Company working with Sarasota Bay Estuary Program to test process found to kill red tide without harming sea life, similar to technology Mote Marine patented but apparently never tried out on large scale

Pilot project covering 10-acre area of Sarasota Bay could take place within six to eight weeks

Within six to eight weeks — provided no unforeseen problems arise — a company that has been working with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) plans to test a process that it believes can kill red tide without causing harm to other sea life, David Tomasko, executive director of the SBEP, told The Sarasota News Leader this week.

Since the 1970s, he explained, experiments have shown that ozone can kill the toxins produced by red tide. The first such study with which he is familiar, he said, took place in 1975 at a Connecticut lab of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The scientists used mice to demonstrate the effectiveness of ozone, Tomasko pointed out.

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

In collaboration with the company that has contacted SBEP — whose name Tomasko did not have available during the March 14 telephone interview — the nonprofit is proposing a test over 10 acres of the bay, he said.

On a full-scale basis, he continued, company representatives have explained that they believe they can treat 2,000 gallons of water a minute — the volume typically produced by a jet ski. The test will involve 500 gallons a minute, Tomasko added.

Within just a few minutes, Tomasko explained, the ozone will disappear, and — unlike the situation with red tide’s effects on sea life — no precipitate will be produced to fall to the bay floor.

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

The News Leader was unable to obtain any information from FDEP about the permit application prior to its deadline for this issue.

SBEP has made it clear, Tomasko added, that it will not provide any funding to the company for the test. Moreover, he continued, SBEP has told the company that whatever happens, “The results will be publicly available.”

On March 10, Tomasko said, he discussed the plans with SBEP’s Technical Advisory Committee to map out what should be measured during the test. “They gave us a list of parameters,” he added, referring to the committee members. A third party would undertake the formal analysis.

Scalability may be the reason that Mote Marine Laboratory apparently never conducted a large-scale test of an ozone process that two of its researchers patented for the nonprofit in 2006, Tomasko pointed out.

Formally filed with the U.S. Patent Office on July 2, 2004, Mote’s application says its invention “describes a method for controlling growth of harmful algal blooms generated by the red tide organism, Karenia brevis, and other harmful algal species. The method includes the steps of applying seawater containing low levels of dissolved ozone directly onto or under the surface of water containing harmful algal bloom.”

(The patent notes that a provisional application was filed with the Patent Office on July 7, 2003.)

The patent abstract adds, “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.”

The patent was issued on Jan. 10, 2006.

Representatives of the company working with SBEP “know [of] the Mote patent,” Tomasko told the News Leader.

“The whole issue has really been scalability,” Tomasko added, 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, he added.

The News Leader contacted the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) this week to ask when the patent would expire. In a March 15 response via email, Mandy Kraft, the deputy press secretary, wrote, “The USPTO does not comment on when a particular patent will expire — it’s often a heavily litigated issue.”

However, she provided the News Leader a patent term calculator. Depending on how various facets of the Mote patent may be inserted in the program, the News Leader found that it is possible the patent already may have expired.

Bringing new attention to the patent

The existence of Mote’s ozone system patent recently came to light through circulation in the community of a letter that a St. Armands Key resident sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis in September 2018.

Tomasko of the SBEP indicated to the News Leader that he is among those who have read it. The News Leader also has learned that the letter has been provided to the Sarasota County commissioners. It was written by attorney Edward G. Rosenblum at the height of the most recent significant red tide bloom prior to the one that began after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida in September.

Rosenblum pointed out, “Fifteen years ago I had lunch with a friend of mine, who then served as Chairman of the Red Tide Committee at Mote Marine in Sarasota. He told me that the science exists to eradicate red tide ‘but probably will never happen.’ Ozone sprayed on the surface of red tide kills it immediately with no harmful releases in the atmosphere or the water. But the ‘environmental experts’ on his committee (Mote Marine officials) blocked the idea out of concern that dead red tide would descend to the sea bed and adversely impact a new ecosystem. That conversation was fifteen years ago.

“Recently,” Rosenblum continued, “a Mote Marine scientist was speaking about ozone treatment of red tide as if it is a recent innovation and, more troubling, announcing that Mote has patented the process. In point of fact Mote was issued the patent for the use of ozone to treat red tide in [2006] …”

Rosenblum added, “According to the Mote patent, ozone mixed in the correct proportion with sea water destroys red tide on contact, with no collateral damage to surrounding marine life or air quality. So if there is even a grain of truth to this claim why has this patent been gathering dust …? And why have we not heard a word about ozone testing on active red tide blooms in Sarasota Bay or the Gulf of Mexico?”

Testing in 2018

In research this week, the News Leader has not been able to find any documentation that Mote has undertaken testing of its patented ozone process since 2018.

In the late summer of 2018, articles published by the Tampa Bay Times and Florida Trend discussed a test of what Florida Trend called the Mote Ozone Treatment System, which took place in canals in Boca Grande. The system had proven “to successfully clean water, ridding it of the algae that causes red tide,” Florida Trend pointed out.

However, Craig Pittman, an award-winning environmental journalist who spent years working for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote in a Sept. 26, 2018 article that the Boca Grande experiment “worked, sort of.”

In fact, Pittman quoted one of the Mote researchers listed as a holder of the patent — Richard Pierce — as saying that Mote was “done with [the ozone] process and [had] moved on.”

Pierce explained to Pittman that Mote researchers were able to secure permission “from a group of Boca Grande homeowners to test the [ozone system] machine in a canal that [Pierce] described as ‘putrified’ with ‘mud and everything.’ ”

Pittman noted that the Boca Beacon newspaper had reported that the canal was on Damfino Street on Boca Grande, “but attempts by a Tampa Bay Times reporter to contact Damfino residents failed to turn up anyone who had seen the experiment.”

Pierce told Pittman that the process worked, “ ‘but you’d need a much larger unit to tackle it.’ ”

The News Leader tried multiple times this week to reach Mote staff, sending emails and leaving phone messages, in regard to the lack of publicity about the patent. The News Leader also asked whether Mote staff indeed had conducted further testing of the ozone process since 2018. The public relations staff of Mote had provided no response prior to the deadline for this issue.

A check of Mote’s webpage with the heading Red Tide Mitigation includes no mention of the patent or the ozone technology.

The News Leader this week also contacted the Region 4/Southeastern U.S. office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to ask whether Mote ever had applied for a federal permit for testing of the ozone system in federal Gulf of Mexico waters.

In a March 14 email, James Pinkney, a Region 4 spokesman, explained that Mote would need to apply for an EPA permit only if it wanted to pursue activity that involved the discharges of pollutants in U.S. waters outside Florida state waters. The state’s jurisdiction extends 3 nautical miles offshore, Pinkney noted.

“To our knowledge,” he added, “Mote has not approached Region 4 to inquire about NPDES permit coverage for such technology in Federal waters of the [Gulf of Mexico].”

“NPDES” is the acronym for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. As the EPA explains on its website, “The Clean Water Act prohibits anybody from discharging ‘pollutants’ through a ‘point source’ into a ‘water of the United States’ unless they have an NPDES permit. The permit will contain limits on what you can discharge, monitoring and reporting requirements, and other provisions to ensure that the discharge does not hurt water quality or people’s health. In essence, the permit translates general requirements of the Clean Water Act into specific provisions tailored to the operations of each person discharging pollutants.”

Millions awarded Mote and FWC for red tide projects

The State of Florida has given Mote millions of dollars for red tide research in recent years, including $2,178,000 that then-Gov. Rick Scott announced in September 2018, calling the funds an investment in Mote’s “innovative technologies to mitigate the effects of red tide,” as Florida Trend characterized the grant.

Then, in May 2022, Gov. DeSantis announced his commitment to spend nearly $14 million in the state’s Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget to help Mote and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) combat red tide.

Following his first legislative session after becoming governor in November 2018, DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1552, which established the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative. That is a partnership between Mote and 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.

Along with the ozone system, the money was to be used to pay for the work of a new partnership among Mote, FWC, the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the University of South Florida and FDEP, as Florida Trend reported. The latter collaboration was to focus on field testing of “a specialized clay” to kill red tide.

In the 2023 legislative session, legislators have filed appropriations bills that seek a total of $11 million for Mote, based on a News Leader review of state records on March 15.

One of those requests is for $1 million for Mote’s coral restoration work in the Florida Keys. The other two requests involve Mote’s Science Education Aquarium (SEA), which is under construction on land that the Sarasota County Commission sold to Mote for $100 in July 2022. The property is located between Benderson Park and the Mall at University Town Center.

The leadership of Mote was working on plans for the $130-million Aquarium in the fall of 2018, as the News Leader has reported — during the same general time frame that its researchers reported conducting the test of the red tide-killing ozone process in Boca Grande.

1 thought on “Company working with Sarasota Bay Estuary Program to test process found to kill red tide without harming sea life, similar to technology Mote Marine patented but apparently never tried out on large scale”

  1. After reading this article, is Mote Marine purposely squelching utilizing ozone treatment to encourage additional funding from the state of Florida?

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