Potentially toxic blue-green algae found near Anna Maria Island and in Palma Sola Bay

Mirinda Hill said she looked out her window and could see something floating on the water, coming closer to the shoreline near her home along Sarasota Bay on Sunday morning.

Though it’s not unusual for things to float in near her home on Bay Drive, in Bayshore Gardens, Hill said this algae had a nasty odor.

“I don’t want to go outside too much, I don’t want to smell it,” Hill said.

The muck near Hill’s house has not been tested by the state, but it appears similar to potentially toxic blue-green algae that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said Monday has been found in Sarasota Bay near Anna Maria Island and in Palma Sola Bay.

Lyngbya-like algae was confirmed in three samples taken last week, from near Key Royale Drive on Anna Maria Island; on the bayside of Holmes Beach; and the south end of Palma Sola Bay. Additional testing to determine if any of the toxins the algae is capable of producing is still pending.

Hill said she saw pictures of the blue-green algae before it found its way to the canal near her home and had an idea of what it was. But while she has lived through many red tides in the 20 years since her family moved to Bay Drive, she said she has never seen anything like what is happening now.

Lyngbya algae is a filamentous cyanobacterium, or blue-green algae, that can form mats and is capable or producing toxins.

One type, Lyngbya majuscula, was found in a sample taken from Sarasota Bay at Whitfield Avenue, according to results released Friday. An analysis of that sample released Monday did not show any toxins.

This type of algae generally blooms in fresh water. But although it can bloom in salt water, when it does, it is unlikely to be toxic, according to Serge Thomas, an aquatic ecologist and associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Meyers.

The bloom is indicative of the nutrients that are in the water system. according to Thomas. While the causes of this blue-green algae bloom can vary, the two main nutrients are phosphorus and nitrogen, he said.

“However, it can still be harmful for your skin,” Thomas said.

The biggest issue with this type of algae bloom will be what comes next.

“Eventually when they die, they leave nutrients and remove oxygen from water that could cause fish kills and other algae blooms,” Thomas said. “It cannot trigger a red tide but it can make it last longer. That’s my personal opinion.”

Little is still known about what triggers a red tide, or Karenia brevis bloom, like the one that ravaged the area last year, killing tons of marine life and threatening a major part of the local economy.

“But for the blue-green algae, we can say its nutrients from humans that can trigger it and make it last longer,” Thomas said.

Experts, including Thomas, believe people in urban areas are releasing too much of these nutrients through septic systems, sewage, and the fertilizing of lawns that are not native to Florida.

Septic systems are a problem, because people “are supposed to have it inspected or pumped every three years but it’s not enforced, so people wait until the last minute,” Thomas said.

A lack of funding is the biggest issue when it comes to sewage, according to Thomas. More money needs to be spent in treating sewage water and some cities also need to invest money to replace their old pipes. Any pipe system that is 40 to 50 years old should be replaced or heavily inspected, according to Thomas.

“We should be investing more money into sewage treatment and it’s really important,” he said.

Most people also don’t know that sewage plants are legally allowed to release raw sewage during emergency situations, such as when there is a threat of a hurricane, without having to report to the state so it is never made public.

Lastly, while using fertilizer with nitrogen or phosphorus is banned, it is still available for purchase. Likewise, in order to please their customers, many lawn maintenance companies also use these type of fertilizers, according to Thomas.

A big challenge in Florida is the number of new residents who come from the north where they had lush green lawns, that are not native to Florida, Thomas said.

A lot of money needs to be invested to fix the problem, but in Thomas’ opinion, education should be the first priority.

“If the people understand, they will be more likely to do the right thing, vote for the right person and be willing to invest money,” Thomas said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said those who see the algae blooms in the water can report the location so crews can test the water. Reporting algae blooms can be done on the FDEP website or by calling 855-305-3903.

To report a fish kill, call Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 800-636-0511.

Herald staff writer Sara Nealeigh contributed to this story.

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