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Sanibel welcomes marine ecologist studying algae blooms

By Staff | May 17, 2011

Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah with officers of PURRE, the event’s co-sponsor, Mike and Maureen Valiquette, chairman and vice-chairman respectively; Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, also co-sponsor of the event; researcher Brian Lapointe of Florida Atlantic University, and PURRE Executive Director Emilie Alfino.

Last week, about 30 people involved in water-quality advocacy joined Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah; Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau; and Michael and Maureen Valiquette, chair and vice-chair of the PURRE Water Coalition at a reception to honor researcher and algae expert Brian Lapointe at Charley’s, located inside the Sanibel Harbour Resort in South Fort Myers.

The group watched a video of Lapointe’s current investigation of the algae growth on offshore reefs and heard him explain his research, theories, and next steps. His current $399,000 study is being funded by NASA and Lapointe hopes his results will help create sound environmental policy.

“It’s going to require a unified front to turn this situation around and protect our estuaries,” said Judah.

“We’re proud to do this and be part of it with the Lee County Commission. We thank Ray for asking us to co-sponsor,” said Michael Valiquette. “We’re always anxious to see what Brian finds out. There have been a lot of scientists involved over the past years and Brian is one of the ones I have the most respect for. We have followed his data for years.”

“One thing getting the Visitor & Convention Bureau involved in water quality did was bring not just the environmental voice to the issue but the business voice,” said Pigott. “For so long it was, ‘The environmentalists don’t like this or that,’ but the minute the businesses stood up and said, ‘Hey, this is affecting my bottom line,’ then a different group of people listen, and things really did change at that point in time. I’m glad we were able to bring that aspect to the problem but it is really a community effort.”

Lapointe and his team will reconstruct conditions leading up to the large algal blooms of 2004-2005 using color scanning imagery and other methods, and put that together with the new data he collects. They are also collecting samples of algae and, by testing nitrogen levels, will be able to pinpoint the source of the nitrogen pollution.

“This is something I’ve been working on literally my whole career – 30 years. I am documenting the deterioration of our environment to a large extent,” Lapointe said. “What we’re doing is going back 20 years to reconstruct into a retrospective analysis the discharges from Lake Okeechobee on the Caloosahatchee and inshore bays and offshore coastal waters.”

The video shown at the reception was a surprise: the massive green blooms of Cladophora were of concern to Lapointe. He said he didn’t expect to see that algae, yet the reefs were covered – and the plant can grow in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie as well. Lapointe’s supposition so far is that this current bloom might be caused by legacy nutrients that have been building up for years.

Lapointe said his work could become part of the data used in the Environmental Protection Agency’s future rulemaking regarding pollutants and the protection of water quality. Environmentalists have been concerned with the direction the new administration is taking regarding water quality and it was clear those present at the reception will welcome Lapointe’s findings.

“We have a new administration now that has to be educated,” said Maureen Valiquette. PURRE found right from the beginning it’s not so much that people are ignoring you. They just don’t know. You’d think they would but they don’t. We have to let them know how bad the situation is and let them know what people like Brian Lapointe are doing.”

Lapointe promised executive summaries of his early findings to those who requested it, to be used for education and help with what is predicted to be a bad upcoming legislative session for the environment.