TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Drones could be used to monitor red tide, and money should be set aside to offset local costs of removing fish killed by toxic algae blooms, state wildlife officials said Wednesday as they look to manage future outbreaks.
Members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said more-proactive measures are needed because red tide outbreaks will continue to hinder the state, particularly the Gulf Coast, which is struggling with an outbreak in the Tampa Bay area.
Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto suggested asking a state red-tide task force to consider using drones to monitor waters for outbreaks and to help in cleanup efforts. He noted that sheriff’s office helicopters have been used to help coordinate cleanup of recent outbreaks.
“Let’s get on the offensive. Drone technology is where it’s at today,” Barreto said. “I mean, it’s amazing. Right? Much cheaper. Much more efficient than sending a helicopter up, for sure.”
The current outbreak, morphing daily by winds and tides in waters from Pasco County to Sarasota County since December, has resulted in varying effects for the Gulf Coast areas.
Key to combating red tide are efforts to improve water quality and reduce nutrients from human sources, such as runoff from septic tanks, stormwater systems and agricultural and residential fertilizer, that feed the microscopic algae.
In addition, Gil McRae, director of the commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said a way to prepare for widespread fish kills is to have a funding source available for local governments that tend to be responsible for cleaning up the waste.
“We learned this last event -- and we knew it before that, unfortunately --- when we have large fish kills, the burden tends to fall on the level of government that does waste management. And that’s always, at least in Florida, always local government,” McRae said. “So, because local government has that waste management infrastructure, they’re really the only ones that can deal with these tons of waste.”
More than 600 tons of dead fish have washed up along Tampa Bay shores because of the current outbreak.
The state has distributed emergency funding this year to offset some costs of removing fish kills. Local officials in the Tampa Bay area have requested the state issue an emergency declaration that would free up more money and resources.
Since 2019, the state has pumped $14.5 million into the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for its Center for Red Tide Research, which has a partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota
Barreto said another concern that the task force could address is public notifications, particularly for beachgoers.
“When we flew yesterday, you could literally see the red tide. And you can see the people on the beach,” said Barreto, who took a helicopter tour Tuesday of waters off Sarasota.
McRae said beach conditions are updated daily by the commission on its website and on signs posted by lifeguards from Collier County to Pinellas County.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has spent the past three days promoting new agriculture “best management practices” that she said will help address issues that have exacerbated the red-tide outbreak.
The agriculture changes will focus on supporting practices such as cover crops that are expected to slow erosion and bolster water availability. The changes are also expected to include recording nutrients used by growers and state workers making in-person site visits, replacing voluntary self-reporting about implementation of best management practices.
While at Mote Marine on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’s “happy about the progress” of the state’s red-tide mitigation efforts the past three years, after major water-quality problems in areas of Southeast and Southwest Florida.
“What they’re doing here (at Mote) in dealing with red tide may have applications for other types of algal blooms, like the blue-green algae that we have to deal with in Lake Okeechobee,” DeSantis said. “So, I think that this was a really good investment. And I think it’s going to pay dividends. Of course, red tide naturally occurs. We can’t tell people there’s not going to be any. But if you have successful mitigation strategies and technologies, you really make it to where this is not going to have the impact that it had in 2018.”