FDEP, SFWMD, NASA watch for algae blooms to check for toxin levels

Report algal blooms by calling 855-305-3903

Images on the news of green water and coastlines choked with a thick green sludge are misleading, according to a South Florida Water Management District briefing on June 8. The images are from 2016 when a massive harmful algae bloom plagued the Treasure Coast. Scientists theorize the 2016 bloom was seeded by releases of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee and fed by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the coastal basins.

That is not the situation today, said Terrie Bates, South Florida Water Management District Water Resources Division director.

SFWMD and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) regularly monitor area waterways for signs of algal blooms. NASA monitors conditions via satellite. In addition to the regular sampling and monitoring conducted by government agencies, members of the public are encouraged to report algal blooms when they see them.

It’s not unusual, however, for a bloom to be reported and then disappear before it can be sampled. Algae floats and is pushed around by the wind and by moving water.
In the past two months, there have been three reports of algae sighted on or near Lake Okeechobee.

• On May 9, algae was reported at the Pahokee marina. FDEP took samples. No dominant species was detected. No toxins were detected.

• On June 4, a fragmented surface algal bloom was reported on Lake Okeechobee blown against the S-352 structure in Palm Beach County. A dominant strain was not detected. The toxin level was so low as to be barely detectable at 0.37 parts per billion. The World Health Association considers levels of less than 10 ppb to be safe for recreational uses.

• On June 4, a small surface bloom was reported near Port Mayaca. FDEP took samples. Microcystis aeruginosa was the dominant strain. Toxin levels were 0.63 ppb.

• On June 18, Florida Department of Environmental Protection investigated reports of an algal bloom on Lake Okeechobee on the Palm Beach County side of the lake.

FDEP staff reported a dense surface film, about 1,000 square feet in size, wind-blown against the water control structure at Canal Point.

Algae is part of the natural ecosystem of the Big Lake, just as it is found in all freshwater. The combination of high nutrient levels and summer heat can cause the algae to bloom. Blooms are normal on the lake in the summer, but certain conditions may cause the algae to release toxins. Not all types of algae release toxins, and algae that can release toxins does not always do so. When a bloom is reported, FDEP takes samples to determine the type of algae in the bloom and to measure toxin levels, if any.

According to the FDEP, cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are a group of organisms that can live in freshwater, saltwater or mixed (brackish) water. These kinds of organisms are naturally occurring in Florida’s environment and are also found all over the world. They are part of a healthy ecosystem and help support a wide variety of aquatic life.

When conditions are right, such as warm water and increased nutrients, these organisms can increase in  numbers and accumulate in some areas of a water body. These blooms can sometimes be pushed near  the shore by winds, waves, tides and currents. When this happens, people have a greater chance of contacting the blooms.

Not all algae produce toxins, and even if a species of algae is capable of producing toxins, it does not always do so. Many factors are involved in the creation of a harmful algal bloom, or HAB.

However, since you can’t tell whether toxins are present by looking at the algae, FDEP advises residents and visitors to take some common-sense precautions around algal blooms:

• Do not swim in areas where an algal bloom is visible.

• If you come into contact with an algal bloom, wash with soap and water.

• Do not eat fish harvested from areas in an algal bloom.

• Untreated water from the bloom area should not be used for irrigation where people will come in contact with it.

• Report all algal blooms. Call 855-305-3903 or go online to floridadep.gov and use the online form. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection investigates reports of algal blooms, and takes samples of algae found. Scientists need this data to determine the type of algal blooms and toxicity levels (if any).

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