Abess Center students weigh in on Professor’s discussion of harmful algal blooms in South Florida.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (September 21, 2016)—Abess Center students are keen on the marriage of science and policy. Terri Hood’s seminar class on contemporary environmental problems, comprised mostly of Abess Center Ecosystem Science and Policy majors, minors, and often a fair number of business students, was tasked with learning about exactly that early this semester.
Hood, the Assistant Director of the Abess Center Ecosystem Science and Policy undergraduate program and a lecturer of geological sciences at the College of Arts and Sciences, assigned her students to attend Larry Brand’s discussion on algal blooms on September 7 at the Abess Center. The lecture was co-hosted by Hood, with the Abess Center, and the Oceans and Human Health Center. Brand, professor of marine biology and fisheries at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, spoke on the environmental phenomenon, commonly referred to as red tide, and how it has been exacerbated in South Florida by human settlement and agriculture. The lecture, entitled Harmful Algal Blooms in South Florida: Environmental Causes and Human Health Consequences, focused on dinoflagellates and cyanobacteria algal blooms in Florida Bay, Biscayne Bay, Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie Estuary, Indian River Lagoon, Caloosahatchee River, and the west coast of Florida.
Hood’s students considered the following questions while engaged in the lecture and provided thoughtful and insightful responses.
Responses edited for clarity.
What did you find new, surprising, or interesting?
I think that one of the most interesting aspects of his talk were with regards to the health aspects of the algae. I know red ride kills fish in huge quantities because I’ve seen it happen over the years, but I never knew that the toxins were actually potent enough to kill dolphins and manatees as well. I also never knew that cyanobacteria produced so many different compounds or that they had such a wide range of health effects beyond the neurological and respiratory effects.
I found this lecture exceptionally fascinating because my mom just moved to the Florida panhandle and I learned about the red tide and saw its impact for the first time last winter. Neither of us understood the causes of it so I was glad to attend this lecture to finally understand it. It seems obvious that human settlement and agriculture would change the Florida ecosystem, but it is interesting to look at the specific ways it does so.
The brief background of Miami’s sugar cane industry helped to illustrate how southern Florida became a breeding ground for algal blooms. To slow and hurt the Cuban economy, the United States drained the wetlands of Florida, redirecting the water into the ocean or back up the Okeechobee River in order to create farmland for the sugar industry. The resulting agriculture runoff follows this same pattern where the nutrients start to bioaccumulate. Since the transformation of the wetlands, southern Florida has experienced a 15 times increase in the harmful red tide. While these algal blooms are unsightly and smelly, they also have numerous health effects. The runoff from the agriculture creates cyanobacteria, very harmful bacteria to both wildlife and humans. This cyanobacterium is connected to neurological illness such as Alzheimer’s, as well as to liver damage, tumor growth, and eye irritation. Through Dr. Brand’s presentation, he was clearly able to illustrate that humans mainly cause these algal blooms, which cause very nasty side effects that cannot be ignored.
I learned many new lessons from this lecture. For one, I thought it was very interesting how, in the last fifty years, the overall abundance of red rides has increased fifteen-fold. I also thought it was interesting how despite this clear fact, other scientists in Florida have directly contradicted his [Larry Brand’s] results by studying areas where red tides do not occur. This surprised me because I feel as though a solution cannot occur if the problem is not identified first. In addition, I thought it was interesting how some seafood is not safe to eat anymore because of the abundance of BMAA. BMAA is a chemical that is known to cause many neurodegenerative diseases in humans. Finally, I thought it was interesting how, in Florida Bay, the east coast is phosphorus-limited and the west coast is nitrogen-limited. I thought this was interesting because of how it affects red tides and algal blooms in Florida.
What new questions did the discussion raise in your mind?
The presentation was very clear in explaining how, where, and why algal blooms form in South Florida. However, aside from writing to politicians and raising awareness of the effects of the algal blooms, what else can be done? The pollution can be diverted, but how can the contamination of the waters that are currently contaminated be reversed? Can the waters be cleaned or does the algae just have to wait it out? I think it is essential to understand the problem, but it is also important to come up with a possible solution.
I was shocked to learn that BMAA is found in much of the seafood from the Florida Bay area. While the seafood bought in a grocery store is usually not from this area, it makes me hesitant to eat seafood. I also found it interesting how many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS were caused not only by genetic factors but also by environmental factors such as the ingestion of BMAA. I would have loved to delve into an even deeper conversation about BMAA and other toxins such as microcystin and brevetoxin. Quite a few questions have been raised in my mind with regards to these toxins, such as, ‘How many toxins could possibly be produced by cyanobacteria that we do not currently know about?’, ‘Where and in what other food or seafood can they be found?’, ‘What other diseases can they cause?’, and ‘How can we know at this point what is safe to eat and what is not?’. I would love the opportunity to actually research this further.
What did you feel was the most important contribution the presentation made to your understanding of harmful algal blooms?
I think the most important contribution this talk made to my knowledge about algal blooms was about BMAA. It was interesting because I did not actually realize that things like Alzheimer’s were not entirely genetic and actually had environmental triggers. Also, I feel as though this was the most important aspect of the talk because it showed the extent of the consequences of not solving this program and allowing the population to be continually exposed to higher and higher concentrations of BMAA> The fact that there is an actual case study of what happens if BMAA bioaccumulates and ends up in humans as a result of their diets and that the levels of BMAA found in fish and shellfish in Florida waters are approaching or have passed the levels which were found in Guam makes this an extremely pressing issues.
The presentation made me realize how delicate the balance of things is, both in nature and social issues. Any alterations to the ecosystem ripple through and have long-lasting effects. It makes me question how much development is too much.
—Luisa Gil Diaz
The most important contribution of this lecture was the understanding that agriculture highly influences the South Florida ecosystem in ways that are not immediately obvious and it will continue to be destructive if we don’t make efforts to change it. I think everyone living in Florida should be required to attend this lecture to better understand the impacts of people and to show them the potential dangers of eating local fish!
Besides the numerous health risks that these algal blooms pose, the most important point I think Dr. Brand made was how politics can muddle scientific studies. He gave several examples of how this can happen but probably the most telling one was how an industry-sponsored study found that algal blooms weren’t an issue off South Florida, completely contradicting Dr. Brand’s research. Dr. Brand showed how they didn’t even have to lie to come to that conclusion, but simply used cherry-picked data sets to skew the results. This is indicative of the common practice whereby industries use ‘bad science’ to give legitimacy to their shady dealings. Also very important were the points he made about the sugar industry’s hold on Tallahassee and the incredibly negative effect it has had on the wellbeing of the Everglades and our coral reefs. Given that this industry is only kept afloat because of subsidies and because the political incentive of producing sugar to cripple Cuba’s economy is now defunct, now should be the time to apply political pressure and end this corrupt, destructive industry in its current form.
— UM News