National fight against red tide gains local advocate

— Southwest Floridians need no reminder about the hazards of red tide.

The harmful algal bloom that scientists call Karenia brevis releases a toxin that chases visitors off the beach, kills fish and other marine animals and poisons shellfish.

Now Florida Gulf Coast University associate professor Mike Parsons plans to keep red tide on the federal radar with his election to a spot on the 15-member National Harmful Algal Bloom Committee.

The science panel coordinates the federal response to harmful algal blooms and recommends priorities for research and funding.

“Karenia has to be on the top or very near the top,” Parsons said last week.

Parsons is Southwest Florida’s second representative on the panel, joining Mote Marine Laboratory environmental health program manager Barbara Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick, based in Sarasota, said it is important for Florida to have a voice on harmful algal bloom policy and legislation because the state has both marine and freshwater harmful algal bloom issues.

“Membership on the committee allows us to have that voice,” said Kirkpatrick, also executive board secretary of the nonprofit Solutions to Avoid Red Tide, or START.

Parsons’ experience with harmful algal blooms extends beyond red tide.

Before coming to FGCU in 2007, Parsons has studied blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia off the coast of Louisiana and the effect of ciguatera blooms on the coral reefs in Hawaii.

As for red tide, he is studying how the bloom’s toxin affects shellfish reproduction, its prevalence in the Ten Thousand Islands and why Karenia blooms where other phytoplankton don’t.

Parsons said science is making headway in getting to the big question of how a red tide starts.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to stop the blooms,” Parsons said.

“They’ve been going on for a long, long time,” he said. “They’re a natural occurrence.”

Parsons points to research that has found that the Caloosahatchee River alone does not carry enough nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico to trigger the blooms.

New research points to groundwater discharges upwelling from the Gulf floor and even influence from the Mississippi River as possible causes, he said.

“We realize now it’s not just simply one or the other,” Parsons said.

He said that while there have been advances in understanding red tides, research into other harmful algal blooms has fallen behind.

The National HAB Committee can’t recommend putting all its research priorities into red tide, he said.

He points to a lack of knowledge about ciguatera, which is the No. 1 cause of seafood poisoning in the world.

It is a problem in the Florida Keys and in imported seafood from the Bahamas, he said.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on that,” Parsons said.

The National HAB Committee meets once a year; the next meeting is planned for November in Washington state, he said.

His two-year term began July 1, after a nominating process by the HAB community and an election by members of the standing HAB committee.

Connect with Eric Staats at

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