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A Red Tide Algae Study That Focuses On Tampa Bay Nutrients Gets Financial Backing

A close-up of a dead fish wrapped in seaweed on the shore with the waves crashing in the blurred background.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
A fish kill event off of Indian Shores during the toxic red tide bloom in June 2021.

New grant funding will expand the research on algae bloom nutrients in three ways: a more expensive lab analysis, another kind of bloom added to the study, and a bilingual educational program created for the public.

Scientists studying how to reduce nutrients that fuel algae blooms in Tampa Bay will soon begin collecting data, and they now have funding to help finance their research.

Members of University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have been partnering with Mote Marine Laboratory for months to prepare their study on nitrogen in rainwater, storm water and wastewater effluent. The goal is to eventually determine which sources are feeding toxic red tide algae blooms in Tampa Bay over the span of two dry seasons and two wet seasons.

RELATED: New Study To Determine Which Source Of Nutrient Pollution Most Feeds Red Tide In Tampa Bay

Mary Lusk, assistant professor in the Soil and Water Sciences Department at UF, said she thinks this study will help to mitigate harmful algae blooms in the bay.

“Anything that gives us more information about where these nutrients, primarily nitrogen, is coming from, anything that gives us more information about Karenia brevis physiology and growth and how it responds to different sources of nutrients in the urban environment, anything that gives us more knowledge and understanding on that is one step closer,” she said.

The UF team, including PhD student Amanda Muni-Morgan — who's also behind this initiative — will have the responsibility of monitoring storm activity to collect rainfall and storm-water runoff from the streets and sidewalks to analyze at a lab for nitrogen and phosphorous.

Mote will then use those samples to examine nearshore nutrient sources, and the role that they're playing in expanding summer blooms, like the super bloom in Tampa Bay this summer.

“Mary's group are the storm chasers. We're kind of the bloom chasers,” said Cynthia Heil, senior researcher at Mote and director of the Red Tide Institute.

“From a prior study, we know that there's over 13, possibly 14 now if you add Piney Point, nutrient sources for red tides,” she said. “These near-shore inputs are one of them. This is the next step in starting to look a little more closely focus on these near-shore nutrients and start to pull them apart.”

A recent grant of $80,000 from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program will expand the project in three ways, Lusk said.

One, researchers will be able to do an expensive analysis called isotopic characterization of nitrogen in storm runoff that will determine exactly where it’s coming from – rainfall, pet waste, fertilizer, etc.

Two, they are also able to look into Pyrodinium bahamense, which is a dinoflagellate that blooms regularly in Florida coastal waters, including Tampa Bay, Florida Bay and the Indian River Lagoon, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The toxic blooms can contaminate fish and shellfish and threaten public health, just like the red tide organism Karenia brevis.

And three, the funds will open the door for an education program on connections between air pollutants and water quality. The materials will be made available in English and Spanish to teach residents about how nitrogen in the atmosphere may contribute to water quality problems in Tampa Bay.

“Nitrogen is in the atmosphere naturally,” Lusk said. “But we also have a lot of anthropogenic, or human-caused, excess nitrogen that can be in the atmosphere, that can come from things like vehicle exhaust, or power plant emissions, things like that … and it can come down back down to earth.”

The researchers plan to start chasing storms and blooms in mostly residential area of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties this month.

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