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As Florida Struggles With Algae Blooms, NOAA Research Program Is At Risk

Red tide is blamed for the dead fish showing up in state waterways and beaches
Amy Green
/
WMFE
Red tide is blamed for the dead fish showing up in state waterways and beaches

As Florida struggles with 'red tide' algae blooms on the west coast and blue-green algae in inland waterways, a federal program to help communities deal with harmful algae outbreaks is set to lose its Congressional authorization at the end of September.

The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act enables NOAA and an inter-agency task force to do things like monitor algae blooms, research their causes and give grants to communities trying to cope. It was authorized in 1998 but is set to expire on Sept. 30. That wouldn't eliminate the program, but it would make it less likely that Congress would continue to fund it.

The U.S. Senate has approved a version of the reauthorization bill. But a companion bill, which focuses on Florida and the Everglades, is stalled in the House of Representatives.

"If we can't reauthorize that program in the middle of an algae crisis, that's not a good sign," said Jeff Watters, director of government relations at the Washington D.C.-based non-profit Ocean Conservancy. Watters recently visited the Fort Myers area, where hundreds of manatees and thousands of fish have died because of the red tide.

"Once you see it and experience it personally, you can't get the image out of your eyes. You can't get it out of your mind, and you can't get the smell out of your nostrils," he said. "When you walk along the beach, you see just dead creatures everywhere. I mean, every kind of fish, every kind of animal that should be in the water is sitting there dead along the sand."

Both the red tide and blue-green algae can cause respiratory irritation in humans.

Not much is known about why sometimes algae blooms get so out of control, although scientists say they are potentially exacerbated by pollution and the warming of oceans due to climate change.

Watters says the NOAA program is critical to learning more about causes of and solutions to algal outbreaks.

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Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.