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TACKLING HARMFUL ALGAE BLOOMS  

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BETHANY AUGLIERE | 1/7/2019

For roughly 30 years, Jim Sullivan was a research scientist answering questions about the ocean and its most miniature creatures, plankton. Jim earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in biological oceanography with specializations in phytoplankton physiology and ecology, as well as bio-optics and biophysics from the University of Rhode Island, a school in his hometown.

“I got my love of the ocean right in Rhode Island, which also happened to have one of the best oceanographic schools,” Jim says.

Called phytoplankton, these tiny but important plant-like organisms drift around in the ocean and produce more than half of the oxygen we breathe. They are also the base of the entire food web.

“Without them, the world wouldn’t exist,” Jim says. “We are dependent on them.”

Yet, some of these species are harmful and produce toxins that kill marine life, can cause respiratory issues in humans, and even kill people. Two of the most noxious species in Florida cause the infamous red-tide and blue-green algae blooms (the latter is actually a freshwater algae that gets pumped into the ocean when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Lake Okeechobee when water levels are high).

Now, Jim is the executive director of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. Rather than doing the research himself, he’s helping other scientists answer important questions. “The motto of Harbor Branch is ‘Ocean science for a better world’ and I believe that,” he says. “If I do my job well, this place can do amazing things.”

To do that, he’s already created the Florida Center for Coastal and Human Health, thanks to a $1.5 million dollar grant from the Harbor Branch Foundation. Its goal is to tackle harmful algae blooms, by pinning down their cause, figuring out how the toxins are making their way into the food chain and impacting top predators like dolphins, and ultimately, how they’re impacting humans.

“I have a family here. I have a young son and we like the beach,” Jim says. “We want to know if it’s safe, or is there some risk we just fundamentally don’t understand.”

As a leader in the research of harmful algal blooms, Jim also serves as an expert on both the Red Tide Mitigation Council and the Blue-Green Algae Task Force. The Red Tide Mitigation Council is a partnership between the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory, created to develop technologies and approaches needed to address the control and mitigation of red tide and its impacts.

The Blue-Green Algae Task Force, appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis, is a volunteer team of five experts charged with finding solutions to deal with the toxic algae.

“This algae needs three things to survive, the sun, optimal nutrients and warm water. We can’t turn off the sun and we can’t stop global warming,” he says, “but we can control nutrients.” So, the team’s recommendation is to focus on prevention rather than mitigation. They drafted a first recommendation in October to lawmakers, asking for better regulations surrounding agricultural, storm water runoff, sewage treatment and disposal.

One of his most important jobs is to secure funding to help the institute’s scientists do their work. “Science is almost criminally underfunded,” Jim says. “While Harbor Branch scientists work really hard to try to find money from state and federal government, now more than ever, science has become dependent on philanthropy.”

Jim explains that it’s critical that the concerned public does not forget about these harmful blooms during off years, and continues to pressure their local, state and federal representatives to deal with water-quality issues.

“We can definitely fix the problem,” Jim says. “It just may take some years…and money.”


Published in the January/February 2020 issue of Vero Beach Portfolio magazine.