SARASOTA, Fla. (Aug. 17, 2017) – Beach-goers and coastal residents can be the first afflicted: Watery eyes, a scratchy throat and dry cough.
Depending on wind direction and concentration levels, the Florida red tide organism Karenia brevis (K. brevis) can induce harmful reactions among many along Florida’s West Coast. It can also trigger fish kills, harm numerous species of marine life and drive away tourists just as many are arriving for the fall and winter seasons.
Now scientists are using new tools to track K. brevis and give much needed warning to coastal towns.
Using a portable sensor developed by USF’s College of Marine Sciences in St. Petersburg, researchers can quickly calculate the number of K. brevis cells within a water sample, where before scientists might have taken days to examine samples under microscopes.
Armed with this data and information about ocean currents, tides and winds, researchers can provide timely red tide reports to coastal residents. But the monitoring effort’s success depends on the regular collections of water for analysis. Citizen volunteers provide some help with coverage, but more is needed.
Now, thanks to a grant from NOAA’s Prevention Control and Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms Program, USFSM is stepping forward. The campus has agreed to gather samples in Sarasota and Manatee counties over the next two semesters.
Karen Atwood, a new instructor in USFSM’s College of Science & Mathematics, said she will oversee the effort with help from senior biology student Chelce Shire. With Atwood’s oversight, Shire will retrieve gulf and bay samples each week to be placed into the portable sensor for real-time K. brevis analysis.
That information will be sent to the College of Marine Sciences, which is working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to produce the NOAA study. After the fall semester, Atwood will collaborate with another student.
K. brevis is naturally occurring and typically thrives in fall and winter. It was observed in the 1500s by Spanish explorers, who wrote of the red and brownish algal blooms produced by the toxin. Carried on winds from the gulf, it can induce tears and respiratory problems. People with asthma and COPD are most affected.
In addition to collecting data for the NOAA study, Shire will retrieve “preserved samples” to ship overnight to the Red Tide Offshore Monitoring Program within the Fish Wildlife Research Institute, an arm of the FWC. Those samples will be used to produce a weekly report about K. brevis on the institute’s website.
“She’ll be going in and along shore wherever there’s public access,” said Atwood, who previously worked at the FWC before joining USFSM this summer.
She said she expects Shire will spend six hours weekly traveling to four of five locations to collect samples. She’ll also learn to chemically prepare the probe for testing and place the samples into the sensor to identify K. brevis.
“Throughout the course of this, she’ll be doing research about red tide, its effects on the environment and the life cycle of K. brevis, and at the end of the semester she’ll present a talk about red tide,” Atwood said.
When she’s not hitting the books, Shire works in a souvenir shop on Anna Maria Island and sees first-hand the devastating effects of red tide on tourism. She said was thrilled at the prospect of conducting the field research.
“That’s exactly why I picked up on this opportunity, to get real-world experience and to contribute to actual projects already in place,” the senior said. “Working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA I thought would be really interesting, and I liked the idea of being part of something important and bigger than myself.”
Atwood said the project offers a unique learning experience for students. In addition to the practical training Shire will receive, she’ll explore facets of the red tide organism and its place in nature. Afterward, the undergrad will be able to list the experience on her resume for a possible job or graduate school.
“This project is very important,” Atwood said. “The aim is to be able to distribute more timely information about red tide to help people and organizations prepare. For Chelce, it’s an opportunity to get into the field and do things she’s only heard about in the classroom.”
To learn more about USFSM’s College of Science & Mathematics, visit usfsm.edu/csm.