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Scientists to take bird's-eye view of Red Tide

From the air, researchers hope to see the boundaries of the persistent algae bloom and the extent of fish kills in the Gulf of Mexico.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published August 18, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The federal government has agreed to fly Florida scientists over the Gulf of Mexico to survey the Red Tide outbreak that has led to huge numbers of dying fish.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration will lend the use of a Shrike Commander aircraft so scientists can track the movement of the Red Tide bloom that is being blamed for an especially large wave of destruction of marine life.

Under current plans, the NOAA plane will fly two state scientists on four once-a-week flights, starting sometime next week, said Michael Henderson, regional coordinator for the federal agency.

Experts will "use that flight time to map the boundaries of the bloom and look at the extent and magnitude of the fish kills," said Cynthia Heil, senior research scientist with the state Fish & Wildlife Research Institute.

In addition to these flights, the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute has chartered its own small plane to look for fish kills or other problems along the coastline, Heil said.

Both of these efforts are in addition to ongoing water tests that keep tabs on the Red Tide levels, as well as the oxygen levels in the sea.

The state scientists have been getting repeated reports of fish kills offshore, from Sarasota to New Port Richey, in recent weeks. The deaths are believed related to the Red Tide, a toxic growth of algae that can kill fish, and to severely depleted levels of oxygen in some areas beneath the gulf's surface.

Scientists are trying to learn more about how the algae bloom developed, and how it relates to the oxygen-starved areas beneath the gulf, where the marine life is dying out.

Red Tide is not always visible from the air. But longstanding blooms like this one tend to be easier to spot, Heil said.

Viewing it during the next four weeks should help scientists see how it is moving through the water.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or at 727 893-8232.