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Senate Moves Forward With Red Tide Research

Dead fish on the shore of a beach.
Stephen Splane / WUSF Public Media
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A Senate panel moved forward Tuesday with a proposal that would direct $3 million a year to a red-tide research initiative between the state and Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory, despite arguments that the proposal fails to fully address human involvement in the spread of the toxic algae. 

The Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday unanimously supported the proposal (SB 1552), which comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis called for addressing red-tide outbreaks.

The Senate also has proposed $6.6 million a year for red tide research as part of its proposed $90.3 billion spending plan (SB 2500) for next fiscal year.

Bill sponsor Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican whose area along the Gulf Coast was inundated by the harmful algae last year, said the goal is to get research dollars in place before the next outbreak.

“This past year it hit us particularly bad, and what’s happened over the years is the research dollars have come in after the red tide hit, and then it’s out of sight, out of mind, research dollars trail off, and the necessary research to try to mitigate the intensification of red tide, which scientists are saying it is man-made, is not fully researched,” Gruters said.

However, David Cullen, a lobbyist for Sierra Club Florida, objected to the proposal because of what he said is a limited focus on prevention, with the primary attention placed on controlling and mitigating outbreaks.

“The problem is we have to stop pollution at the source,” Cullen said.

David Shepp, a lobbyist for Mote, which worked with the state last year during the massive outbreak, said the proposal is broad enough that it allows for prevention to be addressed. But he said, that should not be the only focus.

“To simply say we want to prevent red tide is like trying to prevent hurricanes,” Shepp said. “It’s naturally occurring. Science is best used when you prepare for and mitigate the impacts when they occur.”

The source of the annual outbreaks in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico is blooms of a single-celled organism called Karenia brevis algae that produces toxins that kill fish, birds, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins and can cause neurotoxic shellfish poisoning in humans.

The proposal would establish the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative as a research partnership between Mote and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute to develop technologies and approaches to address red tide. The bill also would establish the Initiative Technology Advisory Council and require the submission of annual updates to the governor and Legislature.

A similar measure in the House (HB 1135) has drawn unanimous support in two committees and awaits a hearing before the State Affairs Committee.