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Here's the difference between red tide and blue-green algae.

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After red tide and blue-green algae blooms recently ravaged Southwest Florida beaches and water bodies, water quality once again took center stage Tuesday in Collier County.

A panel of scientists and stakeholders discussed potential health effects of blue-green algae, best management practices for agriculture, control and mitigation of red tide and other topics during a public town hall at the county commission chambers. 

For a stretch of 17 months, from the fall of 2017 into early 2019, a red tide bloom lingered along Southwest Florida’s shores, said Cynthia Heil, director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Red Tide Institute in Sarasota. It was the fifth-longest red tide bloom in Florida history.

“There were significant environmental impacts,” she told attendees. “There was significant human health impacts, and significant economic impacts.”

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Read: Businesses 'optimistic' about this year's red tide, but concern still lingers

It affected three coasts and Southwest Florida was “particularly impacted,” Heil added. The bloom was so severe that it refocused both the public and the scientific interest on control and mitigation of red tide, she said.

The first rule of red tide mitigation, Heil said, is do no more harm than the bloom itself is causing.

“We don’t want to make it worse,” she said. Researchers also understand that any type of mitigation has to be ecologically sound, economically feasible and logistically attainable. 

The Red Tide Institute, established in 2018, is looking to reduce adverse impacts of red tide on public health, coastal marine ecosystems and Florida’s economy through scientific testing to develop a “tool box” of science-based mitigation and control technologies and strategies. 

“We have a working list right now of about 100 commercial, chemical, natural compounds and technologies that we’re considering,” Heil said. “Some are prohibitively expensive. Some are rather exotic and unattainable.”

To date, the Institute has tested about 30 of those. Some of the most successful are certain species of seaweeds, which release chemicals that inhibit the growth of Karenia brevis, the red tide organism in Florida, and neurotoxin production. 

“We’ve learned we have to be very specific on the species we use,” Heil said. “Some work, some don’t.”

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More: How wood chips and gravel are being used to stop blue-green algae in Bonita's Imperial River

One of the challenges for researchers has been to maintain funding for red tide-related work when blooms have been less severe and public interest is lost. Often, as red tide disappears, so does the funding.

However, a study conducted by the University of Florida-Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Ocean Conservancy looking at residents’ perceptions of water quality and harmful algae blooms in Florida showed that water quality remains top of mind for local stakeholders.

The impetus behind the study, which surveyed UF/IFAS Extension Advisory Committee members, were the 2018 red tide blooms and blue-green algae blooms, said Lisa Krimsky, water resources regional specialized agent with UF/IFAS Extension.

That engaged stakeholder group does not necessarily represent the general public, she cautioned.

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The study aimed to gauge the community's understanding about the topics and their perceptions. It also looked to get its thoughts on actions and management priorities for water quality and harmful algal blooms. 

“Across the board, the No. 1 environmental issue that got ranked in Florida today is water quality,” Krimsky said. 

More than half of the respondents, she said, think that water quality in the state’s waterbodies has gotten worse during the past 10 years. 

“Individuals and local communities want to be part of the solution,” Krimsky said the survey results suggested. 

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.

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