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Reckoning with red tide: Q&A with Dr. Cynthia Heil: DIRECTOR OF THE RED TIDE INSTITUTE AT MOTE.

With Florida red tide lingering on the Gulf of Mexico coast for nearly 16 months, Dr, Cynthia Heil arrived at Mote Marine Laboratory in January 2019 and hit the ground running. As a Senior Scientist, Harmful Algal Bloom Research Program Manager and Director of the new Red Tide Institute at Mote--founded with support from the Andrew & Judith Economos Charitable Foundation--Heil is complementing Mote's existing team of top-notch scientists and renewing focus on finding targeted tools to fight, or mitigate, red tide and its impacts. Heil previously served as Senior Research Scientist & Administrator and Harmful Algal Bloom Group Leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) and most recently studied harmful algae at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine.

Q & A

The science of Florida red tide (Karenia brevis) has come a long way--what have been some important advances?

Red tide monitoring has gotten much better overtime. Mote, FWRI and others have contributed to that. FWRI has a long-standing volunteer monitoring program that allows the public to collect water samples for scientists to analyze. That's critical for monitoring coverage, especially offshore. Funding from NOAA's ECOHAB and MERHAB programs in the past 20 years has helped expand monitoring. For example, one of those research grants allowed us to sample water by boat from 81 stations monthly for four years. The repetition felt a little like "Groundhog Day," but the data we collected allowed us to identify the chemical and physical conditions promoting red tide off west Florida.

We've learned a lot about how Karenia's toxins impact the environment and human health through Dr. Rich Pierce's research here at Mote, through efforts such as Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick's collaboration with the University of Miami.

We also gain an understanding of how blooms develop offshore and are transported to and maintained nearshore, identifying more than 12 different nutrient sources that can maintain blooms nearshore. However, we still know next to nothing about what ends a bloom. This is critical for predicting and managing red tide, and it's a focus of my research.

What are your initial goals in leading the Red Tide Institute at Mote Marine Laboratory?

The Institute's main goal is to identify and assess potential methods for mitigating Florida red tide. Many methods have been developed globally to mitigate other harmful algal blooms. We will investigate which of these methods are suitable for Karenia brevis blooms, test and develop new methods and transition promising ones from benchtop experiments to field testing, and work with Mote scientists who are already testing methods such as ozonation and clay application.

Another goal is to continue my own research on developing a method to mitigate red tide toxin aerosolization (toxins entering the air) to lessen its human health impacts. A colleague and I have been conducting laboratory tests with natural organic compounds produced from the degradation of plants that can potentially alter the amount of toxins that are transferred to sea spray and cause the "red tide" tickle in people's throats when they breathe in these aerosols at the beach.

These compounds are especially promising as they are naturally occurring, As with any mitigation technique, though, we need to be careful that we do no further harm to the environment.

What do you wish more people understood about Florida red tide?

I wish more people understood the physical, chemical and biological complexity of Florida red tides. Some things about these blooms are consistent--the fact that they start offshore and can be sustained nearshore, for instance. However, each bloom is different from year to year as environmental conditions vary, such as the nearshore winds and currents, rainfall amounts and the composition of the phytoplankton community.

I wish people were aware too of the huge efforts scientists with Mote and FWRI put into studying and monitoring red tide. Each dot point on a red tide monitoring map represents someone collecting a water sample, a taxonomist sitting at a microscope counting that sample for an hour and additional time for data entry, validation and map making--requiring impressive effort, knowledge and coordination.

I would also like to give people a better understanding of how challenging it is to tease out long-term trends in red tide in Florida. While we have documented red tides since 1878, sample collection hasn't been consistent enough over a long enough period to answer some big questions about changes in frequency with confidence. Today FWRI and Mote have consistent sampling stations, but a lot of the consistency has been established in just the past 20 years.

In 2018, public discussion (particularly on social media) focused a lot on whether the Florida red tide bloom might have been exacerbated by freshwater cyanobacteria flowing from Lake Okeechobee through the Caloosahatchee River to Charlotte Harbor. What do you think?

Recently I've been collaborating with the Everglades Foundation to try to assess whether there are connections between these two blooms. Karenia brevis red tide (a saltwater species) and the freshwater cyanobacteria Microcystis that blooms in Lake Okeechobee have different salinity tolerances, so they normally don't co-occur. But when Microcystis is transported down the Caloosahatchee River and then decays, we want to know if it may provide a potential 13th nutrient source for Karenia blooms. To date though, the largest known nutrient sources for red tide are dead fish, followed by benthic flux (nutrients moving from sediments into the water column), and the grazing and excretion by zooplankton (small, drifting animals)--which, according to my young son, are eating cells and "peeing out nutrients."

During this 2018 bloom, it's interesting how the social media discussions has focused so much on Lake Okeechobee and river outflow, while in the last severe bloom (2005) there was more concern about the impact of coastal runoff from lawns and golf courses. In general, social media seems to have added a whole new level of complication to communicating this already complex topic of red tides. I think I could write a paper just about harmful algal blooms hitting social media!
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Author:Rutger, Hayley
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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