Mote Marine scientist dishes on dirty details of red tide outbreak

Phytoplankton Ecologist Dr. Vince Lovko explains algae bloom

SARASOTA, Fla. – Inside a laboratory filled with microscopes, water samples and pictures of red tide cells, News 6's Nadeen Yanes learned all about the toxic algae from Dr. Vince Lovko, the program manager for the phytoplankton ecology division at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.

These are a few questions he answered explaining what red tide is, what caused it and why Central Floridians should be concerned. Lovko's answers are provided below.

What is red tide?

Red Tide is a phenomena that happens when a certain organism -- a dinoflagellate part of the phytoplankton Karenia Brevis (red tide) -- when it grows or it gets aggregated into very large numbers, it produces a toxin and this neurotoxin can kill fish and other marine organisms and also can affect people, mainly through inhalation of aerosols, which causes respiratory irritation but also through eating shellfish, so that phenomena is referred to as a red tide.

Why should we be concerned about this? 

On the one hand it's a natural phenomena. It's been around for a long time. There has been reports as far back as the Spanish Explorers and 1500s reporting things that are probably red tide, discolored water, dead fish and then in the mid-1800s, we had more verified reports of the same phenomena. The organism wasn't identified until 1947 but all of that together makes us realize that it's probably natural and it's been here a very long time. 

However, like many natural phenomena, when it occurs it's a bad thing. It causes massive fish kills, deaths of marine mammals, sickness in humans and of course the economic affect if it's wide spread enough.  So we are concerned about it because of how many negative affects it's happening on humans and wildlife. 

What is happening this year with red tide? 

This year, or really over the last 10 months, we have a bloom that started. We do have Karenia Brevis present in our waters naturally at all times it's just at very low levels and doesn't have an effect.  But in October of 2017, we started seeing elevated concentration in cells and that increased through November and December and it started to slack off a little bit through January and February and started to ramp from March through now, so it's about at 10-month bloom. 

Is that out of the ordinary?

I would say it's a little unusual but not unprecedented. We've had blooms in the recent past that have lasted 6-9 months. In 2004, there was a bloom that started and lasted until 2006, lasted a total of 17-18 months, so it's not unprecedented but it is unusual. 

But it certainly is one of the worst ones in recent history.

So why would folks on Central Florida, not on the coast, not experiencing fish kills, why should we care about it?

Well again it's a very significant phenomena, it's currently covering at least 150 miles of coast line. Overall bloom is about 200 miles long, so it's a significant bloom and it's impacting our ecology, it could have long term impacts we can only know that through further research so we should all be concerned about it. 

And it can impact the economy as well?

It can impact the economy. Trying to determine the economic impacts of something like a harmful alga-bloom can be very difficult. However with a bloom this large and covering so much coast line and it's easy to see the empty beaches the empty beach front restaurants, I imagine this one will have a discernible economic impact 

At any time can we get Red Tide impact in Central Florida, maybe through lack of shellfish  being available? Anything we can feel directly? 

I wouldn't imagine any direct impacts, certainly the aerosols aren't going to travel that far inland so you aren't going to experience any of the respiratory irritation, obviously if anyone from Central Florida is coming to the coast they can very well experience the direct effects. 

As far as indirect effects, as far as the unavailability of sea food, I'm not sure. There is a lot of different sources of sea food and even locally we can still go to our restaurants to get sea food it's just it's not coming from our direct local waters. 

What has this done to our species, our fish, our mammals out there?

The ecosystem tends to be pretty resilient and we do have blooms they probably occur annually. Last couple of bloom seasons we had significant blooms but not as significant as the one we are experiencing right now. 

As far as lasting impacts on the ecology, it's difficult to say. It does seem to be a natural phenomena, the presence of the organism in the event of Red Tide appears to be natural phenomena, now whether it's getting worse any way impacted by humans is also difficult to tell.

Is there in a simple way you can explain how red tide kills?

Generally speaking the negative affects are caused by a toxin, it's a neuro-toxin, and it basically affects the gills in fish and makes them not able to exchange oxygen, so they suffocate. It can also get into filter feeders (shellfish, oysters, clams,ect.) and then when something eats the filter feeders they are ingesting the toxin and that can affect them as well.

The toxin can also become aerosolized. So aerosol forms over water anyways, so when there is red tide in the water and toxins in the water, then those toxins can be in those aerosols and can be blown into the win as much as 2 miles or more inland people inhale them and they can get the respiratory irritation. It can irritate the eyes and mucus membranes, 

Have you experienced that? What was that like? 

We go out and sample pretty frequently so we definitely experience it yes. It's a little bit like if you are too close to smelling a really powerful hot sauce or at least that how I interpret it. 

Is there a long-term effect on humans?

Typically the affects will go away when you remove yourself from the environment if you go inland.  For some people that have a chronic respiratory ailments, such as COPD or asthma, it could trigger those affects it can last for a while, days or maybe a week or more, but generally those medications they use can reduce those symptoms. 

How does this affect the mammals?

So mammals and other organisms are affected by two routes mainly. Inhalation or ingestion. Marine mammals, of course, have to breath, so they come to the surface and they are getting right at the interface of the water and air so they are getting the highest dose of aerosols. But probably the largest affects are through ingestion. 

In the cases of dolphins they are eating fish, if the fish are contaminated with the red tide toxin then the fish are getting blasted with red tide toxins, especially filter feeding fish or fish that have eaten other filter feeders. In the cases of manatee, they are also breathing but they are eating sea grasses and the sea grasses can be covered in little organisms that actually attach themselves to the blades of the sea grass and they are also filter feeders. They get like this concentrated blast of toxins in eating the sea grass.


What have we seen in the last week? Or any numbers of animals that have come in?

As of today, we've had 19 dolphins this month that have been brought in that were deceased presumably due to red tide, they do tissue analysis and toxin analysis on those tissues to determine for sure if it's red tide.  There has also been I think 200, more than 200 turtles brought in so far this year and a few manatee. 

What's your reaction to that? 

Well we've seen it climb up, a few weeks ago they were getting their first dolphins and within a week I can't remember within aw eek there was I think 10 or so, it's just been climbing up and up and up.  All of us at Mote, because Mote is dealing with our stranding program we see the emails and we see those numbers take up literally daily. 

For someone who loves the marine ecosystem, how is this impacting you to see?

It's hard to see of course, I mean in all of it, it's not just the dolphins and the manatees and the turtles. Even seeing the hundreds of thousands of fish, millions really I think it's been a few million pounds of fish collected from the beaches so far. It's tough to see.

So can we blame nature or man on this?

Again, there is plenty of reason to suspect hat this is a natural phenomena, it doesn't lessen the impact on it or the negative impact that it has on us. 

It could be worsened by humans, these things feed off nutrients. So any excess nutrients coming to the coast environment potentially could exacerbate the bloom either making it last longer or spreading to different areas and potentially increase the intensity of it. But those are questions that need more research to provide the definitive answers 

A big nutrient source for phytoplankton in general is nutrients coming from land either through runoff, river input and estuaries. So if you increase the amount of nutrients in that runoff  then of course you potentially are increasing the amount nutrients for Red time

So is there anything we can do, even in Central Florida that can help?

Reducing nutrients in general regardless of impact it has on red tide. Whether it affects red tide or not there are other negative affects of the excess nutrients input.

Are we talking about like fertilizers when you are talking about extra nutrients? 

Yeah fertilizers, you know septic systems have been pointed out as well. It's hard for an individual to do much about their septic system but yeah reducing the fertilizers or keeping to an appropriate use of fertilizers. All those small steps could certainly help.

What is Mote doing to get results and get rid of red tide?

Getting rid of red tide is a big task because of the component that it's a natural phenomenon and the dynamics of our coastal system. It could be difficult of what we need to do to make it go away or reduce it. 

So a big part of what we do is mitigation. Mitigation means that we are trying to protect people and resources from the affects of the Red Tide not necessarily doing something to the Red Tide itself and that's through a variety of ways. Probably the biggest thing we are trying to move towards is prediction and forecasting. There are some tools out there that we can use now. The University of South Florida has a three-and-half day bloom movement prediction model that basically uses ocean currents that determines where the bloom is going to move to.  A good analogy is the weather we don't necessarily change the weather but we have a lot of tools to predict the weather and forecast the weather so we can know what's going to happen later in the day, what's going to happen, and really what can happen for several weeks. If we know its going to happen then we can prepare. If we know there is going to be, if we can forecast that here is going to be a major bloom season in the fall then people can prepare, businesses can prepare, tourists can prepare. 

There is the control aspect as well, trying to control the bloom. If you think of the current bloom the body of water it occupies is probably trillions of gallons of water, so the idea of trying to treat trillions of gallons of water with something that will kill this phytoplankton it's a pretty impossible task.

Mote is pursuing a variety of strategies to maybe focus on small volume systems like the residents canals on the inside of the bays. For instance, pulling water out of the canal sending it through filtering system and then putting it back into the water and that system kills Red Tide and kills toxins, but this is working on a small volume in this residential canals. That's a first step and you have to start somewhere.


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