Leading scientific expert on toxic algae says it will happen again

By Jana Eschbach
March 15, 2017
CBS 12

It’s an environmental and economic disaster that will likely happen again, according to research on harmful algal blooms in the Indian River Lagoon.

For the Treasure Coast and Space Coast’s waterways already suffering from bouts of red and brown tide and toxic algae blooms, the news isn’t good.

At Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, the new research backed by the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, and NOAA funding, is studying the impact of these harmful algae blooms on the environment and even in humans living on or around it.

It’s initial scientific data that is not good news.

People are increasingly developing land. The development and sprawl helps to shed nutrients into waterways through runoff, and add in agricultural use, and all of it feeds the algae in the water.

The toxic algae bloom of 2016 spanned 43 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Governor declared the region a disaster.

Now, new research shows it likely will happen again due to the number of toxic algae types in the waterways here.

“With harmful algal blooms, there’s 40 different species in the lagoon that could create a toxic bloom. Any one of them can be blooming at any time,” said Jim Sullivan, PhD, with FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic’s Institute, “there is not fundamentally a lot of research on harmful algal blooms in the lagoon. We need to do a lot of basic research.”

“We go out and take water samples. We look at the water actually in there. We do toxin analysis,” said Dr. Sullivan, whose research is focused on harmful algae blooms here in the Indian River Lagoon from the Space Coast South, to the St Lucie River. His research shows, not just here, but nationally, the outbreaks are getting worse, and becoming more frequent. Dr. Sullivan says freshwater lakes nationwide have become incubators for the algaes that filter in to nearby estuaries.

“So they are not going away anytime soon. What could change, is we are seeing these extreme blooms where it takes over very large portions of the lagoon.” Dr. Sullivan said, “these events are just getting more extreme and happening a lot more.”

“The thing about harmful algae blooms that most don’t consider, is there’s the blooms you can see, and there is a lot of it that is invisible occurring underneath, in the water, in lower densities, that are very toxic that you are never going to see.”

Dr. Sullivan recorded levels in Stuart during the toxic algae outbreak that were 30,0000 times the safe limit of exposure.

What is the impact on people living near these toxins?

Dr. Sullivan says, we don’t know yet, but The National Institutes of Health is funding research to help find out just that. Dolphins, he says, may give us a clue as to if we harbor toxins and what they do to their health.

“We are looking at toxins in marine mammals, dolphins, as sentinel species for if it’s in them–there’s a chance it’s in us too,” Dr. Sullivan said.

As for where it is coming from, the brown and red tide events, are still under review, but he says there is no doubt with the cyanobacteria in the St Lucie River—it’s lake Okeechobee.

“All that bloom started in Lake Okeechobee. It was a freshwater algae. We had a lot of rain last year. That water was carrying that harmful algae bloom,” Dr. Sullivan said, noting once the Army Corps of Engineers opened the locks to allow water to flow east, the toxic algae followed. Depending on rainfall amounts, and the flow of discharges, he said those are the factors to make the toxic algae spread again.

“The Lake consistently has some kind of bloom, but whether we have it some years, you will some, some you will not. It depends on whether they release a lot of water. That is the key. If you can see toxic algae, you should probably avoid the water.”

Dr. Sullivan warned, noting if it reaches the beaches again to stay away, “It could release a lot of toxin all at once because it’s now died and the toxin inside of it is now released into the water. That is the worst time to have contact with it.”

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