What if organisms in Sarasota Bay could help tame the effects of red tide? That's what researchers at Mote Marine Laboratory are hoping to find out.
This week, Mote is starting a lab study on whether certain organisms have any effect on Karenia brevis, the organism responsible for toxic algal blooms called red tide. When the naturally-occurring organism gathers in dangerous amounts, it can lead to respiratory irritation in humans and often causes fish kills.
The study will use six ladder-like structures that have had time to accumulate filamentous green algae — the stringy, matted plant that typically is the first to attach to underwater structures — and filter feeders like barnacles, tunicates and oysters in Sarasota Bay.
Vince Lovko, a Mote staff scientist who manages the phytoplankton ecology program, said three of the structures were scraped clean of any organisms, acting as the control of the experiment, and the structures will sit in six separate tanks full of red tide-tainted water. They'll know if they're successful by sampling the water and counting the K. brevis cells.
"It's a small kind of pilot, quick-and-dirty study," said Lovko, who will lead the project along with Tracy Fanara, who heads Mote's environmental health program.
If it works like Lovko expects, Mote researchers plan to expand their study to use a larger living dock, which are artificial reefs that float under docks. In preparation, a living dock is currently amassing these organisms in the bay.
This, too, depends on further funding. The Boca Grande Red Tide Initiative provides funding to Mote for researchers to "think outside the box" when it comes to researching ways to reduce red tide's effects, said Mote senior scientist Rich Pierce. Right now, monies from the group are currently being used in a lab study on how well ozone can remove red tide in water.
“To my knowledge, a study on using artificial reefs to impede the effects of red tide has not been done,” Fanara said in a press release.
This project was partially inspired by a conversation with Florida Keys Community College's Dean of Marine Science Patrick Rice, Fanara said. He used living docks to improve water clarity and restore canal habitats in Marco Island.
"Our study is applying an old concept — that filter feeding organisms can improve water quality — in a new way,” Fanara continued.
The project could lead to real-life solutions, but don't expect it to be a cure red tide ruining a good beach day. To stave off a bloom like the one thought to have persisted since November, that would likely take thousands of living docks, Lovko predicted. It just wouldn't be feasible.
Rather, if in turn the second study gets expected results, these living docks could be used for community outreach for residents in smaller scale canal communities like Boca Grande. Mote researchers hope that residents would buy or build their own so they can then study how they improve the health of the canals and address red tide's effects.
"It's a good start," Lovko said.
Scientists hope this study is successful, not only because it would suggest that these organisms can tame the effects of red tide, but it can also lead to more research questions in this genre. Researchers know that filter feeders are capable of improving water quality, but not a whole lot is known about if they can be used to filter K. brevis cells, what species are most effective at doing so and how red tide's toxins may impact these organisms.