As red tide returns to area beaches, government shutdown affects some efforts to track it

The red tide algae bloom that floated away from shore around Thanksgiving has popped back up near the beaches of Manatee and Sarasota counties, but scientists say the federal government shutdown is making it harder to track where the toxic algae is and where it might go next.

Because of the shutdown, federal scientists who were helping analyze data and produce forecasts and other reports are sitting at home, not working in their laboratories.

“Tracking the red tide takes a village,” explained Barb Kirkpatrick, a harmful algae bloom expert who is executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association, which works with federal scientists.

One important member of that village, she said, is Rick Stumpf, a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment in Silver Spring, Md. He leads a group who use satellites to collect imagery of the gulf and then interpret the imagery. The satellites can spot where concentrations of the algae are growing in the gulf.

Before the shutdown, caused by a dispute over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion to pay for a border wall, Stumpf was sending out weekly reports on his team’s analysis of the satellite images to state and local government officials. But not any more.

“I am sure they are missing his reports,” Kirkpatrick said.

A part of studying red tide is sending underwater gliders – drones that operate like submarines – out to sample for red tide algae below the surface. Kirkpatrick said her organization is working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the University of South Florida and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on plotting out where to send those drones.

“We are missing Rick’s expertise in the planning of the next mission,” Kirkpatrick said.

Another section of the same federal agency was investigating how red tide killed the dolphins that were washing up dead on Florida’s beaches. That effort is also on hold now, said Kirkpatrick’s colleague Chris Simoniello, who is based at USF.

Simoniello said the Gulf of Mexico monitoring program, which gets about half its funding from the federal agency, just missed being crippled by the shutdown.

“Our funding was deposited right before the shutdown started, so we’re good to the end of September,” she said.

Not every organization involved in monitoring red tide is feeling the pinch of the shutdown. Stephannie Kettle of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota said the shutdown is not affecting Mote’s own red tide data gathering and analysis, which is locally generated.

And the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg is continuing with its own water sampling and other red tide research efforts regardless of what happens with the federal government, according to spokeswoman Michelle Kerr.

The red bloom that’s been characterized as the worst to hit Florida in a decade has now been lingering along the gulf coast for more than a year. It began offshore in November 2017, moved in close to Collier and Lee Counties in mid-2018 and slowly crept up the coast to Pinellas, reaching the local beaches in September. Meanwhile it also hit beaches in the Panhandle and even along the state’s Atlantic coast, becoming the first bloom in 20 years to touch all three of Florida’s coasts.

The bloom, which drove tourists, swimmers and anglers away from the beaches and even affected waterfront real estate sales, appeared to dissipate around Thanksgiving as winds and waves pushed it offshore. However, it reappeared along the beaches of Manatee and Sarasota counties not long after New Year’s Day.

Red tide algae floats in the Gulf of Mexico all year round. No one knows what starts a bloom, when the algae suddenly multiply rapidly and begin killing fish, dolphins, sea turtles and manatees by the score.

But once a bloom moves inshore, it can be fueled by pollution in stormwater runoff, leaky sewer systems and septic tanks. Scientists said this year’s bloom also appeared to be boosted by dust blown into the gulf from the Sahara Desert and pollution in the runoff from the Mississippi River.

A climate change report four years ago predicted that as the climate warms, Florida would be plagued by more and more intense red tide blooms.