The Science & Technology Society hosted a panel discussion with red tide experts on the evening of April 17th at the Planetarium in the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature in Bradenton. The panel discussed the many facets of red tide from what causes it, concerns about its impacts on the environment, our economy and health to viable corrective action to mitigate it. The following is a summary of what the panelists presented:

Barbara Kirkpatrick, Senior Advisor to the Gulf Coast Ocean Observing System (GCOOS), quantified the scope of the impacts of a severe red tide bloom by revealing the following statewide costs:

$4 million in emergency hospital visits
$2.9 billion in lost tourism (cancelled or shortened visits)
$18 million in fish and wildlife mortality
$250 thousand in beach clean-ups
$ 1.3 billion total losses in Southwest Florida alone

Dave Tomasko, the Executive Director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, related that red tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon, but that human activity has made it much worse since the beginning of the ever-growing population around the Sarasota Bay Watershed. The nitrogen levels in Sarasota Bay today are two to three times what they were 80 to 100 years ago. The polluted release from the Piney Point gypsum stack and the stormwater runoff from IAN have further increased the nitrogen levels in the Bay which harms seagrass and fuels the growth of red tide. Dave is encouraged by the attention and spending by our local governments to upgrade our wastewater facilities and repair aging sewer lines that will help reduce the excess nutrients entering our waterways. He emphasized that we have to keep upgrading our infrastructure just to keep abreast of the population growth along the Suncoast.

Charlie Hunsicker, Director of Manatee County’s Natural Resources Department, outlined the various strategies the County is using to help improve the quality of our waterways. Top priorities are the County’s $492 million plan to upgrade three wastewater treatment facilities by 2028 and an increased emphasis on stormwater treatment. The audience was particularly interested in Charlie’s report on the results of rainy season nitrogen measurements over the past 12 years since the summer fertilizer restrictions were introduced. Despite a significant population growth in the ensuing years, nitrogen levels in the four key measured tributaries of Cedar Creek, Gates Creek, Nonsense Creek and Rattlesnake Slough have held constant under the fertilizer restrictions.

Sandy Gilbert, CEO of START, opened his portion of the program by reminding the audience that at the end of the day, there are only two basic approaches to improving the quality of our coastal waters. Keeping more excess nutrients from entering our waters and cleaning up the nutrients already in our waterways. He explained that START is using both approaches. He outlined START’s two in-water bivalve programs using oysters and clams that help filter the excess nutrients already in our coastal waters. Sandy went on to emphasize that in the past three years START has focused on stormwater because:

Sarasota Bay has twice as much nitrogen in it today than it did back in 2000

Stormwater accounts for 65 % of the excess nutrients in the Bay

Most local stormwater ponds are only functioning at 40% to 60% efficiency in removing excess nutrients before the water flows downstream to the Bay

As a result, with generous funding from the Barancik Foundation, START has been able to form the Healthy Pond Collaborative (HPC) to help advise local communities how to improve the efficiency of their ailing stormwater ponds and provide funding to help cover the cost of the aquatic plants necessary to sustain a healthy pond. The HPC is a partnership in Sarasota County that includes START, the County’s NEST Program, the University of Florida’s IFAS Sarasota Extension and the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida. In Manatee County, it is a partnership with START and the Manatee County Department of Natural Resources. Sandy pointed out that over the past year the HPC has funded the planting of over 7.2 miles of new pond shoreline in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. He concluded his remarks by saying he was encouraged about the future of water quality improvements because our state, federal and local governments are involved in major infrastructure upgrades and habitat restoration projects and the HPC’s work with local communities has made the public more aware of how to lower their nutrient footprint in our waterways.

If you are interested in joining the Science & Technology Society to attend future events, contact Nick Barbi at

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