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Toxic Tides: Planning is Coastal Managements' Best Prevention

"A lot of states never experienced a red tide before the last 10 years. It's been a very alarming decade."
Carmelo Tomas,
Florida Marine Research Institute

The public panic that can be caused by a harmful algal bloom is often devastating to the economic health of an entire state's coastline. Having experienced this first hand, Texas has developed a Red Tide Contingency Plan in an effort to enhance the state's response.

"A bloom typically lasts a few days or weeks and then goes away," says Cindy Contreras, water quality coordinator with the Resource Protection Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Oyster beds can be closed for weeks and months. Media accounts make it sound like fishing or beach vacations are a bad idea even though a huge portion of the Texas shoreline is not affected, so people stop staying in hotels or eating in restaurants. We know it hurts the economy."

The State of Florida, which has documented harmful algal blooms since the 1940s, estimates the economic impact of just one bloom in the millions. "If even one area of Florida's coast is affected by a red tide bloom, the impact can be millions of dollars for the tourism and fishing industry that year," says Carmelo Tomas, research scientist for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Florida Marine Research Institute. "It wouldn't take much for a state to sit down and look at what attracts visitors to their state and what the impact of a red tide would mean."

While there are thousands of species of microscopic algae in our coastal waters, only about a dozen cause harmful algal blooms that can result in massive fish kills, contamination of shellfish beds, and human illness. These species are often called "red tides" because a bloom can turn the surrounding water red. Depending on the organism and its concentration, water can also be yellow, orange, brown, pink, or reddish brown. The name can be a little misleading as non-toxic species also can color the water and toxic blooms may not color the water.

The most common cause of toxic red tides in Texas and Florida is Gymnodinium breve, a marine dinoflagellate. Florida has experienced a Gymnodinium breve red tide 23 out of the past 24 years. This species of red tide has been experienced at least once by all the Gulf of Mexico states and has been transported up the Atlantic coast all the way to North Carolina.

"A lot of states never experienced a red tide before the last 10 years. It's been a very alarming decade," Tomas says. "The impression is that red tide is spreading and becoming more common, not only in the U.S., but on a global scale."

Researchers from Florida and other states, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are working to: understand the causes and character of red tides; predict blooms so preventive measures can be taken; create tools that will speed local monitoring; and establish national and regional cooperation and planning. But what should state coastal resource managers do in the meantime?

"Think ahead," says Tomas. "I don't want to be Chicken Little, but even if a state has never had a bloom, it's a high risk gamble for them to sit back and say they aren't going to worry. If a state is completely surprised by a toxic organism, they will have to start from scratch to develop ways to protect and inform the public that are old hat to us."

Texas was caught off guard in 1986 when the state experienced its first Gymnodinium breve bloom in 30 years. According to Dave Buzan, chief of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Coastal Conservation Branch, when the bloom occurred there was "almost a complete loss of historic perspective in the state about red tide and how to respond. It took a long time, relatively speaking, for us to understand that what we had was a red tide incident going on."

After the bloom, Buzan thinks managers did not follow up with additional planning because "mentally we were expecting the next incident to occur another 30 years down the road and not within our careers." Texas experienced blooms in 1996 and 1997. Buzan says while the state was better prepared to respond to the later blooms, it was time to "think about what we needed to do to improve our service to the public."

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department organized a workshop in April 1998 for state and federal agencies, university researchers, experts from Florida and other states, local communities, the media, and tourism and fishing industry representatives. Cindy Contreras says the workshop looked at the latest scientific research on the causes of blooms; the impacts on human health, the economy, and the environment; and how the state could best respond. The media participated in a discussion of how information should be communicated to the public during a bloom.

"At the end, we came up with a long list of action items that would help managers respond better the next time," Contreras says. "The contingency plan came out of that."

Last January, a coordinating committee began hammering out the plan, which "spells out how the state responds in every way," Contreras explains "It's a blueprint of how the different agencies coordinate with each other. There are different regions and jurisdictions involved, and the plan will help us coordinate well, assist each other, and not duplicate efforts. It also includes a wish list of what we need to do, so as we receive funding we can implement those items." She adds, "The plan is the only thing in writing. Before, we just responded from experience. It will be beneficial in training new people and reminding those with experience what the response should be."

One of the big components of the plan is monitoring, says Tracy Villareal, research marine scientist at The University of Texas at Austin. "Because of their infrequency, understanding red tides in Texas waters is difficult because you can't be geared up to study a bloom when it occurs." To better understand the blooms, the university is testing water samples taken twice a month by Texas Parks and Wildlife staff so that when the next bloom occurs, they will have significant data that might help determine a cause and could lead to warning techniques.

Karen Steidinger, senior research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute, encourages states that "know they have the potential for blooms in their area to start a monitoring program. It's an investment. It's like putting money in the bank. It allows you to look at potential changes and assess what you should do in relation to those changes. I'm a strong believer in long-term monitoring."

Formalizing communication channels with responsible agencies is another important part of the Texas contingency plan, says Kirk Wiles, director of the Seafood Safety Division of the Texas Department of Health. "In our case, there is certainly a human health risk" from eating contaminated shellfish, or being exposed to toxic particles in sea spray that can cause respiratory discomfort. "It's mandatory to have good communication between agencies to mitigate the impacts. It's important that all the agencies communicate with each other and have communication lines set up before an event." Texas plans to have annual meetings to update the plan and keep communication between agencies open.

Communicating with the public is another area covered in the plan, according to Larry McEachron, science director of the coastal fisheries division of Texas Parks and Wildlife. "Generally, when something like this happens the media frenzy generates a lot of miscommunication. For us, the media has been one of the hardest issues to handle." With the goal of effectively and accurately communicating to the public the risks of a red tide, the plan calls for creating a press kit with fact sheets; setting up a toll-free information line; and providing information on a web page.

"I think it's better for folks to think about having a process and not waiting for an incident to stimulate it," says Dave Buzan. "It's been a learning experience for all of us. I think we now have an improved understanding of people's concerns and the resources they bring to the table. The plan is keeping our thought processes open and current.

"If we have a red tide today, we will be able to communicate more effectively with more parts of Texas, and our communication will better address the public's needs, which will greatly influence the overall economic impact. We don't know how to prevent a red tide from visiting Texas' shore, but we can be prepared."

For more information on the Texas Red Tide Contingency Plan, contact Cindy Contreras at (512) 912-7095, or e-mail her at cindy.contreras@tpwd.state.tx.us. For more information on red tide research and planning in Florida, contact Karen Steidinger at (727) 896-8626, or e-mail steidinger_k@dep.state.f1.us. For more information on national red tide efforts, point your browser to www.whoi.edu/science/B/redtide/.

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