Technology seen as one key to fighting red tide, Mote Marine volunteer tells Siesta Key Association audience

Research continues on a number of fronts in the effort to end the negative effects of Karenia brevis

‘Karenia brevis’ is a very small organism. Image from Wikipedia

Technological advances — including the use of drones — are among the keys expected to unlock the continuing mysteries of red tide, a 26-year volunteer at Mote Marine of Sarasota told about 60 Siesta Key Association SKA members during their May 4 meeting.

Erin Tom “Tommy” Vaughan-Birch, a Florida native who has lived in Sarasota since 1969, explained that while much is known about how the dinoflagellate that causes red tide affects people’s respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, scientists still are working hard to figure out exactly what sparks its quick multiplication at certain times — and how to stop such events without triggering a different type of environmental havoc.

Ozone and a larger type of algae have been shown to inhibit and even kill the red tide algae, she pointed out, but more research is underway.

“How many of you have experienced red tide?” Birch asked as she began her remarks in the Parish Hall of St. Boniface Episcopal Church. One hand of almost every person shot into the air.

Dinoflagellates, such as Karenia brevis — which causes the red tide seen in Southwest Florida — are measured in microns, Birch pointed out. A micron is one-millionth of a meter, she added. “They’re really, really teeny things,” she added of the Karenia brevis organisms.

They become a problem only after they have begun to reproduce rapidly, Birch continued. The result is a “bloom,” she noted, “and that’s when we start to be very interested …”

Karenia brevis is named for Karen Steidinger, a scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Research Institute in St. Petersburg, Birch noted, adding, “I don’t know that I’d want to have a nasty little think like that named after me.”

And while members of the public often think Karenia brevis is a recent phenomenon, Birch continued, that is not the case at all. “It’s been around, we know, for about 10,000 years,” based on fossils found in Southwest Florida. In the 1500s, she said, Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca learned about it from the Native Americans, who called it roja agua, or “red water.” That was because large blooms can make the Gulf of Mexico appear reddish or rusty, she pointed out.

Seventy years ago — in 1947 — Birch continued, in Venice, “people woke up and they were coughing and their eyes were burning.” Their first thought was that poison gas left over from the World Wars had been released, she said. Instead, the source of their discomfort was a red tide bloom offshore.

Mote Marine’s lab is on Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota. Image from the Mote website

In collaboration many years ago with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Birch said, Mote found blooms are initiated 10 to 40 miles out in the Gulf.

Karenia brevis is measured in terms of cells per liter, she explained. The current red tide bloom — whose effects finally subsided in Sarasota County in April — is 60 miles wide, 90 miles long and 100 feet deep, Birch noted. It moves around in the Gulf of Mexico, she added.

When 1,000 or fewer of the cells are found per liter of water, that is considered a “background” presence, she pointed out. If the accumulation reaches the level of 5,000 cells per liter, shell fishing in the immediate area is halted, Birch noted, because of the nine neurotoxins the organism releases. Oysters and clams, for example, will accumulate those toxins in their bodies; eating the shellfish can cause illness and even death, she said.

On one occasion Mote has documented, Birch told the audience, family members had caught whelks offshore during a red tide event. After they took the seafood home and ate it, she added, a young girl in the family died.

Tommy Vaughan-Birch addresses SKA members on May 4. Rachel Hackney photo

Among the more severe symptoms of shellfish poisoning caused by red tide, she said, are tingling of the lips, tongue and throat; vertigo; confusion; nausea; and headaches. Additionally, Birch pointed out, “Hot feels cold; cold feels hot.”

When Karenia brevis reaches the level of 100,000 or more cells per liter of water, Birch noted, “you’re definitely going to have respiratory problems and fish kills.”

If anyone has to be out in an area near such a high concentration of red tide, she said, the person should wear a mask or dampen a bandana and tie it around the face. As a long-time sea turtle nesting season volunteer, she noted, “I’m very sensitive to it.” She has resorted to the bandana aid, she added.

“People who have compromised respiratory systems really need to avoid red tide,” she cautioned. Anyone with asthma, emphysema and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), especially, she said, should stay in air conditioning and away from the beach.

Several studies have found a distinct increase in medical expenses linked to red tide, especially in regard to hospital admissions for respiratory and gastrointestinal distress, Birch told the audience.

As for other effects on other creatures: Karenia brevis causes fish to die by paralyzing their gills, she continued. Its neurotoxins also can kill birds, she pointed out. Prolonged outbreaks can harm turtles and dolphins, too Birch said; the dinoflagellate affects their immune systems, making them vulnerable to illnesses.

Because manatees eat seagrass, she explained, they also have been known to suffer illness and death: Prolonged outbreaks of red tide lead to concentration of the neurotoxins in the epiphytes that live on seagrasses. In 2014, she noted, 276 manatee deaths were related to red tide poisoning.

Cause and kill

“We don’t understand the mechanisms” that produce a bloom, Birch explained. Researchers have learned that the organism needs the right temperature and salinity, and they know it feeds on about 12 types of nutrients, including phosphorus and nitrogen. “Let’s just say it’s not a picky eater.”

Runoff from agriculture, for example, does not initiate a bloom, Birch said, but that “can help it persist.”

Mote Marine offers regular reports on the status of red tide in Florida. Image from Mote Marine

She reminded the audience members that Sarasota County has an ordinance that prohibits the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen and/or phosphorus from June 1 through Sept. 30 in an effort to prevent runoff during the summer, which typically is the rainy season.

Five different divisions at Mote are participating in research with other entities — such as NOAA and NASA — to try to learn as much about Karenia brevis as possible, she explained.

One Mote scientist — Vincent Lovko — is hoping to secure about $75,000 to pay for small drones that could be flown over the water, where they would use “hyper-spectral imaging,” she said. That would enable researchers in the lab to know immediately whether a red tide bloom had begun, Birch added. The drones would be similar to those used in agricultural and forestry applications, she pointed out.

Yet another model of drone Mote would like to be able to deploy would carry a version of a mason jar, which could be used to collect water, Birch continued. The drone would land on the surface of the Gulf, dip the bottle into the water, close the lid and then bring the bottle back to the lab, she noted.

Among ongoing research at Mote, she continued, Jordan Beckler, who heads up the Ocean Technology Research Program, is working on the identification of the neurotoxins in the algae, and Kellie Dixon, the chief of Mote’s Chemical & Physical Ecology Program, and her team are researching how Karenia brevis responds to various nutrients.

Mote provides daily reports on conditions at 30 beaches on the west coast of Florida. Image from Mote Marine

Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor are the two biggest estuaries in Florida, Birch pointed out, and each has different nutrients going into the water column. “We’re going to find out what [Karenia brevis] likes to eat best,” she said, in an effort to try to mitigate its effects.

Birch also reminded the audience that Mote has a Beach Conditions Report — which is available through an app as well as on Mote’s website — that provides a wealth of information about what is happening at 30 beaches on the west coast of Florida. She used her smartphone to read the 3 p.m. report for Siesta Public Beach that day.

Mote staff is working with NOAA and NASA to develop a new app that will allow anyone to take a water sample at the beach and determine right away the concentration of Karenia brevis, Birch pointed out. Furthermore, staff in the Environmental Health Program — headed up by Tracey Fanara — are working on an app that will allow members of the public to report on conditions they are experiencing at a particular beach at any given time, Birch said.

In concluding her remarks, Birch encouraged those in the audience to become members of Mote. She also pointed out that if they have questions, they may submit them on the Mote website. “I do, sometimes.”