GUEST POST: How Much Does it Cost to Call Toxic Summers Normal?

Last summer’s red tide event persisted longer than any in more than 10 years with help from a constant source of nutrients from Lake Okeechobee discharges. Marine life was killed in unprecedented numbers, sparking headlines across the nation that had residents and visitors worried about human health impacts of harmful algal bloom exposure and looking to the state for answers.

Warmer days are coming, but residents may get a break this year thanks to the Army Corps’ decision to head-off mid-summer discharges. Still, facing a crisis that is likely to return, people have reasons to beware of what they hear from the state or from state-funded scientists eager to please their benefactors. When a prominent laboratory proclaims, “c’mon in, the water’s fine,” following the money can lead to unsettling questions.


(Original work written by Andy Mele, Suncoast Waterkeeper. Published on 3/17/2019 by the Bradenton Times, available online here.) 

Mote’s Weird Science for Red Tide

By Andy Mele

University of Miami red tide researcher Larry Brand’s conclusions are making some very powerful people very uncomfortable. Mote Marine Laboratory, for example. Brand says that Mote, which is neither accredited nor academic, has attempted to block publication of his papers in scientific journals.

In Brand’s March 3 speech for Suncoast Waterkeeper at the Bradenton Yacht Club, he also claimed that Mote sent a team to Miami in an attempt to redirect his research. Brand said that in at least two instances, state agencies brazenly manipulated statistics, assuming no one would notice, and went public with the news that there is no correlation between manmade inputs and red tide—a line that Mote has adopted.  

When Brand publicly refuted the state’s results, his NOAA and EPA grants were rescinded. In the aftermath of past red tides (e.g. 2005-2006), funds have dried up almost as fast as the toxic algae disappeared from Gulf beaches. This time, however, gulf coast residents are so thoroughly traumatized by horrific images of dead fish and marine mammals, as well as the potential economic consequences, that politicians of every stripe began lining up with bills—bills that may not do anything to avert or even reduce red tide.*

Mote has apparently developed an entrepreneurial research agenda in lieu of a common-sense scientific agenda, and presented it to the public as the solution to red tide. All that’s needed is millions and millions of public dollars to fund the elaborate schemes.

Elected officials, thinking it’s the only option available, have been beating a path to Mote’s doors on City Island in Sarasota. Here’s how it works: propose a bill, earmark millions for Mote with no competitive bidding, get the coveted photo op with Mote Director Michael Crosby, and you have acquired bombproof re-election bona fides as a defender of the state’s waters.

The problem is that nanobubbles, magic clay powders, UV reactors or any of the other touted technological candidates have yet to be proven. They may be unscalable to the dimensions needed to combat red tide. And they will probably be far too expensive to deploy in any meaningful way.

But that may be missing the point. Next year, when red tide begins to spread up the coast again, panicked residents in exclusive waterfront homes will be clamoring for technology—any technology, at any price—to keep red tide from their doors. Private nanobubble arrays could become the next boutique must-have for coastal homes. Your tax dollars at work.

The bottom line, according to Brand, is prevention. Choke off the nutrients at their sources, even if they lead all the way to Tallahassee. Animal waste, phosphate mine runoff, crop fertilizers, lawn and golf course fertilizers, and human waste must all be controlled down to nothing.

The farmers know how to do it, as do the cities and property managers, but they can’t and won’t until they have a level playing field—a nice term for regulation. Big sugar must be denied its approximately $5 billion per year in price supports and subsidies—a nice term for corporate socialism.

Suncoast Waterkeeper has embraced prevention for years, suing successfully to block hundreds of millions of gallons of nutrient-rich raw and partially-treated sewage from our coastal waters. We are building a legislative coalition that we hope will become powerful enough to generate funding to replace the hundreds of enforcement staff at FDEP that Rick Scott fired, and cause the state to embrace enforceable numeric water quality standards.  

The problem with prevention is that there is no money in it for politically powerful institutions like Mote. With the Florida Senate President Bill Galvano as an Honorary Trustee, Mote is hard at work catching the wave of corporate socialism to cash in on the weird science.

*The session is now over and the Legislature did absolutely nothing for beleaguered Gulf Coast residents and wildlife. Potential legislation, some good, some merely opportunistic, was scythed down in committee like autumn wheat by the Legislature, which was more concerned with things like slashing funding for Florida Forever, fatally discouraging citizens from challenging violations of their local comp plans, preventing communities from enacting bans on single-use plastics, and building three multibillion-dollar toll roads to nowhere. The only red tide-related bill that made it to the Governor’s desk was Joe Gruters’ SB 1552, which ironically provides $3 million per year for six years to…wait for it…Mote Marine Laboratories. 

Andy Mele, MS, is the Waterkeeper at Suncoast Waterkeeper.