Summary by Rumya SundaramCitizen Science Coordinator at KBCF and PhD student at UM RSMAS in Ecosystems Science and Policy

Every month, the Key Biscayne Citizen Science Project hosts lectures at the Community Center to educate the public about local ecology and environmental issues. On April 18th, Dr. Larry Brand, a professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and expert in phytoplankton and algae, gave a lecture that touched on a subject that has concerned many residents recently: algal blooms.

Algae is an important form of life in the ocean. It creates vast amounts of oxygen and feeds countless marine species. However, in recent years, algal blooms have become more frequent and have caught the public eye. Although algal blooms are a naturally occurring phenomenon, the frequency at which they are appearing now continues to increase. They are proliferating in areas where they did not used to exist and are lasting for longer periods of time.

There are many different types of algae: microscopic algae such as single-cell dinoflagellates and cyanobacteria, and large-scale algae such as sargassum seaweed. In recent years, all three of these have caused problems ranging from being a nuisance to creating dangerous conditions. Large floating masses of sargassum have clogged beaches in areas of the Caribbean and caused unsightly and bad-smelling problems for tourism in some areas. But the major players of problem algal blooms are the microscopic ones.

Red tide is caused by single-cell dinoflagellates. The term “red tide” is from the red tint the water can sometimes have when the algae blooms in large numbers, as was seen last year on the Gulf coast of Florida. As many residents are aware, red tide can have deadly consequences, including enormous fish kills in the thousands, bird poisoning from eating contaminated fish, sea turtles and manatees having seizures from swimming through red tide waters. Some marine mammals show evidence of brain damage, and even humans are susceptible. Though most people know to avoid eating seafood from areas where red tide blooms are occurring, the dinoflagellates can also be inhaled, causing asthma attacks, coughing, dizziness, digestive problems, skin rashes, and some even more severe symptoms. The long-term effects are yet unknown.

In Florida, red tide tends to occur on the Gulf side; however last year there was a brief red tide bloom on the East Coast. This was likely brought over by a rare change in oceanic currents caught in the Gulf Stream. In general, red tide prefers the waters of the Gulf, and will not sustain long on the East Coast.

Cyanobacteria is also known as blue-green algae. It is not uncommon to find toxic blue-green algae blooms in lakes or ponds, as they tend to be found in and prefer freshwater. However, they can also travel into salt water, and if the correct combination of nutrients is available, can also create huge blooms in seawater. While red tide contains what is considered “good” toxins due to their immediate affects, blue-green algal blooms contain more sinister toxins. “Good” toxins are immediately detectible by creating irritations, rashes, or other quick responses, which will give someone time to immediately respond and remove themselves from the area. Blue-green algae is harder to detect, as it has no short-term effects, but research into its long-term effects are ongoing. BMAA, a neurotoxin created by cyanobacteria, may only show signs of exposure years later, and may be linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s, and others.

There are a number of possible sources feeding the algal blooms, suggests Dr. Brand, such as spreading through the St. Lucie Estuary to the Atlantic Ocean, or the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf of Mexico. The origin is Lake Okeechobee, which can have algal blooms as thick as guacamole at times which can bring phosphorus nutrients to combine with nitrogen deposits, thereby exacerbating algal blooms. The water releases are done to lower the lake’s level during the rainy season, to prevent flooding of the surrounding areas.

Man-made environmental issues like these are increasing in number, and educating the public is one weapon for understanding and attacking the problems.

The Citizen Science Project has continued to work toward a more environmentally conscience audience and to inspire people to take action to practice protection and sustainability of our local ecology. Past lectures have included coral reef restoration, mangrove conservation, sustainable eco-friendly shopping, and understanding resilience to climate change.

On May 23rd there will be a workshop from Miami-Dade County’s Office of Resiliency to provide guidance on finding implementable and financially-feasible adaptation strategies to sea level rise. For more information 305.361.2770.

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