and letting others take the lead on trying to get permits. As Mote and others have found — it is not easy to get permits for doing this kind of work.”

Tomasko then pointed out, “Of course, our primary approach is to try and minimize the impacts that humans make on red tide. That is, humans don’t cause red tide, but we can cause it to be worse by adding nutrients to our nearshore waters. For example, the 2018 to 2019 red tide we had in Sarasota Bay [occurred during] the same time [when] we had more than 400 million gallons of treated but nutrient-rich wastewater effluent spill into our bay’s watershed.” He was referring to the effects linked to Hurricane Irma, which struck Southwest Florida in September 2017.

The “[b]iggest nutrient loading source” in Southwest Florida,” Tomasko continued, is the Caloosahatchee River.

As Wikipedia explains, the Caloosahatchee, which is about 67 miles long, “drains rural areas on the northern edge of the Everglades, east of Fort Myers. Lee County’s website points out, “The Caloosahatchee River … is a channelized flood control and navigational waterway, maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers … as part of the Okeechobee Waterway, which links the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean via Lake Okeechobee and the Lucie Canal and River.”

This map shows the location of the Caloosahatchee River. Image by Karl Musser, based on U.S. Geographical Society data, for Wikipedia.

In a July 9 article in The New York Times, reporter Dan Egan explained that “a vast re-engineering over the past century has transformed Okeechobee into something life-threatening as much as life-giving. Toxic algal blooms now regularly infest much of its 730-square-mile surface during the summer, producing fumes and waterborne poisons potent enough to kill pets that splash in the contaminated waters, or send their owners to the doctor from inhaling the toxins.

“The Okeechobee mess,” Egan continued, “caused mainly by phosphorus-based agricultural fertilizers, festered out of the public consciousness for decades. But in recent summers the problem has become more dire. Climate change is making storms and rainfall more intense and less predictable …

“Things get further complicated,” he pointed out, “when lake levels climb so high that contaminated water must be released into canals — toward coastal cities like Fort Myers and Stuart — to protect the structural integrity of the 143-mile-long dike holding back the lake.”

Tomasko added in his Oct. 30 email to the News Leader, “If we don’t get those [Caloosahatchee nutrient] loads under control, we won’t be able to make much of a dent in red tides — you can’t fix a 300 square mile red tide with any remediation technique, most likely. We must get our act together and reduce those loads, otherwise we’ll be living with worsening red tides over the next few decades …”