Dr. Paul Talks Water Quality

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Chamber of Commerce Meeting

“How many people here today know that the Smithsonian Institution has a fulltime presence in Florida for almost 50 years,” asked Dr. Valerie Paul, the Director of the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, with just a smattering of those attending the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce Monthly Luncheon at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Thursday afternoon, December 12, raising their hands. “We moved into our own facility in Fort Pierce almost 30 years ago. By the way, if you ever go to Washington, DC, and can visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on the National Mall, treat yourself because it is awesome!”

The Smithsonian Marine Station (SMS) at Fort Pierce is a research center specializing in marine biodiversity and ecosystems of Florida. Research focuses on the Indian River Lagoon and the offshore waters of Florida’s east coast, with comparative studies throughout coastal Florida. For information, see bit.ly/marineISP

Dr. Valerie Paul, Director of the Smithsonian Marine Station, speaks to the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Sandy Sandness.

Dr. Paul received her Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. She is the Director and Head Scientist at the SMS, with research interests including ecology, marine plant-herbivore interactions, coral reef ecology, marine cyanobacteria, harmful algae blooms and marine natural products. Governor Ron DeSantis, in one of his first acts shortly after taking office in January, created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force in response to the Summer 2018 water quality crisis and named Dr. Paul as one of its five members.

Seagrasses & Coral Reefs

“Compared to the National Museum of Natural History, our Fort Pierce office is quite small, with roughly 25 fulltime personnel,” explained Dr. Paul. “We do a lot of educational events, with an internship program for post-doctoral students who conduct research for two years. Much of what we do is to understand biodiversity in Florida and how that functions in conjunction with algae blooms.”

A great deal of the SMS’s focus, Dr. Paul continued, “is on the Indian River lagoon that is roughly 120 miles long and scientists consider it to be the most biodiverse estuary in the continental United States, with new species discovered all the time. The SMS studies a multitude of habitats and species, whether these be coral reefs, seagrasses, mangroves and others, as these are the foundation species of our environment and ecosystems. Blue-Green Algae outbreaks can doom seagrasses because the algae blooms are often so thick, they prevent sunlight from penetrating through the water down to the bottom, so we work with our partners to better understand seagrasses.”

The SMS is working on coral reef diseases, Dr. Paul added, “because we have too many coral reefs that are hundreds of years old that are dying, and we don’t fully understand why, so we are setting up experimental tanks to conduct research to figure this out. Since Blue-Green Algae is a bacterium, we are experimenting with antibiotics to stop it, and in aquariums, it seems to work so we are really excited about that! We will apply probiotics to the coral reefs soon, in an intensive effort, where we will literally put giant bags full of the probiotics directly over the coral reef for a massive application, to treat the colony all at once, and we expect to see progress fairly quick, within a few weeks or months, so cross your fingers! When we take programs like this out of the laboratory and into the field, that is challenging and exciting!”

Algae Task Force

“It was encouraging to see Governor DeSantis react so quickly after taking office to form the Blue-Green Algae Task Force,” recounted Dr. Paul, “and I am an optimist that we will make a positive difference in water quality based on sound scientific guidelines. If there was one good aspect of the 2018 Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide outbreaks, it was that the average Floridian said loud-&-clear, ‘enough is enough,’ and our political leaders seemed to hear that message.”

Each of the five Blue-Green Algae Task Force members work together through their collective scientific expertise to improve water quality throughout the state through objective and sound science to formulate Florida’s environmental decision-making process, for key funding and restoration initiatives and to guide regulatory changes to improve water quality to benefit all Floridians. In addition to Dr. Paul, Dr. Michael Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School, Director of the Vester Marine & Environmental Sciences Research Station, and a Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce Board member, serves on the Blue-Green Algae Task Force.

“The Task Force to date has held five public meetings,” said Dr. Paul, “including one here in Lee County. While it is impossible to cover every topic in just a few meetings, we discussed significant issues like septic tanks and fertilizers, to build a consensus on how to tackle these issues based on sound science. Some things we discovered are absolutely shocking, such as there are still sewer pipes in Florida in the 21st century made of wood, and that just blew my mind! The bottom line is we need to put Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide on a diet by reducing nutrients into the system that cause them to grow at alarming rates. Nutrients are everywhere, from fertilizers to septic tanks to agriculture and more, so when people point to just one thing and say, ‘fix this and we will solve the problem,’ that is not true. We must cure the entire system.”

She cautioned, “Blue-Green Algae is not just a South Florida problem, nor a Florida problem by any means, as we now find it all over the nation and world, so by changing what we do in Florida, we can become a role model for the entire planet! This is crucial, because not only can Blue-Green Algae and cyanobacteria blooms cause significant health problems, like liver disease, but they can devastate a local economy, as everyone in this room knows too well.”

Dr. Paul took audience questions, with one person asking if she thought changes the United State Army Corps of Engineers made this year to the Lake Okeechobee release schedule had a positive effect on reducing Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide outbreaks.

“Absolutely! The source of the microcystin that produces Blue-Green Algae comes from  the freshwater in Lake Okeechobee, with the Lake often having Blue-Green Algae blooms, so it makes sense that when you release the blooms down the estuaries to the east and west coasts, it spreads there. This year, the Army Corps released water in the spring, to lower the lake so that when the weather warmed and blooms grew, the Lake could contain them. We had luck in our favor, however, as 2019 ended up being a drier than normal rainfall year, but there is no question the lack of massive water releases lowered the Blue-Green Algae risk for the Caloosahatchee and Saint Lucie estuaries.”

At the close of the luncheon, FMB Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jacki Liszak explained, “The FMB Chamber has a ‘Beach Conditions’ Page that we update almost daily at fortmyersbeach.org. We began this last year when we had mountains of dead sea animals, as that was really awful!”

For more information on the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, visit naturalhistory.si.edu