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Director Message

Putting Red Tide in Context

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“The Florida red tide was caused by the appearance in nearby coastal waters of extraordinary numbers of a microscopic sea creature.  Although individually so small as to be invisible to the human eye, the concentration of billions of Gymnodinium caused the sea water to take on a reddish or amber color…. Mass destruction of fish and certain other aquatic animals which was caused by a deadly toxin, the chemical composition of which is still unknown, which Gymnodinium liberated into the water…”

While this statement may seem to refer to the ongoing red tide that has impacted a large segment of Florida’s Coast this year, it was excerpted from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report completed in December 1947.  The report on a study directed by the Service’s chief shellfish biologist, Dr. Paul S. Galtsoff, outlined the circumstances associated with a particularly severe red tide that began in November 1946 and persisted for 11 months causing massive fish kills and widespread respiratory irritation for beachgoers.  The report also took great pains to debunk a commonly held theory at the time that the red tide was caused by munitions dumped into coastal waters at the end of World War II.

While our understanding of red tides has advanced tremendously since 1946, challenges with predicting the formation, severity and duration of the blooms remain.  The red tide organism, first identified definitively in 1948 and now known by the scientific name Karenia brevis after the accomplished state of Florida scientist (and former Institute Director) Dr. Karen Steidinger, can produce a dozen or more types of toxins.  Cutting edge work done by our colleagues from the USF College of Marine Science and Mote Marine Laboratory using satellite monitoring, oceanographic modelling and autonomous underwater gliders have bolstered the theory that red tides begin offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.  This comports well with the observations of Dr. Galtsoff that the first indications of a red tide in 1946 were reported by fishermen who observed large fish kills 10-14 miles offshore in November of that year.

While the first scientifically documented red tide occurred in the Florida panhandle in 1844, they have undoubtedly been a feature of Florida’s coasts for centuries.  In the 16th century Spanish conquistadors documented oral histories from the Calusa native culture that speak of widespread fish kills and discolored water.  More recent observations indicate that some level of red tide occurs nearly every year off Southwest Florida.  The specific combination of circumstances that cause red tide remains elusive to scientists but the emerging consensus is that a combination of east winds and southwesterly currents in the Gulf of Mexico create upwelling conditions that provide nutrients and bring red tide cells from the bottom to the surface.  Once established, the red tide organism is tremendously versatile at using nutrients from a variety of sources, including those released by decaying fish killed by the bloom.  There is increasing evidence that another marine algal species, known as Trichodesmium, which is adept at turning atmospheric nitrogen into a nutrient form that Karenia brevis can use, plays a significant role in the maintenance and growth of red tides.  In turn, Trichodesmium can be nourished by iron which enters the Gulf of Mexico in dust storms from the Saharan desert which is approximately as large as the continental United States.  Each year over one hundred million tons of Saharan dust is blown across the Atlantic Ocean in spring, summer and fall.  In June of 2018, NASA satellites documented a massive cloud of dust from Africa moving westward across the Atlantic Ocean which was said to be largest observed in 15 years.

The offshore origin of red tides, and the likelihood that red tide blooms initiate hundreds of feet below the ocean surface, make it extremely difficult to detect red tide blooms in the early stages.  However, during the current red tide the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the USF College of Marine Science have used data from autonomous gliders to target water sampling at depth which has confirmed the presence of the red tide organism.  Much like meteorologists have done for hurricanes, this work and related modelling and monitoring activities will lead to more accurate forecasting for future red tides.

Many of our FWRI colleagues, especially those in the harmful algal bloom, fish health, fisheries, marine turtles and manatee groups, have been working exceptionally hard responding to this event.  We have thrown everything we have at it.  Weary but committed staff continue to work in labs, on beaches, in trucks, boats and planes collecting important information that will improve our understanding of red tides and prepare us for future blooms.  I am extremely proud of the work they have done responding to this event – working long hours often in very difficult conditions.  They have handled contentious interactions with the public and local governments with professionalism and courtesy.  Most importantly, they have prioritized safety and the integrity of the data and information collected.

Red tide has been with us for centuries and will be with us in the future.  The red tide organism is particularly adept at using any nutrients that may be available.  In the current red tide we have documented highly concentrated blooms in many areas with little to no man-made nutrient pollution.  However, when red tides move inshore they can use nutrients that are more abundant in our estuaries, including those that may stem from agricultural, domestic, municipal or stormwater sources.  These man-made nutrients do not cause red tides but may contribute to their persistence inshore.  It is important to note that, even in the absence of a connection to red tide, there are numerous reasons to manage the input of excess nutrients into our coastal waters which can be detrimental to seagrass meadows and the fisheries they support.

The site and stench of millions of dead fish on our beaches is disturbing and disconcerting but it is an experience we share with Floridians of 1946, when the state’s population was about a tenth of what it is today, and the native cultures that occupied our region for thousands of years.  Our world-class fisheries have evolved and adapted to red tides and have shown tremendous resilience after previous severe events.  There are situations, such as residential canals and waters near aquaculture operations, where treatment and control of red tides may be feasible.  This is an active area of testing led by scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute involving clays, ozone and other techniques.

While the factors influencing red tide formation and severity are complex and large scale, our science is at a tipping point aided by state of the art technology that will result in improved forecasting abilities to inform Floridians and visitors to our state.  Red tide blooms will persist, but we have an awesome team and we will be ready.

Staff Spotlight

Paul Larson from IS&M, Research Information Services, volunteered some of his time to sit down with us this month and explain some of his work at FWRI and beyond.

What are your degrees/certifications?

A BS from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from Ohio State University. My PhD was in invertebrate evolution (molecular phylogenetics), systematics and taxonomy. My dissertation was on the evolution of various reproductive strategies in brooding sea anemones, and treated several taxonomic issues in that group.

What kinds of professional experience do you have?

I worked as a NOAA Groundfish Observer, a drinking water microbiology analyst at Analytica Alaska, and had a post-doctoral project modeling species distribution of freshwater fishes.

What are you working on now?

I have several ongoing projects: On the research end, I’m working to put together a dichotomous key to sea anemones found in and around Florida. This is a long-term project and only progresses when I find time here and there. I try to collaborate with other groups whenever and however I can, and in the near future I’ll be working with the corals group on surveys of hard-bottom communities in the Gulf. On the curation end, I’ve been working toward setting up the specimen database for migration to a new system designed specifically for biological collections and working through the historical backlog of collected specimens that have not been identified or cataloged. I am also collaborating with 3-D digitizing experts at the USF Digital Heritage & Humanities Collections to produce some digital specimens as a pilot, or proof-of-concept experiment (These will be on the new FWRI website when it finally goes live, but can be seen at this link now https://sketchfab.com/USF_digital/collections/biological-specimens).

How is this information beneficial? 

Specimens are much more than just a record for a species’ occurrence in a time and place. Inside their guts, their cells, and their molecules, they contain biological, geological and chemical data about the environment they lived in. As new analytical technologies develop, specimens become even more valuable sources of data that, otherwise, would require a time machine to collect. The projects I’m working on seek to maximize the value of the specimen collections by making them and their associated data available as broadly and easily as possible.

A queen conch specimen from the collection. SIS has wet-preserved specimens which retain the soft tissues of the animal and dried specimens like this one for loan.

What is your typical work day like?

My days are extremely variable. Some days I spend all day on the computer writing, or working in the database, or dealing with administrative stuff. Other days I might be on the microscope identifying specimens, or in the field collecting. On the best days I do a little of everything, which might include giving a tour, corresponding with colleagues, and working with specimens.

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

I am probably most proud of my research products (i.e., publications) because all the reams of data and hours of analysis are pointless without distilling it into little discrete increments of knowledge that can be used by others.

Honestly, though, in today’s research/job climate, just having an advanced degree and then finding a job that actually uses that degree is an accomplishment to be proud of in itself.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

One challenge is getting voucher specimens from ongoing FWRI research projects. Florida Statute 1004.56 states that it’s the ‘duty’ of state agencies to deposit vouchers from regular research and monitoring activities. Through our Memorandum of Understanding with FLMNH, the collections here at FWRI can indefinitely maintain and curate specimens resulting from FWRI research efforts. If your research results in dead fish or invertebrates, it should result in at least some specimens.

In order to keep them suitable for genetic studies, recently collected specimens like this Calappa tortugae are not being fixed in formalin and are having tissue sub-samples preserved in 95% ethanol and frozen at -80C.

What do you like most about your career?

I love learning new things – the weirder and more bizarre, the better. When your work is based in biodiversity, there are frequent opportunities to have your mind blown by creatures, behaviors, and associations that are wilder than you could have ever expected.

Was this your original career interest? 

I have wanted to be a scientist since 4th or 5th grade, and a biologist high school. Curating a natural history collection was something that only started to interest me in graduate school when I worked in museums and did research using specimens.

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science? 

If I wasn’t in science I’d probably want to work in the movie industry doing special effects work (practical, not CGI), especially gross makeup or horror gags.

The corkscrew anemone is an important member of reef communities because it frequently hosts cleaning organisms like Pederson shrimp.

What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?

If you are interested in marine science, the science has to come first. Lots of people like the idea of working in and around the sea, but graduate advisors look for people with questions, ideas, and the ability to test them.  Get as much research experience as you can as an undergraduate – no matter what field. My undergraduate research was in entomology, but the skills I learned could be used on sea anemones, whales, or sea grasses. If you want to be a curator or natural history collections in particular, that is a mostly a matter of luck and waiting because those jobs are very few.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I do a bad job playing guitar, a good job playing with my kids, and I like to try to build things that make me learn new skills in my garage.

Research Spotlight

Red Tide Event Response

The red tide blooms in Florida this year have gained not only a full response from local and state resources, but a national spotlight from news media across the country. As of this writing, there are three separate blooms affecting the Panhandle, Southwest Florida, and the Atlantic Coast. Over 10,000 water samples later, FWRI and FWC continues to respond to one of the most severe and widespread blooms of Karenia brevis in recent years.

FWRI’s new red tide map updates daily, automatically populating the interactive map with red tide data from the last 8 days of sampling. Our new map has been well received by the public and provides valuable data on a more immediate basis than our previous twice-weekly reports. This change illustrates FWRI’s commitment to providing the public with accurate, scientifically-verified data, and responding to public comment and criticism.

FWC field staff transporting a large adult female manatee rescued for red tide to rescue partner, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, who then transported the manatee to SeaWorld for rehabilitation.

FWRI’s Marine Mammal Stranding unit continues to be a crucial component for manatee rescue during these severe red tide blooms. Once a citizen calls in a stranded or distressed manatee to the Wildlife Alert Hotline, Marine Mammal Stranding responds to the incident and, depending on the location in the state, the manatee is then transferred to rehabilitation facilities. Manatees have had heavy losses related to red tide this year – at last count 182 manatees – but the number would be higher if not for the diligent efforts of the Marine Mammal Stranding team.

The Fish Kill Hotline continues to be a successful program, with concerned citizens reporting over 1,300 individual fish kills in Southwest Florida alone. Floridians across the state have assisted FWC in the monitoring – and in many cases assisting fish kill clean-up – of the red tide blooms with the Red Tide Offshore Monitoring Program.

Red tide response from FWRI extends to many levels of the organization, including Communications. In addition to answering inquiries from the public and press, Communications creates products such as infographics, press releases, newsletters, videos and more.

In addition to water sampling, FWC conducted flyovers with Law Enforcement aircraft Panther 1 in 5, 7 and 10 mile surveys along Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties on September 9th, 2018. These observations provided visual confirmation of blooms and provided researchers with visual data on fish kills, manatee mortalities and more. Observations from the 10 mile survey estimated that the bloom extended at least 15 miles offshore in some areas.

FWC’s research scientists conduct aerial surveys as part of red ride response.

Data is also gleaned from the Copernicus satellite program, which observes chlorophyll concentrations in surface waters. Satellite observations are not infallible, however, as cloud cover obscures observation capabilities.

Combining satellite and aircraft observations with extensive water-sampling data can begin to paint an accurate picture of the dynamic red tide blooms. Moore’s law shows us that technology is constantly improving, and so we hope to see increased precision in monitoring capabilities as time progresses. FWC hope to continue to embrace current and emerging technology to help better track, monitor and mitigate red tide blooms in Florida.

Communications Corner

FWRI Wins ACI Awards

This past August, we received word that FWC had won several awards from the Association of Conservation Information (ACI). The most popular and successful of the ACI programs is the annual awards contest, which “recognizes excellence and promotes craft improvement through competition.” These annual awards are held nationwide every  year. Professionals from the public and private sector evaluate all entries and offer written, constructive critiques.

FWRI’s Communications Department received first place for “MarineQuest Logo” in the Graphics: Advertising/Display category!

Other FWC winners include:

Third place for “Reel in and Recycle!” in the “One-time Publication: Brochure” category.

Third place for “Northern Bobwhite Quail Sightings Webpage” in the “Success on a Shoestring” category.

Second place for “FLOW: The Chipola River Story” in the “Video Long” category.

Third place for “FWRI Monthly Highlights” in the “External Newsletter” category.

Second place for “Big Leap Forward for Florida Panther Conservation” in the “Conservation Post of the Year” category.

First place for “FloridaNatureTrackers.com” in the “Website” category.

First place for “Coyote-Pet Safety Infographic Poster” in the “Poster” category.