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Red tide respiratory forecast now local

By Staff | Nov 5, 2019

TIFFANY REPECKI Sanibel Sea School Outdoor Education Coordinator Kealy McNeal, who is serving as the red tide sampling coordinator, drops a water sample on a slide for analysis as part of the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast.

An online Red Tide Respiratory Forecast, initially implemented in Pinellas County last year, recently expanded to Lee County to include three beaches on Sanibel after going live a few weeks ago.

Developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, in partnership with the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the system uses near real-time cell counts of Karenia brevis – combined with wind speed and direction – to predict the risk levels on a beach.

A newly developed portable microscope system, called a HABscope, uses video and artificial intelligence to analyze the water samples within 30 seconds and uploads the information. For example, the software uses facial recognition to lock in on the brevis based on how its moves, as compared to other organisms in the sample, and conducts a count of it to determine the concentration level.

GCOOS Executive Director Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, an environmental health scientist who conducted the first studies documenting the impacts of Florida red tide blooms on human health, explained that the new forecast system is not intended to keep people off the beaches, but to alert them to what is safe.

“To minimize their exposure to the aerosolized toxins,” she said.

TIFFANY REPECKI The HBAscope, a regular lab microscope equipped with an iPhone, displays white specks of live Karenia brevis.

Karenia brevis, the marine organism that causes red tide, can have negative impacts on the respiratory system. Most people experience minor respiratory irritation, like coughing, sneezing, teary eyes and an itchy throat, when red tide is present and winds are blowing onshore. Typically, the symptoms go away when people leave the beach. But those with chronic lung problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, can have more severe reactions when they breathe in the airborne toxins – even ending up in the emergency room.

For the islands, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation will collect and upload samples from Bowman’s Beach and Tarpon Bay Road Beach, and the Sanibel Sea School will do Lighthouse Beach.

SCCF Marine Lab Director Dr. Eric Milbrandt explained that staff will collect samples weekly on Tuesday and Friday and the forecasts will cover a 48-hour window. The website will update every three hours. He noted that more frequent water sampling is possible, if the red tide conditions call for it.

Milbrandt reported that the system is beneficial for residents and visitors.

“They’re able to avoid high-respiratory irritation situations,” he said.

TIFFANY REPECKI Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation research scientist Dr. Rick Bartleson shows off an alternative tool used to collect samples if the waters are choppy or the conditions are bad.

Sanibel Sea School Outdoor Education Coordinator Kealy McNeal, who is serving as the red tide sampling coordinator, explained that they will collect samples from the Lighthouse Beach five days a week – Monday through Friday. She added that the Friday collections will forecast the weekends.

“This is an easy way for people to know what’s going on on our beaches,” McNeal said. “So you can plan your day and see which beach you want to go to.”

She added that island businesses can use the system to advise customers.

While the city of Sanibel is not actively participating in terms of collecting samples and such, it expressed support for the forecast and hopes to help get the word out to citizens and visitors.

“It’s really just making sure people have accurate information in as timely a fashion as possible,” Natural Resources Deputy Director Holly Milbrandt said.

Director Dr. Eric Milbrandt

According to Kirkpatrick, the next step is identifying more governmental and non-governmental organizations to partner with to keep the forecast going and expand it to other parts of Florida and other regions along the Gulf Coast, as well as finding additional funds to continue to support the work.

“It’s about closing the gaps in-between, so we have really good coverage up and down the coasts,” she said, noting that the project joins biology and technology to address the effects of red tide on people.

“That’s what we need to do, bring people together from different industries,” Kirkpatrick added.

For more information or to view the forecast, visit habscope.gcoos.org/forecasts.

Executive Director Barbara Kirkpatrick