Red Tide Volunteer Monitoring Program

By Karen Henschen

The FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) Red Tide Monitoring Program was officially launched in May 2000. Local citizens were recruited to monitor blooms of Karenia brevis, the Florida red tide organism in offshore waters along Florida’s west coast. Red tide events were known to frequent southwest Florida, and a plan was needed to help coordinate monitoring efforts offshore during species population formation. Today, sampling    efforts have extended beyond offshore southwest Florida. The program’s primary goals now are to provide increased coverage for the early detection of K. brevis and other harmful algal blooms (HAB’s) in offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as alongshore beaches, inshore waters and coastal bays. This added coverage of volunteers in all coastal counties allows researchers to provide early warning to coastal residents in the area, continue lab research, and predict seasonal events.

Karen Henschen, RTOMP Coordinator, packing bottles for volunteers

Because of limited state personnel, boats and other resources, the program relies on all kinds of volunteers including charter boat captains, commercial fishermen, school groups, university researchers and students, marine animal rescue centers, divers, private citizens, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and collaborating partners. Sampling and shipping supplies are provided for each volunteer by Karen Henschen, program coordinator. Karen sends out over 200 sampling bottles to volunteers every week. Bottles are readily available when volunteers go out on a recreational excursion, charter fishing trip, pier or dock fishing, or research field work. Karen coordinates participants from a network of volunteers associated with other environmental partners to share bloom information. In 2016, there are over 300 volunteers collecting 1,200/year in 31 coastal counties. The first sample arrived at the FWRI microscopy lab facility in the summer of 2006, and within those years there has been over 11,000 samples collected. This is a true testament to the dedication and importance of everyone who has participated in this program over the years.

Strong winds, rough seas, or dark of night did not keep Red Tide Monitoring volunteers from water sampling during red tide blooms through the years. Karen also works closely with the FWC Fish Kill Hotline to help determine environmental concerns during marine animal mortality events. Once the volunteer collected samples are received by FWRI staff, they are examined under a microscope and species are identified and counted. Additional HAB species information is recorded at certain sites to help evaluate long-term trends in species composition and shifts in dominant groups (diatoms versus dinoflagellates). The field and lab observation provide a valuable snapshot of the phytoplankton community. This information is immediately used as necessary to guide additional sample collection in areas of concern. The results are reported to the appropriate state managers through the FWC/FWRI Red Tide Status Report, and the data is archived into the HAB Historical Database. State managers and scientists can use this information to better understand HAB species, and the conditions they occur in Florida coastal waters. In fact, many of the certified shellfish growers in Florida voluntarily collect water samples and conduct the field observations because this valuable information helps them manage their harvest activities to ensure the safety of their product. Their data are also used to provide critical ground truth to confirm bloom location seen from satellite imagery provided by USF Optical Oceanography Lab.

Each participant’s contribution is essential to piecing together a picture of the distribution of toxic phytoplankton along the Florida coast. With that understanding appropriate agencies and the public can be alerted of potential harmful algal blooms, and take the necessary precautions. This program succeeds because of these community partnerships that make expanded coastal coverage possible. The time and efforts they give to sampling and red tide event response is invaluable to scientists at FWC. Karen also recruits new volunteers daily in order to help cover Florida coastal waters during non-bloom events to help determine normal environmental conditions.

Scientists are still struggling to understand what causes blooms, to predict their occurrence and to find a way to lessen their impact. Early detection by volunteers is forecasting critical component in scientists’ efforts to better understand harmful algal blooms.