Senate Panel Told Nation’s Algae Woes Will Worsen If Not Addressed

Fish killed by toxic algae fill up oxygen-depleted waters near Longboat Key outside of Sarasota, Florida and are creating a stench so severe, the odor drifts for miles inland. Photo by Chris Noel.

WASHINGTON (CN) – The spread of toxic algal blooms in the nation’s waterways – largely caused by a combination of warming water, contaminant run off and “supercharged bacteria” – won’t stop anytime soon, one scientist told lawmakers Tuesday.

During a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing, scientist Donald Anderson of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told lawmakers that after 40 years of study on toxic blooms, he is convinced that the outbreaks will only persist and worsen if left unaddressed.

The blooms vary greatly in composition and color; some are red, some green, and others gold.

In freshwater, the blooms are typically caused when simple algae collides with cynobacteria, or blue-green algae.

While some algae growth can be beneficial and the exact causes for emergent blooms vary in both fresh and marine water, Anderson said, it is climate change which will “almost certainly” continue to influence the pervasiveness of dangerous algal build up.

Admittedly, he said, there are “gaps” in what scientists know about the cause, longevity or persistence of some blooms but the data on freshwater blooms is increasingly clear, he said.

As water temperatures rise and aquatic species migrate further north – bringing with them more and new bacteria – the aquatic ecosystems from coast to coast will remain under threat, he said.

“The key message today is that harmful algal blooms are truly a national problem,” he said.

Though destructive red and green tides in places like tourism-heavy Florida often capture national attention when they occur, there’s often a temptation to consider only singular solutions for one region in the U.S., he said.

Instead, lawmakers and federal agencies must begin shifting their focus more broadly, Anderson testified.

The problem of algal blooms is broader and further reaching than the slicks of green slime coating beaches, bays and rivers in parts of Florida alone, Anderson told lawmakers. They need only consider what happened just three years ago, he said.

In 2015, one bloom heavy in toxins that caused permanent brain damage to humans and animals that ate sea life contaminated by the algae, stretched from Alaska to California.

The toxic bloom caused Dungeness crab fisheries in California to lose $30 million that year. In Washington state, fisheries there lost $23 million.

Then in 2016, the same bloom, with the same toxins appeared again, this time in New England, ravaging fisheries there.

A “marathon bloom” on the Gulf coast of Florida this year has left dead fish, manatees, sea turtles and even a whale shark in its path of destruction and the stench emanating from dead sea life and fetid algae not only pollutes the water but the air as well, said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida.

Nelson said Tuesday his constituents are afraid to let their children outside to play in places like Port St. Lucie where the blooms persist.

Small business owners don’t know how the blooms will impact their bottom lines, Nelson added, but with the current bloom in Florida being the longest one on record since 2006, the risks are mounting.

On Lake Erie, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, Bryan Stubbs, president of the Cleveland Water Alliance, told lawmakers he has no doubt about the cause of algal blooms in that region.

“We know what is causing this. It’s not that blue-green algae wasn’t in Lake Erie 200 years ago. But it’s never been seen at these levels. We know its nutrient-loading… what we need to do from a research standpoint is understand how toxins are coming off farm fields,” Stubbs said.

That process could be better understood and perhaps remedied with a proliferation of sensor technology.

Sensors that monitor, in real time, when toxic algae begin appearing in water could be a key tool to combat the blooms, he said.

Another panelist, Ivory Engstrom, director of special projects at the McLane Research Lab in Massachusetts, told lawmakers the laboratory there has continued to develop such sensors but to make the sensors more effective, greater investment is needed.

When it comes to algal blooms, an ounce of prevention could be worth a pound of cure, scientist Don Anderson explained.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration already funds studies for smart sensors but it is a costly endeavor.

One of the projects funded now will take a year to finish assembling and costs currently hover close to $500,000, Anderson said.

But if collaboration between private and public partners increases and there is a push for more data sharing between regions effected by the blooms, Anderson said the $500,000 price tag could be lowered to just $20,000.

The South Florida Clean Coastal Waters Act of 2018, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has already passed in the Senate and now awaits approval by the House.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, who has thrown his support behind the bipartisan bill, said Tuesday the legislation is stuck in the house because several representatives there feel “too many federal agencies are already addressing harmful algal blooms.”

Anderson told lawmakers he “couldn’t disagree more.”

After coming to Congress several times to discuss the blooms, Anderson said, there simply isn’t enough being done to address the problem.

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