By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott wants state wildlife commissioners to seek funding for a red-tide research center and to restart a long-dormant task force, as waters along Florida’s Gulf Coast continue to face an expanding red-tide outbreak that began last year.
Environmentalists said Scott’s latest proposals won’t cure the ongoing problems and criticized the funding proposal as a campaign stunt.
In a letter Thursday to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Scott urged creation of a Florida Center for Red Tide Research and reestablishment of the Florida Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force. He also called for seeking a funding increase next year from the Legislature for research, as the current outbreak has persisted for 10 months and is believed to have caused the deaths of thousands of fish, manatees, sea turtles and dolphins.
“This year’s devastating bloom has left no question — we must increase our efforts to find a cause and solution for naturally-occurring red tide,” Scott wrote to commission Chairman Bo Rivard of Panama City.
Susan Neel, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the “commissioners look forward to discussing his recommendations.”
Scott’s letter came as commissioners are slated Wednesday to receive a presentation on the red-tide outbreak as they begin two days of meetings in the Gadsden County community of Havana.
As part of the presentation, commission staff will recommend an extension — in time and location — of an executive order that made red drum and snook fisheries catch-and-release only in parts of Southwest Florida where red tide-related fish kills have been most prevalent.
The commission reported that the bloom spans about 145 miles along the coast of Southwest Florida, and the agency has documented 115 manatee and 318 sea turtle deaths this year in the region that are suspected to be related to red tide.
Fish kills have been reported in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, Collier and Monroe counties.
Despite numerous recent news releases from the governor’s office about state efforts to address red tide, Scott has faced criticism because of policies his administration has pursued since he took office in 2011, from reducing funding for water-management districts to easing regulations regarding water-quality testing. The criticism comes amid Scott’s campaign to try to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Protesters angered by the impact of red tide converged on a Scott campaign appearance this week in the Sarasota County community of Venice. A separate campaign event planned for Naples was later canceled without explanation.
Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, said that while Scott’s requests to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission “aren’t bad,” they fail to address immediate problems that were “caused by his policies.”
“I feel like we’re getting to the point where the red tide is getting worse, now it’s all the way up to Pinellas, Tampa Bay and the Panhandle, it’s reaching epic proportions,” Moncrief said. “To me, he’s doing it (taking the steps) for his own self-serving reasons, which is trying to fool, to trick Florida voters that he’s going to do something as a U.S. senator.”
Moncrief said the state needs to address impacts of climate change, agricultural and stormwater runoff and a lack of mandatory septic-tank inspections.
Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone was more critical of what he called “a half-baked, ineffective plan to Florida’s ongoing water crisis.”
“Scott’s proposal for more research won’t cure red tide and green slime,” Jackalone said in a prepared statement. “The only way to reduce the occurrence, size and severity of harmful algae blooms is to stop the pollution that is feeding it at its source. We need prevention, not more studies.”
Scott’s letter to the wildlife commission noted the state has “invested an average of $2.5 million annually for red tide,” but the request didn’t include a price tag to start the center or to restart the task force.
Scott’s proposed center would also require a newly created position of director of red-tide response within the commission.
The algal-bloom task force, created in 1999, remains in state law but hasn’t been funded since 2001. Numerous conservation groups have called for restoration of the task force’s funding. All 12 Florida Waterkeeper organizations signed a letter to state lawmakers in November 2017 to renew the task force.
The request at that time was in response to massive algal blooms in 2016 that resulted in a state of emergency for Martin, St. Lucie and Lee counties.
In his letter, Scott said that since he issued an emergency order in August for red tide impacts in Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, state agencies have allocated $14 million to various projects, such as assisting small businesses, helping redfish restocking efforts and boosting tourism marketing.
The current red tide outbreak began in November 2017.
The source is the suspected bloom cycle of a single-celled organism called Karenia brevis algae.
While red tide is a seasonal occurrence in Southwest Florida — and is separate from toxic algae blooms tied to the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into waterways on the east and west coasts — the current red tide problems are the worst since 2006, when an outbreak lasted about 17 months.
In August, Nelson co-introduced legislation with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would direct the federal Interagency Task Force on Harmful Algal Blooms to study the causes and consequences of algae in Lake Okeechobee and around Florida’s south and southwestern coasts.