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Tool forecasts risk level of red tide symptoms for public

By Staff | Mar 12, 2019

TIFFANY REPECKI Sanibel Sea School Marine Science Educator Kalli Unthank prepares a live sample to upload onto the network using an HBAscope.

Two island organizations have joined an experimental forecast tied to red tide that will inform the public when Karenia brevis is impacting beaches and level of risk for the associated symptoms.

Toward the end of last year, the Sanibel Sea School and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation – along with representatives from Lee County, Naples and other areas – attended a meeting on the “Experimental Red Tide Respiratory Forecast.” A collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the project uses real-time cell counts, plus wind speed and direction, to predict risk levels along beach shorelines.

The forecast tool was already implemented and active in Pinellas County at the time, and the goal was to expand the monitoring and forecast area farther south on the coast to benefit more communities.

Dr. Bruce Neill, executive director and co-founder of the Sanibel Sea School, explained that most people experience red tide symptoms in the form of minor respiratory irritation, including coughing, sneezing, teary eyes or an itchy throat. The symptoms go away when the person leaves the beach.

“For many of us, that’s the whole story,” he said.

TIFFANY REPECKI The HBAscope, a regular lab microscope equipped with an iPhone, is used to upload the live samples into the network's database, which are then be used to feed the forecast.

But, those with chronic long problems – asthma, COPD or other lung diseases – can have severe reactions. Neill explained that concentrations of Karenia brevis and red tide toxins become airborne from the crashing waves and onshore or alongshore winds, which is what people are breathing in.

“It can be lifted up in the air,” he said.

The forecast enables those with chronic problems, or even those who experience more than minor respiratory irritation during red tide, to avoid any potential negative health impacts or episodes.

“The network helps us understand the respiratory potential of red tide outbreaks,” he said.

The Sanibel Sea School and SCCF were already conducting monitoring and water sampling for and during red tide events. As participants in the project, they use the samples and a HABscope – a normal microscope fitted with an iPhone – to share live brevis to the data network with a software program.

TIFFANY REPECKI The HBAscope, a regular lab microscope equipped with an iPhone, is used to upload the live samples into the network's database, which are then be used to feed the forecast.

“The app automatically uploads it,” Neill said.

He explained that the software uses facial recognition to lock in on the brevis based on how its moves, as compared to other organisms in the samples, and conducts a count to determine concentration levels. The data is integrated with the existing weather and winds for a particular area to produce the forecast.

“The model predicts the concentration in the air based on the concentration in the water,” Neill said.

The risk levels in the forecast include absent-very low, low, moderate and high.

The Sanibel Sea School collects samples three times a week from three sites: Sanibel Lighthouse, Buttonwood Lane on the bay side and Donax Street on the Gulf side – so mostly the east end.

Dr. Bruce Neill

Dr. Rick Bartleson, research scientist with SCCF, reported that it monitors at Tarpon Bay and Blind Pass-Turner Beach. He added that other sites could be sampled if the waters are impacted by red tide.

“We’ll go to whatever that beach is,” Bartleson said.

He noted that SCCF only samples when concentrations of brevis are present.

“It doesn’t provide them any information if there’s no Karenia in our samples, so we’re not sending them any data right now,” Bartleson said, adding that sampling could occur as often as daily depending on the density of a red tide bloom and other factors.

Neill noted that the project and learning more about red tide is only possible with cooperation.

“There is no solution that one institution can do,” he said. “We’re all coming together for the common good. To truly serve our community, we need to join forces.”

“This is just a contribution of the Sanibel Sea School to the community,” Neill added.

Volunteers can be trained to help with the project in different ways.

“We’d love to have community involvement,” he said.

For more information about volunteering, call the Sanibel Sea School at 239-472-8585.

For more on the Experimental Red Tide Respiratory Forecast, visit habscope.gcoos.org.