By Wynne Parry
Algae flourish in the Indian River Lagoon and are an essential part of the food chain. Though striking, when these phytoplankton (commonly known as algae), take over the water – or bloom – they can wreak havoc: harming wildlife, local economies and even people.
In recent years, damaging algal blooms have become a fixture of the approximately 160-mile-long Indian River Lagoon lining Florida’s Atlantic coast. A new initiative at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute has set out to better understand what’s happening in the lagoon and the water that flows into it.
Until now, the toxic “Florida red tide” on the Gulf coast has received most of the attention. “People have been doing sporadic research on the East coast, but we need a collaborative, organized effort to address this ongoing crisis,” said James Sullivan, Ph.D., executive director of the institute.
Sullivan secured $650,000 from the institute’s foundation to establish the Florida Center for Coastal and Human Health. The center has also received private donations and is seeking federal grants. Its research capitalizes on expertise already in place. About half of the institute’s faculty are participating, Sullivan said.
Scientists strongly suspect human activities are behind the blooms. Certain types of pollution, such as fertilizer carried by runoff, can prompt algae to flourish. Other factors, including warmer water occurring for longer periods also contribute, Sullivan said. The color and effects of blooms vary; some can poison animals and people; others block sunlight and harm sea grasses essential for a healthy lagoon. Still others use up oxygen, harming fish and other aquatic animals.
A few types of toxic algae afflict the lagoon and the water feeding it. They include: Microcystis which produces a liver-damaging toxin and whose bright green blooms blanket Lake Okeechobee, which discharges into the lagoon; Pyrodinium, which can cause paralysis, and Pseudo-nitzchia, which makes a toxin associated with amnesia.
The center’s work may make it possible to predict, and eventually, prevent them, said Amy Wright, Ph.D., research professor at the institute and the center’s administrator. “We hope we can contribute to finding some of the solutions.”
Center research will take what Sullivan described as a “soup-to-nuts” approach. Its scientists will examine water quality, as well as microorganisms and compounds, including toxins, in the lagoon. In addition, they will look at toxins’ path up the food chain into larger animals, including sharks, rays and turtles.
The animals at the top of that hierarchy — people — will be a primary research focus, since little is known about the degree to which humans are exposed to algal chemicals and the health effects beyond the most severe consequences. An initial study involves analyzing samples from people, such as blood and urine, for toxins. “Conditions in the lagoon are not likely to get better any time soon without some radical changes,” Sullivan said. We need to know the risk to people during these events.”
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