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Red Tide scientists seek public's help

Researchers hope forums will help stabilize funding.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published July 20, 2006


This week 70 scientists are meeting at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota to talk about Red Tide. They're comparing notes about what research has been done and what remains to be done.

And, in a rare move for a scientific symposium, they're seeking public input, both on-line and in person.

In addition to an online survey form, the symposium organizers are holding three simultaneous public forums tonight. One will be 6-8 p.m. near downtown St. Petersburg at the U.S. Geological Survey building, at the same time as one at Mote in Sarasota and one in Fort Myers at Florida Gulf Coast University.

"I think the public thinks we're just a bunch of geeky people who don't listen to them," joked Barbara Kirkpatrick, a senior scientist at Mote who organized the conference. But this time the scientists really do want to hear what the public thinks, she said.

So far nearly 500 people have logged onto the Mote Web site to fill out the online survey form, Kirkpatrick said. Three hundred identified themselves as permanent residents of Florida.

The top priority listed by most of those 500, she said, is for the scientists to develop models to determine why Red Tide blooms start, why they continue and why they end. They also want them to determine whether nutrient pollution in storm runoff is making Red Tide worse, she said.

Such research efforts have been hampered by inconsistent funding for studies, Kirkpatrick said, and scientists are hoping public participation in their forum will help to change that.

For instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired Mote to survey water quality in areas of South Florida that might be hit by nutrient pollution and algae blooms as a result of the changes in the landscape wrought by the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration program.

"The funding lasted one year and then it was kaput," Kirkpatrick said. "I think the public understands that episodic funding isn't getting us going."

Red Tide is the common name for a bloom of microscopic algae, officially called Karenia brevis, that releases a toxin that can kill fish and cause coughing, sneezing and watery eyes in humans.

Last year's Red Tide outbreak was believed to the worst since 1971. Scientists blamed it for smothering vast stretches of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and killing manatees, sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins.

Among the research being discussed at the symposium is the discovery that the dead dolphins were not directly affected by the Red Tide outbreak. Instead scientists found they had eaten menhaden that had metabolized the Red Tide toxins, and that's apparently what killed them.

"It raises new questions about what kind of monitoring we need to do," said Mote spokeswoman Nadine Slimak.

Last week a Red Tide bloom appeared off the beaches of Lee and Collier counties, sparking reports of dead fish and respiratory problems.

[Last modified July 20, 2006, 00:38:57]


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